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Interest in beekeeping thrives in Jamaica Plain

Posted by Christina Jedra  February 28, 2013 12:00 PM

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Stephanie Elson cuts a swarm of bees out of a tree in Jamaica Plain.

Photo courtesy of: Joshua Matthew Peters

By Kristen Lee, Globe Correspondent

Stephanie Elson soaks dried calendula leaves in organic olive oil, while bees hum next to her. The only thing separating Elson from them is Plexiglas. The bees are quite active today, which Elson finds interesting, given the recent blizzard. 

Elson is a mother, backyard beekeeper, co-founder of the Boston Beekeeping Club and co-owner with her husband of the Benevolent Bee store in Jamaica Plain. The couple makes the products they sell by using the wax and honey produced by the bees they tend in their backyard. They have two other hives elsewhere in Jamaica Plain. 

“We started beekeeping because we were just kind of falling in love with the creature of the bee and really interested in observing bees and bee behavior,” said Elson.

Elson and her husband are not the only ones in JP, or the larger Boston area, who have fallen in love with bees. Case in point: The Organic Bee School, organized by the Boston Beekeepers Club and dedicated to community education and outreach, has had to change locations in order to find a room big enough to fit its new class of 40 to 50 participants. The bee school will be held March 23-24 at Boston University’s College of Arts and Science.

In the class -- taught by Jean-Claude Bourrut, co-founder of the Boston Beekeepers Club and a veteran beekeeper who tends to hives in Jamaica Plain and Natick -- interested community members learn the basics of beekeeping. Bourrut, assistant director at Natick Community Organic Farm and an organic farmer, teaches students what equipment is needed, how to build a hive, how to deal with pests and disease, and how to keep bees in both urban and rural settings using organic methods --absent chemicals and pesticides. 

“As an organic farmer, I think we have to shift our approach [and] look at things differently, because to me, chemicals [are] just a downward spiral,” said Bourrut. “The more you use, the more you become addicted to them, and you’re creating new problems.”

And the bees already have some serious problems. 

In 2006, beekeepers began reporting losses of 30-90 percent of their hives, which is highly unusual, according to the Agricultural Research Service, the USDA’s internal research agency. The phenomenon, known as “Colony Collapse Disorder,” is affecting honeybees across the country. 

The cause is unclear, although recent studies show strong evidence that pesticides play a major role. And Bourrut believes that mites that introduce viruses to the bees, as well as the chemicals meant to kill those mites, also are to blame. 

Bee enthusiasts say the public’s growing interest in bees is a good sign.

“The more stewards of bees that there are, the better the chances the bee has of surviving this difficult time,” said Elson, making the point that the more people pay attention, the more funding might be devoted to research on the problem. 

Although the bee’s usefulness may appear insignificant to some, “The public has to realize that bees are pollinating about two-thirds of our food crops, and without them there would be a [food crisis],” said Bourrut. “There would be food that would disappear from our table, totally.”

Bourrut said the goal of his two-day Organic Bee School, which is in its second year, is to encourage students to “get bees, have a hive, [and] get a mentor to keep working with them.”

In addition to the Organic Bee School, the Boston Beekeepers Club organizes a “Tour D’Hive” in the summer, where participants bike from one apiary, or cluster of hives, to another, usually in people’s backyards.

Like other beekeepers, Elson said her fascination with bees has only grown over time.

“Learning about bees, it feels like science fiction,” she said. “You can’t help but be drawn in.”

For more information about the Organic Bee School or the Tour D’Hive, contact Drew Love at drew@nofamass.org or 330-801-0389.

This article was reported and written under the supervision of Northeastern University journalism instructor Lisa Chedekel, as part of collaboration between The Boston Globe and Northeastern.

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