A bee superhighway whizzes around Liz Lindsey's Chapel Hill yard. Between their frequent pollen runs, about 100,000 Italian honeybees take shelter inside six cedar pagodas, where they cool by flapping their tiny wings.
Lindsey, a 38-year-old folklorist who lives in the Glen Lennox neighborhood, is part of a new generation of beekeepers: younger, female and urban. As Lewis Cauble, president of the Orange County Beekeepers Association said, the familiar joke that the average beekeeper's age is "between 57 and dead" no longer applies. Hipsters, college students and middle-aged couples have begun to adopt a pastime once practiced by the ancient Egyptians and other cultures.
Cauble said that women make up almost 65 percent of the association's membership, and many of them are younger than 40—veritable youngsters compared with the aging, largely white male beekeeping community. While North Carolina has the largest state beekeeping association in the country, and perhaps 13,000 keepers, it's estimated that male keepers outnumber female ones 2-to-1. Beekeeper and entomologist Juliana Rangel attributes that gap partly to the physical nature of beekeeping, which requires heavy lifting. But that gap is closing.
Lindsey has been keeping bees since 2007 and has become an evangelist for the flying insects. She has done presentations for her homeowners association, in which she points out that most people live close to bee colonies, without problems.
"Through bees, I really made friends with my neighbors and I became known as the 'girl with the bees,'" Lindsey says. "Now that people know there are bees in the neighborhood, they ask what type of fertilizer they can use and what flowers they like. We're even talking about planting buckwheat in the easement for the bees, and the neighbors behind me started keeping bees, too."
Some cities ban beekeeping within their limits; Durham revised its city code and ordinances to permit beekeeping in 2009. Other municipalities, such as Carrboro, do not specifically regulate the apiary arts.
Lindsey grew up in rural Tennessee, and her great-uncle kept bees. "Keeping bees brought me back to my love of science, when, like so many girls, it disappeared" in her 'tween years, she says. She suspects she was also influenced by a Sesame Street segment, in which a woman beekeeper demonstrates how to use a smoker to work her hives. (Smoke temporarily disrupts bees' collective chemical communication system, keeping them calm and their human stewards safe.)
She muses that young women might have a special interest in bees' female-dominated culture. The queen, contrary to popular belief, doesn't just laze about being fed royal jelly; she maintains a demanding reproductive schedule, laying eggs constantly. Female workers, the majority of hive occupants, gather pollen, tend the future bees-to-be and literally work themselves to death in a matter of six weeks during the busiest season. The drones—the only males in the hive, who number in the hundreds—mate with the queen and have an even shorter lifespan.
Bee behavior intrigued Rangel, 31, the N.C. State postdoctoral researcher who coordinates the "Born and Bred in North Carolina" program that teaches Tar Heel beekeepers how to raise queen bees.
"If you sit closely in front of a colony, you begin to appreciate how incredibly diverse and organized bees are," she said. Beyond their specialized and sex-specific work regimen, Rangel said, honeybees of similar age band together and perform tasks like building new comb and defending the colony. Bees also do the "waggle dance," which tells hive mates about where to find pollen, nectar or water. All this from a creature with a brain about the size of a sesame seed.
Yet those small bodies that pollinate crops are the cornerstone of agricultural production. When American and European bees started disappearing due to colony collapse disorder in late 2006, Cauble saw the "silver lining: that it brought new people out of the woodwork" to beekeeping.
Durham journalist Jamie Kennedy, 21, agreed. "One day, I'd like to do sustainable farming. At the very least, I'd like a small orchard, some hens and vegetables, and I know that bees are crucial to having fruit trees and vegetables," she says. "I don't have land yet, but I thought this was one skill I could master now. When I went on the farm tour this spring, I had my eyes peeled for hives, and most of the farms have them. I probably wouldn't have gotten into beekeeping just for the farming. Knowing that bees are in danger definitely drove me."
After taking a beekeeping course in Alamance County, Kennedy started two hives at Two Chicks Farm in Hillsborough. But she ran into trouble when her smaller hive started making new queen cells, signaling a problem with the hive matriarch. Eventually, in August, she opened the hive to silence—no bees and no honey.
"Bees still do things we don't understand," she said ruefully. "One of my teachers doesn't think that all of [the bees] would have gone to the stronger hive, the other teacher says he thinks they could have. I was prepared I might [lose a hive], and it was sad ... But my favorite thing is to see the bees land with big, colorful collections of pollen on their back legs."
Cauble, who is 45, keeps some 35 hives. She says beekeeping involves a steep learning curve. Setbacks such as colonizing moths, parasitic mites and disease challenge the most determined and experienced beekeepers.
"It's not something you can learn in a year," he said. "It's important for people to understand that going to beekeeper school doesn't mean you're a beekeeper. For me, beekeeping is very personal. There's a lot of different ways to get to the same place. The issue isn't just whether we get new people. It's about the average life span of a beekeeper. The average used to be that they stayed for seven years. Now it's down to four."
Jennifer Kiefer Soliman, a 32-year-old nonprofit worker who lives in Carrboro, caught the bee bug when she attended the bee association's 15-week beekeeping school this spring. She went with a mother who brought her middle school-age daughter and visited a local kindergarten class to talk about their friends, the bees.
"It's amazing what the little kids knew and to think about people passing it on to their children," she said. "I don't know if beekeeping is the hip thing to do, and if it won't be any more in a year. But once you learn, it's not a fad. Hopefully, it's not going to stop with these young women right here, right now."