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The business of bees: Renewed interest in an ancient practice has Central Kitsap residents buzzing

David Mackovjak checks a frame from a bee hive for the queen Friday in Silverdale. Local beekeepers say there is renewed interest in tending to bees as people become more interested in controlling how food arrives on their dinner tables. - Christopher Carter/staff photo
David Mackovjak checks a frame from a bee hive for the queen Friday in Silverdale. Local beekeepers say there is renewed interest in tending to bees as people become more interested in controlling how food arrives on their dinner tables.
— image credit: Christopher Carter/staff photo

Jim Dunbar takes the lid off a hive in search of the queen bee Friday, one among the buzzing thousands. David Mackovjak sprays campfire-scented smoke to dull the bees' senses. Meanwhile, Dunbar delicately pulls the frames out one at a time from inside the box. Eventually he spots her, the queen is there and she's busy.

"Move slow and you won't get stung," Dunbar said.

It's not time to harvest honey yet, but Dunbar and Mackovjak now know the hive is productive and will hopefully produce somewhere between 30 and 60 pounds of honey in the next few months. The thousands of bees flying around the two beekeepers as they place the frame carefully back in the box will also help pollinate local gardens.

For some it's a hobby, for others a way to ensure the health of their gardens. And yet, as the practice of keeping bees gains popularity in Kitsap, it's a way for people to control their food and protect the environment.

Paul Lundy, the 2009 state Beekeeper's Association beekeeper of the year, keeps bees at his home in Kingston and said he sees more and more people picking up the trade because of these benefits. Like some residents of Bremerton have begun pushing for new rules to allow them to keep chickens in their backyards, the movement to keep and use bees is a sign of a boon in micro agriculture.

"They want control, they are tired of the stuff they get in the store that is highly processed and the trust of industrial agriculture has been waning," he said.

Then, there are others like Dunbar who simply find pleasure in working with the swarming critters.

"It's cool as hell, man," Dunbar said.

Even the First Family has taken up the hobby. The Obamas had a beehive installed on the South Lawn at the White House earlier this month.

It was standing room only in the Stedman gift shop March 16 when nearly 40 people packed in for the association's beginners class on beekeeping equipment.

Every year, the association takes would-be beekeepers through training before they get their bees.

In April, a truck will arrive from California with the students' bee kits. For about $75 they get three pounds of bees, one queen bee and a box to keep them in.

David Mackovjak began keeping bees in 2005 after retiring from the U.S. Navy.

Although he has been tending hives for only five years, Mackovjak's interest piqued two decades earlier in 1990. It was then, as a graduate student between semesters at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Mackovjak signed up for a beekeeping class taught by one of his engineering professors.

"I said, 'How cool is that?'"

Mackovjak has had bees on the brain ever since, and not just for the honey.

"As an engineer, I just think it's very interesting you have an organization like bees that have a social class structure and in that structure, everyone has a set of duties from the time their born to the time they die," he said.

Mackovjak keeps six hives in his backyard in the Olympic View area of Silverdale.

After an unusual warm stretch in February which was followed by substantially colder weather, a third of Mackovjak's bees died, leaving him with only four functioning hives. Still, each of those hives can house up 50,000 bees, he said.

As a newcomer to beekeeping, Aaron Lance of Purdy said he isn't sure what to expect out of his new hobby but said keeping bees looked interesting.

"It's the curiosity that stung me," he said.

Lance, 38, said although his wife is allergic to bees, beekeeping will be an interesting venture for him.

"This is going to be really fun," he said.

For those like Lance who are picking up the hobby for the first time, Dunbar said it can be a rough start.

"It can be so discouraging," he said, adding that the first time he tried beekeeping his two hives died.

Regardless, the beginner classes are filling up.

Mackovjak said in the last two years, the classes have been standing room only, doubling in numbers from when he started five years ago.

They come from all walks of life and he credits the growing interest to greater awareness of the importance of honey bees after they began dying off as part of the mystery scientists call colony collapse disorder.

Then there's also general curiosity.

"The folks that are taking the class are a great cross section of America," he said.

Paul Stedman said he sees more boxes shipped out of his warehouse. Paul runs the bee supplies part of the business and is the step-son of founder Al Stedman.

"In the last couple years it has really grown," he said.

Barbara Stedman, the Silverdale business's current owner and operator, said sales of honey haven't seen the same kind of dip evident in other areas of retail and food.

"People are health conscious," she said.

She said that local businesses like Silver City Restaurant and Brewery in Silverdale and Farmer George in Port Orchard buy her honey and the owners of Helen's Health Foods, a Kitsap landmark before closing in 2009, often purchased honey from her.

While Stedman Bee Supplies has been running without a problem for more than 40 years, beekeeping can be a sticky issue for those living in urban settings. However, major urban areas have recently changed their stance on the subject favoring the keeping of bees for the natural and sustainable benefits.

The New York City legalized beekeeping earlier this month and in Pierce County, some cities like Gig Harbor have specific ordinances dedicated to beekeeping, clarifying policies and restrictions.

Kitsap County beekeepers don't have much to worry about, unless they live in Bremerton.

However, as Bremerton citizens continue to cluck for their right to raise chickens, keeping bees has flown under the City Council's radar.

The city's municipal code does not specifically mention bees, but does prohibit "any venomous/poisonous creature."

The city has not heard any complaints about bees or those raising them, said Janet Lunceford, code enforcement officer with the city's department of community planning. She said because of the general wording of the code, beekeepers could have some leeway should a complaint arise.

"It's not very specific. It's open to interpretation," she said.

Bremerton City Councilman Roy Runyon said the code as it stands now may allow for beekeeping.

"Maybe it's a non-issue, I don't know," he said. "It's more ambiguous on bees than it would be on chickens at this point."

Chief Jon Teer with the Kitsap Humane Society's Animal Control department said he recalled having only heard of one complaint and it was in Bremerton. He said the complaint was passed on to the Bremerton Police Department for consideration since the code does not specifically prohibit keeping bees.

Lundy said he recommends talking with neighbors and letting them know why there are wood boxes full of bees next to their yard.

"You'll find that beekeepers are fairly respectful of their neighbors. They understand it's not a hobby for everybody," he said, adding that sometimes it helps to be sweet. "A jar of honey goes a long way in being nice to your neighbors."

When Lundy lived in Seattle before moving to Kingston, he used to give out jars of honey as a way of keeping an amiable relationship with their neighbors.

"You have to become a little bit more respectful when you can look over a neighbor's fence and pet their dog," he said.

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