Dressed in a white long-sleeved jacket and ventilated hood, Matt Putnam pries open a waist-high box in his backyard and gently reaches inside with a gloved hand to remove a wooden frame, exposing a golden slab of honeycomb that’s crawling with thousands of honeybees.
As Putnam edges closer to the hive, a frenetic buzz emanates from the tiny insects as they enter and leave their abode to zoom off into the air above. But they don’t pay much attention to Putnam as he grabs a tin canister and puffs a thick cloud of smoke over the hive entrance.
Putnam explains that the smoke interferes with the bees’ ability to communicate chemically, to warn one another of his presence. “It calms the bees,” he says, squeezing another puff of smoke from the canister. “I’m not a fan of getting stung.”
While one would expect to find Putnam caring for his hives on a farm in the countryside, his surroundings are anything but pastoral. In fact, his backyard is located in the middle of a densely populated Greenville neighborhood off Highland Drive.
Putnam is one of a growing number of urban beekeepers, city dwellers who raise honeybees in residential areas. And he’s not alone. Putnam is aware of several other bee hobbyists within the city limits.
His neighbor, Lee White, for instance, manages four hives with more than 80,000 bees. White, an eighth grader at Hughes Academy, started a business last year and sold 130 jars of honey. And next month, Farm Fresh Fast, a restaurant that’s located at 860 S. Church Street, plans to install a rooftop hive to source local honey for recipes.
“Bees are sort of the new backyard chickens,” says Jennifer Tsuruda, a beekeeping specialist at Clemson University.
One reason behind the rise of urban beekeeping is the desire for homegrown and organic food, according to Tsuruda. “People want to know where their food comes from,” she says. “And they want to feel more connected to the environment.”
For Putnam, it’s all about the honey. “I use it as a sugar substitute,” he says. “I’m probably addicted at this point.”
Honey, besides tasting great, offers health benefits, says Putnam, who swears it helps his joints. And propolis, a material that bees use to seal small cracks and gaps in their hive, is a natural antibiotic.
Each season, Putnam slips on his beekeeping suit to protect himself from stingers and extracts honey from his two backyard hives, which contain about 40,000 bees each. Last year, he harvested roughly 30 pounds of honey.
“I don’t waste a pound of it,” he says.
Putnam, a software consultant for Hitachi Solutions, fell into beekeeping by accident. In 2014, he found an article about beekeeping in Edible Upcountry, a local food publication, and his interest was piqued.
“The article made it seem so doable,” says Putnam. “At first, I couldn’t find the time to start. But I eventually quit fighting the urge and just fell into it from there.”
Putnam read some books and eventually purchased his protective suit, bees, hives, and other equipment from the Carolina Honey Bee Company in Travelers Rest. “It’s not the cheapest hobby,” he says. “I probably spent several hundred dollars.”
Putnam uses Langstroth hives, invented by the Rev. Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth in Philadelphia, and patented in 1852. The hives, which usually cost more than $100, resemble a filing cabinet of 8 to 10 frames that hang like files, covered in honeycomb.
According to Putnam, they are especially easy to harvest. He simply removes the top from the cabinet and pulls out a frame. But every year presents new challenges. “The learning curve is pretty steep,” he says. “I’ve had to read a lot of forums and books to improve my honey harvest.”
Like most beekeepers, Putnam didn’t harvest any honey during the first year, because the bees needed food to survive through the winter. “Ideally, you want to start a colony of bees in the late winter or early spring, because they have to grow during that first year,” he says. “After the first year, there is a small window to harvest honey.”
But a strong hive can produce up to 100 pounds of surplus honey, according to Putnam, who expects to harvest more than 50 pounds this year. Luckily, his neighbors have no problem with his new hobby. And neither does the city, which doesn’t require a permit to keep bees. “It doesn’t hurt to handout some leftover honey to neighbors,” he says.
According to Putnam, beekeeping has made him more environmentally conscious. For instance, he’s quit using herbicides and other chemicals associated with the country’s declining bee population.
“I’d like to think I’m actually helping the country’s bee population recover,” he says.
Since the 1940s, the number of managed honeybee colonies in the United States has declined from 5 million to 2.5 million because of various threats, including invasive species, diseases, pesticides and habitat destruction, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Like Putnam, a new group of backyard beekeepers has sprung up to “save the bees,” according to Susan Jones, president of the Piedmont Beekeepers Association.
“Beekeeping has traditionally been limited to farms,” she says. “But I think people everywhere want to feel like they’re actually doing something to help out.”
According to the USDA, $30 billion a year in agriculture depends on the health of honeybees, which pollinate more than 90 flowering crops including most fruits and vegetables.
But about 30 percent of the country’s managed colonies have died, according to the research nonprofit Bee Informed Partnership. Around a third of the deaths are related to colony collapse disorder, which occurs when a colony, except for the queen and immature bees, has randomly died.
Some beekeepers point to a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids as a possible cause of colony collapse, a link rejected by Bayer and other manufacturers.
According to Tsuruda, monocultural farming practices, diseases, and pesticides could be responsible for colony collapse disorder. But there isn’t a definitive cause. “We’ve found that many things impact honeybee health,” she says.
The varroa mite, for instance, has become a growing problem for beekeepers to solve over the years. Introduced to South Carolina in the 1990s, the parasitic mite survives off the blood of developing bees, transmits diseases, and eradicates hives from the inside out.
Putnam regularly checks his colonies for the mites and sprays a treatment to keep them out of his hives. “I do what I can, but there’s no guarantee they won’t get in,” he says.
However, Putnam says yard chemicals such as pesticides and fungicides pose an even larger threat to his bees.
“I constantly worry about neighbors spraying their gardens, because chemicals can drift over to my place,” he says. “If my bees return to the hive with chemicals on them, the queen would probably stop laying eggs and die.”
Many people misuse pesticides, according to Jones. “I think some people are afraid of bees and spray to keep them away from their homes. I also think people overspray for mosquitos, because they’re afraid of Zika virus,” she says.
But insecticides aren’t the only chemical harming bees, according to Putnam, who claims Roundup and other herbicides disrupt the ability of bees to learn and remember, reducing colony survival. He also says they deplete food for his bees when neighbors spray weeds, goldenrod, and spring flowers, before planting their gardens in the spring.
“Those weeds aren’t weeds,” he says. “They’re forage for the bees.”
Luckily, Putnam has only lost one of his hives to “robbing,” which occurs when a weak beehive is attacked by invaders from other hives. He couldn’t explain what weakened his hive but speculated that pesticides or herbicides could have been involved.
That’s why Putnam has used his hives to educate nearby neighbors. “I get a lot of questions from curious neighbors,” he says. “I like it, because it gives me a chance to talk about bees and why they’re struggling.”
Putnam even dissuaded a nearby neighbor from spraying for mosquitos last spring.
“When you think about all the colonies that are dying off, it’s hard to say whether or not I’m actually impacting the global population,” he says. “I think education is a bigger component for me. I’m sort of an ambassador for the species.”