Published : Sunday, 13 Mar 2011, 12:58 PM EDT
BURNT CHIMNEY, Va. (AP) - Sandy Jenner says there's nothing her husband, Jeff, can't make, from homemade pasta to semiconductor frames to a gabled chicken coop on wheels.
The 52-year-old is currently in the sixth year of a (hopefully) seven-year project in which he's constructing a Victorian Queen Anne starter castle -- a turreted, 5,000-square-foot behemoth with radiant floor heating, cathedral ceilings and multiple balconies looking out on the splendor of Cahas Mountain. The handcrafted house plays an important role in this story because it was the three-story scaffolding fastened onto it that allowed for Jeff Jenner's latest endeavor: saving 90,000 honeybees, including one very important queen bee.
Specifically, he removed some 8 pounds of wild bees from a dead tree in Roanoke's Old Southwest and relocated them safely to his do-it-yourself haven in Franklin County, an 81-acre retreat featuring gardens, a greenhouse, heirloom chickens, three German shepherds, a dozen beehives and a rooster named Swearinger.
The bee transfer created something of a spectacle in the Elm Avenue yard where the bees had set up shop in an oak tree at least three years earlier. Jenner scaled the scaffolding 18 feet in the air and vacuumed out the bees.
By the project's end, he counted 35 bee stings, mainly on his hands. (He didn't wear gloves because their bulk could have harmed the bees, he said, and the combs were easier to manipulate without gloves.)
The goal of the project was to help protect the regional bee population from the Varroa mite, one of the chief threats facing the world's declining honeybee population. The Old Southwest bees -- one of just two thriving wild-bee colonies Jenner is aware of in the region -- have proven themselves resistant to the parasite.
By relocating them to his Turkey Ridge Farm, where he breeds queen bees and sells them locally, Jenner wants to strengthen the local bee population and thereby the region's ability to grow local food. "The queen was the main goal," he said. "No one has been treating her or coddling her, and yet this hive has somehow managed to survive on its own."
The Jenners are semiretired, having sold the metal fabrication shop they owned in Gilroy, Calif., where they created frames for Silicon Valley semiconductors. After they relocated to Franklin County in 2003, Sandy began planting a 70-tree fruit orchard. But after five seasons the trees still refused to produce fruit.
So she signed both herself and Jeff up for a beekeeping class, hoping the bees would nudge the trees to fruit. And did they: After the first year with bees, she had to prune back more than half the branches because her trees were so overloaded with apples, peaches, pears and nectarines.
Jeff Jenner teaches beekeeping himself now, in Lynchburg and Moneta, and guest lectures in area schools. "The bees sucked me in," he said.
"The way everything works together as a society, and everyone has his own job function that evolves depending on the needs of the colony -- I fell in love with it."
He's not the only one. More than 4,000 Virginians keep bees, with hobbyist beekeeper associations scattered throughout the region.
The renaissance has been spurred by a renewed interest in local food and gardening -- a good thing, considering that honeybee losses have numbered an average of 30 percent in each of the past 10 years, said Rick Fell, a Virginia Tech entomologist who runs the university's apiculture program.
Honeybees have fallen victim to mites and other parasites, to pesticides and drought. Two decades ago, Virginia had 150,000 bee colonies, about half of them wild. The state now has 40,000, the majority of them managed.
"Honeybees are such important pollinators," Fell said. "If you look at contributions of the honeybee to U.S. agriculture, they're worth $15 billion a year in crop pollination."
It's said that one-third of the American diet consists of foods that are tied to the work of bee-pollinated plants.
New members are showing up regularly for the monthly meetings of the Blue Ridge Beekeepers Association, according to Ron Hanawalt, secretary/treasurer of the group. Newbie beekeepers include an increasing number of people from Roanoke's urban neighborhoods.
"The cities are often a little better than the countryside for beekeeping because of all the ornamental flowers that people plant, and some of the street trees are good too," he said. Hanawalt recommends people take a course and check their locality's zoning regulations before undertaking managing a hive of their own.
A beekeeper since 1976, Hanawalt himself has 200 colonies of bees that he manages on 10 farms -- for a total of 7 million bees.
"Since the bees forage for maybe two miles from home, the few hives someone has in their back yard can actually be reaching out over a pretty good area," he said. "We're glad to see there are a lot more sympathetic souls who appreciate the need for honeybees."