There are many logical reasons to keep bees. They are vital for food production. They produce sweet honey. And the little insect societies are fascinating to study.
But for some South Sound beekeepers the hobby is more than that. It ties generations together.
Rusty Burlew learned it from her grandfather. Alisa Shorey is teaching her son. And Dave D’Andrea’s five children are carrying on his legacy.
All of them are devoted to teaching the public about the importance of bees.
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Alisa Shorey was in her Graham fruit orchard nine years ago when she realized that fruit production had dramatically dropped in her apple, pear and cherry trees.
“They were not producing. I sat in my yard and thought, ‘What is going on here?’,” she recalled.
There was something else missing from her orchard: Buzzing.
That year she got her first beehive. “The following year we had a bumper crop,” she said.
“After I got my first hive I said, ‘this is for me’,” Shorey said. “They are amazing. I’ve skydived and got a rush out of that. But there’s not a bigger rush than getting your first swarm. I closed my eyes and I could smell the honey and feel the vibrations and hear them singing.”
When Shorey’s son Shane Foster heard about his mother’s new hobby he put it in the same realm as her sky diving. “I just thought it was one of her crazy ideas,” he recalled.
Foster changed his mind after he bought his house in Tacoma. Already raising chickens and growing vegetables he thought bees would add to his urban farm.
“There’s an intrigue with beekeeping. Even if people don’t want to get involved with it they want to know about it,” Foster said. Still, he wasn’t sure he wanted to maintain hives – a necessity to keep them alive.
“I didn’t know how long I would stick with it. I thought I’ll just call my mom and she’ll deal with it.”
But then Foster, too, got stung by the bee.
“When we cracked the top board it was the freshest, cleanest, sweetest smell I’ve ever experienced. It was a magical experience,” he said.
Now mother and son are beekeeping together.
“It was one of my most happiest moments when he said he was going to be a beekeeper,” Shorey said.
Shorey maintains 17 hives that supply her honey and honey product business, Dolce Bella Bees. She has served as the president of the Pierce County Beekeepers Association and organizes an informational display at the Washington State Fair in Puyallup and at the annual Mother Earth Fair. She also lectures on basic beekeeping for Mother Earth.
Foster, 31, is now on his second year as a beekeeper. He has two hives.
“She’s holding my hand,” he said. “There’s so much information that it can be daunting and overwhelming at times.”
“We’re doing baby steps,” Shorey added.
On every visit he makes to the apiary – the bee farm – Foster tries to learn something new.
“I’ve got a great mentor. I feel like if I didn’t use her I’d be wasting a great opportunity,” he said. Now, he’s hoping his girlfriend and her daughter will develop the passion as well.
Shorey’s daughter, Dalona Foster, works on marketing for her mother’s business. A granddaughter, Abby, also helps.
When Rusty Burlew’s 2-year-old granddaughter visited her Littlerock home recently she told her grandmother that, “Bees hurt you.”
“Which is obviously something she learned in daycare,” Burlew said. And so the education began.
Burlew learned beekeeping from her grandfather. She in turn educates the public via her website, Honey Bee Suite. She gets upwards of 7,000 visitors a day. They are attracted to her informative and humorous writing style.
“It amazes me how much attention it gets,” she said. The site got so popular she no longer answers questions – she was spending several hours a day doing that. But the posts she writes cover a gamut of topics on how to raise bees.
Growing up in Pennsylvania her grandfather would take her to wild nests in tree hollows where he would harvest honey.
“That was my first encounter with bees. Going to the bee trees. When I got older he introduced me to beekeepers.”
Burlew, 63, has a degree in agronomy. Some of her bee knowledge comes from that but most is learned in her bee yard. She has 12 hives.
“You can’t learn too much about them,” Burlew said.
Burlew is also a founder of The Native Bee Conservancy, a non-profit advocacy group. She talks to girl scouts or any group that will listen.
“My passion is with native bees,” she said. “Every third or fourth post I write is about them. I get my audience through the Honey Bee Suite but educate them about native bees.”
She is often urged to turn her website into a book but she prefers educating for free.
“I don’t make any money off my website. My husband supports me. I’m happy not to be getting paid to get the word out.”
She hopes that one day her granddaughter will become a beekeeper. The little girl has made progress: she no longer fears bees.
Dave D’Andrea had a passion for bees that few could match. During the day he would tend to his 70 hives carefully placed around the Tacoma area. When he was finished tending them he would begin his night shift as a longshoreman for the Port of Seattle.
Motivated by the dramatic disappearance of bees D’Andrea placed hives all over Pierce County – in community gardens and backyards. He taught classes to budding beekeepers at the Tacoma Nature Center at Snake Lake.
“We’ve just got to keep the bees flying,” he would tell his classes.
So when D’Andrea, 57, found out in March he had terminal liver cancer his bees were on his mind.
“I was just getting this bee thing to where I wanted it,” he said one evening in May outside the storage locker holding the supplies he used and sold to other beekeepers.
Shortly after he informed his family of his diagnosis D’Andrea suggested that all the bees be sold. He didn’t want them to be a burden to wife Diane, and sons Dave Jr., Jake, and daughters Shannon Ryan, Bethany Boustedt and Tammy D’Andrea.
His family wouldn’t hear of it.
“He talked about selling everything. But, I told him I wanted to keep going,” Ryan said. “I felt pretty strongly about that. I could see a twinkle in his eye. He was pretty happy about that. I know he didn’t want to let everything go because we had put so much work into it.”
D’Andrea died on July 22. Following his wishes there was no service. On Aug. 20 Ryan, Jack and Dave Jr. taught the first beekeeping class at Snake Lake without their father.
“It was hard. But it was nice to have my brothers here.” she said afterward.
All five children were involved with the business from the start – which began a mere five years earlier.
“He noticed that there weren’t any honeybees,” Ryan said of her father. “He reflected back to his childhood in Tacoma when there honey bees everywhere.”
D’Andrea did a little research and learned about colony collapse disorder and other problems plaguing bees. He called Ryan the next day and told her they would soon be beekeepers.
“That’s how he did everything,” Ryan said with a smile. “I hadn’t given any thought to bees.”
Father and daughter took classes in Seattle – they couldn’t find any in Pierce County. The first year (2009) they got four hives. They placed their first community hive in the Hilltop Urban Gardens.
Next they turned to education. D’Andrea donated an observation hive to the Tacoma Nature Center where it still buzzes with activity today.
Soon, D’Andrea was traveling to Italy and Uruguay to study bees. He made annual trips to California’s Central Valley to transport bee colony starter boxes to his bee students.
While D’Andrea and Ryan taught the classes, Jake built the hives and Dave. Jr. helped maintain them. The other sisters helped with honey sales and other duties. But jobs were often co-mingled. That will be a necessity now.
“We definitely all need to pitch in to make sure it works,” Dave Jr. said shortly after his father’s death. He called his father a provider and a teacher.
“He taught us by example,” Ryan added. “Especially when it came to people who were less fortunate.”
D’Andrea’s children said they will continue teaching the courses at Snake Lake and maintaining the hives.
“There’s too many reasons not to do it,” Dave Jr. said. “It’s something we do together. We need to continue. My dad enjoyed doing it. We enjoy doing it.”