Looking for a New Relationship? Consider Some Busy Bees
A few years ago, Alan Riggs was intrigued by the idea of becoming a beekeeper and then he learned that someone he knew was already was a beekeeper. Ray Sola, who also lives in North Haven, became his mentor and before long Riggs was taking care of a couple of hives and was in love with his bees.
The former firefighter who now is a teacher and lives in North Haven, Riggs says he loves the industriousness of the bees, and their teamwork, and the honey they produce.
Then one day while tending the hives he saw something he had only read about or seen videos of: the waggle dance. When forager bees find a food source, they share this information with other members of their colony so the others can also harvest the food source. The bee does circles, figure eights, vertical climbs, and turns while releasing a compound into the air. The movements convey the direction the other bees must take to find the food source, say some researchers. Some say that dancing bees are even able to convey information about potential risks associated with gathering the food source, along with the potential benefits involved.
Watching the bee dance, for all he had already learned about his bees, Riggs was struck by how much there was still to learn.
“It was fascinating,” he says. “It was wonderful and relaxing and exciting. It’s almost like looking at my fish tank.”
The wonder that Riggs experienced is common among beekeepers. And, yes, the wonderful moments come along with frustrations as well, and heartbreak. Sometimes pesticides are sprayed indiscriminately. Neonicotinoid insecticides can weaken the bees, making them more susceptible to the dreaded Varroa mite. The bee’s food supplies can be destroyed by well-meaning people who want to eradicate non-native species that also happen to be ideal for bees.
Then there is the question of how to breed queens and bees so that they are both hardy enough to survive the New England winter, but docile enough to handle, and able to produce sufficient amounts of that sweet honey. Sometimes the hardy bees are a bit aggressive. Sometimes the bees that are more docile and prolific producers of honey have a hard time surviving Connecticut winters. There are thousands of species of bees in the world, and the goal is to take bees descended from bees from as far away as Italy and Yugoslavia, and come up with an ideal Connecticut mutt, which is the goal of research both by the state and by individual beekeepers.
How to Succeed at Bees
So that beginning beekeepers can have the best chance at sorting through the potential hazards and obstacles, experienced beekeepers recommend newbies join one of several organizations in the state, attend one of several upcoming classes to find out the best way to take care of their bees, and acquire bees through a reputable source.
Bee organizations in the state include:
• Connecticut Beekeepers Association: ctbees.org
• Eastern Connecticut Beekeepers Association: myECBA.org
• The Backyard Beekeepers Association: www.backyardbeekeepers.com
The Connecticut Beekeepers Association has two classes coming up. On Saturday, Jan. 20 there is bee school in New Haven, and on Saturday, Feb. 3, there is a bee school in Falls Village. More information about both classes can be found at ctbees.org/bee-school.
For those who think they might be ready, the Menunkatuck Audubon Society, based in Guilford, is offering bee packages for sale for the upcoming 2018 season. The deposit deadline is Saturday, Feb. 10; the cancellation date is Sunday, April 1; and the delivery date is late April, so those who want to make sure they know what they are getting into, have time to take the classes first.
Anyone who becomes a beekeeper must register the hives with the state, says the state apiary inspector, Mark Creighton, who works with the Connecticut Agriculture Experimental Station in New Haven. Creighton says he likes to work with beekeepers to make sure they are doing everything they can to keep their bees healthy.
A Thinking Person’s Game
“We want people to be successful, and we want them to be successful every year,” he says. “We don’t want people to think it’s acceptable for bees to be dying every year, just as a result of whatever. That’s just not the case.”
In addition to registering the bees with the state, new buyers should make sure that their bees have the proper health certificates.
He recommends the upcoming classes as an ideal first step for beekeepers.
“Beekeeping has changed a lot over the past 20 years,” he says. “No longer is it just put a box outside, and take the honey in, in September. It’s a thinking person’s game. There are management strategies we take to keep our bees healthy. Attend the bee school, and continue to attend meetings, four or five times a year, and attend the workshops—and talk with beekeepers and see if working with bees is something you want to do.”
Victoria Smith, the deputy entomologist for the State of Connecticut, says another advantage of finding a mentor is that some are willing to lend some of their equipment when a new beekeeper is in the process of setting up a new hive.
“Not only will a mentor help you out when you have problems, but they might have equipment you can borrow, so that you don’t have to buy a $400 extractor,” she says.
Finding a mentor is absolutely important, says Riggs, adding that the information he got from Sola was critical in terms of his success.
Maureen Alfiero of Down the Lane Farm in Killingworth says her husband Greg, a beekeeper, researched the subject for years before diving in.
“He wanted to feel confident he knew what he was doing before he started,” she says.
Keeping the bees healthy and happy has been a challenges, she says, but one that is fully rewarding.
“Watching them work is like watching fish in a fish tank,” she says, echoing Riggs’ sentiment. “It is very meditative.”
She adds that the bees can pick up on the beekeeper’s moods, so it’s important to be in a good mood when working with bees.
“On a nice day, you can stand a few feet away, and watch all these bees coming and going. The foragers, the ones who go out for the food, are the ones at the end of their life. It’s one of their last jobs, to forage and go out and come back with their hind legs full of pollen,” she says.
She says a worker bee, all of whom are girl bees, has a job to do from the first moment she emerges from her cell. She might clean the cells out, making them ready for the queen to lay new eggs. She might be in charge of feeding young beens. Some might be charged with defending the hive, or tending to the queen.
“One of the last jobs is to forage,” she says, “To go out and find nectars and pollens. So when you see a honey bee foraging, thank her. Her days might be numbered.”
Riggs says he’s particularly pleased that he is helping tend hives placed in two community gardens, at Peter’s Rock in North Haven, and at the Faith United Methodist Church, also in North Haven, where some of the food goes to people in need who otherwise would not be able to afford fresh produce.
“The bees are doing all the work,” he says. “We’re just doing what we can to assist them.”
Getting the Word Out
He says he’s glad word is getting out about the organizations, the classes, and the Menunkatuck Audubon Society’s bee package sale.
“That would be great if more people would get involved. It would be great for them, and for the environment. Hopefully this will inspire people to join us,” he says.
William W. Braun, a board member of the Menunkatuck Aubudon Society who lives in Madison, says another great way for beginning beekeepers to prepare themselves for their first season is to read Beekeeping for Dummies by Howland Blackiston.
“We recently had Howland speak at one of our community events. His book is available in most bookstores, or at all of the local ‘Lion’ libraries,” he says.
Braun says he is happy to answer questions as well.
“I am designated as the resident ‘bee expert’ for Menunkatuck Audubon Society (although there is much I still have to learn in my bee journey). I am available for anyone who orders bees through Menunkatuck to answer questions and offer advice to ensure success with their hives,” he says. “We will be offering a basic beekeeping guide, which should be posted on our website soon, and will offer the process of loading a hive with bees and tending to them in simple steps...I’ve found that most people who get started, regardless of their success in their first year, continue the following year, which speaks to its gratifying nature.”
He says the benefits of beekeeping definitely go far beyond enjoyment.
“Pollination is a critical element of plant reproduction and a healthy ecosystem, and honey bees are perhaps the number-one pollinator. As it pertains to our food supply, honey bees account for at least a third of overall crop production...A backyard beehive very well might be assisting a nearby farm, and many other nearby gardens. The yield for fruits and vegetables is severely augmented by the work of honey bees,” he says. “With honey bees present, virtually every surrounding plant will be benefited.”
For more information about the Menunkatuck Audubon Society’s bee sale, visit menunkatuck.org.
Michelle Naranjo contributed to this story.