CEDAR RAPIDS — When Cedar Rapids changed its ordinance to allow beekeeping at the start of 2019, Will Hatchel and his husband Chris Wand didn’t wait long to join the growing numbers of people taking on urban beekeeping.
The couple had three pounds of Italian honey bees delivered at the beginning of May. Hatchel picked them up from the post office, where they arrived in a plastic container with sugar water and breathing holes. Since then, he’s been busy getting the colony established in a hive and turning his small backyard into a flower-filled bee oasis.
Interest in the topic is broad. A beekeeping class at Indian Creek Nature Center is capped at 50 participants and quickly filled up this year. Those interested in the 2020 class can email firstname.lastname@example.org or call the Nature Center at (319) 362-0664 to be notified when registration opens.
Hatchel, who formerly worked at The Gazette, provides tech support at Cedar Rapids-based TaxAct. Wand is an architect. They didn’t take any classes before diving into the project, instead watching YouTube videos and doing plenty of Googling.
“I thought there was so much involved, but it’s not that difficult,” Hatchel said.
A trellis planted with vines sits between the hive entrance and his neighbor’s yard. Such a flyway is required by Cedar Rapids’ bee keeping ordinance. Residents who want to keep bees in Cedar Rapids must get a Special Use Permit and follow rules about the size of the hive, distance from the lot’s primary building and sidewalk, among other regulations. The City of Cedar Rapids has received and approved five permits since January, said communications division manager Maria Johnson.
“I like taking care of things,” Hatchel said with a shrug.
He and Wand have eight cats, most of which they rescued by trapping and taming feral kittens in their yard. Hatchel said that is “five cats too many,” but he has trouble turning away a creature in need. He has built a winter shelter for outdoor cats in one corner of the yard and keeps a pan of cat food in his driveway for strays. Whenever he can, he traps the cats and makes sure they are fixed.
“We started with two cats, and then I fed a stray, and the avalanche happened,” he said.
When he decided to start keeping bees, he didn’t just order the hive and watch YouTube videos. He decided to transform his yard into a miniature bee oasis with a profusion of flowers. He’s been documenting the efforts at facebook.com/MyBackyardBees.
“The yard was just grass last year,” he said. “I decided to do something with it. At the end of April, I went to Home Depot and just started buying plants, bulbs, seeds.”
He scattered sunflower and cone flower seeds around the garden beds, and now the flowers are blooming in between more carefully placed plants like lilies and clematis. The bee hive boxes, which he painted blue and decorated with illustrations of wildflowers, sit next to a garage wall that doubles as a support for bird houses, baskets of hanging flowers and old window frames turned into trellises. It has a been a learning-as-he goes experiment.
“Now I have an appreciation for gardening,” he said. “I’m constantly pulling things up and putting new things in ... I think at some point, there’s not even going to be a yard with grass, just a garden.”
The bare trunk of a small tree stands in the middle of the yard — when the tree died, Hatchel left it standing, stripped of foliage, as a natural plant stand, with hanging baskets of flowers and strings of lights strung from it’s branches. He mostly stopped turning the lights on after he got the bees, however — they attract moths that can be bee predators.
Two shallow trays hold water for the bees, with floating wine cork islands to support bees getting a drink. A strap around the hive both keeps it from blowing over in storms and helps keep out raccoons looking for a sweet treat.
This year, with the hive still getting established, Hatchel said he won’t harvest the honey, though he plans to in future years. He doesn’t wear a protective suit when he carefully lifts the top of the hive box to check on the bees or refill the sugar water he leaves for them. He’s only been stung a couple of times he said.
Hatchel’s northeast side house is just a block across First Avenue from Brucemore, and he watches the bees fly that direction every morning. He suspects they enjoy the historic mansion’s extensive flower gardens. Honey bees fly up five miles in a day, hunting for pollen sources.
“I just like watching them. I’ll come out and just sit and watch the bees fly in and out,” he said. “After a while, you notice their patterns and behaviors.”
He worries about the declining bee population and said he wants to do his part, however small, to help the creatures humanity depends on to pollinate its crops and flowers.
“I’m fascinated by bees, and I want to help them,” he said. “It’s easy, and it helps, a little bit anyway. It helps these babies, anyway.”
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