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Don’t let the bees go away

My maternal grandfather, known affectionately to me as PaPa, was a beekeeping hobbyist.

He and my grandmother retired to an area called Summerfield just outside of Greensboro, N.C., which was in the country then but has suffered the same suburban sprawl that many such communities have over the last 20 years or so.

My mom and I used to visit them two or three times a year. And on these visits, I would enjoy — from afar — watching my grandfather suit up and go mess with his beehives.

Eventually, my grandfather got older, then got sick, and died. The beehives themselves followed much the same trajectory, looking more and more worn over the years, but the bees were still well cared for. The hives disappeared after my grandfather died. I’m certain another beekeeper in the area was able to take them in.

I was scared of the beehives when I was younger, but I’ll never forget how much I enjoyed the fruits of their labor.

I remember the bear-shaped bottle, purchased from the store filled with a flimsy imitation of good local honey, that was refilled over and over with the real thing from PaPa’s hives.

I remember how I learned to make the best biscuit topping ever by watching him scoop some butter onto his plate, then liberally pour honey onto it and mix it all together, then spoon it onto the cut side of his halved biscuit.

I remember the sweet, savory, slightly salty taste of those warm homemade biscuits with the butter and the honey as they slid down my throat on so many North Carolina mornings.

But while many of us can agree that real honey straight from the hive is the best thing on sliced bread, that’s not the most important reason to keep our honeybees around.

The other thing I remember about those bees is the crisp, fresh taste of the vegetables harvested from my grandparents’ large garden that the bees had dutifully pollinated.

Bees are essential for the pollination of our food, and for the food that our livestock eat. If the bees disappear, they won’t take just the honey with them; it would be disastrous for agriculture.

That’s why statistics on the number of hives lost over this winter are so worrisome. Across the state, nearly 60 percent of honeybee colonies were lost over the winter. And unfortunately, the cause is hard to pinpoint. A combination of environmental conditions, loss of habitat, pests and diseases, the use of pesticides near hives and other factors are likely contributors, according to a press release from the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Local beekeepers were not immune. Vivian French, a 12-year veteran of the hobby, lost half of her six hives this winter, she told Suffolk News-Herald reporter Alex Perry last week. Gary Gosdzinski and Ed Schweiger of G&S Apiary in Smithfield also lost more this winter than in typical years, Perry reported.

The reasons are many, and most of them can’t be helped. Extreme cold and weather that vacillates between cold and warm during the winter is known to affect them. It’s hard to know what to do about the many pesticides and diseases that are affecting bees — that’s for the experts.

But there are a number of ways that ordinary folks can help support the bees and beekeepers:

  • Don’t use pesticides in your garden.
  • Buy local honey, comb and other products from your local beekeepers.
  • Plant a bee-friendly garden.
  • Share your property with beekeepers.
  • Don’t kill honeybee swarms that land on your property. Instead, the Nansemond Beekeepers Association suggests you call Victor Thornton at 320-7789 or email him at victorshoneybees@gmail.com as soon as possible.