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Thursday, Jul 24, 2014

Mostly Cloudy, 70 °F

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Ed Newman handling his honeybees

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Roots of Sustainability: Beekeeping

University 'abuzz' over administrator's passion


This year, Ohio University's Earth Month observation focuses on sustainability issues surrounding the most fundamental of human needs: food. This weekly series seeks to address many aspects of a sustainable food system, including organic, local, vegetarian and vegan choices.

Though farmers and businessmen do the most high-profile work within our food system, other species deserve much of the credit for the meals we eat.

Without the contributions of honeybees, for example, many kitchen cabinets would be missing key ingredients. Though they are perhaps most well-known for producing honey, these bees are important pollinators of crops like apples, almonds, broccoli and carrots.

Since most of the crops grown in the U.S. are not native, they rely on an introduced pollinator like the honeybee in order to reproduce. Large-scale agriculture must often ship in bees to pollinate thousands of acres worth of crops. In Athens County, farmers are still able to rely on the strength of local pollinators, and beekeeping is more of a hobby than a business.  

Ed Newman, recycling and refuse manager at Ohio University, is particularly adept at harnessing the talents of honeybees. Inspired by Chuck Hammer, a beekeeper he met during his first year as a student at OHIO who is now an administrator at the Athens City-County Health Department, Newman is now a popular resource for locals hoping to try similar start-ups. He purchased his first hives in 1984, relying on books, magazines and trial-and-error to figure out how to keep hives healthy and productive.

The challenges have increased over time, with less predictable weather patterns, an increase in hive beetles (a pest first detected in the United States in 1996) and the mysterious prevalence of colony collapse throughout North America.

Conscious of the ecological connections between bees and humans, Newman prefers to rely on “built-in resistance to diseases, rather than using miticides or other chemical approaches” for pests like mites and hive beetles.

The hive and honey provide a glimpse into the microcosm of a specific area, with traces of native flora that would not be found, or tasted, elsewhere. Sumac honey, for example, is green, and Newman finds green patches in the frame of a hive when the bees are collecting from these trees.

The honey from his hives is given to friends as gifts, or sold at the Farmer’s Market and to Casa Nueva and the Village Bakery. The wax is popular with his mother, who uses it to smooth thread while sewing, and his wife, who makes medicines with both the wax and honey.

“It’s part of a diverse food production scheme,” Newman said.

Agriculture in southeastern Ohio is not large enough to require commercial pollination services, but Ed still gets requests from farmers, like those at Companion Plants, who like the reassurance of a hive on their land.  

Pollination is not the only benefit to these bee enthusiasts.

“People like them for their vibes, too.” Newman said.

He finds a particular “fear and fascination” with swarms, which is when a queen and many of the workers leave a hive to start a new colony. Newman can start a new hive with a swarm, though he must capture it first.

Rather than fearing bees, Newman suggests recognizing their value as pollinators and honey producers, and thinking of them as integral parts of the ecological community in which we live.

“They enhance your life – it’s a symbiotic relationship,” Newman said. “It’s a better way to go through life than just to see it, fear it and kill it.”

Even with his best efforts, he will perhaps never relive the sweet success of his first official year of amateur beekeeping. That year, Newman harvested 174 pounds of honey from two hives in June.

He ended last fall with 25 hives in 12 locations, some of which he has deliberately placed in the backyards of close friends so he can visit with them when making rounds to his hives.

The Office of Sustainability has partnered with students, faculty, staff and community members to develop Ohio University’s second annual Earth Month, which continues this week with a tour of local food facilities, including Pleasant Meats, and a panel discussion on agricultural policy. The full Earth Month schedule is available at www.ohio.edu/sustainability/EarthMonth2010.htm.