Philadelphia and the Humble Honey Bee


In Constellations, the character Roland describes his unique profession as a beekeeper:

 “Honeybees have an unfailing clarity of purpose. Their lives are often intensely short. But in a strange sort of way, I’m jealous of the humble honey bee and their quiet elegance … If only our existence were that simple. If only we could understand why it is that we’re here and what it is that we’re meant to spend our lives doing.

It is that same passion that Wilma Education Assistant Jennifer Ruymann found in Don Shump, founder of the Philadelphia Bee Company, in this interview with Philadelphia’s favorite beekeeper:



JENNY RUYMANN: How did you get into beekeeping?

DON SHUMP: I sometimes quip that I had a quarter-life crisis. But really, my wife wanted to cook with stuff we had grown ourselves. There was a garden between 3rd and 4th and Christian Street that has had bees since the late 70s. So I volunteered there for a year. Loved it. I got two hives of my own. Two hives turned into 10. And then 10 turned into 20, and now I'm one of the largest urban beekeeping operations on the East Coast. 

JR: In Constellations, Marianne asks Roland if he really makes a living off of beekeeping? I wondered that as well.

DS: I first did honey production, and then I started getting into removals - which is a big part of my business, and then the education side. The Philadelphia Bee Company is actually three different business models within one. If you tried to just make it in honey or just make it in removals - that's a hard play. When you combine everything together then you never get bored, there's always something to do.

JR: And you’re also involved in the Philadelphia Beekeeping Guild, can you talk a little more about that?

DS: The guild has the goal of supporting beekeeping in Philadelphia. A lot of this takes the form of setting up educational programs and doing outreach. We show up at events and give talks and explain to people why these bees are important and how they're not as scary as they're made out to be. We have a Honey Fest every year and I’ll wear the “bee beard,” where I have thousands of bees on my face. 

JR: I’ve heard Philadelphia has some rich beekeeping history. Can you tell us a little about that?

DS: Oh yeah! People have no idea the amount of history we have here with bees and beekeeping. A Philadelphia minister, Lorenzo Langstroth, discovered that if you leave the wooden frames 5/8ths of an inch to a 1/4 inch apart, that's just the right amount of space that the bees will build the combs inside the space and not bridge the gap and not seal it. We have a placard dedicated to him over on Front Street. He is the inventor of modern beekeeping; we could not keep bees if someone had not discovered that.  

JR: What does the process of beekeeping typically entail?

DS: Beekeeping is taking the confines of what the bees do naturally and helping them do better than they would under strictly natural conditions. If there's not enough nectar around, sometimes we will feed them sugar water. If the bees get sick, we can give them medicine.

There's a saying amongst beekeepers: "Ask 10 beekeepers a question, you're going to get 11 answers." There are no hard and fast rules. It's a blend of art and science. It makes it enjoyable because you really feel invested: if you find a way that works for you, then that's your way of doing it. Guys have been at it for 40 years and still have problems, still have issues and have to [evaluate] the way they do things.

JR: What do you think it is about beekeeping that keeps people in it?

DS: There are very few animals that you can interact with in such an intimate fashion, through the entirety of their lifecycle. And there's that element of danger. Honeybees are docile, but there’s enough venom in any one colony, that they could kill you.

Overcoming that innate fear of bees people have - it's a bit of a thrill. To shove your face in a hive, and think “wow this is intense.” 

There are immediate rewards if you do a good job. Like, how many pounds of honey did I get this year? I got 150 pounds from one hive. Wow, I was really kicking butt. And this other hive died. I failed. How many hives did I save by removing them out of people's walls? There's a lot of reward. 

JR: Roland gives a monologue in the play about envying the inherent purpose that bees’ lives possess. What do you think about this purposefulness?

DS: When someone talks about a bug, you don't really think of cohesion or coordination and cooperation. But here you have 60,000 biological machines with brains the size of pin heads that are interacting constantly, have been staying alive for thousands of years, and can work more cohesively than just about any gaggle of human beings. I go into my hives and every day they're getting things done. It's seamless! These bees are doing interactions that we don't even fully understand!  The bees do a waggle dance to communicate. They have other dances that they do, and we don't know what they mean.

JR: They dance?

DS: Literally. That's how they communicate. They will send their oldest bees out as scouts. The scouts will fly, search for food and find a nectar source, which they'll collect and bring back to feed it to their sisters. The scout will waggle her abdomen in a straight line and then she'll circle back to where she started and she'll waggle it again, making this figure eight. The angle at which she does her dance tells the other bees where the food source is in reference to the sun. How far she waggles tells how far it’s going to feel to the other bees to find the food source. 


Check out Philadelphia Bee Company and Don Shump in The Wilma Theater lobby before the first performance of Constellations for a honey tasting (A Taste of Honey) on Wednesday, January 11 at 6:30pm


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