A brain surgeon finds beekeeping a chance to relax.
FOX Chapel, the bucolic suburban enclave in Pennsylvania, is home to CEOs and surgeons, and now, several queens, thanks to Bill Bookwalter.
Nearly nine years ago, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center brain surgeon took up beekeeping as a way to relax.
Today, he has hives scattered throughout the borough.
Not much of a golfer by his own admission, he was looking for a way to unwind outside of the operating room, where he performs an average of nine surgeries a week.
He began his career in Pittsburgh in private practice in 1986 and has spent the past seven years at UPMC.
He will return to private practice in January.
“In the operating room, your focus is on taking care of the patient, and there is a tremendous amount of responsibility associated with that.
“But with the hives, it’s nice to do something where there are not a lot of demands made on me. You just get to be by yourself with the bees.”
A biologist at heart, his interest in biological sciences and ecosystems led him to beekeeping.
“Beehives are essentially a biological system that you can manage,” Bookwalter says.
“There are a lot of people who are extremely knowledgeable about bees in this community, and I am not in that league. I am truly just a hobbyist.”
He has the stings to prove it.
“I’ve been stung plenty, more than you can count,” he says, laughing.
“But bees really don’t bother you if you don’t bother them.
“Honey bees and bumblebees are herbivores. They graze on the flowers and are not predatory or aggressive.”
They only become aggressive if you threaten the hive, he says.
Even the weather can affect their moods.Like people, bees tend to be docile on warm, sunny days but can be more agitated on gray, rainy ones.
His interest began when one of his patients brought him a gift of honey.
“My patient, Lee Brown, who is also a paramedic, was a beekeeper. I told him it was something I always wanted to do.”
Initially, his wife, Donna, rejected the idea, but she eventually agreed as long as the hives were as far away from the house as possible.
Brown helped him with his first apiary.
Last year, he bought a hive from Finland to help overwinter the bees. It did so well that he added more.
Now, he has nine hives on his property and eight more with friends.
Each fall and spring, his friends pitch in to help with the honey harvest.
The autumn harvest was several weeks ago.
To harvest the honey, they take the frames out of the hives, cut caps made from beeswax and use specially designed extractors.
The next step is filtering. It takes about 30 minutes to run a gallon through a filter.
“Honey does not need to be processed beyond filtering because it’s naturally bacteria static, meaning bacteria can’t grow in it. In fact, you can actually use honey as an antiseptic dressing.”
Friends receive some of the harvest as gifts.
Years ago, well-known beekeeper Jim Fitzroy sent Donna Bookwalter hand cream made from beeswax.
“She really loved it, so now we make hand cream and other wax-based products,” Bookwalter says.
They have also sold honey to support the mission of Surgicorps International.
“Some years, you have a booming harvest and we get rid of extra that way, but for the most part, we just give it away,” he says. — McClatchy Tribune Information Services