Clad in a white beekeeping suit, Vic Merrifield led two visitors wearing protective garb into a small enclosure of hives at the Rock County Community Garden.
This is Merrifield’s third year of beekeeping at the county garden on Highway 14 and fifth overall. In that time, he has come to view honeybees as docile insects despite the fact that he has been stung a handful of times.
Concern over the aggressiveness of honeybees and the potential for serious allergic reactions dominated debate earlier this year as Janesville grappled with a proposed backyard beekeeping ordinance.
The city council eventually passed the measure in April, although there was an initial motion to reject it.
Now that backyard beekeeping is regulated and allowed, Merrifield and other beekeepers hope residents welcome bees rather than fear them.
“You’re not going to notice the bees in people’s backyards. Legally, they have to tell you that they’re there,” Merrifield said, referring to a sign requirement in the ordinance.
“But if they didn’t tell you, I can 99.9% tell you, you wouldn’t know your neighbor had a beehive back there. People are going to notice their fruit trees being more plentiful with fruit.”
Honeybees aren’t aggressive like wasps and yellow jackets. Stinging is a last resort because, unlike wasps and yellow jackets, one sting will kill a honeybee, he said.
Merrifield said he can work harmoniously with honeybees. As he pulled apart some of his hives at the county garden, bees hovered nearby but didn’t bother him.
He has six hives on site in various stages of development. Each hive contains frames with premade “foundations” that help the bees form comb.
Bees do this by secreting wax from a chest gland and rubbing their bodies over the foundation. Eventually, this forms the familiar honeycomb pattern, and each cell will be used to store larva or honey, he said.
Merrifield pulled out a frame that contained honey. He allowed a Gazette reporter to take a Winnie the Pooh-esque swipe and taste the delectable, natural honey, untouched by manufacturing processes.
When Merrifield’s demonstration ended, all three people inside the enclosure emerged without being stung.
Will Canada, another Janesville beekeeper, said he sometimes can check his hives without wearing protective equipment. He acknowledged the allergy concern—his wife is allergic to honeybees—but said their relative tameness makes them less likely to sting.
He and Merrifield both said the benefits of pollination and food production outweigh the negatives. Beekeepers are crucial to preserving the bee population, which is struggling because of pesticides and other insects.
A good beekeeper can catch problems before they spread to an entire hive, Merrifield said.
Whether more Janesville residents join the beekeeping ranks is uncertain.
City Clerk-Treasurer Dave Godek said the city has received only one application for a permit, and another person has taken out paperwork. Neither has been approved yet.
That didn’t surprise Godek. Janesville issued only 32 backyard chicken permits, and that ordinance passed four years ago.
Neither Canada nor Merrifield have their permits yet, although both are working on it. Unregulated hives had existed in Janesville prior to the ordinance passing.
Merrifield said even though starting a beehive might seem daunting, organizations such as the Rock County Beekeepers Association can help. The group meets monthly and costs $10 per year for membership.
“People that are into bees want to see bees succeed. You will get somebody to come to your hive to show you what to do and what to look for,” Merrifield said.
“There’s so much support. Starting out, it’s confusing, but there’s enough people to make it more understandable for you.”