The crisp morning air is thick with tension — and buzzing — in this Wasatch Hollow backyard.
Amber Lawvor carefully scans a honey bee hive, searching for one thing amid its thousands of clumped-together insects: the queen.
Queens are crucial to a hive’s survival. If Lawvor can’t find her, or spot a sign that she’s there, she will have to order a live queen online, a difficult task this time of year. She was running out of time, too — the 55-degree weather was cooler than the bees liked. Soon, they would be irritated.
Through their wriggling black-and-yellow bodies, though, Lawvor’s beekeeping mentor Jes Silverman suddenly spotted eggs, a tiny confirmation of the queen’s recent presence.
“Oh, I see. OK,” Lawvor said, exhaling. She doesn’t normally have to search for so long, and Lawvon was “starting to panic.”
Lawvor, an associate librarian at the Salt Lake City Public Library, has been caring for this hive since April. But she’s been caring for another beehive here since February 2020 — the one that’s usually perched on the library’s roof, which has been undergoing renovations.
“The bees first came to the library about 10 years ago, so that sparked my interest,” Lawvor said.
She started helping care for them about seven years ago, and became an actual beekeeper two years ago.
“I always felt like well, I just helped. I helped take care of the bees,” she said. “And then the [library’s] beekeeper was like, ‘Yeah, that means that you’re a beekeeper. You keep bees.’”
Learning her A, Bee, Cs
The Salt lake City Public Library is “one of the first and only” public libraries to house honey bees in the country, according to the library’s honey bee info book. The first hives were acquired in 2010.
The honey bees, which are Utah’s official state insect, were put on the roof through a joint venture of the Salt Lake City Council, the mayor, the city beekeeper and the library.
Lawvor has worked for the public library for about 15 years, and started keeping the library’s bees when the previous keeper moved away. She registered with the state as a beekeeper, and before the library’s rooftop renovations began, she moved the bees into her partner’s backyard, about 15 minutes from their original home.
The insects were still fairly dormant at the time. “We just waited until they were all in their hive,” she said, then she plugged the hive’s exit holes and loaded them into a truck.
It was the library’s only active hive; they were having trouble keeping bees through winter, Lawvor said. The bees living in the library’s hive right now are actually a new group, because the previous group died last winter.
The No. 1 killer for hives in the winter is mites, particularly Varroa mites — a parasite that feeds on honey bees, Lawvor said. Hives usually house about 50,000 honey bees, making a loss devastating.
“They really, for me, feel like my pets,” Lawvor said.
Weather also plays a role in a hive’s survival, but the insects are able to control the hive’s internal temperature through their wing vibrations. They only pop outside in the winter for “cleansing flights” to defecate, since they can store enough honey and pollen to have enough food through the season. But they won’t leave if it’s too cold, often around 40-45 degrees or cooler, Lawvor said.
Lawvor hopes that this year, with her added experience and additional mite treatments, the bees will stand a better chance.
Bee-yond her years
Silverman and Lawvor first met in March through the Wasatch Beekeepers Association, a group of individuals in the Salt Lake Valley who educate beekeepers and perform community outreach.
The association has a mentorship program that paired up the two, with Silverman offering beekeeping wisdom to Lawvor, which Silverman has learned over the past five years as a keeper, though Lawvor has more experience than most beginners, Silverman said.
The library’s bees were actually one of the first influences that got Silverman into the hobby, she said, years before she knew Lawvor.
“The library has definitely inspired me,” Silverman said.
The library hosts a regular honey harvest celebration where individuals can watch the honey get collected and get a free jar of the spread.
Once the bees are back at the library, around spring or summer following renovations, Lawvor hopes to organize programming about the hives, geared more toward education about beekeeping itself.
“People are very interested in bees,” Lawvor said, “so it’s great when kids come to the library or families and they’re like, ‘Your beekeeper is here? They work here? That’s cool, can we meet them?’”