Bringing back the honeybee: Meme Thomas


Baltimore Honey’s mission is to maximize local honeybee pollination for local food security, but how the organization goes about fulfilling that mission is anything but standard. Meme Thomas started Baltimore Honey in 2008, establishing the organization officially as a nonprofit in 2010. Today, they have hives in every district (of which there are nine) and every zip code in Baltimore city.

Meme is gearing up to bring her micro-local, non-toxic hive stewardship to Pennsylvania at our Rodale Institute Honeybee Conservancy courses starting in February. We caught up with Meme to get a sneak peek at some of the things she’ll be covering during the workshops, as well as how this queen bee found her passion.

Being a honeybee steward requires time, but it is the most rewarding gift you can give back to humankind. You’re providing pollination for food security and high-quality honey.

~ Meme Thomas

Tell me about Baltimore Honey.

Baltimore Honey is the first Community Supported Apiary model in the entire USA. It was modeled after the CSA structure, but we tweaked it to accommodate our purposes. We don’t sell our honey. Instead, we have memberships. Honey shares are equivalent to one pound of honey, but our members know we’re not in this business to produce as much honey as possible. Their membership supports not only sustainable hive stewardship, but the educational outreach and expansion of hives into more and more regions.

We manage and raise our own honeybees and queens and place hives into residential, commercial, and educational communities. Members let us know what district or zip code they want to get their honey from, and we oblige as best we can. Every CSA member knows that if their hive is not producing sufficient honey, they can either roll their membership over to the next year or they can ask for the nearest colony that has sufficient amount of storage to pull for that year’s membership share. All of our members are completely supportive. They know that their honey is a gift to them for supporting our mission.

We do a lot of educational outreach at conferences, elementary schools, churches–anywhere we can make contact with folks interested in honeybees. And we train hive stewards to work our hives all across the city. Last spring we had 28 people take our courses. Ten completed the full course and became certified hive stewards. An additional 16 got certified last fall.

We’re also working with the city to change regulations related to beekeeping, allowing more residents to keep hives. Baltimore currently has a restriction on the books that says people need a minimum 2500 square feet lot area per colony. This is not the typical demographic in the city—they have postage-stamp lots. We’d like people to be able to keep two colonies just about anywhere.

What are the requirements to be a hive host?

Hive hosts don’t need to be beekeepers since we have trained hive stewards who can work the hives. But they do need to sign a two-year hosting agreement saying they and their adjoining property owners won’t use any chemicals on their landscapes, and they will institute honeybee plant enhancements.

Hive stewards are trained to go out and provide fresh, clean water to the hives weekly. We don’t use smokers (only water misting if needed) to minimize the amount of residue in our hives. And we don’t put anything in the hive they don’t put there themselves. We do not artificially feed sugars to our honeybees, but instead provide all live plant nectar and pollen foraging enhancement areas. We use natural comb—no plastic foundation cells.

What are some of the natural ways you deal with honeybee health issues?

We use their own propolis for a lot. It is antibiotic, antifungal and antimicrobial. There is always extra build-up on the top bars of the hive; so instead of scraping that and throwing it away, we use it as the valuable tool it is. We keep propolis from each hive in our freezer labeled with the hive number from which it came.

We have very low counts of varroa mites; but should a problem arise, we grind the propolis into fine powder and then dust it on the honeybees. If we see signs of nosema, we introduce “p-water” (water mixed with propolis) into their usual water feeder in the early spring. It cleans out their bodies after a long winter spent inside and boosts their immune systems.

We also rotate our comb out every year. Every year our honeybees draw out new comb. The old honeycomb gets moved into the brood chamber. The old brood comb gets melted down for candles. Every spring the babies get new sheets to lay in! Most beekeepers don’t rotate comb because it takes so much effort and energy on the part of the honeybees to make it, but it really is healthier for the honeybees.

