As Pennsylvania Honey Queen, Monongahela-native Alyssa Fine racked up more than 25,000 miles criss-crossing the state to educate and advocate for honeybees in 2011.
The next year, as nationwide American Honey Queen, she performed outreach in 24 states, Canada and Washington D.C., where she checked out the hives Michelle Obama installed at the White House vegetable garden.
Today, she owns Pittsburgh Honey on Murray Avenue in Squirrel Hill, the city’s only storefront dedicated to local honey products.
“It’s always been a passion of mine,” said Fine, a third-generation beekeeper who is teaching her 3.5-year-old daughter the skills required for this ancient discipline. “I’m just really happy to be able to do this every day, that I’m able to wake up and come to the honey store and play with the bees.”
There, they sell all forms of honey from Monongahela-based Fine Family Apiaries, operated by her father, Albert, as well as homemade lotions, balms and and other byproducts under Fine’s beauty line, Abeille Beauté.
The Fines are some of many area beekeepers — professionals, amateurs, and those in between — taking part in a renaissance of local beekeeping. While many see increased demand for local honey, the bees that produce it remain under threat: Colony loss for honeybees is at about 30 and 40 percent nationally, said Stephen Repasky, President of the Pennsylvania State Beekeepers Association. It’s even worse in Pennsylvania, where colony loss is estimated at somewhere between 40 and 60 percent.
Meet Pittsburgh’s beekeepers
For millennia, humans have been keeping honeybees, which pollinate about one-third of all food we eat, such as apples, nuts, avocados, soybeans, asparagus, broccoli, celery, squash, cucumbers, peaches, kiwi, cherries, blueberries, cranberries, strawberries, and cantaloupe, per the Associated Press.
Christina Joy Neumann fell into beekeeping while studying sustainable design and biomimicry at Carnegie Mellon. Around 2003, she started to mentor under local beekeepers, mostly “retired guys keeping bees on farms or in backyards.”
“It was very hard to find anyone,” she recalled. “Everyone thought I was crazy.”
Today, she maintains 50 to 60 hives located within a 10-mile radius of Pittsburgh, and she sells the honey they produce on her online store, Apoidea.
Operating an apiary, she said, “takes a lot of grit, a lot of commitment, and also a lot of money, quite frankly.” Despite winning national awards for her infused honeys, she still does design and consulting work on the side. For almost all urban beekeepers, the practice is at best a side hustle.
“Having an apiary has an extreme level of overhead,” she said. “The price of honey is low compared to the amount of labor in it, and the economics are very daunting.”
Many urban beekeepers, like Randall Hall, keep and move bees to different locations in the city based on the season and what’s in bloom: they call it the honey flow. Depending on what flower the bees pollinate, it changes the flavor of the honey. Hall, of Polish Hill manages between 20 and 25 hives across Greenfield, Shadyside, Spring Hill, Oakland, and Fox Chapel, and sells it under the name BeeBoy Honey. The Spring Hill hives are placed at Spring Hill Brewery, where Hall said brewer Greg Kamerdze will use it “to spark up live yeast cultures in beer,” imparting their farmhouse ales with a hyper-local terroir and more interesting flavor.
Hall considers Neumann a mentor, and credits her wisdom for the health of his hives this summer. Despite his success, Hall believes that “big beekeeping isn’t possible in city.” There’s a limit to how many hives you can pack into dense neighborhoods, he explained, and it takes time to manage multiple hives across multiple locations.
“Beekeeping is very delightful and really rewarding,” he said, “and I find that if things get too tied up with money, it’s not as rewarding and fun.”
In Beltzhoover, new beekeeper Gordon Hodnett is already sharing stories and articles about the craft with the community (like this one on urban beekeeping in Detroit as a form of black economic empowerment), even though his bees won’t be in until spring.
Hodnett, along with daughter, Zia, and members of the Beltzhoover Community Council were recently awarded a $1,500 grant from Neighborhood Allies to install a pair of hives on the roof of the Beltzhoover Neighborhood Council, next to the Garden on Gearing, which Hodnett founded in 2013 with a grant from GTECH.
“So many of them, like so many other people, didn’t know that honeybees really aren’t going to attack you,” Hodnett said about his discussions with neighbors. “That became an educating experience.”
The 4 “P’s” that kill bees
When colony collapse disorder (CCD) became a nationwide concern around 2010 and 2011, many people were drawn to beekeeping, said Repasky of the State Beekeepers Association. CCD is a disused term that encapsulates a variety of stressors impacting bees all at once. They’re called the four “Ps” of bee die-offs: Parasites, pathogens, pesticides, and poor nutrition.
Over the winter of 2010-2011, 30 percent of all honeybees in the United States died, according to the nonprofit Bee Informed. In 2014-2015, 42.1 percent of the nation’s honeybees died, and Pennsylvania, with a 60.6 percent die-off rate, was worst in the nation, per the Post-Gazette.
Across Pennsylvania, the number of licensed hives has grown from 2,000 to over 5,000 over the past three to five years, and there’s been a steady increase in urban areas as well, Repasky said. In total, 93 percent of Pennsylvania’s beekeepers are small and independent, with 25 hives or fewer.
In addition to managing hives at Soergel’s Orchards and Fern Hollow Nature Center, Repasky also maintains his own apiary, Meadow Sweet, with some 150 hives across the area. He served as Burgh Bees president from 2012-2017 and wrote the book, “Swarm Essentials.”
