As thousands of bees buzz around their hives, guarding their queen and their food, beekeepers are not fazed by them. Beekeepers have a deal with their bees: beekeepers provide shelter and take care of the bees when they need to, and the bees pollinate the surrounding flowers and gardens and give their extra honey to the beekeepers.
Beekeepers provide a safe place for bees and their hives. By having bees, there are many benefits, they help agriculture and wildlife, provide local honey, and increase the overall bee population. This not only helps the beekeepers, but it also positively affects the community because the bees provide these benefits. There are many beekeeping associations that share knowledge on bees and beekeeping throughout New England. There is a lot to learn about beekeeping, but also a lot to learn from the bees themselves.
The process of taking care of bees requires thorough knowledge although bees are very self-sufficient. Spencer Lovette is the President of Merrimack Valley Beekeepers Association, a group of around 240 beekeepers from central Massachusetts to northern New Hampshire. Lovette has been a beekeeper for about seven years and has six hives in his backyard. Lovette said since he started beekeeping, his bees have had a positive impact on his neighbors and the farms near his house. He mentioned that bees circulate within a 5 mile radius and that even in a rural area, his bees still pollinate neighboring gardens. “That’s a very, very large area that my bees are pollinating. So the community definitely benefits from that, not only my garden but also my neighbors’ gardens, and down the street is Fitch’s Farm and they have bee hives there as well. I’m sure my bees are living among their bees and plants and helping themselves and pollinating their vegetables,” he said.
Bees are a major contributor to agriculture, mostly because of their ability to pollinate. Julie Kelley, a member of the Merrimack Valley Beekeepers Association, is owner of Tewksbury Honey, a family operated farm that has over 8 million bees in 100 to 120 hives. Kelley said, “honey bees pollinate 33% of our food crops, 100% of the almond crop, 90% of the apple, broccoli, blueberry, and onion crops, 80% of the cherry crop, and so much more.”
Another benefit to having bees is the honey that they produce, an essential food source for bees, and something that some beekeepers harvest. Thomas Hausmann, Spanish teacher at ORHS, has been a beekeeper since 1988 when he learned beekeeping in the Peace Corps. He currently has one hive at his house and four hives at a friend’s house nearby and jars the honey from his hives.
Hausmann said that by eating local honey, you can avoid or lower how much processed sugars you intake. By eating local honey, you also consume both the honey and pollen and that allows you to build a tolerance for local pollen, which is a common allergen.
Lovette said, “local honey is better for you than store bought honey that comes from a different location because bees make the honey from local pollen and nectar which have certain allergens in them. So by eating local honey, it will improve your immune system to local allergens. People who are highly allergic [to pollen] will very much like to have local honey because it helps to clear up their allergens. So when you go to the store and buy honey from Indiana, you’re not doing as much good for your immune system if you buy honey locally.”
Bees face many struggles with contracting illnesses and viruses. They encounter viruses and diseases through contact with other colonies of bees. Hausmann said that since almond growers rely heavily on bees to pollinate their almonds, they pay commercial beekeepers from all over the country to come to their orchards.
“[Almond growers] pay the commercial beekeepers a handsome sum for each hive they can put into the orchards and pollinate. So you have basically 60% of the bees in the United States in California during February pollinating almonds, they all mix together, they share diseases, they take those diseases and bring the bees back home and bring those diseases back and spread those diseases and it’s all because of almonds. If you’re a commercial beekeeper, it’s hard to turn down the excellent money you’d get paid by almond growers,” said Hausmann.
Bees also get diseases from mites, who are one of the biggest threats to bees. Mites can take over a whole colony of bees if they are too quick for the bees to stop. According to Lovette, mites eat holes through the exoskelton of bee larva that never heal, so once they develop, they get countless infections and viruses from what the mites have done to them. “It’d be like if you had a dinner-plate-sized hole in your abdomen and your guts are exposed, and the result of that is you’re going to catch all these diseases and viruses. So the mites don’t really kill the bees, but the mites disable the bees by perforating them and they get sick from whatever is around. If the mites multiply too much, then the whole colony dies off, or they might starve because they don’t have enough food,” said Lovette.
Beekeepers can help prevent or mitigate the mites in a hive by checking on them regularly to make sure that if there is a mite population in the hive, it stays low.
A much larger predator to bees that beekeepers prepare for is skunks and racoons. Hausmann said that he puts a fence around his hives so if a skunk or racoon were to attack the hive, they would need to expose their abdomen which is a very sensitive spot. By making this part vulnerable, the bees would sting them in the abdominal region and drive the predators away. If preventing bears from attacking the bees, the beekeeper would set up an electric fence to deter them from going to the hives.
Apart from local benefits and how much bees help humans, bees need some help from beekeepers. “There’s not much that prevents people from [beekeeping] other than you have to know how to do it […] If they wanted to give it a shot, then there are clubs like ours that make it easier to go into beekeeping,” said Lovette. Some of these clubs include Maine Beekeepers Association, which Hausmann is a part of, and many other groups that create communities that share information and tips on how to protect bees, take care of them, and make hives.
Lovette, Hausmann, and Kelley all agreed that more people should join the beekeeping party. “The more the merrier. We started with just 2 hives, and it was super fun. It got a little out of control, and now we have more than 100, but a couple hives isn’t too much work,” said Kelley.
Hausmann said, “I think everyone should have a beehive in their yard.” He went on to say that having a beehive would help educate people on the different species of bees like carpenter, bumble, and honey bees, most beekeepers have honey bees. Hausmann added that people would also learn overall bee behavior and that bees are not something to be afraid of.
Lovette wants people to become beekeepers purely for the fun of it all. “It would be good for our environment and good for society, but I wouldn’t go and tell people to keep bees for that reason. You should keep bees because it’s fun and rewarding. It’s one of those rare things where it’s fun to do and it’s good for you,” said Lovette.
All Photos were taken by Arthur Rounds at Lovette’s hives.