Yet, when one of those fluky 50-degree days happens in mid-February, she looks out her window, smiling when she sees bees flying around.
“It gives me stamina to push through ’til spring,” says Burton, 45, who lives in Gloucester, Va.
The mysterious world of bees stung Burton’s interest when she looked up the word “apiculture,” checking its meaning and spelling, after hearing about the NASA Langley Apiculture Club. Curious, she attended meetings and read up on beekeeping for about a year. Then, she bought her first 3-pound “package” of bees, which typically arrive by mail from commercial apiaries, mostly in the South.
That Langley club is now called the Colonial Beekeepers Association with about 110 members, about 35 of them women.
Burton, club treasurer, keeps a “race” of the apis melliera honey bee species known as Italian, which is basically a Western European bee. There were no honey bees in North America before colonists brought them here.
“Italians are good tempered and build up their numbers quickly in spring, so they tend to be good honey producers,” she says.
“I expect to receive my first Carniolan queen bee sometime this month, raised for sale by the Ohio Beekeepers Association to benefit the Ohio State University Honeybee Lab, which lost buildings, records and equipment in a tornado last year.
“Carniolans area a variety of Italian bee but they originated in Yugoslavia and Austria, and are grayish-black in color and popular in northern areas with hard winters.
“This queen probably will laugh at our Virginia winter!”
Once Burton gets that queen, she will start her third hive; her two hives contain about 80,000 bees.
Burton started beekeeping by the book, going the way many people do. Her hives consisted of two “deep” supers, or boxes, on the bottom serving as the brood chamber where the bees raise their young, and then “shallow” supers added to the top as the bees fill the frames inside with nectar and make it into honey.
“I discovered over time, though, that it’s pretty hard for someone my size to lift that second deep off of the first—with a large amount of honey in its outer frames, one of those boxes can weigh between 50 to 80 pounds,” she says.
“So eventually I started keeping my bees in all shallow boxes—about five shallows for the brood chamber, and two or three shallows at the top for honey. It makes no difference to them, and it’s easier for me to shift supers around when necessary. Some of our club members use all medium supers, which have frames deeper than a shallow but shorter than a deep.”
In Newport News, Va., just across the river from Gloucester, Susan Lawlor wanted bees to help pollinate the vegetables she likes to grow. She keeps bees from local sources in a hive that’s a starter colony of sorts, about half the size of a full-strength hive.
“I moved five years ago to a neighborhood with yards and gardens and noticed an almost complete absence of bees,” she says.
“Vegetables in the garden weren’t growing because the blossoms weren’t getting pollinated. So I started looking into what was involved in beekeeping, how much time and space it would take and found it can be done on a very small scale in almost any location. I decided to give it a try.
To get started, she spent about $500 for protective clothing, hive boxes, frames and tools. Ongoing expenses include buying sugar to make supplemental food and jars for the honey she extracts.
“I’m planning to expand to two full hives but that’s really all I have room for.”
Lawlor, 54, is also a member of the Colonial Beekeepers Association, which offers free classes, as well as the Virginia State Beekeeping Association.
“Joining a local beekeeping association is essential,” she says.
“Beekeeping is an art as much as it is a science and being able to observe and ask questions is extremely helpful. As a group, the local beekeepers I’ve met are the friendliest and most helpful bunch of people I’ve ever known.”
To help the bees, Lawlor grows borders of bee balm and leaves patches of clover in her yard.
“The best thing is just being able to watch them work every day,” she says.
“It makes me happy to see the daily activity around the hive.”
For Burton, beekeeping comes with several upsides.
It’s good exercise — beekeepers in their 60s and 70s are some of the fittest people she knows.
“And you’ll always have something to talk about at boring parties,” she says.
“Unless you run into another beekeeper, in which case, you’ll both bore everyone around you.”
Plus, there’s the delicious honey you harvest. Local honey is food that tastes like it was meant to taste, she contends. Commercially packaged honey processed by big packing houses is heated and filtered—think tasteless supermarket tomato —so there’s little flavor left.
“You can’t beat honey that’s been made from local nectar, taken from the hive, run once or twice through a mesh filter that leaves all the vitamins and minerals, and a lot of the pollen, intact—then eaten,” she says. “It tastes like honey is supposed to taste.”
(c) 2011, Daily Press (Newport News, Va.).