I first met Terry Ellard while getting on a plane headed to Lesotho, where we had all committed to serving two years as Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs). Terry was headed for his second round as a PCV – having served several decades earlier, during the early, and arguably more hard-core days of the program. We connected because we both like agriculture – and bees. Terry has been a beekeeper longer than I have been alive and it is always great to visit with him. He even helped me out when visiting us at our volunteer site in Lesotho, by imparting some of the more advanced technical skills to the members of the beekeeping cooperative I was working with.
While we were over on the “West Side” a few weeks ago, we stopped in to visit him and his lovely wife and got to meet their daughter and grandson. Even with their small lot in an adorable Seattle neighborhood – Terry is still keeping bees. And, knowing my interest in beekeeping, he opened up a hive for me and we got to check it out. However, one of the coolest things about Terry’s Seattle bees is his indoor educational, display hive. With hive frames in a glass enclosure and an entrance port directly through the window – even Terry is able to learn more every day about bee activity just by watching what happens in the hive.
Beekeeping laws in Seattle stipulate that an individual lot can have no more than 4 hives and they cannot be less than 25 feet from any property boundary – unless, the hives are more than 8 feet above the ground. This is what Terry does. Along with his patio table and lovely container garden, he has two brightly colored and highly legitimate beehives. He did say that his neighbors made a few comments when he first set up the hives, but through some polite and educational conversations about honey bees (with the assistance of his indoor demo hive!) they all seem to be happily living side by side despite the close quarters. Another testament to how low-key the bees can be is when we arrived, Terry and his family had just finished hosting a birthday party for his grandson. Even with a whole bunch of young children running around, having a great time – no bees or people were harmed during the party. Though, they did have an epi-pen on hand just in case!
Aside from navigating the legislation and the neighbors, the principles of urban beekeeping are the same as keeping bees under other conditions. Terry did a hive inspection while I was there, you can follow along with it in the photos.
He wore his bee veil (he’s very gentle and his bees are pretty docile – so he often foregoes the full suit and gloves for a hive inspection) and used a few puffs into the entrance and top of the hive with his bee smoker to distract the bees before he gently digs in. He used his hive tool to gently pry off the lid and detach a frame to look at. As he inspects the frame, he is looking for anything out of the ordinary, which I think is a sense you mostly get with experience. In this case, the queen seems to be doing her job and there were cells filled with eggs, larvae and pupae. We even saw some drone, or male bee, cells. Development from egg to adult takes 21 days. Seeing all of the stages represented during a hive inspection means that the queen is alive, well, and doing her job, even if she is not seen while the hive is open. It is important to keep an eye out for her while working in the hive and be especially careful that she does not get squished!
In Terry’s hive, there were lots of worker bees, collecting pollen, making honey, and capping cells, which is also a good sign. We did see that the workers had made a queen cell, distinguished by its funny, Peanut-like shape, and there was an egg inside! This was a curious find, as it can signify either that the bees are getting ready to swarm because their hive is too full, or that they think the queen is doing a bad job and want to replace her. In either case there would usually be more than just one. Another great thing we found inside Terry’s beehive was some delicious light, spring honey and he removed just a little bit to share with his grandson, who he really enjoys teaching about the bees. Terry says, “the thing about keeping bees in the city is they are an intimate connection to the natural world. Gardens are great, but with bees, especially in an observation hive, it’s even better.”
There are so many great resources about pollinators and honeybees here in the Palouse-Clearwater region and beekeeping in general – please find a few below, and please share more info or your thoughts on urban bees in the comments!
Always with gratitude- especially to Shane McFarland for helping to clean up the messes I make!
Beekeeping laws in Seattle:
WSU Entomology Department also likes to talk about bees:
Rural Roots does some great pollinator-focused works – check them out for great presentations too: