Above: Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul has been fascinated by bees since he was a teen. Photo courtesy of Rusty Paul.

“I feel like Gulliver when I’m interacting with a bee hive,” laughed Linda Tillman, 69. “It’s an incredible environment — like a tiny civilization.”

Linda Tillman, Ph.D. in psychology and president of the Georgia Beekeepers Association, has thousands of bees in her backyard.
Photo courtesy of Linda Tillman

The president of the Georgia Beekeepers Association, Tillman maintains two hives at her home in the Virginia-Highland section of Atlanta, two more in a community garden nearby, another pair atop the roof of Springdale Park Elementary School, and she manages a bee colony behind a bed-and-breakfast in Midtown.

A retired clinical psychologist, she took up the hobby in 2006 after hearing a beekeeper on a home-and-garden radio program. Intrigued, she enrolled in a one-day short course offered by the Metropolitan Atlanta Beekeepers Association. Before the day was over, “I had ordered bees and equipment and was rearing to go!”

Once confined to countryside farms, beekeeping as a hobby has been surging in urban and suburban areas for more than a decade. Its popularity is one aspect of a wider concern about environmental sustainability, specifically the sharp decline in bee populations.

Nearly a third of all food produced in the U.S. is the direct result of pollination by insects, particularly honeybees. A diminishing bee population heralds adverse effects on agriculture — everything from large farms to neighborhood gardens and flower beds.

One important consideration in keeping bees in the city versus the country is “having respect for the space that the bees need,” Tillman noted. “I have a postage-stamp-size back yard, so I would never have more than four hives — and even that would be pushing the limit — because bees have to have enough of their own space for foraging and collecting nectar.”           Access to a water supply is also critical, she added, and a prospective beekeeper should be considerate of neighbors and not place hives where they might be a nuisance to others.

That bees produce honey sweetens the hobby. A hive may yield between 20 to 60 pounds or more a year, depending on factors such as location, weather, local flora and temperature.

“I make sure I leave enough honey in the hive so the bees can make it through the winter,” she said. “The rest I put in bottles to sell or give away.”

Beekeeping also provides her with a peaceful respite from everyday life.

“I’m a very fast-moving person and have lots of projects going at the same time,” Tillman explained. “But the only way to work in a bee hive is to move very slowly and respectfully, and that’s lovely. It’s a good thing.”

One of the first questions she’s asked is: How many times have you been stung?

“I don’t keep count,” Tillman responded. “When I started keeping bees and would get stung on my arm, say, it would swell up. Over time, I’ve developed an immunity so that when I get stung now, 20 minutes later I can’t tell you where I was stung.”

She doesn’t wear gloves when tending to the hive. As a consequence, she gets stung more often than some suited-up beekeepers, but it’s still not a frequent occurrence, she said.

“I like to take lots of pictures for my blog, and you want to have your fingers free to do that. It’s also much easier to manage the beehive when you can actually feel what’s going on, and I like the way it feels when the bees walk on my hands.”

Rusty Paul has kept hives at Lost Corners, a city park in Sandy Springs, and a family farm in Alabama. Photo courtesy of Rusty Paul.

Rusty Paul traces his passion for honeybees back to when he was 15 years old.

“My dad bought five hives from a man who was retiring from the bee business,” said Paul, 65, who is serving his second term as mayor of Sandy Springs. Tending to the bees became one of his regular household chores, and he got hooked.

“Bees are fascinating animals and amazing workers,” said Paul, noting that bees must visit about a million flowers to make one pound of honey.

“Their social structure is not unique in the insect world, but it is uncommon. The hierarchical nature of the colony from queen to worker to drone is a great management study. The migration of duties among workers over their fairly short lives — from nurses to emerging bees to soldiers protecting the colony to foragers — over a matter of days shows their flexibility and adaptability. Every time I open a colony I learn something new, even after all these years.”

He loves the honey, too.

“My wife uses it in tea and cooking,” he said. “I’m a honey-with-my-biscuit guy, and the rest we share with family and friends.

“My goal,” Paul joked, “is to build up enough hives to sell some honey to supplement my income in my retirement years!”

Paul has kept eight hives in recent years: two at the Sandy Springs city park and conservation center known as Lost Corners, and six at his family farm in north Alabama.

Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) has afflicted all the hives except one at the farm, but Paul isn’t giving up and has ordered replacement bees.

Professor Keith Delaplane, Ph.D., is director of the University of Georgia’s Honey Bee program.
Photo courtesy of Keith Delaplane

The disorder has received a lot of attention in the popular press. It’s not a specific disease, but a phenomenon that occurs when most of a hive’s worker bees disappear for an as-yet unknown reason, leaving behind the queen and a few nurse bees. Although bee populations have been declining since the 1940s, an acceleration of this trend in recent years has been labeled CCD.

“The bee problem may be a ‘canary in the coal mine’ syndrome that should be alerting us to larger scale environmental problems,” said Keith Delaplane, Ph.D., a professor of entomology and director of the Honey Bee Program at the University of Georgia.

It’s not necessary to become a beekeeper to support local bee populations, according to Paul. “Do a little research and learn what native flowering trees and flowers in your area support honeybees, and plant as many as you can.

“And not just spring bloomers,” he added. “Bees need to gather food from early spring until frost. That requires a diverse flora in their forage area to prevent starvation.”

Get the Buzz on Honeybees

Online resources about bees and beekeeping include:

The Georgia Beekeepers Association

The Metro Atlanta Beekeepers Association

Linda Tillman’s blog

Keith Delaplane’s website: caes.uga.edu, click on Departments, scroll to Entomology; click on Research, scroll to Honey Bee Program.

Delaplane noted, “Urban Beekeeping is on our program for this year’s University of Georgia Beekeeping Institute, the largest beekeeping educational event in the Southeast.” It will be held in May at Young Harris College.

For details, visit Delaplane’s website and click on ‘Young Harris College – University of Georgia Beekeeping Institute.’

Gary Goettling is an Atlanta-based freelance writer.