Bees in the hood: urban beekeeping in the Queen City

Liz Tilton stands in a Northside backyard garden and holds a wooden stick with an upside-down arch of bee comb dangling from it. This is a moving, morphing mass of comb. Bees stacked two and three thick pile on top of each other, buzzing and crawling around multi-yellowed cells, focused on anything but their human admirers.

"Isn't this cool?" she says, emphasis on "cool" as she points out cells with pollen, cells with larva and, moving through it all, thousands of bees. Words like "exciting," "invigorating" and "fascinating," flow freely when she talks about working with honeybees, which the founder of TwoHoneys Bee Company has done for three seasons.

Tilton is the Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman of bees. She cares so much about the bees that she strategizes with them, adding baby bees, or brood, to failing hives to boost survival rates. She nurtures new beekeepers, whom she calls "bee stewards," by sharing her own colonies and offering hands-on lessons that mix unbridled enthusiasm with organized thoughtfulness. If she were a bee, she'd surely be the queen, focused on an impossible task: to ensure that every bee, and every hive, succeeds.

Her beekeeper's hat and netting may shield her face, but her hands are bare and her hiking shorts leave her legs exposed. The bees leave her alone as she praises the simplicity and non-intrusive nature of top-bar hives, wooden-ark-like structures that look more like garden sculptures than traditional Langstroth beehives, the kind that look like boxes stacked on top of each other with drawers full of bees.

Top bar hives hold 30,000 to 40,000 bees and are not meant for mass honey production, but they will provide enough sweet stuff for friends and neighbors. Tilton, who keeps both Langstroth and top-bar hives, will have to wait until next year to see how her top-bar bees survive the winter. But for now, she believes top-bars are the perfect solution for urban beekeepers. "The bees are so happy in them," says the poet and part-time program assistant at the University of Cincinnati. "They are so well-behaved."

While a taste of locally produced honey inspired her first foray into beekeeping, after catching a swarm, she was hooked. "It's like a moving mass of energy," says Tilton, 53, who now manages 19 hives. "It is a miracle."

That sense of wonder infuses conversations with Cincinnati beekeepers, who speak with contagious passion about honeybees. For them, keeping bees is about living in harmony with nature, whether their hives are on downtown rooftops or nestled in backyard gardens.

"I'm addicted to it," says Steve Paszt, a commercial photographer who keeps five Langstroth hives in his front-yard garden in Price Hill. "You just feel the energy when you are around them."

At first, Paszt worried what his neighbors would think. Not only does he have a vegetable garden in his front yard, now he has hundreds of thousands of honeybees in hives clearly visible from the street.

Turns out, he needn't have worried. "It has actually acted as an educational facility," says Paszt, who now serves as vice president of the South Western Ohio Beekeepers Assocation (SWOBA). Neighborhood walkers check on the bees; children are endlessly curious about them. After four years, some even put in requests for honey. "It seems to be a gathering space for families."

When Paszt joined SWOBA, he found beekeepers who have carried on the practice for generations. He loved the atmosphere and their generosity. "They have a wealth of knowledge and they are willing to share it with you," he says.

SWOBA's current membership stands at around 200, with new members joining every spring. According to SWOBA president Ray Babcock, most members eschew harsh chemicals to treat mites and other diseases, but a majority use some type of treatment, from essential oils to powered sugar, to protect their bees. He estimates that 20 percent of the members now are going natural, letting the process of natural selection and time sort out which hives survive year after year.

Tilton, Paszt and Babcock all fall within that 20 percent. Their goal is not to make a living selling honey, though Babcock does sell his at the Wyoming Farmer's Market. They want to show that, given space and a pesticide-free environment, bees can thrive. Plus, they just love bees.

People who love bees make bee expert Gene Kritsky happy. Kritsky, the College of Mount St. Joseph biology professor best known for his knowledge of all things cicada, also knows knows plenty about bees. He has traveled all over the world documenting their history and his latest book, The Quest for the Perfect Hive: A History of Innovation in Bee Culture, was published last year.

"They are a natural part of our urban eco-system," says Kritsky, who sports a silver bee belt buckle designed and crafted by his wife. For the past two years, he has been keeping the bees at Spring Grove Cemetery, where one of hive-namesake Lorenzo Langstroh's closest friends is buried.

Kritsky has seen and heard of local examples of Colony Collapse Disorder, the bee-killing phenomenon that raised international concern starting in 2006. He says last season, the bee kill-off rate locally was about 40 percent, due more to weather conditions than disease. The bee historian believes that if given space, treated well and allowed to do what comes naturally, bees will adapt, evolve and survive.

As he tries to build the bee population at Spring Grove, which also serves as an outdoor classroom for his students, Kritsky recalls his attraction to the insect in the first place. Like other beekeepers, he gives a multi-sensory explanation, one that spans the physical and spiritual. "There is something about putting on the equipment, the smell, the smoke, the hive," he says. "It's a real sense of calm that you get with that."

SWOBA's Babcock goes a step further. "They teach me something every time," says the beekeeper who feels his blood pressure drop when he sits and watches his bees go about their natural work. "The joy of working with them close-up is great fun."

One lesson Babcock continues to learn involves being stung. With 15 hives — that is more than a half million bees — he figures he gets stung about twice every year. He blames himself, not the bees. "If you treat them well and gently, you don't get stung," he says.

Tilton sees the occasional sting as a natural part of the densely sensorial process, which includes sweating in beekeeping gear, smoking bees to make them calm enough to handle and hearing the buzz of divebombing bees trying to protect their queen. "It's good for us to face what we are a little uncomfortable with," she says. "When I get stung by a bee, I am not bored."

The rewards are gloriously sweet — watching urban bee colonies survive the winter and eating honey made by bees she has watched from their earliest hours of life, fresh from the comb.

Photography by Scott Beseler

Liz Tilton of TwoHoneys Bee Company explains activity in a top-bar bee hive comb to Summer Genetti
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