Chestnut Hill resident Ben Brown stands next to one of his beehives in his backyard. (Photo by Sue Ann Rybak)

by Sue Ann Rybak

Chestnut Hill resident Ben Brown, 58, started raising bees for honey when he was just 14 years old. Norman Walker, a friend and mentor, got him stuck on the sweet stuff when he gave him a beehive and taught him how to raise bees in Brown’s backyard.

“I kept the hives until I went away to college,” Brown said.

Although, Brown always liked honey, the inspiration to make his own honey didn’t happen until his wife initiated the idea. He said the catalyst for getting bees at his residence in Chestnut Hill came when his wife took a horticulture class at Temple University in Ambler in 2000.

“One of her assignments was to design a garden, and in her garden she had a beehive,” said Brown, a building contractor. “I thought, well, I’ll get my wife a beehive – but it was kind of like getting a puppy for a 9- year-old. She wasn’t that interested in keeping bees.”

Brown, initially began keeping bees as a hobby. It wasn’t unusual to see him giving an extra jar of honey to his friends and family.

“Finally, it got to the point where I had more honey than friends to give to,” Brown said.

The idea to sell his honey came when a Weavers Way Co-op employee suggested he sell his honey at the store.

So, began his nine month effort to get approval from the city and obtain a license from the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.

Brown said homeowners don’t need permission to keep bees on their property or to collect honey, but they do need permission to sell it.

“I had to get a zoning variance for my house and obtain permission from the city and the Chestnut Hill Community Association’s Development Review Committee,” Brown said. The Zoning Board never had a request like this before.”

He said he was lucky because everyone in the neighborhood supported him. He said prior to keeping bees on his own property he used to keep bees on a friend’s property.

“I had bees in Wyndmoor right on Linden Road,” Brown said. “When the Linden trees bloom I could collect pure Linden honey.”

He said there were many misconceptions about bees.

“Bees are not aggressive,” Brown said. “If bees sting you, they will die. They only sting to protect their home or their brood. But, if they get caught in your shirt or your hair and they can’t get away they may panic and sting you.”

He said he only had one incident when a young woman who lived next door to his hives was really concerned that she was going to get stung.

“She thought I was really irresponsible to have bees,” Brown said. “She said ‘what if I was allergic and died from a bee sting?”’

He said that unfortunately people don’t realize the important role bees play in our environment, adding that almost one third of our diet depends on bee pollination.

Give bees a chance

Suzanne Matlock, president of the Philadelphia Beekeepers Guild, said that without honeybees our diet would dramatically change.

“The honeybee is responsible for approximately one-fourth to one-third of what’s on our plate and in our drinking glass,” Matlock said.

She said there would be no cocoa beans, almonds, apples, kiwis, blueberries, cranberries, raspberries, oranges, avocados and watermelon.

That’s right – no chocolate candy bars.

“Halloween would be a thing of the past,” Matlock said. “The squash family would be lost without them: cucumbers, cantaloupe, all other melons, zucchini, and all other squashes.

Goodbye Jack-O’Lanterns and pumpkin pie.

“They [bees] even pollinate clover and alfalfa ,which our livestock eat to give us juicy steaks and milk from free-range cows,” Matlock said.

Matlock said sadly that a world without the honeybee may be in our future if we don’t figure out what’s killing the honeybees.

“What’s really frightening isn’t what a hive of angry bees might do to us, but what we’ve done to them,” she said.

Since 2006, honeybees have been dying in droves. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, about a third of the deaths are related to colony collapse disorder (CCD), a phenomenon in which worker honeybees abandon the hive. Beekeepers would return to find boxes empty of bees except for one queen. CCD is not one specific disease but a syndrome, a collection of factors contributing to the bees decline.

Scientists do not know exactly what is causing CCD. In May, the USDA released a report stating that the causes of the recent honeybee decline are complex, and that several factors, including parasites and disease, genetics, poor nutrition and pesticide exposure, have an effect on the overall health of the honeybee.

While Brown doesn’t raise his bees for agriculture pollination, he has seen first-hand the effects of colony collapse disorder on his bees.

“Last year, I had 13 hives, but a lot of them died at the end of the summer,” Brown said. “I hope these bees winter over.”

Hive Sweet Hive

“Most of the honey flows in the spring,” Brown said. “Spring honey tends to be very light.”

He said the color and flavor of honey varies depending on the type of flower the nectar is collected from. For example, honey made from orange-blossom nectar tends to be light in color, while avocado is dark in color with a rich buttery taste.

