What are your options if you want a farm but you only own a quarter of an acre of land? You could go visit a farm or a petting zoo. You could play Farmville on Facebook. Or you could get into a hobby like beekeeping that gives you a sense of farming in a small area. After growing up with family farms in North Pennsylvania, Brad Ryczko chose the latter.
“Bees don’t take up much land and are a very low-maintenance agricultural product,” said Ryczko. “But they are much more technical than raising livestock.”
In the summer of 2016, Ryczko, who lives on Johns Island, purchased one bee hive with about 3,000 Italian honeybees from a local beekeeper. He was interested in the process and has learned a lot. Clearly he has been doing it right considering that after one year he now has nine hives and approximately 270,000 bees. He’s done that through standard splitting and grafting, which are two processes for raising new queen bees and expanding your hives.
“A standard split is where you literally split a hive in half and the bees have to naturally raise a queen on the new side,” said Ryczko. “It’s easy because you have to split hives anyway in order to avoid swarming, but it has a proven success rate of producing a good hive.”
When grafting, Ryczko pulls out 24-hour-old bee grubs and puts them in what is called a queen cup. He stacks those cups in a hive and the worker bees try to convert them to queens. Queen bees are much bigger than worker bees because they have full ovaries after being raised with special “royal jelly” from the workers. Through this process, Ryczko recently pulled 96 grubs and ended up with 78 surviving queens. He kept a few for his reserve and gave the rest away, which is an interesting process in its own.
“The USPS has special training to handle pollinators because they are so integral to our country,” said Ryczko. “I mail virgin queens to other beekeepers who then mate them with bees from their area. This way, the babies are more likely to survive because they have genetics that are necessary for that area.”
Most of the time, Ryczko lets them go about their own democratic processes to make honey and raise queens. He spends about eight hours a month grafting or harvesting honey. Ryczko says that while the honey is tasty, the real reason to remove it is that if you don’t take the honey out, the bees will leave to make honey elsewhere. He calls it a “mutually beneficial” process so that they stay.
“You’re simply supporting nature,” said Ryczko. “Beekeeping is really bee-negotiating. You can’t force the bees to stay, so you try to make life better for them.”
Over the last year, the Charleston District began the first federal pollinator program in South Carolina by installing five hives and a pollinator garden at the Cooper River Rediversion Project. Ryczko says that those bees are very important because they have a completely natural environment that helps the flowers grow better, which helps the bees grow better.
“Pollinators are a huge deal,” says Ryczko. “Pesticides are killing bees everywhere and we’re helping them populate. People don’t realize the impact that just one bee hive in a backyard can have. Commercial keepers have to send their bees to other places for commercial pollination. Bee hobbyists are what is keeping the bee pollination going in their local area.”
Ryczko plans to keep his hobby going by selling hives in the future. Every winter, about half the hives will die, so he will keep splitting until he’s back to 10 and then sell the rest. He isn’t trying to make money, but just trying to help other people get into the hobby. Success is his number one goal, and as he and the Corps continue to pollinate the Lowcountry, success will be achieved.