Pittsburgh doesn’t keep specific count of beekeeping permits, said Shelly Danko+Day, Urban Agriculture and Food Policy Advisor for the City of Pittsburgh. The city licenses the hives; the state Dept. of Agriculture has domain over the bees. But anecdotally, she said that in 2015, when the the city changed its agricultural code to allow two beehives on lots with a minimum lot size of 2,000 sq. ft, applications poured in. The city received more applications in the following six-month period than they had in the previous four years combined.
A taste for local honey
Not surprisingly, increased concern for bees has also increased interest in local honey.
Dave Cerminera, owner of Apis Meadery, started making honey wine in 2004. Today, about ¾ pound of honey goes into each bottle of mead he produces. He relies on Bedillion Honey Farm, a family-run apiary based in Washington County with 400-500 hives across the region. In August, Apis moved to a new home in downtown Carnegie that will allow him to increase production eleven-fold.
He would like to stick exclusively with Bedillion but doesn’t know if it’s feasible given this uptick in production.
“Local honey is definitely the way to go,” Cerminera said. “I don’t intend on using anything that isn’t at least from the state of Pennsylvania.”
It’s a new market, and local purveyors are buzzing to keep up.
“It turns out the demand for honey is so strong, and that market was really just created in the past 10 years for local honey, that no one can keep up with it,” Randall “BeeBoy” Hall said.
Some local honeymakers say that some local apiaries blur the lines with what actually constitutes local honey. Some will say they’re from Pittsburgh when the hives are well outside the region, while others will go so far as to blend their own, local honey with honey imported from Southeast Asia, which is often cut with high fructose corn syrup or other sweeteners.
The best way to ensure quality? Know your local beekeeper, Repasky advises.
To help empower local beekeepers and ensure customers know that what they’re getting is authentic, Pittsburgh Honey started the Pittsburgh Honey Cooperative. Some 20 small-scale local urban and suburban beekeepers have joined so far. Whenever they have an excess of honey, they can sell it to Pittsburgh Honey, who will sell it in their store. Customers can then buy honey sourced from a location as specific as their own neighborhood, a critical element for those who buy hyper-local honey in the hopes that the local pollen will help with seasonal allergies.
Many local beekeepers expect that this will end up as a good year for honey production, after a few that were below-average. Neumann, who sells as Apoidea, has gathered around 1,000 pounds of honey as of September, which she said might sound like a lot, but isn’t nearly as much as you might think for all the work involved.
For her, as well as many other beekeepers, honey is just one byproduct of humanity’s relationship with a strange, fascinating creature, without which our world, and our dinner plates, would be a lot less vibrant.
“I’m not about honey as sweetener,” Neumann said. “I’m about honey as understanding the connection between what’s on your plate and everything it took to get it there. Everything has to be healthy, from the hives, to the ecosystem that supports them, to be able to enjoy whatever honey it is you’re enjoying.”
Want to bee-come a beekeeper?
In 2008, Neumann co-founded Burgh Bees, a nonprofit organization that educates Pittsburgh beekeepers and promotes beekeeping as part of sustainable agriculture in and around the city.
“We wanted to improve connectivity,” she said. This was in 2008, she explained, a few years before urban beekeeping became trendy.
Today, Burgh Bees offers mentorship opportunities and public classes, and it also runs a community apiary in Homewood, with plans for a second in Brookline, which they hope will open next spring.
Kyle Pattison, of Polish Hill, is director of the Homewood Apiary. He has been keeping bees for five years, ever since he took a Beekeeping 101 course offered by Burgh Bees, and today he maintains six hives on a property in Hazelwood.
“It was really from that first interaction with bees I was hooked,” he said, “and I’ve been obsessed ever since.”
Just over 20 people keep bees at the Burgh Bees apiary, he said. People who live in apartments or otherwise don’t have enough property on which to keep bees can sign a one year lease to keep bees at the community location.
“It’s a great way, with the community around you, to get started,” he said. “If you don’t know what you’re doing, you have 25 other beekeepers around you. It’s a great way to get your feet wet.”
Repasky is grateful for the renewed interest in the practice, but he added that there’s a misguided notion that simply “becoming a beekeeper is going to save the world.” (If you’re really concerned about bees, he said, the best thing to do is plant a garden with pollinator-friendly plants to help combat habitat loss.)
“There’s a long, steep learning curve,” to this type of animal husbandry, he said, and some new beekeepers aren’t taking proper care of their bees out of a fear of using chemical treatments. Repasky compares this to not treating a dog that has fleas because the treatment is “unnatural,” and said it leads to the spread of varroa mites, which have been a major threat to local bees.
These mites attach to larvae in the hives and, if that wasn’t enough, carry 23 different viruses that can kill bees.
Bees can travel up to three miles in search of flowers, so if one novice in the city has infected bees, it can spread to other hives, quickly.
Repasky’s fears of unhealthy bees spreading disease was echoed by urban beekeeper, Bob Malys. He and wife, Ally, keep two hives at their Swisshelm Park home. This is their third year keeping bees, and they’re optimistic that this year they’ll be able to extract honey for the first time.
“Pretty much anyone keeping bees on the triangle, my bees are running into them,” Malys said. He got into the hobby through gardening – he’s a licensed master gardener – and he and other Penn State Master Gardeners manage the pollinator garden at the Burgh Bees Homewood Apiary.
“I love that it brings together so many different people,” he said. “It’s so important.”