CORVALLIS, Ore. – Move over backyard chickens. Here come honeybees. They're an emerging homesteading trend, according to a honeybee expert at Oregon State University.
"People are starting to see their importance as pollinators," said Ramesh Sagili, who added that interest in beekeeping has picked up in the wake of news about a national decline in honeybees.
As a result, he helped create the three-part Oregon Master Beekeeper Program, which teaches people how to raise the honey producers, which are crucial pollinators for blueberries, pears, cherries, apples and other crops.
"There's a lot of interest in bees, and we want to satisfy the needs of citizens," said Sagili, a honeybee research specialist with the OSU Extension Service and one of the instructors for the training.
Classes in the basic "apprentice" level of the program, which debuted in 2012, will start in January or February depending on the applicant's location.
Participants do not need to own any hives or equipment in the beginning level. They'll be matched with mentors in cities that include Bend, Corvallis, Eugene, Grants Pass, Klamath Falls, Portland and Salem. In 2012, more than 50 experienced beekeepers around the state were paired with 140 apprentices, most of whom are still working toward their certification, said Carolyn Breece, a research assistant in OSU's honeybee lab who coordinates the program.
"Students work with a mentor through each season so they experience firsthand how to manage bees in the springtime, harvest honey in the summer, treat for pests and disease in the fall and successfully overwinter colonies," Breece said.
The apprentice course costs $100 and includes supplies and books. Applications are accepted in the order they are received. There's no deadline for applying; the number of mentors available determines acceptance. Slots are already full in Portland but other regions still have openings. About 85 people statewide have signed up so far for 2013, Breece said.
After becoming certified as an apprentice, students are eligible for the $150 yearlong, intermediate "journey" level. Registration for that will open Jan. 1. Thirty apprentice-level graduates are eligible to enroll so far and have expressed interest in applying, Breece said.
At the intermediate level, participants don't have a mentor and they must have their own hive. Students must attend educational events like webinars and workshops and volunteer to share their knowledge with the community, such as with beekeeping clubs and local schools.
Once students complete the journey level, they can advance to the master level, the third and final stage. The curriculum for it is still being developed.
Paul Andersen, president of the Oregon State Beekeepers Association, said the buzz about backyard beekeeping is related to a growing enthusiasm for local food and environmental stewardship.
"There are small-scale backyard beekeepers who have a few hives around [their] town and that's definitely growing because every year different organizations and local beekeeping clubs hold bee schools for people new to beekeeping. More and more people are going to those classes," Andersen said.
Andersen's association and the Oregon Department of Agriculture provided initial funding for the Oregon Master Beekeeper Program. The association also provides mentors and instructors. Sagili developed the program with support from Breece and a committee made up of honeybee academics, commercial beekeepers and experienced backyard beekeepers.
Oregon was home to 56,200 commercial honeybee hives in 2011, according to a report from the OSU Extension Service. About two dozen beekeepers owned 90 percent of them, Sagili said. Because backyard beekeepers who maintain five to 10 hives do not often register with the state, numbers of the state's small-scale beekeepers are not tracked, he said.
For more information about the Oregon Master Beekeeper Program, go to http://bit.ly/Vc7QXp.