Magazine article Parks & Recreation

A Sweet Job: Volunteer's Passion for Bees Keeps Them Alive at a Virginia Park

Magazine article Parks & Recreation

A Sweet Job: Volunteer's Passion for Bees Keeps Them Alive at a Virginia Park

Article excerpt

After more than 20 years of working with bees--first as a naturalist and now as a volunteer with the Fairfax County Park Authority in Virginia--Karen Waltman says she still hasn't figured them out. "A lot of times they die off, and I don't know why," says Waltman, who has logged some 330 volunteer hours with the bees since her retirement in 2009. "I'm really fascinated by them."

As it turns out, there's a lot more to beekeeping than donning a netted suit and harvesting honey. When Waltman, 66, gets buzzing about all that goes into it, the task sounds more like a full-time job than a hobby that takes "a few hours a week."

Waltman typically maintains two hives at the historic Ellanor C. Lawrence Park in Chantilly, Virginia, though one that died off this past winter has yet to be replaced (each package of new bees comes from Georgia and costs about $80). One hive can be home to 40,000 high-maintenance bees.

In the spring, Waltman puts out a jar of sugar water to sustain the pollinators until the flowers come to life. The mixture includes a medicine that keeps the bees from getting diarrhea (which apparently is a problem). That's not to mention the solutions that keep various pests from invading the hive or gnawing at its foundations.

"From my standpoint, having cattle or pigs takes less work than bees do," says John Shafer, who oversees the effort as park manager. "They' re not native to this country, so there's a lot you need to do to make sure they' re successful."

The trouble of keeping bees is part of what's driven interest in the park's hives and the programs that swarm around them. Waltman often fields visitors' questions about colony collapse disorder, a condition in which worker bees mysteriously desert the hive. While she hasn't seen the disorder in her hives, the natural elements make it hard enough to keep the bees going for their six-week lifespans. …

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