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Beekeeper buzzes about his bees

Local bee people tout Philadelphia as "the cradle of American beekeeping," since Lorenzo L. Langstroth patented the removable-frame hive here in 1852. It's still used today.

Don Shump, of the Philadelphia Bee Co., is suited up and ready to harvest honey from the hives at his West Parkside Apiary at the Philadelphia Business and Technology Center in West Philadelphia. (CRAIG LaBAN / Staff)
Don Shump, of the Philadelphia Bee Co., is suited up and ready to harvest honey from the hives at his West Parkside Apiary at the Philadelphia Business and Technology Center in West Philadelphia. (CRAIG LaBAN / Staff)Read more

Local bee people tout Philadelphia as "the cradle of American beekeeping," since Lorenzo L. Langstroth patented the removable-frame hive here in 1852. It's still used today.

Langstroth would likely be thrilled by the new local wave of urban beekeeping, as the Philadelphia Beekeepers Guild, founded just five years ago, now counts nearly 150 members. Only a handful, though, are pros. Among them is Don Shump, owner of the Philadelphia Bee Co., who manages up to 100 hives at 15 apiaries across the city - when he's not mesmerizing audiences with a buzzing beard of swarming bees.

Question: How did you get into professional beekeeping?

Answer: My wife wanted to cook with food we had grown, and there was a long waiting list for garden space in community gardens downtown. But then I saw a video of a gentleman beekeeping in Manhattan, and I said, "I can do that in Philadelphia!" It turns out there were already people doing it here. At the Southwark-Queen Village Community Garden, they've been doing it for 25 years.

So, at first it was just a side thing for fun. But then a few hives turned into 10 hives. Then I realized this is what I really wanted to do with my life. I was taking every lunch break from my job as a Web developer to visit the beehives and getting sad when I had to leave and go back to work. By my third spring, I said: "I need to switch this."

Q: Some beekeepers are hermits at heart, and relish the idea their hives keep people away. But you seem so outgoing. You like people, too, right?

A. Well, if the bees are your social life, that's fine. But for someone as gregarious as I am, it's really more of a great way to start a conversation. When I tell someone I'm a beekeeper, their eyes perk up. And it gives me more opportunities to talk about bees and be a cheerleader. As much as I like them, bees are not well understood. People don't understand the difference between honeybees and wasps. But confusing them is like confusing wolves with sheep.

Q: Bees are amazing animals, though, aren't they?

A: Honeybees are one of the only insects that produce food people eat. Everything in the produce aisle that isn't wheat, corn, or soy needs to be pollinated by bees. And colonies of these insects do really complex functions to make everything work. Bees go out and communicate their location in the dark to their other hivemates by dancing, of all things. So, you've got all these insects with tiny little brains able to come together and harvest billions of pounds of honey each year. And then you see our government, filled with all these more highly evolved mammals with significantly more brain power, and we can't seem to get anything done. How is it we people can't function as consistently and cooperatively as these insects?

Q: How is urban beekeeping different? Do city bees have more style?

A: I like to think so. The Philly bees, I think, produce better honey. In terms of forage, we have 40,000 abandoned lots in the city - many overgrown with weeds that bees do very well with. If you get out in the suburbs, when people see a dandelion they're going to pull it up right away. Philly is also pretty heavily planted with a lot of different plants, and bees take advantage of all of that, too. So when you're getting honey from Philadelphia, you have this infusion of imported plants and weeds, some native, some invasives, and they all produce different honeys depending on the weather. Every season is different.

Q: Do they vary much by location within the city?

A: Yes! My Old City fall honey was darker and more robust than the honey from South Philly, because my Old City hive is right near the Delaware and had more Japanese knotweed in it. Compare that to my West Philly spring honey, which is much lighter, very floral, and even had some mint to it. Then I'll crack a spring jar from Kensington and say, "Oh, this is awesome!" Kensington honey's really interesting. We've gotten some purple honey that way because of some purple loosestrife (an invasive flowering plant.) I lean towards the darker fall stuff, which usually appeals to people who like black coffee and porter.

Q: Bees have struggled nationally to survive the mysterious phenomenon of colony collapse disorder, in which worker bees abruptly disappear. What is the state of Philadelphia's bee population?

A: Our losses went from 10 percent each year in the '50s and '60s to an average now of 30 percent in the U.S., and it's unsustainable. There are other factors at play now: nicotine-based pesticides, concerns over GMO crops (which limits the bees' food supply), and the blight of the varroa mite from Southeast Asia, which has been awful for the bees in Philadelphia.

Beekeepers here have typically had to buy their (replacement) bees from southern beekeepers, but bees from the south are getting weaker, and the queens die too readily here. We've really been fighting to raise more Philadelphia queens, and breed northern-stock bees that are more acclimated to this climate. The Beekeepers' Guild, along with the Montgomery County Guild, has been putting money into it. But we can always use more help!

Q: Clearly, you love your work. But getting stung all the time must not be fun.

A: I don't enjoy being stung and haven't become immune to the pain. But I love the beekeeping so much, it's just a reminder of what I do. Usually that first sting in the spring, it's like, "Awww, we're back at it again!" I'd be lying if I didn't say I don't take some joy from that. As a beekeeper, every day is an adventure.

For more on the local beekeeping community: www.phillybeekeepers.org

claban@phillynews.com

215-854-2682

@CraigLaBan

www.inquirer.com/craiglaban

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