Beekeeping camp begins this month at Awbury Arboretum

When Anaiis Salles checked on her “girls” the master beekeeper at Awbury Arboretum noticed one of their hives had been tampered with. Salles, along with her bee steward helpers, put the top of the hive back in its respective position. Even the slightest changes and imbalances can compromise the efficiency of honeybee colonies.

Over a year ago, Salles started three personal hives with Russian honeybees on a private residence in the arboretum. However, she quickly realized that the arboretum was an ideal location for Northwest Philadelphia residents to get involved in urban beekeeping.

Salles is the executive director of Green Sanctuary Earth Institute of Pennsylvania. She partnered with the arboretum to start the Green Sanctuary Community Apiary this past spring. The apiary — the term for a place where beehives for honey bees are kept — four hives that are open to the community and offer an outdoor classroom for Salles’ beekeeping camps and classes. Salles said she hopes to have local schools participate in beekeeping.

“I have a vision our community apiary will bring in people from the local community because I had to go all the way Montgomery County to take my bee class and when you think about sustainability, wouldn’t it be nice not to have to use that gas and drive that far?” Salles said. “We’ve tried to create a local hub for hands-on education and experience here.”

Salles interacts closely with the bees like a member of a team although she acknowledge that she is not the queen bee.

Depending on the time of year, Salles leaves the bees on their own for weeks at a time, returning only to expand the hive, refill food for the bees and check for pests.

“A good beekeeper is keeping an eye on the bees and is making sure that bees are set up in a good environment and getting proper food, water, air circulation and sunshine,” Salles said.

John Austin and Jeff Bullard are recent graduates of Salles’ beekeeping course. Bullard, who lives in a Chestnut Hill apartment, does not have enough space to start his own hive. Luckily, he is a bee steward and continues to work with Salles and the bees at Awbury on a regular basis and increase his knowledge of the bees’ complex behavior.

Bullard said he thoroughly enjoys his time with the bees.

Bullard said: “For me it’s almost spiritual. There’s a sense of calm and peace. When you take the top off the beehive, you can feel the temperature of the bees. It’s always 95 degrees and it’s fascinating. Its like being next to another person.”

Austin has a sufficient backyard for beekeeping and recently started his own hive with a $100 start-up kit. He has witnessed the colony thrive over the past few months.

“When you start out, there are a small number of bees. As the spring goes on, they build combs where the queen lays eggs and raises the next generation of bees,” Austin said.

Anaiis Salles has participated in the Philadelphia Beekeepers Guild’s Hive Crawl. This is a citywide event that encouraged people across Philadelphia to get out and explore the hives hiding in neighborhood yards, rooftops and community gardens. Salles and the buzzing bees attracted a crowd of curious neighbors, prospective beekeepers and bee stewards.

While Salles and her stewards opened the hives and began to work, onlookers stepped back and watched. As Salles handled the hives and held dozens of bees at arms length it was hard to tell that she was once terrified to even go near bees.

After seeing that the bees were non-threatening, the Awbury Arboretum visitors began to inch closer and even participate. The youngest Hive Crawl attendees were two small boys that didn’t let their size stop them from smoking the bees to relax them while Salles got to work.

Bee keepers use smoke to calm bees allowing the keepers to work the hives. The smoke inhibits the ability of bees to communicate with one another and send out alerts that something is wrong. In addition, the smoke can confuse the bees and make them think there is danger, which causes the bees to consume their stored honey. While they are trying to sustain themselves in an uncertain situation they end up becoming slow and lazy rather than aggressive.

The bees do not have very good eyesight because the beehives are dark inside. However, their advanced sense of smell allows them to detect irregular circumstances.

Once the smoke calms the bees down, they typically recognize that keepers like Salles are not trying to harm them so they cooperate. The bees do not buzz loudly, a sign or aggravation, unless they feel threatened or disturbed.

Items required for Salles to work the hives include adding extra racks to the hive so that the bees could continue to build combs and reproduce. Her helper, John Austin, also is involved in adding extra layers because the respective colonies quickly expand requiring more space. Salles said her work with hives also requires her to pour sugar syrup in the corner of the hives to feed the bees.

Beginning on July 9, Salles will lead a beekeeping camp for children and teens at the Awbury Arboretum.

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