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Beekeeping is what all the buzz is about

A surging interest in backyard beekeeping spawns classes to help the curious get started

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By Sarah Jackson
Herald Writer
  • Hundreds of worker bees are present on a frame of honeycomb removed from a hive in Jeff Thompson's back yard in Edmonds. Some of the honeycomb cells r...

    Mark Mulligan / The Herald

    Hundreds of worker bees are present on a frame of honeycomb removed from a hive in Jeff Thompson's back yard in Edmonds. Some of the honeycomb cells recently were filled with eggs, giving the beekeepers a good inkling that the queen was there recently.

Jeff Thompson is surrounded by bees.
They're crawling on the backs of his legs, the top of his head and all over his arms, back, torso and toes.
Even the netting over his face is dotted with the insects, as he carefully pulls a heavy honey frame from a hive of 40,000 bees.
Of course, it would be hard for Thompson, 61, to get stung through his full-body, spaceman-white beekeeping suit.
But he is extremely calm for a man surrounded by the low, loud, dull hum of so many stinging insects on this early October day.
“Do not swat the bees,” he says. “They're my babies, my girls.”
Today's visit to the hives is an exploratory mission.
Thompson, a retired doctor and Snohomish County master gardener, is trying to figure out if the bees have gathered enough honey to make it through the winter.
Bees use the honey as food. If there isn't enough, Thompson will have to feed them sugar water to carry them into spring and summer. That's when honey production goes up and there's enough for him to steal a healthy harvest without hurting the bees.
This winter, his bees won't freeze. In fact, they'll keep the hive about 92 degrees all winter by flexing their wing muscles and eating honey. In the spring, when flowers start producing nectar, honey production will take off.
Thompson has help today from beekeeping mentor and fellow master gardener Pete Wolcott, plus master gardener and beekeeping newcomer Mary Dunlap.
“There's a lot of honey in here, guys,” Thompson says excitedly. “There's five gallons of honey in here.”
Thompson and his helpers are also opening up the hives to tidy up and to see if the three colonies' elusive queens are present. Though larger than the worker bees, queens can be hard to spot.
“This hive is really emotional,” says Wolcott as they dig into a particularly loud hive. “They may not have a queen.”
These are the adventures of the new American beekeeper.
In a region where backyard chickens and even goats are becoming more common among city folk, backyard honey bees seem poised to be the next big thing.
Rising honey prices, news of rampant bee deaths caused by the mysterious colony collapse disorder and even the eat-local movement have all been motivators in the resurgence of beekeeping.
But bees, like small livestock, are not an easy undertaking for beginners.
To keep up with the demand for information, the Washington State University Snohomish County extension and Beez Neez Apiary Supply of Snohomish are teaming up to offer weeknight classes this fall and winter in Everett.
Thompson started with one hive in August 2009 and this past year added two more given to him from another beekeeper.
Dunlap says higher honey prices motivated her to start beekeeping on her Edmonds property.
Her family, including three kids at home, uses a lot of honey in tea and milkshakes and on oatmeal.
Thompson first tried beekeeping when he was 8. He helped his grandfather on Shelter Island in New York tend 50 hives that produced honey for people all over the island.
“This is the first time I've had my own hives,” Thompson says of his three colonies, perched on a steep bluff overlooking Puget Sound.
Thompson, who is perhaps best known among local master gardeners for his tomato-growing prowess, is fascinated by the complex culture of the bees.
“It is a perfect communism. Every bee is programmed for the good of the hive,” Thompson says. “The queen controls the whole hive with her hormones.”
Thompson's only been stung twice. Both were because of wardrobe security breaches. The first time he had shoes on instead of his usual tall boots, and his ankles were exposed. The second time he did not zip his bee veil all the way up and one got inside.
He knew it too.
“I was going to get kissed,” he says. “But waiting for it, and location of infraction, was unnerving.”
Thompson took up the hobby with hopes of involving his 17-year-old son, Adam, and it worked.
“It's a great father-son activity,” Thompson says, adding that he enjoyed their first big honey harvest, almost five gallons, this past August.
Next year he expects his three hives, which all appear to have queens, to produce more than four times that much.
“I want to give people a nice jar at Christmas,” Thompson says. “I may make some candles.
“Next year, I'll probably have enough to sell.”

Sarah Jackson: 425-339-3037;

Take a class
What: The Washington State University Snohomish County Extension in Everett and Beez Neez Apiary Supply of Snohomish are teaming up to sponsor apprentice-level courses in the Washington State Beekeepers Association's Master Beekeeper Program.
Topics include bee biology, equipment, seasonal management requirements in the Northwest, identification and management of pests, and removal and processing.
When: There are openings in all three courses, held weeknights from 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Nov. 1 to 29, Jan. 24 to Feb. 28, and March 7 to April 4. If you're interested in the November course, act fast. It is almost full.
Where: Extension offices, 600 128th St. SE, Everett.
Cost: Course fees are $65 and include an introduction to beekeeping for novices, plus a workshop manual.
Participants who complete the course and pass the Washington State Apprentice Beekeeper exam, an open book test, will receive certificates toward the journeyman and master beekeeper levels.
Who: Course instructors are local beekeeping professionals Dave Pehling, a WSU Snohomish County Extension entomologist, and Jim Tunnell, owner of Beez Neez.
Sign up: To register, go to Download the registration form and mail it with a check to Washington State University Extension, 600 128th St. SE, Everett, WA 98208, or call Karie Christensen at 425-357-6039 or e-mail

The Beez Neez Apiary Supply, 403 Maple Ave., Suite A, Snohomish;; 360-568-2191; beekeeping, candlemaking and mason bee supplies.

See the bees
Beez Neez has an enclosed honeybee observation hive to allow customers to see the bees, including the queen, at work. Watch of the video of the bees in action at the top of this story.

Story tags » FoodNatureGardeningNatural SciencesLocal Food

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