On a cool, cloudy morning, dozens of bees instantly swirled up from the open hive, surrounding beekeeper Dave Harrod.
On a cool, cloudy morning, dozens of bees instantly swirled up from the open hive, surrounding beekeeper Dave Harrod. “In weather like this, they'll land on you just because you’re warm,” he said…
Harrod had leaned over an innocuous-looking stack of white boxes – a hive containing tens of thousands of buzzing honeybees – and lifted off the lid.
“It’s been raining for four days, and they’ve been stuck inside,” he said apologetically.
Heads up! For the record, the bees did in fact land on me – but the tightly woven bee suit covering me from head to toe provided some peace of mind. Harrod, meanwhile, was dipping his bare hands into the hive, pulling out the individual panels, or frames, that provide a home and workplace for the colony. Each frame was covered with a vibrating carpet of crawling honeybees.
He held one up to his net-covered face and took a good close look.
Some bees, Harrod observed, were clutching bright specks of dust: “They’ve already been out. It’s encouraging that they’re finding pollen.” He pointed out closed cells within the hive where pupae were getting ready to hatch as new bees. He scrutinized a waxy layer that bees were spreading across a honeycomb, putting fresh honey “into long-term storage.” The bees kept buzzing.
Getting up close and personal with bees like this might be nightmare fuel for some, but it’s the whole point for members of the Philadelphia Beekeepers Guild, of which Harrod is president.
The Guild, founded in 2009, is part of the city’s long history of beekeeping. A Philadelphia-born clergyman, Lorenzo Langstroth, revolutionized beekeeping with his 1851 invention of a new type of hive, the Langstroth box, which remains the model for modern beehives. The modular components of the hive give bees designated spaces to breed and store honey, and can be removed and inspected, as Langstroth wrote in “The Hive and the Honey-Bee,” “without enraging the bees.”
“We consider Philadelphia the cradle of American beekeeping,” Harrod said. One of the Guild’s first accomplishments was helping to raise a state historical marker in front of Langstroth’s former home at 106 South Front Street, in Old City.
Today, the Guild has members throughout the city and its immediate suburbs. There are members whose hives are perched on their South Philadelphia rooftops, and members whose hives dot sprawling properties in the Northwest. A few, including Harrod, are full-time beekeepers. “Most of our members are hobbyists,” he said. “And a lot are just curious – they’re just pro-bee.”
Harrod got the bee bug in 2006, when he saw an observation hive in the library at The Miquon School, where his daughter was a student. The glass-sided hive – like an ant farm, but for bees – shows the inner workings of a colony, with the bees safely contained. He was fascinated. Beekeeping became a hobby, and then last year, when Harrod stepped away from a longtime career as a product manager, it became a full-time job.
This time of year, Harrod’s days are filled with visiting some 60 honeybee colonies – his own, those he manages for clients, and those the Guild helps maintain for organizations such as the University of Pennsylvania Beekeeping Club and the Philadelphia Orchard Project.
Harrod’s hives generate enough honey that he sells jars under his Beekdaddy Honey label – his spring, summer and fall vintage jars of honey were popular at the recent Chestnut Hill Home & Garden Festival – and bulk honey to the Weavers Way Co-op to sell under their label.
Harrod took me to visit a client whose thriving hives were set up in a flower-filled yard just over the city line. There, he checked the hives to make sure the bees weren’t too crowded, to see how their honey was coming along, that the all-important queen was OK and that no beetles or mites had infested the hives. When the bees started to get a little feisty, Harrod waved a can filled with smoldering fuel over the hives. “The smoke chills them out,” he said.
During our inspection of the hives, two things were happening. First, the honey was flowing – which meant it was getting time to remove the honeycombs the bees had made with early spring flowers. Second, the rapidly growing colony was itching to swarm – to fly off with a queen bee and start a new colony elsewhere.
This time of year, you may see swarms of bees latching on to a tree branch or a corner of a building, Harrod said, and it will look ominous – he is often called to remove swarms when they arrive unexpectedly – but “the bees have basically set up a campsite while they seek out a new location. They’re definitely just passing through,” he said.
The healthy hives are a good sign for the region’s honeybees. Members organized the Philadelphia Beekeepers Guild in the late 2000s, when dire reports of honeybee loss from Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, sparked interest in beekeeping and boosting honeybee populations. While the threat of CCD has waned somewhat in recent years, Harrod said, all flying insects, including beneficial bees, remain threatened by habitat loss and harmful chemicals in their environment.
While there are some 4,000 species of bee native to North America, the honeybee is not one of them. Its ancestors were first brought here in the 1600s by European colonists who needed honey for sweetener and wax for candles.
Beekeeping in the city is more complicated in the modern era, since the spread of residential and commercial development reduced agricultural activity around the city. Bees need space, as well as flowers and trees, and they’re not always appreciated in the close quarters of city neighborhoods – though honeybees are typically not aggressive unless they feel they have to defend their hive.
Harrod kept hives in his Mt. Airy backyard until his wife “got stung a couple of times by bees just bumping into her – she didn’t like that,” he said. A friend volunteered to keep Harrod’s hives in his own yard; when a drought hit over the summer, the bees descended on a neighbor’s swimming pool for a cool drink, and Harrod had to relocate the bees once more.
With a mission “to encourage and promote urban beekeeping through fellowship and education,” the Beekeepers Guild is working to increase interest in bees beyond its predominant membership of older white Philadelphians, Harrod said. It began in 2017 with grants of beekeeping equipment and bees for beekeepers in under-represented city communities. A signature annual event, the Philadelphia Honey Fest, is held at the Wyck House in Germantown and Bartram’s Garden in Southwest Philadelphia.
Now the Guild has educational partnerships in several city neighborhoods: at the St. James School in North Philadelphia, the Wissahickon Charter School, the W.B. Saul High School in Roxborough and, most prominently, at the Awbury Arboretum in Germantown.
“It’s such a natural partnership for us,” said Sara Stevenson, executive director of the arboretum. “They really help fill out the groups that we have here at the farm,” which include community gardens, Weavers Way Co-op’s Mort Brooks Farm, the Cluck Patrol henhouse and the Philly Goat Project. All are part of introducing city residents – especially children – to “where your food comes from,” Stevenson said.
The Beekeepers Guild maintains a group of hives at the arboretum, and at events like Sunday Funday and the annual Harvest Fest, members demonstrate beekeeping and show visitors an observation hive. “I think there’s maybe an initial fear factor, but the Bee Guild are educators. It’s really great how approachable they are,” Stevenson noted. “They just have a way of reaching people where they are.”