The Journal Gazette
Wednesday, March 16, 2016 8:59 pm

Local beekeepers all abuzz over craft

Jeff Wiehe The Journal Gazette

It’s an art that dates back to ancient Egypt and prehistoric Greece, perhaps even earlier.  

But Maraiah Russell learned it on her grandfather’s farm in Vevay, along the Ohio River in the southeast corner of Indiana, where he kept his beehives. 

She remembers having a natural fascination with insects and the bees specifically, and she remembers the hobby she shared with her grandfather up through 4-H classes. And she remembers the tracheal mites that wiped out all of his hives in the late 1980s, essentially ending that hobby. 

Fast forward to 2007.

When Russell bought a home in Fort Wayne, her grandfather, Fred, told her one thing: 

You need a beehive. 

"That was his comment," Russell said. "He said that it would be pretty neat, that it would be a great thing to have with the family." 

And that’s how Russell not only rediscovered as an adult her love of bees, but became just one of a growing population nationwide.  

With the honeybee population’s rapid decline causing alarm among many in the scientific and environmental community, more and more people have taken up amateur beekeeping. 

Whether it’s people who are fascinated by the insect, those who love producing their own honey or those who are genuinely concerned about the environment and what would happen if bees disappear, becoming a beekeeper is becoming an actual thing.  

They include urban dwellers such as Russell, who keeps one hive in her backyard while managing three more at Tanglewood Berry Farm on South Hadley Road, where she also offers a class for beginners.  

"People want to help the bees," she said. "They want to do something to help, and for them, this seems the most natural way to do it." 

Several theories on decline

It’s called colony collapse disorder, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And since about 2006, it has been "a serious problem threatening the health of honeybees and the economic stability of commercial beekeeping and pollination operations in the United States."

What’s causing the population decline is not known, according to the agency. 

That doesn’t mean there aren’t theories. 

"Pesticides, to me, are 75 percent of the problem," said Mike Miller, one of the directors of the Northeast Indiana Beekeepers Association. 

Miller keeps several hives in rural areas as well as a few more at his home on the outskirts of Fort Wayne near New Haven. He got his first bees while he was in high school in 1962. He went into military service and, like many, reconnected with bees later – about seven or eight years ago when he was looking for a new hobby to sink his teeth into once he retired from his job as an engineer. 

He tries to place his hives away from agricultural hot spots and will drive upwards of 1,000 miles a year taking care of them and checking on them, he said.  

"If you’re a farmer, your job is to grow crops, as many as you can, I understand that," he said. "If you’re a beekeeper, you’re job is to keep the bees alive and make honey.

"The pesticides is busy killing the bees." 

While others have pointed to disease, parasites or lack of food as possible causes, a study by Harvard University released this spring found that pesticides appear to impair the memory and behavior of honeybees, causing them to die off. 

Whatever may ultimately be behind the decline, it’s led to a rise in those interested in keeping bees alive. 

The Northeastern Indiana Beekeepers Association used to have roughly 50 members and met in a small room at the Chapel, which was hardly ever filled. Meetings are now packed in a larger room at the Classic Cafe on Hillegas Road, and club membership has grown to 150 in the past few years, Miller said.

"Even if someone drops out (of the club), there’s always another person stepping in to take their place," said Carol Miller, Mike’s wife, who helps her husband in his hobby.  

And those who are joining the club, some members say, seem to be coming from the city.

Other major cities have seen a spike in urban beekeeping, including Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, according to National Geographic. 

While Fort Wayne has restrictions on beekeeping – you cannot have more than two hives; they must be kept 50 feet from a street and 20 feet from an alley – it hasn’t stopped many from dabbling in the art. One that can be difficult but rewarding, especially for beginners. 

More than just honey to gain

"It’s a lot like fishing," says Chris LaSalle, an orthapedic surgeon who got serious about beekeeping about three years ago. "Everybody has their own opinion on how to do this." 

LaSalle keeps four hives at his home outside the Fort Wayne city limits, and he’s now gearing up to try to keep his bees alive through the winter months, something that can be taxing on many keepers. 

In the winter, the bees will cluster together in the hive to keep warm and then the entire group will rotate in a circle like one organism, giving each bee a chance to be in the warmest part of the hive at different times. 

"Last winter was hard on a lot of club members," said LaSalle, who is also a director for the Northeast Indiana Beekeepers Association. "I lucked out. I only lost two of the five hives I had."

With record low temperatures, Miller lost about 75 percent of the bees he had last year, while other members lost all of their bees, he said.

"It can be hard and disappointing," Miller said. 

It’s an expensive hobby, but the payoff, depending on what you’re looking to get out of it, can be immense, according to many who keep bees. 

Miller and his wife bottle the honey they take from the hives and sell it at farmers markets, drawing rave reviews from people who purchase their unpasteurized honey. 

LaSalle brings honey he takes from his hives during the summer to his office, giving it out to workers who otherwise may buy only what they see in the grocery store.  

And while it provides LaSalle with something to do, especially something outdoors, he has a little bit of an ulterior motive in taking up the hobby.

"I keep hoping to get my daughter into it," he says of his 8-year-old. "I’m hoping it’s something she and I can do together."

Aside from the honey or the science or just the curiosity of the bees, that’s the other thing beekeeping seems to provide: family activity. 

LaSalle and his daughter. Miller and his wife. Russell and her grandfather. 

And it’s something Russell did with her kids, 11-year-old Lilly and 8-year-old Luke, for a time. 

"They were into it for a time, but it’s passing," she said with a chuckle. 

But she is constantly spreading the news about bees, whether it’s to the classes she teaches or to her co-workers – she works at the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo – or to anyone who will listen. 

The honeybee population may be declining, but there is something we can do. 

Right in our own backyard.


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