The world’s honeybees have had a rough few years, with die-offs caused by pesticides and a devastating parasite. A Loudoun-based nonprofit is doing its part to help by propagating healthy bees and teaching new beekeepers best practices. The Sustainable Honeybee Program operates out of a barn in northwest Loudoun with two apiaries near the tiny community of Neersville.
“We make bees here—not honey,” said Parks Talley, a SHP leader who runs his own hives in Alexandria. “We keep our bees in a completely different manner than the classes teach you, than the commercial beekeepers do. … We teach people how to keep bees in a stress-free environment—for you and the bees.”
SHP volunteers are advocates of what’s known in the beekeeping community the “warm way,” where frames are parallel to the entrance of the hive, in contrast with standard frames with frames perpendicular to the entrance, known as the “cold way.” SHP also specializes in small five-frame nucleus hives at their Between the Hills apiary. The approach lets them show students the bees’ life cycles and brooding practices in a condensed timeframe.
”Things happen much quicker [with nucleus hives]. … You can let [new beekeepers] see in a few weeks stuff that would take months to see in eight-frame hives,” Talley said.
SHP also works to breed healthy bees, free from the varroa mite that has devastated hives around the world. The nonprofit battles the parasites with an organic gel application in August and another treatment in the winter. SHP also controls mites by splitting healthy hives and allowing the new hives to create a new queen. Their apiaries are acing state inspections with impressively low numbers of mites. SHP sells healthy, climate-adapted bee strains to area keepers and offers workshops and presentations to beekeeping groups on sustainable practices.
Loudoun’s Sustainable Honeybee Program was launched in 2003 by the beloved bee guru Billy Davis, who became a legend on the Loudoun beekeeping scene. Davis, who grew up on a family farm in Mississippi, was a teacher and attorney who rekindled his passion for beekeeping when he moved to Leesburg in the 1980s. Davis dedicated the last 15 years of his life to breeding parasite-resistant honeybee strains. But when Davis died in 2018, SHP went through a tumultuous few years. Shortly after Davis’s death, the group also lost its longtime home on a farm near Purcellville when the property’s owner died. But new leaders, including Talley and Richard Whitlow stepped up, and the group found their new space near Neersville.
SHP has a dedicated team of volunteers, attracted by opportunities to hands-on learning. One of the group’s guiding principles is a focus on the bees themselves instead of producing honey.
“You learn how to pay attention and be observant. That’s one of the things that’s very important to being a beekeeper,” Talley said.
Whitlow joined the group in 2011 when his wife gave him a hive and lessons from Davis and another Loudoun beekeeping legend Bill Bundy as a Christmas gift. For Whitlow, it’s always been about propagating healthy pollinators rather than making honey. He took honey from his home hives in Great Falls for the first time this year after keeping bees for more than a decade.
“It’s my opportunity to give back to the earth,” Whitlow said. “I’m not about the honey. I’m about the bees. I want to be part of the creation and continuation.”
On a recent Monday, Whitlow gently removed frames from the nonprofit’s nucleus hives (SHP volunteers gather weekly every Monday for work sessions) to show visitors the group’s “warm way” set-up. Whitlow said it’s essential to use all senses when interacting with the bees to keep both bees and beekeepers calm.
“I pay attention to the noise as well as my eyes. You can smell the bees when they get really angry,” Whitlow said.
SHP’s approach is gaining a reputation around the region. Volunteers drive for hours from around the DMV and beyond to learn and get hands-on experience from experts on sustainable apiculture. Now the group is ramping up fundraising and seeking more Loudoun volunteers.
“The more people that are participating in what we need to have done, the more that gets done and the more that we can do.” Talley said.
To learn more about the Sustainable Honeybee Program, make a donation or volunteer, go to sustainablebees.org. Prospective volunteers can also email [email protected] to get started. Honeybee enthusiasts can check out informative videos about sustainable beekeeping practices at Parks Talley’s popular YouTube channel.