Pa. Beekeepers Swarm to Annual Conference

11/17/2012 7:00 AM
By Lisa Z. Leighton Central Pa. Correspondent

LEWISBURG, Pa. — The numbers of hobby beekeepers in Pennsylvania has grown dramatically during the past 5 years, according to Leo “Rick” Donovall, a survey entomologist and acting state apiarist who spoke last week at the Pennsylvania State Beekeepers’ Association fall conference in Lewisburg, Pa. He said overall there are 2,833 registered beekeepers in the state and 84 percent of them have 10 hives or fewer. Those, he said, “are hobbyists and not commercial operations.” Since 2007, there have been approximately 300 new beekeepers per year, or nearly 2,000 new beekeepers in 5 years, a change he described as “tremendous growth.” Approximately one third of all beekeepers in the state have registered in the last 3 years, meaning they are inexperienced and mentoring is needed, he said.

At the conference, approximately 100 people gathered at the Best Western Country Cupboard Inn in Lewisburg on Nov. 9 and 10 to learn about the state of beekeeping in Pennsylvania and stay up to date on beekeeping issues.

Donovall said the beekeeping environment was a tough one this year, due to the wet spring, and hot and dry summer.

Every beekeeper in the state, whether they have 1 hive or 1,000 hives must be registered with the state and pay a $5 per year fee, he said. This allows beekeepers, novice or experienced, to have access to educational information and assistance if questions or problems arise. It also allows the state “to inspect hives for diseases, pests and pathogens that could impact your hive, or your neighbor’s hives,” Donovall said.

As part of the registration, a beekeeper compliance agreement asks beekeepers to voluntarily report aggressive colonies, maintain setbacks and fencing, and minimize the potential for issues.

Donavall said the recent fast growth of hives in the state is a challenge for his small team, which includes only two inspectors for the entire state.

Breeding Varroa Tolerance

Adam Finkelstein, the keynote speaker, has a bee breeding business, VP Queen Bees, that was created by he and his wife, Kelly Rausch. They breed queens for varroa mite tolerance, among other qualities. According to Finkelstein, their artificially inseminated queens also have the ability to survive in today’s challenging environmental conditions.

While the couple has other full-time jobs — Adam’s background is in agriculture and biological sciences and Kelly is a biologist at NIH, according to their website — they have a serious passion for bees. They work bees, cross and evaluate queens, and extract and pack their honey in the Catoctin Valley, near Frederick, Md. Their overarching breeding goal is “to select queens with tolerance to varroa mites that are hardy and robust. They then select for superior honey production, over-wintering ability, high build-up potential and gentleness.” At the conference, Finkelstein said that their breeding focus is to be able to predict how the worker bees and queens will react.

Finkelstein said that “managing social insects is not an easy thing to do. The best thing is to get help from friends and neighbors.” He said with breeding, in particular, it’s helpful to work within a group so that you can test other peoples’ queen bees as well as your own.

Finkelstein’s bees have reduced numbers of mite treatments per season and per colony. He said there are a number of approaches to pest management — treating only at specific thresholds and non-treatment (called bond treatment) are two approaches. The bond treatment is a “live and let die” approach in which the beekeepers select from surviving bees and then use those bees for the next generation. Adam’s approach is one of selection and testing. He carefully observes, records and analyzes the results.

Getting Started with Beekeeping

For both novice and experienced beekeepers attending the conference, Tom Butzler, with Penn State Extension’s Clinton County office, discussed a new online Beekeeping 101 course that launched in July and is ideal for busy folks. The online course, which features videos, costs $189 and gives users access to the course for one full year from the subscription date so they can go back to the program with questions or when they are in the height of the season and need clarification.

For the video portion of the online course, Penn State Extension worked with WPSU public radio and TV station to make educational videos that are clean, professional and easy to view, said Butzler. The 10-module course walks students through bee biology, bee behavior, swarming, bee products, bee seasons, needed equipment, diseases and pests, and more. At the end of each module, beekeeping students take an informal test. An online discussion board for the course also allows students to interact with the two instructors — Tom Butzler and Maryann Frazier, a Penn State entomology expert and senior Extension associate.

The online course can be found at

For information about getting started with beekeeping, Donovall suggests going online to and finding a local mentor.

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