by Ivy Santry of Girl Scout Troop 52908
We cruised through neighborhood streets, onto highways, and finally up a picturesque driveway with a brook alongside it. The sky was full of clouds that looked like they belonged over Lake Erie, and the beehives were bustling with activity. We were finally meeting our bee hero: Chris Vario, owner of Sonny Rose Ranch, a forty-acre apiary south of Pittsburgh.
For our Silver Award project, fellow Girl Scout Lena Fritsch and I decided to build pollinator houses - dwellings for the local pollinators like mason bees to lay their eggs in or simply get out of the rain. We placed them in our local community garden to combat the habitat loss bees and other pollinators are facing because of the redevelopment of urban forests in the Hazelwood area. But Silver Award guidelines require an educational component, so we interviewed beekeeper Chris Vario about protecting pollinators.
Q: Why are bees important to Hazelwood?
A: Bees are undoubtedly the prime pollinators for any community, especially if they have a lot of gardens, like Hazelwood, or grow large-scale crops like blueberries or almond trees.
Q: What should people plant in their gardens to support local pollinators?
A: Any wildflower mix. Black-eyed Susans, bee balm and several species of mint are bee-friendly plants. Clover and dandelions are also great nectar sources for bees and occur naturally in most people’s yards. Other plants, like autumn olive, milkweed, wild blackberry bushes and fruit trees , work as well.
Q: Should you put a pollinator hotel in your yard?
A: Putting an insect hotel in your yard is a great idea, but it’s important to educate your neighbors. The bees are just doing their pollination thing and won’t bother humans unless someone is flailing about near them. It makes the bees nervous, so they’ll have a higher chance of stinging. Even then, the bees are trying to protect themselves and their hives; generally, they’re pretty docile.
Q: Why do bees swarm?
A: Bees swarm, mostly in the springtime, for several different reasons. One, bees reproduce their hive every year to ensure they don’t die out if one hive doesn’t make it. Two, they could be swarming because the hive is crowded. In the spring, the bees are at their busiest. The workers are bringing in a lot of nectar, and the queen is laying over fifteen-hundred eggs a day. So, the queen will take 40-60% of the hive with her to swarm off to a new location where they have more space. The colony the queen left behind will raise a new queen from her eggs, so the cycle continues. Lastly, bees swarm if the hive becomes infested with pests, like mites, or if a bear gets into the hive. In this case, the bees swarm off to find another location. When they swarm, the bees will usually find a branch to settle down on before they start building their new hive.
Q: What should you do if you encounter a swarm of bees?
A: Call a beekeeper in your area, who can come and safely relocate the swarm to an apiary, which is essentially a bee farm, like the one I have. Once the bees are in a hive, they’ll continue to grow their colony. If you don’t know a beekeeper, you can always look one up by searching, “beekeepers near me.”
Q: How did you get interested in bees, and what inspired you to start Sonny Rose Ranch?
A: I’ve been interested in bees since I was about ten years old. But several years ago, I had knee surgery and my physical therapist had local honey for sale on his counter. I bought some and asked where he got it. He said one of his other patients was a beekeeper. My physical therapist introduced us, and the beekeeper became my mentor. Then I took classes on apiculture - the study of honeybees - through the Penn State extension program. I joined a couple of beekeeping groups and got my first two hives, which quickly turned into eight hives. Now I have over fifty in peak bee season. If you want to start keeping honeybees, you can get a beehive and a license. If you’re not looking to go into the honey business, but still want to support the bees in our area, consider taking in some mason bees, another essential pollinator in our area, next time one of your neighbors buys a mason bee pollinator house thinking it’s a garden decoration. Trust me, it happens more than you’d think.
Q: What products do you sell, and where can people buy them?
A: I sell seasonal local honey, like Japanese Knotweed honey in the fall, and wildflower honey in the spring and summer. My best seller is Hot Honey, a wildflower honey infused with dried chili and habanero peppers. It’s good on everything from hot wings to ice cream. Another favorite is spun honey, which is crystallized, ground honey the consistency of peanut butter. I also sell spun honey infused with organic dried blueberry powder. You can find those on the shelves of Dylamato’s Market in Hazelwood.
This interview was lightly edited for length and clarity. For more information about Sonny Rose Ranch, visit https://www.sonnyroseranch.com or call 412-477-8983.
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