CATAWBA, Va. — The message from a recent workshop here is that while the honeybee population is declining, there are people who are concerned enough to want to personally do something to correct the trend.
The workshop was held June 1 and was sponsored by the Catawba Sustainability Center, which is located in beautiful Craig County, Va., between two mountain ranges.
The idea for the workshop grew out of the conversations between Josh Nease, manager of the center, and Mark Chorba, a well-known beekeeper in the Roanoke Valley, about having beehives at the center.
“I was looking for someone to bring bees to the farm,” Nease said while taking time out from helping with the class at the farm.
He said that Chorba not only agreed to bring bees to the center but to also teach a class.
“The time was good since there has been a lot of TV and newspaper coverage” about the decline of bee populations, Nease indicated.
The center is located on property that was once home to the dairy farm of the Catawba Sanitarium, a hospital for treating tuberculosis patients.
Approximately 20 people paid $100 for the 12-hour workshop that included lots of classroom instruction and then a visit to the hives Nease had gotten for the farm.
Chorba, known as the “bee whisperer,” taught classes the first day of the workshop and part of the second day before taking the students over the mountain to the hives. The students were protected from the bees by wearing beekeeping suits.
He is the 2013 president of the New River Valley Beekeepers Association, the largest beekeeper association in Virginia.
Chorba’s home base is his small farm in Copper Hill, Floyd County, where he maintains his own 25 colonies of honeybees. He also tends to adjacent apiaries in Montgomery, Franklin and Roanoke counties.
Nease estimated about half of the participants wanted to keep bees for a hobby and for the honey, while the others were moved by a desire to improve the bee population.
He noted this past winter was really hard on the commercial bee industry with some apiaries losing between 30 and 50 percent of their bees.
Nease stressed that a goal of his work is to bring bees in the valley up to a sustainable level. He noted that people cannot rely on commercial beekeepers.
“Hobby beekeepers are one way to do this,” he said.
“It’s one of the best decisions I ever made,” Piper Cumbo said of her participation in the workshop.
She explained that her grandmother had kept bees and that she herself had developed a life-long interest as a result. Cumbo said beekeeping was not as hard in her grandmother’s day because some of the problems facing apiarists today did not exist back then.
Cumbo wants to keep bees, but she faces problems with some neighbors — black bears that roam the mountains and valley. They love honey. This means she will have to find a way to keep the bears away from her hives.
“The Virginia Tech Catawba Sustainability Center is an experiential showcase on 377 acres in the Catawba Valley,” the facility’s website states. “With research plus demonstration projects from multiple Virginia Tech colleges, the center is creating a positive model for a sustainable world.”
Karie Gillian, administrator and program coordinator for the Virginia Tech Roanoke Center, said the Catawba facility works under the Roanoke Center.
She, along with Nease, explained some of the history of the farm, which is located in the Upper James River basin in the headwaters of the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
“We’re teaching people to take care of themselves,” Nease said.
The facility gets almost $1 million in funding annually. Sources of the funding include the Blue Moon Fund, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, USDA Forest Service, Virginia Tech’s Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science, and Virginia Tech colleges and departments with funded projects.