A request from a dedicated gardener and volunteer is creating quite a buzz in Lancaster.
Betsy Moll wants to keep honey bees in her backyard.
Moll hopes the bees will help pollinate her milkweeds, cornflowers and black-eyed Susans, and she believes keeping bees is a boon to the natural world, so she’s asked the Village Board for permission to install a hive.
“Everyone says you can’t just have one hive,” said Moll, who already keeps bees at a summer cottage in Wyoming County.
Village law doesn’t put any obstacles in Moll’s path, though the Village Board has set a public hearing for Monday to give residents a chance to comment.
One neighbor has warned Moll she is severely allergic to bee stings, but people who keep bees say the hobby, if done properly, is safe and generally poses little threat to others.
These hobbyists say urban beekeeping should be encouraged, because honey bees are a key part of the food chain but they are dying off in mysteriously large numbers.
“Keeping bees is a really, really easy way to do your part to help the environment,” said Philip Barr, who removes bee swarms, has taught beekeeping classes and informally consults with rookie beekeepers.
Hobby beekeeping appears to be gaining in popularity, with associations formed in Western New York and Ontario, among other communities, and experts teaching classes on beekeeping to curious beginners.
The White House has a hive, and a team of University at Buffalo architecture students created a hexagon-shaped, stainless-steel tower in Buffalo’s Silo City section to house a colony of apian squatters.
Some beekeepers take up the hobby to produce homegrown honey, while others want to do their part to help offset the widespread death of honey bees due to disease, parasites and the little-understood colony collapse disorder.
“Honey bees are under attack on many fronts,” said Marc Potzler, training director for Buffalo Exterminating, who studied entomology in college and started keeping bees this summer because he wanted to produce homemade mead, also known as honey wine.
Moll, 70, inspired by a beekeeping son-in-law, has kept bees for 1½ years at her cottage on Java Lake. She now wants to set up a hive at the 1860s home on Broadway that she and her husband, Bob Thill, the retired town clerk, carefully restored.
“I’m not doing it for the honey. I’m doing it for the pollination that takes place as a result,” said Moll, retired from Erie 1 BOCES’ Western New York Regional Information Center.
She first thought about keeping bees at her Lancaster home in 2010, and that fall she sent out a letter announcing her intentions to all of her neighbors. After one allergic neighbor strongly objected, Moll backed off and turned to her cottage.
Based on her positive experiences there – Moll got four quarts of honey this year – she decided to resurrect the idea of keeping bees in Lancaster.
Moll plans to use a Langstroth hive, perhaps the most popular hive design, which has wooden boxes, or hive bodies, stacked one on top of the other with room for frames that hang down from each box like files.
Hives have an opening for the bees to come in and out, and the bees build their honeycomb into the frames. They are easily removed by the keeper, who uses a smoker to calm the bees when their hive is disturbed.
“Smoke is like a lion tamer’s whip,” said Frank Kamysz, a veteran keeper in Cowlesville who has 35 hives at sites in Wyoming County and has helped Moll.
Would-be beekeepers can order their honey bees online. Three pounds, with a queen, cost between $100 and $125.
“It’s more expensive than lobster,” said Kamysz.
Keys for safe beekeeping include facing the hive entry and exit point toward your yard, not your neighbors’ yards; putting the hive in an out-of-the-way location; and setting the hive near a fence, screen or other natural obstruction that forces the bees to fly more than six feet off the ground and away from people.
Barr said there’s nothing better than sitting outside in the summer, sipping a cold drink and listening to the sound of a beehive.
“It’s a very Zen experience. It’s like a lullaby,” he said.
Bees aren’t aggressive, the keepers said.
“They’re not really interested in people – they’re interested in nectar,” said Moll, who has been stung twice in two summers, both times when she accidentally grasped a bee.
Honey bees die soon after stinging, while wasps and yellow jackets can sting again and again.
“Most commonly, when people get stung by something small and yellow and black, it’s a wasp, a yellow jacket,” said Barr, who moved a bee colony into the Silo City waterfront tower.
The Lancaster village code doesn’t bar beekeeping, said Arthur A. Herdzik, who has served as the village attorney since the mid-1980s. He said no one else has made this request during his tenure with the village.
A prospective beekeeper must get permission from the Village Board and must send letters of intent to anyone who lives within 300 feet of the future hive, which Moll did last month.
“This time, I had a little bit more reaction,” she said. “I had a couple of people call me and say, 'Go for it.’ ”
The code doesn’t require a hearing, but Moll understands why the board took this step.
“They’re open to criticism, no matter what they do,” she said.
Barr, Potzler and other experts say there is always a risk with beekeeping, particularly for someone who is allergic to bee stings, but problems are rare enough that they support Moll and any other hobbyists.
“If done properly, it poses no threat to the public whatsoever,” Kamysz said, adding, “Honey bees and man have coexisted for thousands of years.”