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In it for the bees

Boy Scout advocates residential beekeeping in North Liberty
North Liberty resident Dominick Shover examines a brood frame from one of his beehives in rural Mechanicsville. Since 2017, Shover has become a beekeeping advocate with hopes to pave the way for beekeeping in residential zones of North Liberty. (photo by Cale Stelken)

NORTH LIBERTY– Dominick Shover’s got a buzz for bees, and he thinks you should, too.
A member of Boy Scout Troop 216 in North Liberty, Shover has become an advocate for honeybees and beekeeping over the last two years. He says bees don’t deserve the bad rap they often receive– not only that, but we should embrace them for sustaining our very existence.
“If the bees go, man would have less than four years to live,” Shover cited.
More specifically, he’d like to see the practice integrated into North Liberty’s residential districts. Over the last year, Shover, who lives just off Zeller Street, has maintained a hive at his scout leader’s property just outside the North Liberty city limits, as well as one in Hills and two on his beekeeping mentor’s property in rural Mechanicsville. Equipped with his beekeeper’s suit and veil, and a few puffs of smoke, he’s able to crack open his hives to check in on “the girls” and their honey production.
“There’s a point in the year when they can put out 40 pounds a week if we were able to keep up with them, but we’re just not able to keep up,” he noted. As cold temperatures bring collecting season to a close, however, the remaining honey is left in the hive for the bees to make it through the winter.

Passing the torch

Shover was drawn to the hobby when his scout mentor, Phil La Rue, who serves as resident beekeeper at Howard H. Cherry Scout Reservation in Central City, invited him to check out his hives in rural Mechanicsville.
“I didn’t know how much goes into making honey, what exactly they do to do it and how you get it,” Shover recalled. “It looked like a fun hobby, and it is.”
Shover received a Youth Beekeeping Scholarship from the Iowa Honey Producers Association (IHPA), which has been helping fellow beekeepers since 1912. The organization provided him with the necessary gear and equipment, including bees, on the condition that he carry them through the summer.
“It’s all about success, building confidence and learning new skills, and getting to enjoy the rewards,” La Rue said. The duo hopes to bring beekeeping back to scouts and add another dimension to its environmental program.

Building a buzz

For Shover, educating others on the importance of honeybees is just as critical as carrying the torch for the next generation of beekeepers. On April 10, in the presence of his fellow Boy Scouts Troop, Shover, a Senior Patrol Leader, addressed the North Liberty City Council on the need to allow beekeeping in residential districts. He’s made presentations at local schools such as North Central Junior High, as well as his scout camp, even using the video game Minecraft to demonstrate a working beehive for his peers. His work was also featured in Liberty High School’s Live Wire magazine in February.
To further help his cause, Shover even developed his own brand, D’s Bees honey, partnering with John Grant of Chameleon Candy and setting up shop together at local farmers and vendors markets. He also sees potential in partnering with the North Liberty Community Pantry in the future.
According to Shover, beekeeping offers a variety of benefits, and the stigma of honeybees as aggressive insects needs to be shelved in order to bring them into broader acceptance.
“People associate honeybees with wasps, hornets and bumblebees, but they don’t understand that honeybees will only sting you if they have to,” he explained, noting how a honeybee’s barbed stinger is attached to its vitals and therefore self-sacrificing when used in defense.
Shover notes how residential gardens and flowers of North Liberty would benefit from increased pollination from neighboring honeybees, and that raw local honey offers unique health benefits from a typical commercial product.
“It has pollen from all those things that people are usually allergic to and incorporates it into the honey,” he noted. “So when you eat that, it builds your immune system.”
In addition to honey, bees also produce a valuable material called propolis, or bee glue, which is used in varnish and is thought to have antibacterial, anti-fungal and anti-inflammatory properties.

Differing policies

Ordinances on beekeeping vary throughout Eastern Iowa. Cedar Rapids will update its zoning code in January to allow beekeeping in agriculture and suburban residential zonings. Marion currently allows it, albeit with a heavy permit and strenuous approval process, according to District 2 Director Tom Hart of the IHPA.
Iowa City, however, remains a unique example in the Corridor in its casual approach to residential beekeeping. Chris Whitmore, Iowa City Animal Services Coordinator, said the City of Iowa City relies largely on a policy of self-regulation, with no true ordinance fleshed out. Hives can’t be near the property line; beekeepers need to provide a water source; and they’re encouraged to ask for neighbors’ permission. While residential beekeeping has gained popularity, a lack of feedback has led the city to leave the basic guidelines as-is.
“We’ve had a few beehives in the area for probably 10 years, and most of the time, people don’t even know what it is and don’t have a problem with it,” she remarked.
Whitmore, who’s been employed with Iowa City Animal Services since 1993, also cited potential benefits of having neighborhood beekeeping.
“We always tell people, ‘share your wealth.’ If you’ve got some honey that you can give to your neighbor that is putting up with your hives, that’s always a good thing to do,” she said, comparing the approach to neighbors sharing eggs from their backyard chickens. “We’re kind of going back in time, and I think that’s a good thing– neighbors talking to each other and exchanging goods– so I’m for it.”
North Liberty City Councilor and Mayor Pro Tempore Chris Hoffman said, while priorities haven’t provided much room to look at beekeeping, proper education would be key for the city council. Hoffman compared it to the ordinance permitting chickens in residential zones about four years ago, which required a few gradual revisions.
“Those little details like that are ultimately what we needed to pinpoint from our education, but I think taking a step back from that, we learned that it’s really not that big of a deal, and I think we’ll probably learn that same thing with beekeeping,” Hoffman noted. “I can’t speak for anybody else, but ultimately, I think I’m probably going to be a little bit more inclined to accept that, or let them be in city limits, pardon the pun.”
Kaila Rome, Executive Director for the North Liberty Community Pantry, said while the pantry itself is currently too busy to take on the responsibility of beekeeping, the organization would welcome its expansion in North Liberty. “We’re definitely on board for residential beekeeping, as far as the benefits of people doing those types of things from their own homes,” she remarked. “We would be beneficiaries if more residents in the area could keep bees and could produce honey, or for pollinating factors that help our garden.”

More than a hobby

As Shover can attest, beekeeping requires great resilience. The harsh temperatures last winter were detrimental to many bee colonies of Iowa, including his own. Varroa mites and pesticides only add to the list of dangers faced by this key element to our food chain. Nevertheless, Shover’s enthusiasm for honeybees remains unwavering. He’s currently building a honey house to process his product and store his hives from inclement weather, and he continues to bottle this year’s honey, with the profits going back to “the girls” to buy more bees and supplies. 
For the greater community, much of the winter months are spent training newcomers to beekeeping, such as the Indian Creek Nature Center’s eight-session series in Cedar Rapids. Online registration opens in December at indiancreeknaturecenter.org, or by calling 319-362-0664. More information on how to get involved in beekeeping in Iowa and its districts can be found at iowahoneyproducers.org.