The man in the center of the circle has the attention of every person around him: Adults, children, even dogs are rapt as he ties what looks like a small cloth purse beneath his chin.
On that cloth purse is a queen bee whose followers emerge from a nearby beehive and head toward the man’s face. As audience members gasp, the bees alight, almost daintily, on his chin, his cheeks, his neck, until he is covered in a living, writhing bee beard.
Such was the scene at last year’s Philadelphia Honey Festival, when Don Shump did his annual bee-bearding demonstration, just one of many activities at the yearly celebration of honey organized by the Philadelphia Beekeepers Guild.
This year will be the festival’s ninth and, once again, Shump will put on his nail-biter of a demonstration. But there will be plenty of other compelling activities as well at the weekend event’s three locations — Bartram’s Garden, Wyck Historic House and Glen Foerd on the Delaware — including open hive demonstrations, honey extractions, honey tastings, children’s activities, mead tastings and more. Given that the fest takes place the weekend before Rosh Hashanah, it’s the perfect time to pick up some locally made honey from area beekeepers.
One of those beekeepers is Mark Berman, creative marketing manager at Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. He got interested in beekeeping about five years ago as a result of his own trip to Honey Fest.
“My wife took me and my daughter to a Honey Fest open beehive demo and I got completely enthralled because of the sounds and the sights but mostly the smells of it — the smell of the smoker and the nectar and the beeswax; it just draws you in,” Berman said. “I can’t really explain it other than that. It’s still kind of a mystery to me how I got so taken by it except by the senses.”
Now he’ll be leading his own open hive demonstration on Sept. 9 at Bartram’s Garden, where he keeps his bees. Before Berman kept the bees at Bartram’s, he used to keep them on the first-floor roof of his South Philadelphia rowhome kitchen. But he had to move them after the hives swarmed twice — much to the consternation of his neighbors.
One of those times he was on vacation in New Mexico. He awoke in his hotel room at 5 a.m. in a panic after having a dream that the bees had swarmed. When he looked at his cell phone, he saw a voicemail: “My neighbor had called to tell me the bees had swarmed.”
While some might see this as some kind of mystic experience, Berman is more pragmatic about it: “Every beekeeper is kind of connected to their bees that way because you have to be in tune with what’s happening in the hive,” he said. “You pretty much know when they’re going to swarm, when they need more sugar syrup, when you need to do an inspection, when you need to treat for mites.”
This level of detailed attention is precisely why Berman enjoys the hobby.
“You learn so much more about nature,” Berman said. “It connects you to what’s going on outside your house. I became fascinated by their biology, their anatomy, and the way they work alone and in their society, their different jobs and the amazing way they communicate with each other. Their waggle dance is incredible.”
And Berman says it’s taught him a lot about Philadelphia.
“It’s an amazing environment for honeybees. A lot of people who don’t live in an urban environment don’t understand that. They think, ‘How can you have honeybees in the city?’ We have a community garden at the end of our block, we have four parks within a quarter mile of our house. Philadelphia has tons of old trees and rivers and we have 40,000 vacant lots with wildflowers. In the suburbs, you have a lot of monoculture and grass lawns with no diversity. In the city, there’s lots of forage.”
Berman and his daughter extract honey from his bees in July and September and typically get about 22 pounds of honey. They sell most of it at the Honey Fest.
Bartram’s, the Sept. 9 location, “has tons of vendors and food trucks,” said Berman, noting that it’s easy to make a day of it there. Also, visitors can literally taste the city.
“There are samples of honey from different sections of town from different beekeepers who keep their bees on roofs, in parks, in community gardens … There are no two honeys that are alike. They all have different, peculiar tastes.”
And now is the perfect time for it.
“When you’re keeping bees, you learn about different seasons and now you know why Rosh Hashanah is a good time to have honey. That’s because that’s the fall harvest and it’s the time when the bees have surplus honey. It represents the summation of the season’s harvest,” Berman explained. And, he added, “It’s really cool to be able to bring your own honey to Rosh Hashanah dinner.”