Hobby hives

The ranks of backyard beekeepers are steadily growing - for the honey, as a pastime, for eco-friendliness. The more the merrier, experts say.

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The Uehling sisters keep about 35,000 bees in two hives at their home in Springfield Township, Montgomery County. They say that they’re drawn by the fascinating social life of the colony. Their mother, Allison, makes a point of being around when the girls tend the hives, but Jenny says, "The bees mind their own business." (BONNIE WELLER / Staff Photographer)

The buzz is extremely loud and incredibly close.

From the backyards of Mount Airy and Germantown to the landscaped lawns of Cherry Hill, an extraordinary number of ordinary folks are taking up beekeeping.

They could be your neighbors - just plain folks you thought you knew pretty well or could safely ignore. Then one day, he or she comes by with a jar of honey as a gift and an "it's from my garden" explanation.

Anna Herman, 48, a food writer and consultant in Mount Airy, got her first hive in March, joining the state's more than 2,400 beekeepers. New Jersey has about 3,000. The number of backyard beekeepers is growing all the time - even the new White House vegetable garden has a hive.

Commercial beekeepers have huge numbers of hives and sell their wares in wholesale or retail outlets. But the vast majority (95 percent) of the nation's 212,000 beekeepers are hobbyists with two or three hives, according to the Department of Agriculture.

"Just in the last year, interest in [hobbyist] beekeeping has grown astronomically," says Jim Bobb, a former hobbyist, who founded the Montgomery County Beekeepers Association, which now has several hundred members. He also tends the bees at Morris Arboretum, the Barnes Foundation, and Pennypack Trust, and maintains observation hives at Longwood Gardens and the Academy of Natural Sciences.

What's the draw? There's the honey, of course. And the satisfaction of a D.I.Y. project. In addition, beekeeping creates another level of pleasure for gardeners. Bees generally travel only two to three miles a day gathering nectar, pollen, and water, so if you grow enough wildflowers, your bees won't stray far. Think of the sustainability.

And since nobody knows exactly why large numbers of bees die each season from colony collapse disorder, the world needs more beekeepers, says Joel Eckel of Germantown, who, with brother Jeff and cousin Abby, work as WeBee Brothers, offering instruction and consultation.

Herman estimates her starting costs at $80 for the empty hive and an additional $85 for bees. They came in a pack - three pounds of drones and workers and one queen.

A hive in nature has the appearance of a web hanging from a tree. A hobbyist's hive resembles a wooden filing cabinet that stands about five feet tall and can sit as close to, or as far from, the house as you'd like.

Instead of drawers that pull out horizontally as in a filing cabinet, a beekeeper's hive consists of stacked boxes called supers. Each super contains 10 mesh frames that pull out from the top. When the time is right, you extract honey from the frames, one super at a time.

Happily ensconced in their new home, Herman's bees got busy making honey. She won't harvest much this summer, her first, because she wants to ensure that the bees have enough to feed themselves through the coming winter. Starting next summer, she can expect 40 or more pounds of honey for her tea and toast.

Sure, it's all a bit more complicated than that. But beginners' courses are offered through 4H clubs as well as beekeepers associations in New Jersey and in Bucks, Chester, and Montgomery counties. If you take a class in the fall or winter, you'll be ready to start in April, which is the ideal time.

The bees do all the work. The keeper checks on the hives every couple of weeks to see that all is well. (That's covered in the classes: How to tell whether all is well, and what to do if it's not.)

On a recent Saturday morning at Wyck, a historic Germantown home that offers training in gardening and beekeeping, as well as a weekly farmers market, Jeff, Joel, and Abby Eckel demonstrated honey extraction for a gathering of about two dozen current and future backyard beekeepers.

As a precaution, the Eckels had removed one super from a hive ahead of time and brought it - sans bees - into the demonstration room.

They made the process seem simple: Hold a frame aloft to see if all or most of the honey-filled cells have been waxed over by the bees. That's a sign that the honey is ready for harvest. Then Abby and Jeff took turns using an electrically heated flat knife to slowly cut the wax away in strips, letting the wax fall into a clean container.

Next, four finished frames went into an extractor - a sealed metal container about the size of a wine barrel - and Joel Eckel turned the hand crank for a couple of minutes until meeting some resistance. That's a sign all the honey is out of the frames. He put a large clean container under the extractor's spout and let the fresh honey flow through a cheesecloth to filter out any remaining wax.

In a good season, each hive will produce 40 to 60 pounds of honey. (About 12 pounds equal one gallon.)

Sweet.

In Springfield Township, Montgomery County, Allison and Earl Uehling's daughters got into beekeeping about four years ago at the suggestion of a friend. They have a colony of about 35,000 now, in two hives. The girls cook with honey (see recipes) and have experimented with wax, making soap, candles, and lip balm.

But Carly, 10, Abby, 13, and Jenny Uehling, 16, are really drawn to beekeeping by the social structure of the colony. Disney princesses are the stuff of make-believe. Bees live and die for their queen.

As the mother of all bees (in a particular hive), the queen is fed and pampered by the other females (workers). They huddle close to her and move their wings to create heat or air conditioning as the seasons warrant. They feed her and keep her comfortable through the winter months.

The queen leaves the hive to mate in flight - with 10 to 20 drones - and returns with enough sperm to lay eggs (1,500 to 2,000 a day) for the rest of her life (two to five years).

Drones have a less-fulfilling existence.

After the drone mates with the queen, his genitals snap off, and he dies. The girls say they find this knowledge particularly powerful.

If there's a food shortage in winter, Abby says, the females literally kick the males out of the hive. She gives a Cheshire-cat smile as she describes the hazards of drone life, and her sisters grin conspiratorially.

