Let it bee

Date Published: 
March, 2006
Original Author: 
Tom Smith & Tom Pfeifer
Spring Grove Cemetery & Arboretum, Cincinnati, Ohio
Original Publication: 
ICFM Magazine, March-April 2006

A sweet way to help the local landscape and generate buzz about your cemetery

Beekeepers look like exotic creatures, wearing protective hoods, risking stings to rob hives of honey. But beekeeping has an undeserved reputation as a dangerous occupation, and having an apiary can be a great way to help the community while generating good publicity for your cemetery.

WHAT: Spring Grove has eight honeybee hives, taken care of on a part-time basis by one of our grounds employees, Paul Westerback. The bees help our seed production and provide pollination for the surrounding community, as well, since bees will roam up to 2 miles from their hive. They also provide us with hundreds of jars of Spring Grove honey to hand out as a goodwill and publicity gesture. There's nothing like a thin layer of honey slathered on a slice of wheat toast to bring you to a new energy level!

WHY: Spring Grove produces patented seeds and gets requests for them from all over.  About 20 years ago we felt we needed to increase our seed stock because of the fragility of some of the seed. We decided the way to do it would be to increase the number of pollinators at work, which would also help out the cemetery overall. The fact that improved pollination would also help local agriculture sealed the deal.

When you're talking pollinators, you're talking bees. Sure, an ant might pollinate something accident, but for bees, it's their life's work. Historically, Spring Grove has always had a hive or two. After all, hundreds of acres of greenery is bound to attract some bees to set up housekeeping. But 20 years ago, we got into beekeeping in a serious way.

Apiaries have taken on greater importance nationwide—worldwide, really—in the past couple of decades. Bee populations have been decimated by parasites, threatening crop production, so anytime healthy hives are added to a community, that's good news. You shouldn't have any problem getting your local media out to the cemetery to do a story about how you're helping local farmers and gardeners by boosting the local bee population. Bees are crucial to the survival of many types of plants.

One of our community outreach programs is called Heritage Days. We always have a honey booth, and it's probably our most popular booth. We give away 500 jars of honey every time we do it, which means it's sitting on the breakfast tables of 500 families.
Parents bring their children to hear Paul talk about bees and answer their questions.
Paul built a bee-viewing area so people can see inside a hive; see the worker bees doing their thing. It's phenomenal to watch him gently take the hand of a 6 year old child, move it along the glass and ask the child to tell him when the glass feels warmer. Then he'll say, "Look under your hand; there's the queen right there." The queen generates so much more heat than the other bees that you can feel it through the glass. The kids get excited; the parents say, "Wow—I didn't know that!"

Local bee pollen is a great allergy fighter, too. Raw honey has some pollen in it, so eating honey produced locally helps decrease any allergic reaction you might have to stings from local bees, and it can help decrease your allergic reaction to local plants, too. Cincinnati is one of those places where people seem to suffer from a lot of allergies. We're not going to make any claims or give anybody medical advice, but we've had people tell us that since they started eating Spring Grove honey and pollen, they don't need to take antihistamines anymore.

Beekeepers are said to have the lowest incidence of cancer of any occupational group—even lower than quilters. All we know for sure is, our beekeeper is retirement age and looks 20 years younger—he's great testimony to the benefit of a diet that includes raw honey on wheat toast!

HOW: The way to put more bees to work in your cemetery is to set up hives.

Step 1: Locate a beekeeper.
Obviously, if you're going to set up and take care of hives yourself, you need an employee who is knowledgeable or willing to become knowledgeable. Getting educated about bees and making or buying hives is no problem at all. There are beekeeping groups all over the country, and they love to initiate a new person into the group, to share information.

We were fortunate to have Paul on our staff, because he's been interested in bees since he was a child. For him, being put in charge of Spring Grove's bees was like giving him a bunch of pets.

But we don't want anyone reading this to say, "We don't have anyone interested in bees, so we're dead in our tracks." If you don't have anyone who can take this on, but you do have room for some hives, go ahead and contact the local beekeepers association and offer a place for someone who wants to keep bees but doesn't have a place to do it, or would like to expand his operation. Even if you have to let him keep all the honey, you can reap the good publicity.

