Beekeeping at Bartram’s

The West Philly garden is an unlikely spot for cultivating honey.

By Dan Packel
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jul. 31, 2009

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In the background, both the Center City skyline and the trappings of a heavily industrialized river. And in the ears, the buzz of honeybees.

Photo by Michael Persico

The juxtaposition is striking. In the foreground, an expansive wildflower meadow, sloping down to the Schuylkill River. In the background, both the Center City skyline and the trappings of a heavily industrialized river. And in the ears, the buzz of honeybees.

Bartram’s Garden, the pre-revolutionary home of naturalist John Bartram, is an unlikely location to begin with. Located next to a housing project in Southwest Philadelphia, the unassuming entrance masks Bartram’s stone house, the historic garden and the woods along the river. Even more unlikely are the five sets of beehives tended by local beekeepers.

Joe Duffy, the elder statesman of the bunch, has been keeping hives here for approximately 25 years. In addition to his three hives at Bartram’s Garden, he tends hives at sites in Germantown, Andorra and a few other spots near his Montgomery County home. Since retiring from Verizon, beekeeping has essentially become a full-time occupation, one that takes him not only around the Delaware Valley, but also around the world.

Duffy arrives at his hives in a pickup truck loaded with equipment—smoker, blower, spare frames to put inside the hive, protective clothing—and his 10-year-old German Shepard, Patch.

Having loaded newspaper and grass into the smoker, Duffy dons his protective hat and veil then uses a metal tool to pry open the top of one of his hives. Underneath are several stacked box-like contraptions, called “supers” which hold several frames. With a puff from the smoker, the bees congregating on top of the first super disperse.

After removing a second super in the same manner, Duffy pulls an internal frame from the third super and inspects it. “Here’s what it’s all about,” he remarks. The frame is covered with honey. Having reinserted the frame into the super, Duffy uses a gas-powered blower to clear the bees off the entire unit, then loads it into the back of his truck. He’ll extract the honey once he gets home. “I call it ‘wildflower honey,’” says Duffy, “since there’s no one specific flower here. There are too many varieties.”

This—late July into the middle of August—is the time of the year when beehives yield peak amounts of honey. Duffy's brightly flavored honey is available bottled in the gift shop at the Garden.

Newer beekeepers can also be found tending hives, even if they have lower expectations for actually harvesting honey. According to Hannah Shulman, who works as a coordinator for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society's City Harvest Program, most beekeepers won't get honey in their first year. "It's tough to get enough for you, and enough to keep the bees fed through the winter," says Shulman, who lives in West Philadelphia, not far from the Garden.

But Shulman's motivation for starting a hive was less for the honey and more for the sake of the bees. Her concern about the phenomenon of Colony Collapse Disorder, a dramatic decline in the number of North American bee colonies, prompted her to start a hive as an opportunity to start education herself and others about the current plight of bees. As the cultivation of many crops relies of bees for pollination, the abrupt disappearance of colonies threatens the future of American agriculture.

This encouraged Shulman, who took a beginners’ course from the Montgomery County Beekeepers Association, to start her first colony at Bartram's Garden. "I was looking for a space where I could put the bees to good use," she says. When bees collect nectar to make honey, they also spread pollen, and Shulman's colony, along with all the others, helps pollinate the flowering plants at the Garden.

Shy Oakes, another West Philadelphia resident, is also in his first year of maintaining a hive at Bartram's, although he's been keeping bees elsewhere in the city for about four years. He began with a homemade hive on a roof on Hazel Street, then moved to a community garden at 48th and Brown. He decided to start a hive at Bartram’s after meeting with head gardener Todd Greenberg. "It's a great, huge old Philadelphia landmark," says Oakes. "And there was the opportunity to become part of the continuity there, since it's a long trip for Joe Duffy to make it out and he might be looking to scale back."

The prospect of continuity is good news, both for enthusiasts of locally produced honey and for those concerned about the well-being of the Garden. And while beekeeping might not be a tremendously lucrative activity, it turns out to be much more than a business for its practitioners.

"It's a lot of work," says Duffy. "But at the same time, it's brought me a lot of joy and pleasure."

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