By Jeff Keeling
It’s a sunny early afternoon with the temperature in the low 60s – prime honey bee weather. Hundreds of European honey bees circle a hive at Dr. Darrell Moore’s bee research area, which is tucked away in some woods a stone’s throw from a Johnson City street.
“You’re surrounded by, oh, about 100 right now,” Moore, an East Tennessee State University biology professor, tells a visitor standing near a three-level hive that can accommodate about 60,000 bees. Tiny worker bees – the non-reproducing females that comprise the vast majority of a hive’s population – glide in and out of the hive’s narrow opening.
A few buzz in laden with bounty in the form of sticky masses of pollen protruding from their sides. “This is beautiful activity right now,” Moore says. “Some of them are absolutely loaded (with pollen). I wonder what they’re collecting from?”
The bees, who may have significantly more urban company if a proposed city ordinance passes, continue entering and exiting the hives, as well as flying thickly around the general area.
“If you were going to get stung, right now is when you would because we’re right at the hive entrance, and they do have guard bees,” Moore says.
European honey bees (apis mellifera) are docile creatures that rarely sting, says Moore, who has studied them for nearly 40 years. They can be kept by residents in nearly all Tennessee cities, but not in Johnson City, where an ordinance allows them only in the city’s very few areas zoned for agriculture. But by the time the worker bees buzzing around Moore’s hives reach the end of their six-week average life span, beekeeping – under comprehensive state guidelines – could very well be legal in the city.
Since last year, Moore has been helping Dr. Judith Hammond of ETSU’s Center for Community Outreach as Hammond leads the making of a case for permitting beekeeping inside Johnson City’s corporate boundaries. The City Commission will take up the question next month. Earlier this month, the Regional Planning Commission unanimously recommended approval.
“There are no negatives,” Moore says of the proposal. “These people who are starting new colonies are all going to be educated, because they have to follow the state guidelines.”
Planning Commission Chairman Joe Wise and City/Planning Commissioner Jenny Brock both say they were impressed with the pro-bee contingent’s presentation to the planning commission. Hammond, an emeritus professor in sociology who has made bees and pollinator plants a centerpiece of recent downtown economic development, enlisted the help of Moore, state apiarist Mike Studer, the Washington County Beekeepers Association and others to build a case for bees.
If all goes well for the bee advocates, the First Friday event downtown May 6, with a “What’s the Buzz” bee theme, will come one night after the bee ordinance passes on third and final reading. A queen bee in full costume will be among many signs that the insects who pollinate much of our food are welcome in town. The effervescent Hammond is stoked.
“I’m excited about Johnson City seeing an increase of beekeepers, but also bee guardians,” she says, referring to people who plant, and more importantly don’t remove, native pollinating plants that help honey bees and wild bees thrive. Bees must have food throughout the year to maintain their populations, and increasing urbanization is among threats to their well-being – though that can be addressed through urban landscapes that include colorful pollinating plants with enough variety to bloom spring to fall.
A “pollinator corridor” between ETSU and downtown is well under way, with nodes at ETSU’s art annex, University School, Tupelo Honey Cafe and the Johnson City Public Library, among other sites. Johnson Citians who plant pollinators or even let dandelions and clover bloom – “that’s the first food in the spring, and they love it,” Hammond says – are doing their part to help support a species that some scientific research points to being at risk of decline.
Rise of the bee lady
Hammond opened an office downtown about three years ago. Through the Center for Community Outreach, her goal was to help small businesses succeed and grow. Developing some kind of loan program was an option, but not an original one. In fact, such programs already exist and are successful.
“I wanted to develop an impactful niche downtown, and I was sort of feeling my way through this thing,” Hammond says from her office, which includes a plethora of bee-related material including a cornhole game and large cardboard hive mockup that both will feature prominently May 6.
Hammond’s love affair with bees began about seven years ago when a swarm of bees seeking to establish a new colony spent a few entrancing hours in a hollowed out shrub in her yard. She keeps hives in Carter County, and as she continued considering her role downtown, she thought about “pollinator corridor” projects she’d heard of in other cities.
Such an effort made sense here, with Johnson City’s recent green infrastructure efforts such as the Tweetsie Trail, Founders Park and the coming U Haul site park. So she began a pollinator project here, which has been a boon to at least two downtown-area businesses, Downtown Farming and artist Brian Scotus, whose handmade planters from reused materials are popping up around Johnson City and becoming home to pollinator plants.
Before long, Hammond says, “I had business owners coming in and saying, ‘I want bees downtown.’ The bees are contagious. People love them.”
If they’re going to love them at their homes in Johnson City, they’ll be very well-educated, as Moore says. They’ll have to pass a course, “loaded with all kinds of valuable information, including public safety,” he says. They also must register their colonies with the state and follow the Tennessee’s voluntary honey bee best management practices policy with its 17-point guidelines.
Importantly, Moore says, local beekeepers will report signs of “defensive colonies,” including Africanized honey bees. “Having well-trained beekeepers all over town makes it a safer town. Beekeepers do not like defensive bees. They’ll get rid of them. They know it can scare people off, and that’s the exact opposite of what they want.”
Sam Jones, an experienced beekeeper, is looking forward to the opportunity to keep the creatures in Johnson City. She also plans, should the ordinance pass, to encourage introduction of bees at the Carver Community Garden, where she volunteers with children and adults putting her master gardener skills to good purpose.
Jones calls the prospect of beekeeping at Carver, “a huge opportunity for people to learn about pollination and its link to food.
“I’d love for them to see that in action. How many city kids have seen a beehive and learned to respect it and not want to knock it over or throw rocks at it?”
Learn more about the pollinator project, or the status of in-city beekeeping, by emailing Hammond at firstname.lastname@example.org.