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Science and the Environment

Beekeeping 101: What a Seasoned Beekeeper Says You Need to Know

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Credit Michele Skalicky
Honeycomb Covered with Bees

Now that Springfield City Council has approved a beekeeping ordinance, it’s legal to have a beehive in your backyard.  But, before you rush out to purchase bees and equipment, there are some things you need to know.  KSMU’s Michele Skalicky met up with a local beekeeper at some of his hives east of Springfield and has this story.

Unlike the stereotypical beekeeper, who is covered from head to toe with protective gear, Jeff Maddox, simply wears jeans and a t-shirt when tending to his bees.  That’s because he knows bees would rather get away from humans than attack them.  And he knows what he’s doing.

Maddox has been keeping bees since the late 90s.  It all started when a friend gave him a beehive as a gift, and it grew from there.  Now, Maddox makes beekeeping his full time job.  He sells honey—it sells by word of mouth faster than he can harvest it.  And it tastes amazing--as he reached into a hive and pulled out a honeycomb, Maddox pointed out that the honey is what the environment around the hive tastes like.

But he makes his living mainly by removing swarms from places where the bees aren’t wanted, such as floor joists and soffits, and moving them elsewhere.

"I've pulled them out of church steeples, floors of campers, floors of sheds, trees, walls, just everywhere," he said.

When removing a swarm, Maddox carefully reaches in, works his fingers under the comb, pulls the comb out with the bees on it and places it in a beehive.

Maddox also sells bees to other beekeepers—his focus, he says, is on creating more bees.  He has ten hives on this piece of land east of Springfield, and several others are scattered throughout the area.

He’s pleased to see Springfield pass a beekeeping ordinance—other cities, such as London, Paris and New York City, he says, have long recognized the benefits of allowing people to keep bees.

According to Maddox, more and more people want to know where their food comes from.

"Beekeeping is a very low energy way to increase your own food production without causing problems for your neighbors," he said.

Getting started in beekeeping is easy, says Maddox.  But keeping bees is livestock management, and he says keeping them alive and thriving is the challenging part.

"Bees thrive with a little bit of help from us--not a lot but a little bit," he said.

According to Maddox, bees need adequate food, a clean, safe, dry place to live, and they need to be checked for diseases and other issues.

He’s a mentor to new beekeeper Darcy Cresswell who has two hives south of Springfield.

"I'm always looking for ways to make where I live more productive.  I have a large garden, so I wanted that and also just another source of income as well," she said.

While Cresswell, lives in a rural area, Maddox says those who keep bees in cities need to keep some things in mind.

Urban beekeepers need to worry about the temperament of their bees since they will be in close proximity to people.  Maddox says sometimes bees become aggressive, but simply swapping out the queen can solve the problem since genetics are to blame.

And, in a rural environment, he says it’s OK if a hive becomes too big and throws off a swarm.  But that’s not alright in an urban environment.

"It looks to be a very scary event.  It's not at all, but it looks to be, and that will upset your neighbors, and we can't have that, so an urban beekeeper has to be much more attentive to swarming issues than a rural beekeeper," he said.

He says urban beekeepers need to do some educating about bees to dispel some common misconceptions, including the myth that bees are out to get people. 

And he says you don’t need a special suit--if you handle them correctly.

"Bees don't sting unless you provoke them just like a dog doesn't bite unless you provoke it, but the common perception is that bees are out to get us and that's what they want to do, and bees want to ignore us as much as possible.  Honey bees are very manageable.  They do not attack.  They raise honey.  They pollinate our fruits and vegetables.  They're a major benefit to any urban environment," he said.

Someone once told Maddox that watching him work with bees is as much art as it is science.

If you’d like to get into beekeeping, Maddox advises you to check first with your local beekeeping organization.  Here in southwest Missouri, that’s the Beekeepers Association of the Ozarks—of which Maddox is president.  The organization runs an annual bee school and hosts field days where you can meet and talk with local beekeepers.  He says, at the very least, you should read one or two books about keeping bees before you try it yourself.  To learn more about beekeeping, ozarksbeekeepers.org.

Here's what the city ordinance says about beekeeping in the city limits:

It shall be unlawful for any person or entity to keep, harbor or allow any colony or colonies of any species of bee other than a "honey bee" on land that is not zoned for agricultural uses by the City of Springfield.

Each person or entity owning, allowing or harboring a colony or hive on his, hers or its property over which it has control, possession of title, shall make available on the same property as where the hive or colony is located at all times and during all seasons a useable water source within 20 feet of the colony or hive such that bees will be discouraged from congregating at swimming pools, fountains, pet watering bowls, bird baths or other water sources where the bees may come in contact with humans, birds or domestic pets.

Each person or entity owning, allowing or harboring a colony or hive shall provide satisfactory proof to the City of Springfield, upon request, that they have completed a beekeeping training course offered by a beekeeping association, vocational school, college, university or university extension program or other equivalent training or at least two years' experience managing a colony or hive with no reported incidents, tickets, citations, or suits related to said person or entity's keeping of bees during those two years.

Notwithstanding compliance with various requirements or other codes of the City of Springfield, it shall be unlawful for any person or entity to keep, harbor or allow any colony or colonies in such a manner  or of such disposition as to cause any unhealthy condition, interfere with the normal use and enjoyment of human or animal life or interfere with the normal use and enjoyment of any public property or private property of others.

All hives shall have written on them in legible printing the name, phone number, and address of the person or entity owning such hive.

It shall be the duty of the person or entity on whose property the beehive or colony is physically located to remove said hive or colony any time the bees within same shall exhibit a propensity to sting without provocation any person, animal, bird; or the hive or colony is not maintained in compliance with this Chapter or City Code.  If such hive or colony is not removed following service of a notification under Chapter 74 of the City Code to do so, then such hive or colony may be abated pursuant to the procedures set out in Chapter 74 or such other remedies as the City Attorney may elect to pursue to protect the public health and safety.