It is good to be queen, but a worker's life is better than a drone's. Workers live only about five weeks, but have varied and vital jobs: caretaker, forager, guard, undertaker.

A newborn female who is popular with the other young females can stage a coup d'etat when she's ready, challenging a weak or aging queen. They battle it out, and one either dies or leaves the hive with her friends, while the other is the new queen.

"Some beekeepers replace their queen annually," mom Allison Uehling explains. "But my girls love their queen, and they prefer to see nature take its course."

The girls revel in the idea of maintaining a matriarchal society in their own backyard. Nearly everybody at school knows about their hives and either envies them or fears their bees.

Wearing long-sleeved shirts and white helmets with mesh veils that cover their faces, the girls prepare to show off their hives. As a precaution, Mom is always around when the girls tend the hives.

First, she lights a fire in a smoker, a contraption about the size of a lantern. The girls will let the smoke waft around the hives for a few minutes to calm the bees.

Then Abby takes a hand tool that resembles a paint-can opener and pries out a single frame, working through the layer of sticky propolis the bees have laid down between the tops of the frames to keep them secure.

Abby holds the frame aloft. Some of the bees cling to it. Others hover nearby. Still more alight on her veil, her hands, her hair. She is unafraid.

Knowledge is power, and she knows that honeybees protect only about a foot around their hives - whereas wasps and hornets protect a 30- to 40-foot radius around their nests. And, as vegetarians, honeybees are unlikely to sting when they're away from the hive.

"The bees mind their own business," says Jenny Uehling. "They're not eager to sting you, and they don't give chase. Once you get used to being around them, they sense your calm."


Live Hives

Locally grown honey is available at many area farm stands and farmers' markets. Here are two Philadelphia locations where you can observe the hives as well.

Mill Creek Farm

(48th and Brown Streets; www.millcreekurbanfarm.org) has two hives and sells honey for $7 a pint, $4 a half-pint. Saturdays, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Greens Grow

2501 E. Cumberland St.; www.greensgrow.org; 215-427-2702) Honey from the five hives will be ready about the second week in August and will sell for $4 a jar. Thursdays, from 2 to 7 p.m., and Saturdays, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.


Chicken Honey Nut Stir-Fry

Makes 6 servings

1 pound boneless chicken breasts

3/4 cup orange juice         

1/3 cup honey            

3 tablespoons soy sauce      

1 tablespoon cornstarch   

1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

2 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided

2 large carrots, diagonally cut

2 stalks celery, diagonally cut

1/2 cup cashews or peanuts

About 2 cups cooked rice

1. Cut chicken into thin strips and set aside.

2. In a small bowl, combine orange juice, honey, soy sauce, cornstarch, and ginger. Mix well.

3. Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the carrots and celery, and stir-fry about 3 minutes. Remove vegetables and set aside.

4. Pour the remaining oil into the skillet. Add the meat and stir-fry until the chicken is no longer pink. Return vegetables to skillet; add sauce mixture and nuts. Cook and stir over medium-high heat until sauce is thickened. Serve over hot rice.

Per serving: 405 calories, 20 grams protein, 46 grams carbohydrates, 20 grams sugar, 17 grams fat, 55 milligrams cholesterol, 596 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.


Asian Honey-Tea Grilled Prawns

Makes 4 servings

For the marinade:

1 cup brewed double- strength orange spice tea, cooled

1/4 cup honey

1/4 cup rice vinegar

1/4 cup soy sauce

1 tablespoon fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

Other ingredients:

1 1/2 pounds medium shrimp, peeled and deveined

Salt, to taste

2 green onions, thinly sliced

1. Combine marinade ingredients in a plastic bag: tea, honey, rice vinegar, soy sauce, ginger, and black pepper.

2. Remove 1/2 cup marinade; set aside for dipping sauce.

3. Add shrimp to marinade in bag, turning to coat. Close bag securely and marinate in refrigerator 30 minutes or up to 12 hours.

4. Remove shrimp from marinade; discard marinade.

5. Thread shrimp onto 8 skewers, dividing evenly. Grill over medium coals 4 to 6 minutes or until shrimp turn pink and are just firm to the touch, turning once. Season with salt, as desired.

6. Meanwhile, prepare dipping sauce by placing reserved 1/2 cup marinade in small saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Boil 3 to 5 minutes or until slightly reduced. Stir in green onions.

- From the National Honey Board

Per serving: 220 calories, 35 grams protein, 12 grams carbohydrates, 9 grams sugar, 3 grams fat, 259 milligrams cholesterol, 749 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber


Monkey Bars

Makes 2 dozen

3 cups miniature marshmallows

1/2 cup honey

1/3 cup butter or margarine

1/4 cup peanut butter

2 teaspoons vanilla

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 cups rolled oats

4 cups crispy rice cereal

1/2 cup flaked coconut

1/4 cup peanuts

1. Combine marshmallows, honey, butter, peanut butter, vanilla, and salt together in a medium saucepan. Heat mixture over low heat, stirring constantly.

2. In a 13-by-9-inch baking pan, combine oats, rice cereal, coconut, and peanuts. Pour honey mixture over dry ingredients. Mix until thoroughly coated. Pack mixture firmly into the pan.

3. Cool and cut into 24 bars.

- From the National Honey Board

Per serving: 149 calories, 2 grams protein, 23 grams carbohydrates, 11 grams sugar, 6 grams fat, 7 milligrams cholesterol, 104 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber


Contact staff writer Dianna Marder at 215-854-4211 or dmarder@phillynews.com. Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/diannamarder.

Additional information is at: www.pastatebeekeepers.org www.njbeekeepers.org www.wyck.org