Friday, August 4, 2006
To bee or not to bee
Carlisle is a town with many backyard bee-keepers. Over the past two weeks I talked with just eight of them about the attraction, the challenges, and the rewards of working this ancient art in modern times.
Attractions: the bees themselves
For Avril Taylor of North Road, "to bee or not to bee" was never the question. Her fascination with bees began when she was six or seven years old. Her family spent summers on Cape Cod where the local country store had an observation hive. She would forget about the penny candy that she came to buy and long after the rest of the family were ready to leave, she would still be glued to the hive. The sense of wonderment never left her and in 1996 after attending a series of classes, she got a starter package of about 20,000 bees. Ten years later and with 5 hives, she is as riveted as she was when a 6-year old. Erik Collins is similarly fascinated with the bees. In particular he is intrigued that a hive of thousands of bees functions as a single organism capable of accomplishing complex tasks, and it does this with a constantly changing cast of characters — since the average life of a worker bee is only 4 to 6 weeks.
The connection to nature
For Leslie Thomas and Katharine Endicott of Estabrook Road, one of the attractions is their strong commitment to food production that is both local and organic, and a general desire to be closer to nature. This connection to nature and a yearning to be more in touch with the natural order of things was a repeated theme albeit expressed differently from person to person. Jennifer Bush of Church Street is an avid if not addicted gardener who had already added a hothouse and even grows her own mushrooms. She sees beekeeping as an extension of gardening. Steve Spang of Fiske Street was nudged into beekeeping when he accepted some specialized equipment from someone who could no longer use it, but it wasn't the equipment itself that did it. This was a case of the seed falling on fertile ground — ground that was tilled by a favorite aunt and uncle in his boyhood. He so "enjoys the land, the growing of the veggies and the picking of the grapes that such things have become necessary to a sense of well-being".
All in the family
Chris Fielding of East Street has a garden, keeps chickens and also likes to be close to the land. He finds something "romantic" about beekeeping. It is also a family endeavor. Not only is his wife Susan involved but their 2-year old son Payson is showing interest. He enjoys watching the bees going to and fro.
Ed Erny watched and videotaped cautiously from afar when his wife, Avril Taylor, first got her bees. After a couple of seasons he lent a hand to lift off some heavy honey-laden combs and became more engaged. He read and learned all he could until the time came when this distance-learner made so bold as to suggest a better approach to the hands-on queen-bee-keeper in the family. The response was along the lines of "get your own bees". Beekeeping is now a team sport in this family.
Ernie Huber of Partridge Lane has been keeping bees for 28 years. It all began when his daughters were learning about it at 4H. He was able to learn in parallel during lunch-time sessions at his workplace. The first Huber hives were a family venture. (Ernie still has some of the frames built by his daughter, Anne). Part of the attraction was group activity with other families starting hives at the same time. Even though his daughters are no longer at home, he keeps on keeping bees. They give him an outlet for experiments and science projects. He has a never-ending stream of ideas and theories to test, about every aspect of life with bees. He is also interested in the properties of all the products of the hive, not just honey, but wax, royal jelly, propolis, and bee-venom. He has devised a way to self-administer bee-venom therapy which is not too difficult unless you happen to need the treatment on your back! He's not a military man — more of a renaissance man — but his philosophy is definitely "bee all you can bee".
Beekeeping is one of those multi-faceted endeavors that can never be fully mastered. Each season is different (this year there has been a lot of rain) and every problem has as many solutions are there are beekeepers to consult. In recent years mites have become a serious threat; they can completely wipe out a hive. Mites are responsible for the worrisome reduction in bee populations that has generated concern at the national level about crop pollination. Several of the Carlisle beekeepers mentioned a sense of satisfaction from knowing that each hive they maintain is helping make a difference. The recent visitation from a black bear created havoc with at least three beekeepers in town. Chris Fielding was philosophic about his damaged hive. "It's sad to see a hive mauled by a bear, but it's nice to know there's a bear around." A nastier challenge is the threat from insecticides. You can't control where your bees will forage and it can be up to five miles from the hive. Avril Taylor once found thousands of dead bees piled in front of her hives. They had foraged somewhere where insecticides were sprayed.
The sting thing
Nobody mentioned bee stings without coaxing. I learned that honey bees are gentle creatures if you learn their ways, and take care when handling them. They have their jobs to do and no desire to harm a person. For those of us who are not (yet) beekeepers, a swarm may seem like sting city. Jennifer Bush disabused me of this notion. She said "catching a swarm is a lot of fun. When the bees swarm, they are very calm. They have gorged on honey first and they are very focused". She has never been stung catching a swarm. She says "when I get a sting I assume it was my fault". Erik Collins put it another way "Unless you're the type who likes to swim with sharks, don't go up and shake the hive." He likes to stand in front of his new hive (this is his first season as a beekeeper) and watch the comings and goings. He has noticed that heavily laden bees returning to the hive have lost a lot of flight agility. He feels them as they bump into his back but they don't sting. They are efficient creatures — they see no percentage in giving up their life or their cargo for the harmless novice beekeeper standing in their way.
The obvious reward is the honey. Beekeepers take pleasure not just in eating their honey but in giving it to friends and having extra to sell — to say nothing of some for making mead. Ed Erny 'got such a kick' out of seeing how much people enjoyed honey from a local source that he has had a stand at the end of the driveway for the last 8 years and he sells at the Farmers' Market. He has also built a website for selling honey and now people in all 50 states have tasted Carlisle honey. He has even sent honey overseas to Europe and Asia.
But honey is not the bee-all and end-all. I got a strong sense from all the beekeepers that the satisfaction is as much from the journey as the destination. I heard what must be some of the reasons we call it bee-keeping and not honey-farming. Steve Spang spoke of the quiet pleasure of sitting in front of his hive and watching the activity. He could make assessments about the health of the hive from these observations. In the winter he likes to occasionally put his ear to the hive. He gets a gentle buzz from the hum of the workers warming the hive. Avril Taylor finds that working with bees is an excellent antidote to a modern busy lifestyle. The bees get her total attention and the worries of the day vanish. And there was even more — like the ability to help people in need of bees for bee-venom therapy, the beauty of a freshly pulled honey comb, the opportunity for observational science, and the continuing fascination with these half-wild half-domesticated insects.
Beekeeping is an equal-opportunity hobby accessible to anyone with the inclination. If you are intrigued, the Middlesex Beekeepers Association can help you get started. Many people mentioned the value of the Association and the network of members who trade ideas, share experiences, mentor beginners, and just have fun. It offers classes in the winter so new beekeepers will be ready in the spring. You can get general information and contacts at www.ziplink.net/~tedshy/
Did you know? The word honeymoon is derived from the traditional gift in olden days of one month's supply of mead to a bride and groom as a fertility enhancer.
© 2006 The Carlisle Mosquito