Brothers Joel and Jeff Eckel are always on the lookout for something that would send most folks running the other direction: a seething glob of crawling, humming honeybees, swarming to look for a new home.
On one occasion, Jeff -- one half of Germantown's We Bee Brothers
-- got a call from a Kensington homeowner who saw a swarm of honeybees in a small tree, about eight feet off the ground.
Pleased at the prospect of such an easy catch for a new hive, Jeff drove over immediately. By the time he arrived, the bees had already flown away.
"That's kind of heartbreaking, when you get there and they're already gone," he says. But as he was driving out of the neighborhood, he happened to look up when he came to a stop sign, and there was the swarm…resting in a 40-foot tree.
Jeff is a tenacious beekeeper, and honeybees are an increasingly precious resource, as the U.S. loses a significant percentage of its hives to the mysterious ravages of colony collapse disorder. (Just this week, The New York Times reported on another huge die-off
.) Jeff parked his car and strolled the block, trying to think of a way he could bring the swarm home to an empty hive.
He turned a corner and noticed a trio of bucket-trucks working on a power line.
"Sure, no problem," said a friendly operator when Jeff explained his mission. Jeff already knew how to operate a forklift from his work at a beer distributor, so after a successful crash course in the bucket truck's controls, up he went with his bee box and veil.
"Bees are flying around, it's kinda crazy," recalls Jeff. "People are coming out in the street and looking at it. Seems like quite a sight, I guess."
Joel promises that while a honeybee swarm might look frightening, without a hive to defend, they are not likely to sting. Plus, they've just had a Thanksgiving-sized dinner of all the honey they could hold before flying away, so they're plump and drowsy.
"I've definitely stuck my bare hand inside a swarm and not gotten stung," he explains.
A second-grade teacher at William Penn Charter School, Joel founded We Bee Brothers with Jeff after receiving his first hives in 2007, just as Colony Collapse Disorder was beginning to make headlines and drive the urban beekeeping trend.
Now, in addition to capturing wayward colonies, the Glenside-born brothers maintain about thirty hives throughout Germantown (including a colony at the historic Wyck House
), act as a resource for others interested in beekeeping and sell customized batches of local raw honey.
Part of Joel's personal mission is educating people on the myriad varieties of honey and its uses.
He explains that every hive's honey has a unique taste depending on what time of year it's harvested and what kind of flowers the bees alighting on. Honey can be naturally flavored by buckwheat, alfalfa, wildflowers or orange blossoms -- or Philadelphia's linden and tulip poplar trees. Joel also enjoys infusing gathered honey with herbs like thyme, rosemary, lavender and mint.
We Bee Brothers offers occasional tastings that incorporate Philadelphia-area honeys alongside national and international samples. In Joel's experience, honey from Germantown definitely stacks up.
"Oftentimes people comment on how much they enjoy the ones from Germantown, not knowing beforehand that it's from Germantown," he says.
Joel explains that the area is a great place for bees, and not just because many environmentally-conscious residents are supportive of hives' role in the local ecosystem.
The trees of the Wissahickon are a short flight away (bees can fly up to a few miles from the hive in search of nectar and pollen), and bees in the modern urban environment often fare better than their rural counterparts.
"Bees have a lot of stuff going against them, including the [practice] of monoculture," says Joel. "They're not made to subsist on one pollen or one nectar…they need a varied diet."
Massive field planted with only one crop don't support this. By contrast, the urban polyculture of parks, trees, windowsills and garden boxes are perfect for honeybees, who can live happily in backyard or rooftop hives while different trees and plants bloom throughout the year.
And urban bees are often less troubled by pesticides -- a possible culprit in Colony Collapse Disorder -- than their suburban or rural counterparts, who contend with widespread lawn and agricultural pesticides.
"We definitely have lost some hives to pesticides," says Joel. He asks people to remember that if you spray a weed with chemicals while it's flowering, "the bees feed off it and it bring back to the hive and die."
The local landscape – including nearby Weavers Way farm and Awbury Arboretum -- isn't the only reason bees thrive in Germantown. Beekeeping is a local tradition.
Properties like Wyck House and Grumblethorpe "want hives for educational purposes," Joel notes, and it's "historically accurate, because in those days most homes had hives, so the Germantown area is really good for us that way."
We Bee Brothers has been maintaining hives in the Wyck House gardens since 2008. Wyck horticulturalist Elizabeth Belk recently welcomed Flying Kite for a visit, as the early March sun melted the last traces of a small snowstorm.
The resident chickens stretched in the dirt like ecstatic sunbathers and the hive's entrance teemed with bees enjoying the spring-like day.
The Wyck bees have a lot to look forward to. Belk pointed out the Anise Hyssop plant just a few feet from the hive (it's a favorite of the bees for its long-lasting flowers) and the site's large holly trees (whose blooms the bees prize). Belk also described the glories of Wyck's rose garden, the oldest original rose garden in America, dating from the late 1600s.
Belk has a special love for the ultra-fragrant, multi-colored blooms of Wyck's old-fashioned rose varieties. With a floral industry that values consistent coloring, long-lasting buds and strong stems over scent, today's most common varieties often lack the strong fragrance bees need as their guide.
"The bees are crazy in here in the summer," says Belk of Wyck's 80 rose plants. The blooms lend their flavor to the Wyck honey.
For his part, Jeff is anxious to educate people who are dismayed when a swarm alights in their trees or when a honeybee colony takes up residence in the walls of their house.
"A lot of people don't know that federal law prevents you from exterminating honeybees [even if they're living in your house]", explains Jeff. So homeowners who call an exterminator to rout the colony get charged for the visit, but learn that, by law, the exterminator can't help.
Fortunately, there is usually somebody a phone call away who would be thrilled to remove the bees without harming them.
"Know your local beekeeper," says Jeff.
ALAINA MABASO, a Philadelphia-based freelance journalist, has landed squarely in what people tell her is the worst possible career of the twenty-first century. So she makes Pennsylvania her classroom, covering everything from business to theater to toad migrations. After her editors go to bed, she blogs at http://alainamabaso.wordpress.com/. Find her on Twitter @AlainaMabaso.
All photographs by MICHAEL PERSICO