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Thursday, December 3, 2020

Beekeeping — not just for beekeepers

Beekeeping classes available online for those looking to learn something new

An animated gif of the deadly hornet spotted in Bellingham // Illustration by Katya McMullen

By Bailey Sytsma

The honey bees are flourishing this spring and with online classes as well as beekeeper associations in the Bellingham area, learning to beekeep this spring is accessible to anyone.

The United States Department of Agriculture’s yearly honey bee report has shown that Washington’s honey bee colonies have gone up 1% since 2018, with the maximum number of being 75,000 honey bee colonies during that year, according to the newest 2019 spring and summer report

Michael Jaross, a local beekeeper, began his own business teaching locals how to become beekeepers. Jaross also makes appointments with individual beekeepers to help sick bees and struggling hives.

“So I’m kind of an unofficial bee vet,” Jaross said. “I always let people know that I’m not another veterinarian, and I’m just helping them out with knowledge and experience.”

One of the biggest issues for beekeepers during the season is learning how to take care of parasitic mites known as varroa, Jarros said. He said these mites can feed on the honey bee’s body fat and over time, weaken and kill the honey bees.

Jarros teaches how to spot mites, how to feed bees during winter and fall seasons and how to use beekeeping equipment. The class is unavailable until next spring due to COVID-19, but Jarros said he’s still available for one-on-one appointments with beekeepers whose bees need tending to.

When classes do return next spring, the eight week course will handle bees by using the “bees in boxes” method to begin growing the new hives to last in the winter. This method is a man-made box structure that the bees as well as the hive are held in.

“I show the equipment and I demonstrate how the equipment is used in that particular part of the year,” Jarros said. “Then the class members get to deal with the equipment on their own, just to get a feel for it.”

Jarros also holds field days with students who sign up for his class. The class is held once a week and has a capacity of 15 students each spring.

“We have field days. So, two or three times during the class, I’ll take all the students to one of my aviaries and we all gather around one hive and open it up and then I let them handle the bees and we tackle certain problems,” Jarros said.

James Wolverton, a teacher at Squalicum high school, began beekeeping over a year ago when learning about the honey bee colonies becoming endangered. Wolverton started taking classes at Whatcom Community College for beginning beekeeping.

“As part of my learning process during my first year of beekeeping, I needed to humanely kill my bees,” Wolverton said. “My queen disappeared and the rest of the bees were dying slowly so I learned about the full life cycle of honeybees, from birth, to creating a hive, to treating for varroa mites, to letting them go.”

Wolverton took a one-on-one class with Jarros for his birthday, after taking the classes at Whatcom Community College he wanted to also gain hands-on experience before purchasing his own bees. Jaross gave him advice and resources as well during these sessions to prepare Wolverton for beekeeping.

“[The class was] amazingly packed full of great information and advice for keeping bees.  Michael has cultivated such respect in the area for his knowledge and ability to keep bees healthy in this part of the world,” Wolverton said. “He’s a master at integrating current best practices and creating his own that help others.”

Wolverton also attended Jarros’ eight-week group classes last spring. The classes taught him the humane ways of beekeeping by taking care of bees that swarm to new locations, which attract mites and pesticides.

“I can’t emphasize enough that beekeeping is complicated and requires diligence,” Wolverton said. “Michael is great at fostering appropriate and thoughtful beekeeping. Plus, he loves honey bees and sharing his knowledge.”

There are other resources available for people in Whatcom county to learn about beekeeping. The Mt. Baker Beekeeper Association is a volunteer-based organization that studies and teaches the public about honeybees and sustainable beekeeping.

Gail Buce, a board member and website administrator for the association, said there are numerous reasons that locals begin beekeeping. One of them being the growing concerns toward the fear of extinction due to causes such as climate and pesticides, Buce said.

“Could be something retired folks want to get involved in, maybe couples want to start off doing this as a fun couples activity, beekeeping could be passed down by generation, a way to make money and maybe because someone likes honey,” Buce said.

The association has meetings open to anyone who is a part of the association, local beekeepers and people interested in learning about beekeeping. The meetings are on Tuesdays from 7-8:30 p.m. and the last Wednesday of the month from 6-9 p.m. They include agenda planning, presentations and guest speakers.

Buce said beekeeping is hard work. She said the association is meant to inform and communicate with one another about ways they can improve and help one another keep their hives through winter. 

“Beekeeping requires some education. A mentor or networking with local beekeepers is a must,” Buce said. “Honey bees are not native to North America and with the accompanying mites and diseases, they’re naturally inclined to die if not attended to in our environment.”

Alan Wong, president of The Richmond Beekeepers Association, urged people to start planting bee friendly gardens in order to attract bee pollinators, and said that bees are harmless when unbothered.

“Bees are very important to our agricultural industry, and they improve garden crops for urban gardeners as well,” Wong said. “Bees are only interested in nectar and pollen and will ignore you if you don’t aggravate them.”

The Richmond Beekeepers also provide the public with knowledge about honey bees and are always welcoming new individuals to join their new virtual class sessions, Wong said.

“We are holding virtual educational presentations through March to May,” Wong said. “There are a couple of bee shops with instructors in Ladner, Burnaby and Surrey.”

Both Jaross and Wong said the best thing anyone can do to help the bees is to plant flowers and bee friendly plants.

“Learn what bee friendly plants are and plant those whether they’re in your own garden, or whether they’re just you scattering seeds out,” Jaross said. “Wherever you go, that’s huge.”

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