Brown said he harvests the honey by collecting the honeycomb frames and using an electric hot knife to shave off the wax cap that bees make to seal off honey in each cell. Once the caps are removed, Brown places the frames in an extractor – a centrifuge that spins the frames, forcing honey out of the comb. The honey is spun to the sides of the extractor, where gravity pulls it to the bottom where it can be collected in a bottling bucket.

“It’s a very labor-intensive process,” Brown said. “I can put the honey in jars right from the bottling bucket because it has a spigot.”

Typically, Brown gets about 115 pounds of honey from each extraction.

He is meticulous about his honey – no ordinary honey jar will do. In fact, Brown imports his jars from Italy. The half kilogram glass jars are embossed with honey combs, and his labels were designed by his son’s girlfriend. Brown’s Apiary honey sells in the Spring and Fall for about $10 at Weavers Way Co-op in Chestnut Hill and Mt. Airy.

“If I have one goal in this business, it’s to get to the point where I could have honey on the shelves 12 months out of the year,” Brown said. “A good hive will produce about 60 pounds of honey a year.”

He estimated that he would need about 20 hives to be able to sell honey year round. Brown said one unique fact about honey is that it never spoils if it is stored unopened at room temperature. Despite its long shelf life, Brown tries hard to never waste a drop of the liquid sunshine.

He said a honey worker bee will only produce one-twelfth of a teaspoon in its lifetime, so leaving honey in the jar could mean the waste of a bee’s life.

“Being an urban beekeeper is a rewarding endeavor,” Brown said.

But if you want to buy some of Brown’s Apiary Honey you have to hurry because Brown is a honey of a beekeeper and customers at Weavers Way swarm to it.

Make a beeline to the Honey Festival

Brown encourages people who are interested in keeping bees to attend the Fourth Annual Philadelphia Honey Festival. The three-day festival is free and runs from Sept. 6-8 at three different sites: Bartram’s Garden, Wyck Historic House and Garden and the Wagner Free Institute of Science.

Suzanne Matlock, president of the Philadelphia Beekeepers Guild, said this year’s festival will feature “brand new ways to catch the buzz about urban beekeeping and the importance of honeybees.”

“We have a little something for everyone, from educational activities to our ‘Be a Bee pageant’ to hive talks, honey extractions and our Honey Happy Hour. This year we also have the privilege of showing the recently released, award-winning documentary ‘More Than Honey.” A schedule of events for Sept. 7 at the Wyck Historic House and Garden, 6026 Germantown Ave., is listed below:

10 a.m.-4 p.m. – Children’s activities throughout the day, programmed by Christina Moresi, Youth Education Coordinator, Wyck. Author Terri Kowalski will read her “Bee’s Birthday Surprise” to kids of all ages.

10:30 a.m. – Open Hive Talk. Come take a look inside a working hive and hear a knowledgeable beekeeper explain how queen bees are raised by the worker bees.

11 a.m. – Honey Extraction. How do you get the honey away from the bees and into the jar? We show and tell, then let you take a turn.

11 a.m. – ”Meadmaking for the Novice.” In real life, Matthew Shoemaker is the Digital and Web Services Librarian at Temple University. But for fun he is a meadmaker and beekeeper, among his other interests. Matt will present “Meadmaking for the Novice” in which you will learn about equipment needed, time needed, fermentation concepts, and get a simple mead recipe.

12:30 p.m. – “How to Plant Your Bee-Friendly Garden” presented by Penn State Certified Master Gardener Jessica Herwick.

1 p.m. – Mead and honeybeer Tasting. If you didn’t participate in the Mead event, you can still try some meads and honeybeers, courtesy of David Schuetz (award-winning local home brewer), Earth Bread + Brewery, Cardinal Hollow Winery and the Philadelphia Beekeepers Guild. Over 21 only – must show ID.

1:30 p.m. – Open Hive Talk. A knowledgeable member of the Philadelphia Beekeepers Guild lights the smoker and pops the lid to show what goes on inside a real beehive.

2 p.m. – Honey Extraction. Help the beekeeper get the honey from the hive into a jar.

3 p.m. – Bee Beard – New to the fest this year, the craziest guy we know – Don Shump, Philadelphia Bee Company – will allow a colony of honeybees to cover his chin in a living beard! Inquiring minds want to know – how do you get them off?

3:30 p.m. – Open Hive Talk. Just in case you missed it earlier, you have one more chance to catch the buzz.

Honey tastings and sales, vendors and live music throughout the day. For more information about the Philadelphia honeybee Festival contact honeyfest@phillybeekeepers.org.