We also leave 60-80 pounds of honey each fall for them to winterize on. Conventional beekeepers who see honey as liquid gold often pull it all off and feed them sugar water. We are not into hyperproduction. The health of the bees is really our priority, so we have limited our CSA membership. We have 60-some hives in total and limited memberships to five to ten per hive.

Just two hives have died in three years, and both losses were because of accidents—vandalism and snow plow disruption.

Feedback from the greater community has also been that it is about time for a new hive. So we developed the Thomas Hybrid Hive. This is a new style of hive that helps us help hive stewards manage honeybees more sustainably. Langstroth hives are the most common—the white, rectangular boxes that look like nightstands—and there are a lot of beekeepers who have years of knowledge built around this type of hive. We want them to make a transition to natural methods without asking them to forget what they know and have learned all these years. The Thomas Hybrid Hive makes healthy hive stewardship more accessible for established beekeepers.

What got you started with honeybees?

My mother is French and my father is American, and we lived overseas in Paris and in the French Alps until I was a teenager. My mother would take me through the gardens in Paris and in Haute-Savoie country side villages and there would always be hives. Granted, back then, the honeybees didn’t have all the problems they have today. There was a symbiotic relationship between the beekeeper and the honeybees. I was always drawn to the gardens—those were our playgrounds—and I was amazed by the honeybees flying in and out and landing on the flowers.

It seemed like everybody had an apiary, even in the city. If they had a balcony, they had a hive. And they didn’t use sugar—only honey was good enough. When you wanted to cook, you had to go out and get a frame of honey. It was often the kids who got that job. The parents would be too busy visiting! I would go out with my cousins and you didn’t have a veil or a smoker. You opened the hive with respect and would brush the bees away with horsetail brush and bring the frame in. They would simply cut the comb and use it in their coffee or tea or cooking.

When we moved to the U.S., we had horses. Our neighbor, who kept honeybees, put a hive next to our paddock. His two boys would help him out and I would hop on the fence and watch what they were doing. One day he said, “If you’re going to sit there, come on down and help.” He had me carry this and carry that. At the time, I was more interested in getting to spend time with his boys! But I was also learning about beekeeping.

Unfortunately, he was a conventional keeper. He would douse his apple trees with all kinds of chemicals. I remember my mom would be in the kitchen and the pesticides would drift into our house through the open windows. My mother started having neurological problems. As a high-schooler I finally made the connection. His honeybees would always have problems. I realized I never saw this in the honeybees in Europe, and I started paying attention. My mother had exposure to all kinds of horrible chemicals. I made the connection between what was happening to the honeybees and what was happening to my mother. The neighbor agreed to notify us before he sprayed.

He still kept his honeybees, and when his sons went away to college, I would help him maintain the hives. Eventually, he stopped spraying altogether. Whether it had anything to do with vocalizing my thoughts or just that he was getting older and didn’t worry as much, I don’t know. He passed away from a stroke and his hives just collapsed.

In 2000 I went back overseas and was struck again by how their honeybees were kept. When I came back, I started researching, and in 2007 I decided I was ready to take the leap. I bought my equipment and took a conventional beekeeping course. They were very informative, but I asked so many questions they pulled me aside and asked me to stop. They were questions they didn’t want to answer: Honeybees aren’t sugarbees, so why do we feed them sugar? Why do you have to put antibiotics in a hive? Etc.

The instructor told me it was the most challenging workshop he had ever done. I felt like all the beekeeping associations wanted to work in the same box. Honeybees have changed in regard to the environment, so why haven’t we changed how we treat them? We need to look outside the box for new answers.

We started preparing our property for foraging. I added 12 raised vegetable garden beds to our 1280 feet of lineal perennial beds. And I gave white clover seed to all my neighbors to spread in their lawns. I’m still like Johnny Appleseed! I walk around with seeds in my pocket—one with buckwheat and one with white clover—and whenever I pass an area in the city that is nature deficient, I toss some seeds.

Now I try my best to give all my neighbors a little bit of honey every year. Not as much as I’d love to give them, but I do what is best for the honeybees and am able to say thank you.

