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What’s buzzing around Richmond Library?

Why on earth is the Richmond Library keeping more than a thousand bees as pets?

Thatcher isn’t afraid to get up close and personal with the Richmond Library’s honeybees. | Photo by Tom Beck.

The manager of the Richmond Library has a beekeeper suit, but she doesn’t like to wear it.
“It’s really uncomfortable,” Amy Thatcher explained, “and the hives are really small anyway. I don’t feel threatened.”

The layperson might reasonably assume that epidermal protection is necessary when toying with two hive-fulls of airborne stinging machines gassed-up on sugary honey, but Thatcher assures the Star that the library’s honeybees are, in fact, mostly harmless. She called them “the hippies of the insect world.”

“They’re very easygoing,” she said. “All they want to do is follow their queen’s instructions, raise their young, get pollen, make honey, and then they die. That’s it. That’s all they want.”

This very process is happening on the grounds of the Richmond Library. From the street, they’re hard to spot unless you know what you’re looking for. They look like grayish-white boxes with two slits on the bottom. The hives are called honey supers, and the slits are where the honeybees fly in and out.

Thatcher led the Star to the boxes and took off the lids, revealing rows of frames that look like air conditioner filters, but covered in honeycomb instead of dust. They’re teeming with bees.

“So here we are,” she said, pulling out a frame with her bare hands. “All these brown capsules here – these are all baby bees.”

Since the hives were installed by the Philadelphia Bee Company back in March, Thatcher has become somewhat of a minor authority on honeybees. She explained that honeybees will often fly miles away to collect nectar, which gets turned into honey back at the hive. After collecting the nectar by putting it in makeshift “pockets” in their legs, they fly back to the hive and continue the process of turning it into honey. If the beaver is nature’s landscape engineer, the honeybee is nature’s culinary engineer.

The honeybees won’t sting Thatcher even if she touches them with her bare hands. | Photo by Tom Beck.

But all of this begs the question: Why on earth is the Richmond Library keeping more than a thousand bees as pets?

It started back before Thatcher became the manager of the branch, which was about four years ago.

“If you notice up there,” Thatcher said, pointing above the library’s main entrance, “there’s a dirty little area with white on the left? That was the entrance for a hive of 60 to 70,000 bees.”

Thatcher became concerned with the beehive so close to the main entrance. Sometimes, kids would throw rocks at them. She decided to call an exterminator.

“As it turns out, bees are essential food producers and you cannot kill them as you would termites or ants,” she said. In 2017, she called Don Shump, a beekeeper and CEO of the Philadelphia Bee Company, in an attempt to lure the bees out of the building’s masonry. A decoy hive that was created to do just that proved unsuccessful, however. The harsh winter that year killed off the bees, anyway.

“The more we learned about bees,” said Thatcher, “the more fascinating they seemed to me in particular…their society is altruistic and involves everybody working for the greater good. There isn’t any individualism, which, you know I guess could be a bad thing, but in today’s world I like the idea of a group harmoniously working together for each other’s benefit.”

She knew that given today’s political climate, there was a social science lesson in there somewhere for children to learn from. With Shump’s help, the library installed an indoor observation hive with a glass window so library goers could see the bees in action. The hive was located next to a window, with a portal that leads outside so the honeybees could come and go as they please.

“You could see babies being born, you could see the queen doing her thing,” Thatcher said. “That was the coolest thing for people to come and see an actual beehive through glass.”

During this time, researchers from Penn State used the indoor hive to observe the bees for a study they conducted on whether rural or urban bees were better at finding resources like pollen and nectar from native plants.

“With the bee cam, there were these researchers who spent all this time watching, like, 900 hours of bees on a computer to try to figure out where the Port Richmond bees are going,” said Thatcher. As it turns out, Thatcher said, many go to Graffiti Pier because its lack of landscaping has made for lots of native plant species, which attracts the bees.

The indoor beehive was perfect not just for researchers, but for children who wanted to learn about bees.

“People would come in and say, ‘Where’s the bees?’ and then look for books,” said Thatcher.

It was earlier this year, however, when Thatcher came up with the idea to install two new beehives on the grounds of the library for people who wanted a closer look. Unfortunately, soon after they were installed the library had shut down as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it hasn’t stopped Thatcher from shooting her own Facebook Live videos with the supers where she teaches viewers about the fascinating insects. In the videos, she doesn’t wear protection.

“It’s probably better to wear gear, but I want to feel used to them,” said Thatcher, who’s been stung twice so far – once on her thumb and another time on her eyebrow. “I’m just weird.”

For more information about the Richmond Library’s bees, and to watch Thatcher’s videos, visit the branch’s Facebook page.

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