|Matt Birkley, co-owner of Birkley Services and local beekeeper|
Birkley Services, which offers heating, cooling and electrical services, is a family affair and a longtime Fort Thomas business. Both Birkley and his wife, Lisa (a journalism and 8th grade language arts teacher at Highlands Middle School), grew up in Fort Thomas. The couple and their daughter live on Riverview Ave., and it is there, on a warm spring morning we talk, sitting at a table on a large screened-in porch.
Birkley's Heating was founded in 1947 by Birkley's grandfather, who first worked for Williamson, installing coal furnaces. Family members entered into the business, including Birkley's dad and uncle. Matt Birkley worked for the family company during summers while in high school. Birkley then studied business management at Northern Kentucky University, graduating in 1989. Later named Birkley's Heating and Cooling, the family company went through various changes—the business was sold, and several family members worked for a wholesaler. In 2000, Matt Birkley started Birkley Services as a handyman service. Eventually his brother and parents teamed up with him, putting the focus back on heating and cooling. Today there are three master technicians—Matt Birkley, Chris Birkley (Matt's brother) and Joe Birkley (Matt's father). Connie Birkley (Matt's mother) serves as office manager.
Today Birkley's hives are empty—his beloved bees died over winter. Beekeeping is a tricky business, and in addition to dying (for so many reasons, including winter starvation, varroa mites, hive beetles and wax moths) many bees are simply vanishing—a condition called colony collapse disorder. It's a condition so serious that the National Resources Defense Council states "without bees to pollinate many of our favorite fruits and vegetables, the United States could lose $15 billion worth of crops."
At his peak, Birkley has had 14 hives, many of which were at The Giving Fields, a community farm in Melbourne, Ky., that provides fresh produce for local food pantries. When available, Birkley also sells honey from his home on Riverview Ave. His daughter made a yard sign advertising when honey is for sale and the whole operation is done on an honor system—take a jar, leave $6.
In six short years Birkley has learned a lot about beekeeping. He talks about pesticides in commercial farming, how the chemicals affect the DNA of plants. He talks about traveling commercial beehives that pollinate the almond crops and then the cranberry crops out West, and I think about the large semi-truck I spied on I-75 South in Tennessee several weeks ago, filled with hives cloaked in netting—bees everywhere.
Birkley talks about the power of the queen bee, the wax starter strips, the jacket he wears with the netting that drapes around his head to keep him safe, and bee sting therapy—something he has done on himself, on his hips, to help with arthritis. He talks about bottling honey in the spring and fall, but being careful in the fall to leave enough honey for the bees to live on in the winter. (In a good year one hive can produce 50 pounds of honey—enough to fill a five-gallon bucket.)
He talks about making and providing the bees with sugar water when they need extra food. He talks about how the bees go in and out of his hives all day long, traveling up to five miles around Fort Thomas, foraging and returning to their queen. He talks about how bees don't hibernate in the winter, rather they move in a cluster to keep warm, and how sometimes the interior of a hive can reach 90°, no matter how cold it is outside.
He talks about how clean bees are—only on warm winter days will they leave their hive to relieve themselves.
He talks about all the honeybee produces. He talks about propolis, which bees use to seal unwanted holes in their hive. He talks about honey and beeswax, yes, and also about bee venom and royal jelly, which can turn a regular bee into a queen bee.
Turns out, honey bees are fascinating.
"Plant bee-friendly flowers," Birkley says, when I ask how non-beekeepers can help the local bee population. "Get rid of lawn chemicals." (Roundup is the worst, he adds.) "Don't kill them. One out of every three bites of the food you eat is associated with bees."
I think about that as Birkley tells me about people in Asia who have resorted to pollinating plants with cotton swabs by hand. And I think about how what was initially simply an interest in a fellow father's book has turned into deep devotion, not only for Birkley's personal hobby but for the protection and preservation of honey bees as a whole.
Birkley hopes to replenish his hives soon. So the next time you see a honey bee foraging, know that it might just be one of Birkley's. And should you like some honey, simply look for his sign and when it's out, drop some money in the bucket. The sweetness you get in return will go beyond your tea and into the preservation of honey bees as a whole.