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Beyond Black and Yellow

Club celebrates bees at Pohick Regional Library.

Theresa Chick remembers the first time she ever approached a honeybee colony. It was about three years ago, and her family had started keeping bees in their Alexandria backyard.

"The first thing they started doing was buzzing, and I ran," said Theresa. However, after some experience with the insects, she learned to differentiate between the bees' regular buzzes and the more intense buzzing that signifies agitation. This has helped her understand the creatures better, she said.

"You don't just run the minute they make noise," said Theresa, who is a member of "2 B a Bee," a local 4-H club dedicated to bees and beekeeping. The club offered an open house at the Pohick Regional Library Saturday, Feb. 25, where people interested in joining the club could learn about the tools of the beekeeping trade with presentations given by club members, videos, door prizes and a honey-tasting table.

2 B a Bee members are quick to differentiate between honeybees and yellow jackets. According to Brenda Keissling, 2 B a Bee moderator and certified master beekeeper, the smooth-bodied insects that raid picnic tables and sting aggressively are yellow jackets.

"Most people who say, 'A bee stings me,' it's actually a yellow jacket that has stung them and that's a different critter," said Kiessling. Where yellow jackets are protein-eaters, the furry, black-and-yellow-striped honeybees are "gentle vegetarians," preferring to feast on flower nectar. According to club member Rory Molleda, worker honeybees sting once and die, and drone honeybees, whose exclusive functions are mating with the queen bee, do not have stingers at all.

"THEY'RE NOT AGGRESSIVE, they're only defensive," said Kiessling. "You really have to bug them to get them to sting."

Sally Haring, who owns an apiary — bee colony — at her Arlington home, loves bees so much that she keeps them even though she is allergic. She has been desensitized to the allergy, however, and has had a severe reaction only once, she said.

Beekeeping is becoming a lost art, said Heather Scott-Molleda, who raises bees on her Clifton farm. Most people's misconceptions about honeybees keep them from raising the insects, she said.

"I keep bees because it's fascinating," said Scott-Molleda. "I've always liked science and animals."

The Chicks keep their bee colony at the Hidden Pond Nature Center in Springfield. The bees bring different-colored pollens back to the colony in small sacs in their legs, said Theresa's father Michael Chick, and this process is intriguing to watch.

"I like sitting and watching them, thinking, 'What are the bringing today?'" said Chick.

One of the best aspects of raising honeybees is the honey they create, said Scott-Molleda. Beekeepers must wait one year for a colony to build up enough honey to harvest, since a colony of bees needs about 60 pounds of honey to live on. But once the first year is over, said Kiessling, beekeepers can harvest about 100 pounds of honey per year.

HONEY IS LIKE WINE, said Haring. The colors, textures and flavors of the honey change with the nectar source, and although commercial honey is a standard blend of different honeys grown throughout the season, varietal honey is just as varied as wine.

"Not all wine is wine," said Haring. "Not all honey is honey." Clover honey, the most common, is a light honey and crystallizes quickly, said Haring. Tulip poplar honey, on the other hand, is red and hardly ever crystallizes. The darker the honey, the more antioxidants it has, she said.

Because honeybees have a necessary function pollinating agricultural crops, said Keissling, professional and hobby beekeeping has become that much more important.

"There are hardly any wild honeybees left anymore," she said. Most have been lost to pests such as the varroa mite, she said. Crop growers will pay professional beekeepers up to $125 for a box of bees, she said, and certain products, such as a certain California almond, can only be pollinated by honeybees.

"[2 B a Bee] educates the public about what bees are like," she said. "Keeping bees is pretty important for agriculture, but people are kind of wigged out about it."