Thursday, December 1, 2022

Beekeeping service offers hands-off (or on) approach to backyard hives

Jessy O’Keefe prepares to use a smoker before approaching one of her backyard hives to calm the bees prior to inspection. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)

WILMINGTON –– Whether it’s driven by the transcendental buzz or a yearning for local honey, interest in beekeeping is climbing. A new consulting and service-based beekeeping business, Seaside Honeybees, seeks to meet bee-interested clients halfway (or at least, in their backyards). 

As complex as the insect itself, skilled beekeepers take years to harness the craft. “It’s a steep learning curve,” Jessy O’Keefe, owner of Seaside Honeybees said. “So that’s why I want to make it accessible to anyone who wants a hive in their backyard.”

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An eight-year beekeeper, O’Keefe is replicating a national beekeeping model in Wilmington. As Boston-based Best Bees’ former director of field operations, O’Keefe started with the company before the bee boom, and watched it grow from managing 100 to 800 hives. Now, she’s bringing her former employer’s basic business plan to town. 

“I talked to them and I made sure I had their blessing and that they didn’t have their eye set on little ol’ Wilmington,” she said. 

Servicing clients within about an hour radius of Wilmington, O’Keefe offers two basic plans. After a site consultation, she will supply the bees and oversee the cedar beehive installation for $600. 

Thereafter, she’ll manage the hive, offering treatments, replenishing the bees’ sugar water supply, and anything else needed on a monthly basis for $100. The only difference between the plans is in ownership; some clients may want to lean on O’Keefe for mentorship and consulting services, while others may enjoy a more hands-off experience, still receiving detailed monthly hive updates. 

“It’s for people who have an interest in beekeeping but don’t necessarily want to get into the hive,” she said of the full-service plan. 

Worker bees surround the queen –– marked with a white dot –– as she lays an egg in a cell. "They're tending to her," O'Keefe said. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)
Worker bees surround the queen –– marked with a white dot –– as she lays an egg in a cell. “They’re tending to her,” O’Keefe said. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)

In the consulting plan, O’Keefe can help guide newbie beekeepers along the way. “I would say, ‘This hive needs a queen, this is where I think you should get it from,’ and give them my recommendations, but they have as much control over the hive as they want,” she said. “If they read something that they want to try, we’ll try it.” 

In both deals, the client gets to keep the honey, but there’s no guarantee on amounts, as production varies by hive and weather. Each hive comes with a minimum of 10,000 bees believed to travel 3-5 miles daily, helping to pollinate the surrounding landscape.

After officially launching less than two weeks ago, O’Keefe is operating solo until a bulked-up client base necessitates more assistance. Every Saturday, she’ll be on site at the Wilmington Farmers Market at Tidal Creek Co-op to discuss her offerings.

Terry Bland, a local fruit breeder who is hosting O’Keefe’s apiary, likens his new backyard hives to a fire. “To me, they’re just therapeutic,” he said. “There’s something about them. Even their sound, it’s almost like the Aum sound.”

Tending to bees helps O’Keefe forget the world around her. “I could spend hours in an apiary and it would seem like minutes. Once you get immersed in the hive it’s like you get into that flow state where time goes away,” she said. “It’s meditative.”

Because colonies are always in motion, there’s always a question of what’s next: Are they trying to swarm? Do they want to replace the queen? Have they outgrown their hive?

“I also like the figuring-out aspect of it –– the detective work you need to do,” she said. “You can tell kind of how they’re feeling based on the frequency of their buzz.”

A matriarchal species, the hive’s activity revolves around the queen –– but O’Keefe said she has less power than many think. 

“People think of the queen as a ruler. She’s more of a servant. All she does is lay eggs,” she said. “The worker bees are the workers of the hive –– they decide what happens. And it’s groupthink. It’s a collective decision-making process. They know, they communicate. It’s almost like the individual bees are cells of an organism and the actual colony is the organism itself.” 

As part of her new venture, O’Keefe said she’ll gladly collect any swarms at no cost –– “those are free-bees!”

Learn more about Seaside Honeybees and check out more photos below:

Jessy O’Keefe laughs as a bee flies off her shoulder while checking on a backyard hive. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)
Worker bees are exposed to sunlight as Jessy O’Keefe checks on the hive. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)
O’Keefe lights up a smoker before approaching one of her backyard hives to calm the bees prior to inspection. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)
Jessy O'Keefe prepares to use a smoker while checking out a backyard hive to calm the bees prior to inspection. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)
O’Keefe prepares to use a smoker while checking out a backyard hive to calm the bees prior to inspection. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)

Send tips and comments to Johanna Ferebee Still at johanna@localdailymedia.com

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