Local Beekeeper Strives to Improve Bee Health, Educate Public

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Joe Beene checks on his bees, which are kept on the Waltrip property just a few yards from Williamsburg Landing, up to several times a week. (Elizabeth Hornsby/WYDaily)
Joe Beene checks on his bees, which are kept on the Waltrip property just a few yards from Williamsburg Landing, up to several times a week. (Elizabeth Hornsby/WYDaily)

While most people face the start of winter with a handful of everyday worries – avoiding the flu, keeping the heat bill down and managing the disarray that comes with the approach of an impending snowstorm – one Historic Triangle resident has a more peculiar cold-weather concern: how to keep his honeybees warm.

Joe Beene is hopeful that, for the first time since he moved to Williamsburg more than two years ago, this will be the year his beehives survive the cold winter months and emerge intact in the spring to produce a bounty of honey.

The difficulty keeping his hives alive through the winter is not the only challenge Beene and his bees have faced since coming to the Historic Triangle.

Beene and his wife, who hail from Fairfax, made the decision to spend their golden years at Williamsburg Landing after being impressed with the level of care and flexibility the community provided to seniors with a variety of different health needs – with the added bonus that they were told the Landing could accommodate Beene’s beekeeping hobby.

It was a relatively new hobby, as just three years prior to the move Beene decided on a whim to join the Northern Virginia Beekeepers Association and take up beekeeping after a brief and unsuccessful attempt at the hobby 10 years earlier.

“I’ve always loved honey,” Beene said of his main motivation to take up beekeeping.

In addition to his personal passion for all things sweet, Beene’s interest also had a serious side. He went into beekeeping well aware the bee population – the decline of which could have catastrophic effects on world’s crops and plants – is in serious danger due to a variety of external threats.

“Promoting bee health is something that needs to be done,” Beene said.

Beene tended several successful hives on his property in Fairfax, but he was concerned about how he would be able to continue his hobby once relocating to Williamsburg.

Though he was initially assured it would be no problem for him to keep his bees in a small wooded section of Williamsburg Landing’s property, outcry from nearby residents brought that plan to a screeching halt.

“People who are afraid of bees, it’s a matter of ignorance,” Beene said. “They don’t know. They’ve heard of African bees killing people on the news and they probably think all bees are like that.”

With Williamsburg Landing unable to find a site to accommodate his bees on their property for the time being, Beene was advised to reach out to the larger Williamsburg community to find a new home for his bees.

Surprised by the enthusiastic response to his request, Beene had his pick of several properties. One local resident who offered a space on his land was Brian Waltrip, who lives on a multi-home property just a stone’s throw from Williamsburg Landing.

In terms of both distance and proximity to food sources for the bees, the Waltrip property was an ideal situation for Beene, who noted there is little functional difference in keeping them at Williamsburg Landing or next door to it because bees regularly venture out in a 3-mile radius to find food.

With a home for the bees secured, Beene was ready to make the transition. He joined the Colonial Beekeeper Association upon moving to Williamsburg and quickly set up his new hives.

“There’s a very strong beekeeping community throughout this whole area,” Beene said. “They’re a very supportive group and they really helped integrate me into the community.”

With help from the club, Beene ordered new colonies of bees and began setting up his hives. Everything appeared to be going well through that first spring and summer, but when cold weather came Beene could not do anything to stop his bees from dying and disappearing.

Bees coming out of the hive. (Elizabeth Hornsby/WYDaily)
Bees coming out of the hive. (Elizabeth Hornsby/WYDaily)

Having never experienced this problem while beekeeping in Fairfax, Beene reached out to his fellow club members to discover what might be weakening his hives.

The answer, he found, was not any one thing but a combination of many factors that plague modern beekeepers.

In an essay he wrote for Williamsburg Landing’s community magazine The Tatler, Beene recalls a particular Colonial Beekeepers Association meeting at which members of the club were discussing the many threats bees face nowadays:

“As one man in the beekeeping class, who was my age and had kept bees over 40 years ago, said, ‘When I was keeping bees [before] I had to be concerned with two things: are my bees so crowded in their hives that they might swarm, leaving me with half a hive, and do I have enough jars for all the honey I am going to collect? Now you are telling me that I have to be concerned with and manage bee exposure to herbicides and pesticides, fungi, viral and bacterial infections, wax moths, small hive beetles and numerous other diseases and conditions. The fun seems to have gone out of keeping bees.’”

Beene thinks any one of these concerns could have played a role in his bee’s demise that first winter and the one that followed. His experience is not uncommon as, according to statistics compiled by the Washington Post, nearly 43 percent of bees being kept in Virginia died last winter.

Starting over with a new set of bees each spring means the hive does not have enough time to become established and produce excess honey, Beene said, which in turn means the beekeeper is unable to harvest any honey for his own personal use if he does not want to rob the bees of the little store they are able to build up to last them through the winter.

After two honey-less summers, Beene decided this year to try something new to get his hives through the coming winter. On the advice of another local beekeeper, he installed insulation on the outside of his four hives to try to keep them warmer once the temperatures began to drop.

As of this month, Beene still has hope this tactic may have done the trick. Though one of his four hives disappeared while he was on vacation in October and another has slowly dwindled through December and January, two hives remain and show evidence of continuing to flourish.

While he continues to feel hopeful he will get his first good Williamsburg honey crop this summer – two hives can produce about 5 gallons of honey – Beene is eager to continue his hobby regardless of this year’s outcome.

One of his most gratifying experiences so far has been the many times he has been approached by other Williamsburg Landing residents who have been persuaded, by talking to him or reading his essays in The Tatler, that bees are not the danger or nuisance they once thought they were.

A feeling of satisfaction from helping to bolster the honeybee population and educate the public about bees, plus the potential of a rich honey crop down the road, are all good motivators for Beene to keep up with his beekeeping.

Perhaps most importantly of all, he remains fascinated by the creatures in his care and moved by the example they provide through their dedication to their communities.

“[Beekeeping is] an adventure. You learn about a whole different society that works together to get something done, and it’s a very complex society,” Beene said. “They give everything for the hive, to keep the hive going. It’s a beautiful thing to watch.”

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