What is your opinion on Colony Collapse Disease (CCD)? Are we any closer to finding a solution?

CCD is like this huge potpourri of a disaster. The colonies are finally saying “enough.” I’m not trying to make enemies when I say this, but I say it like it is: Conventional beekeepers need to look in the mirror because they have the answers.

One guy I know (who is in his early 90s) has been beekeeping for over 40 years. He had a cut on his ear at one of our area beekeepers meetings and had been in and out of the doctor’s office trying to get it to heal. I told him to put propolis on his ear and cover it with gauze. Two meetings later, he says, “Look behind my ear,” and it was completely healed. Not only that, but he told me he realized when he thought about putting the propolis on his ear that he was afraid of putting all those chemicals on his skin. He’s raising his bees naturally now.

I heard one bee researcher tell a group that if we can provide bees with better nutrition and better management, they can handle more chemicals. I was really annoyed. He was basically saying, if you improve the nutrition and management, they’ll survive more abuse.

But, listen, this stuff isn’t working anymore. It is about going old school. Looking at where your food source comes from. Not just for yourself but for your honeybees. A bag of sugar costs the same as a perennial plant. A bag of sugar isn’t sustainable. A perennial plant yields greater returns with the same investment.

Here is my opinion on how beekeepers should be fighting CCD: Start planning, give them fresh water, stop putting junk in the hive, don’t rob them of all their honey stores, and start changing their sheets. Would you lay on the same set of sheets for 15 years? Why would you expose fresh baby brood to 15 years of junk you have been putting in your hive? Honey production is informed by how clean the comb is. If you have clean comb, you have healthier honeybees. The healthier the honeybees, the more eggs the queen can lay. The more eggs she lays, the more honeybees we have. The more honeybees we have, the better the pollination efforts. The better the pollination efforts, the greater the move toward local food security and the more honey they can produce!

People who have been beekeeping for decades are now opening up their eyes and ears and starting to ask questions–pretty much the same questions I was asking when I took my first beekeeping class. We know industrial agriculture just doesn’t work. Stop monocropping, get the wheels off the hive and bring hives back into communities.

The idea that beekeepers are a dying breed is thrown around a lot. What do you see as the biggest hope for apiculturists?

Making it easier for new beekeepers to succeed is the key. Colonies are most often purchased from southern honeybee farms where the queens are often poorly mated (if mated at all), the colonies are a mix of honeybees from different colonies, and they come up with all kinds of diseases and pests. Northern beekeepers are all excited and then everything fails. What used to be disposable bees ($50 per colony) are no longer disposable ($150 per colony), and the new beekeeper walks away blaming themselves for the loss of money and honeybees.

Even folks who want to do it naturally are told they have to feed sugar water, they have to give antibiotics, they have to treat with chemicals or their bees will die. So they walk away too. We offered the first all-natural methods and practices of honeybee stewardship (beekeeping) workshop in Maryland. I don’t say this to boast—I think it is terrible! We want to let people know there are other ways to do this.

If we can get beekeepers to replace forage plants that have been lost, provide clean water, and to start with locally-raised queens and honeybees in every single county, the honeybees and the beekeepers will bounce back. There is no magic. It just takes time.

Luckily, there are hundreds of young, 20-somethings who want to bring beekeeping back. These young adults have time and energy in their favor. Replenishing the soil with organic materials, turning around the crops, turning around the nectar and turning around the honeybees. We can start stewarding honeybees rather than “keeping them,” but it really has to start with the soil.

Defining what honey is and is not will also help. Adulterated honey is a big problem. Honey can be contaminated with chemicals banned in the U.S. or what is being burned in the smokers. And sugar syrup is not the same as honey. Nectar makes honey, not sugar syrup. Some of it is coming from abroad, some of it is made here in the U.S. Wherever the source, putting a stop to it will only help the apiculturists in the long run—by helping the honeybees.

What is your personal vision? What drives you—gets you out of bed every day?