Step 2: Figure out where to put the hives. At the Grove, we've now got eight hives. They give us all the pollination we need to fill our seed requests. Our hives aren't all set up in the same areas, though you can set them up back to back, have two or three in the same area. We put them in different areas where they'll have plenty of plants in their range but not be too close to developed areas.

We have some near the maintenance service barn area, about 100 feet away from our equipment buildings, others in undeveloped sections. Paul always wants them to be facing the east so they get early morning sun. That warms them up quickly and gets them started early to do their daily work. You can move hives, and of course we don't have exactly the same hives we started with 20 years ago. We've lost hives; we've had weak hives where Paul had to send for a new, more aggressive queen to replace a weak queen.

Beekeepers know how to approach a hive so the bees don't get agitated. They use a smoker to calm them down and then use the tricks of the trade to keep them calm. This is where trading information with other beekeepers is so important Paul does get stung sometimes, but he's not allergic, and he says it just boosts his immunity to some of the other challenges of life.

In 25 years, we've never had a customer complain about being stung by a bee. Even if someone got stung, you'd be hard pressed to figure out if the bee was from one of your hives or was a wild bee. We keep our hives out of the developed areas, since there are going to be a lot of bees in the immediate vicinity of the hive.

Step 3: Select a docile breed of bee.
Honeybees do have a powerful sting, but they sting in response to something you've done—they're not out to get you. Those yellow and black insects you find on your can of soda pop when you're at a picnic, just waiting to sting you right on the face, are yellow jacket wasps, not honeybees.

Even so, some breeds of honeybees are more aggressive than others, and you want to make sure you get one of the more docile breeds. Ours are midnights, known as one of the mildest.

Step 4: Consider making use of the honey. You don't have to take the honey. Bees make honey as food for themselves, but they're so efficient, out there just cranking this stuff out, you’re wasting a product if you don't take some. It's called robbing the hive, but you're not threatening their health as long as you don't take too much. Paul—or any beekeeper who's done his or her homework—knows how much he can take from the hive. He calculates how many degree days (a measure of how cold the weather's going to be) are left in the winter, how much honey the hive needs to remain stable.

The hives, as you can see in the pictures, are wooden boxes, called supers. Paul used to just take the end off the super, cut the end off the wax the bees use to seal in the honey and then slowly drain it into a pan. It’s a slow process, of course, since honey is dense. When we decided to get more serious about honey production, we decided to invest in some equipment, which we keep in the basement of one of our buildings. For example, you can get equipment to spin the honey out using centrifugal force. Again, being in touch with your local beekeepers is a good way to find out about equipment deals. Periodically a beekeeper retires and sells off equipment.

The beekeepers association has a standard label you can get at very low cost and then add your logo or name to. We used to go that route, with a label that said Ohio Apiaries and had the Grove logos underneath, but we recently designed our own label to make the Spring Grove name much more prominent. With today's computers, it's easy to work up something slick, print it out on label paper and stick it on your jars.

Jars are easy to get from any jar supplier.  We're not selling the honey, we're giving it away to generate goodwill and publicity, so we want to give out little tastes and reach as many people as possible. Our jars hold about 4 ounces. We never give a garden talk without taking some Spring Grove honey with us. You can just imagine the positive comments we get on this program.

Even though there are costs involved in running our apiary, we don't have a separate bee line item. Paul handles his bee-related maintenance when he has down time from his other duties. Maybe it's raining and he can't do anything on the grounds, so he works on his bee or honey equipment. The apiary program is not a high-cost one, and we feel it's valuable.

Step 5: Don't forget the paperwork.
You have to register your hives with the state. It's a simple, routine thing to do, and in return you get support from the state regulators. We pay $5 a year, which is ridiculously low for what they do. They inspect your hives annually; let you know if you have a problem. If you have a weak hive, they might advise you to build it up by feeding the bees some sugar water. (A weak hive might have 15,000 bees, a good colony from 80,000 to 100,000 bees.) If you've got mites, they'll tell you to put mite strips in the chamber.

Paul attends the local beekeepers' meetings and also goes to the state apiary meetings. We're trying new methods to avoid the parasite problems bees have been having.

Bees have gone through some tough times, and we're proud that Spring Grove is part of the "save the bees" movement.