Food security, food security, food security. We need honeybees to effectively pollinate our crops. If we can put them back into every single community—every homeowner having a hive—we can not only provide food security, but change health habits. Diabetes and obesity are fueling the pharmaceutical industry. If we can get people off “the other white powder” (cane sugar) and put them back on honey, you won’t have the spikes in the diet, metabolism will stabilize, and people won’t feel the need for carbo-fixes.

We sat down and had meals together every day when I was a kid. As a teen, I hated it because we never had prepackaged stuff. But we didn’t have this problem of health disease and obesity. People don’t sit and have meals together, let alone make the meals from scratch. If you can provide real food and a food community, everything else will fall into place.

I want to create a network so you start small and expand from there. You start with one hive host and the five families around that host—that creates one patch. The neighbors begin to realize honeybees aren’t a threat, plus they get honey to eat. Rumor spreads and you have more people interested in hosting hives around that patch. As you expand, it creates a network. If you have a hive on your property, it creates community.

What is the one piece of advice you always give new beekeepers?

Do it and do it naturally. Being a honeybee steward requires time, but it is the most rewarding gift you can give back to humankind. You’re providing pollination for food security and high-quality honey.

Once you’ve gone into the hive, it is the most magical thing in your life. It is transforming. The whole colony is dependent on the queen and her daughters take care of her. If you become the queen bee of your colony and your household and your community, and then indoctrinate another queen bee—if we have a community of queen bees—we can make significant change.

What tool couldn’t you live without?

I couldn’t live without my honeybees. I get real emotional about it. They define who I am. This sounds quirky, but I do believe everyone is put on this planet for a reason. I’m 51 years old and when I look back at my journey, I know I was meant to be this queen bee. Lorenzo Langstroth is considered the father of beekeeping, and I consider myself the mother of hive stewardship.

Sign up for our Honeybee Conservancy hive stewardship classes with Meme Thomas today!

7 Responses to “Bringing back the honeybee: Meme Thomas”

  1. David

    Question: Isn’t it true that bees collect pollen from nearby genetically modified crops? Do you know of any way to avoid this? Do you know what hazards to human consumers GM pollen in honey might pose?

    Reply
    • Anonymous

      There comes the example with the ants which avoid margarine while going towards butter, or ants rejecting synthetic sugars while preferring natural raw sugars.
      Trials should show whether bees don’t refrain from approaching GM crop blossoms while falling for wild and even – with great regret – pesticide sprayed blossoms.
      The world citizens have to make sure that the war against humanity and all free creatures of Earth is stopped, and that imposed laws forcing the population to only consume GMO products like in South Africa and Iraq are slashed again and abandoned. The sinister practices and the wealthy forces behind such attacks are targeting the introduction and forceful nutrition of entire Earth (with their own exception), while Ted Turner clearly stated that he expects mankind to have a head count of 300 million only. That is “better” than the greatest hopes of those short-sighted individuals who believe in their capacity to create for themselves a better existence on the back of common slaves. They will not get that far, and we all must recover bee cultures before they are extinct and replaced by the GM corporations patent creatures.

      Reply
  2. tom m ostino

    can i avail learning this bee keeping, so interesting, I’m a filipino how can i joined this lesson.

    Reply
  3. VINCENT OKOTH MUSIKO

    I train small scale farmers in bee-keeping in Kenya. Most of deserving people do not have money to pay for the training and beehives. I am requesting if individuals or organisations can come to our assistance.
    For more information please contact me.
    Vincent Okoth Musiko

    Reply
  4. William Magnetti

    I am a peace corps volunteer in Azerbiajan in central asia and have received a U.S.aid grant to start a beekeeping training center and would like to build a library up of literature on the latest beekeeping methods such as yours.Can you direct me to these resources?Thankyou for your dedication to this important subject.

    Reply
  5. Peter Bieneman

    This piece is very inspirational. It goes to show that one person can make a humongous difference!

    Reply

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