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Honeybees on the Rise in Norfolk


By Jude Mead

Shawn Foley surrounds his bee yard with an electric fence against bears.

Why would anyone raise honeybees? Honeybees give us honey, with its rich sweet taste. And beeswax, used in candles and cosmetics. There’s also the fact that honeybee pollination may account, either directly or indirectly, for one-third of our food. Whatever the reason, beekeeping has become a popular hobby in Norfolk.

My own first real encounter with honeybees came several years ago when I looked out my kitchen window and noticed a bulbous mass clinging to a maple branch. At first, I thought it was a tree burl, but reflecting that burls don’t grow overnight, I grabbed my binoculars for a closer look. Sure enough, it was a swarm of hundreds if not thousands of honeybees, gathered in a huge clump. This amazing sight initially unnerved me. Knowing little about bees, I imagined they were waiting to attack me the minute I stepped outdoors. So I called Hartley Mead.

Mead is a naturalist and knew what to do. He called a local beekeeper to remove the swarm, and I watched as the two brushed most of the bees into a cardboard box to put in a new hive. Mead explained that I had nothing to fear unless I disturbed the swarm. He said the honeybees were only resting and were more focused on finding a new nest than on finding me. Most likely responding to overcrowding, the workers had begun to rear a new queen, and the reigning queen had taken flight to start a new colony, leaving her virgin daughter to carry on business at the old hive. Swarms are the colony’s way of reproducing.

Close-up of a frame of comb, its cells still empty and uncapped.

Mead is also a bee hobbyist and tends several hives himself. Understanding the role honeybees play in a healthy environment, Mead decided to raise bees after the deadly occurrence of colony collapse disorder in 2006, which devastated hives across North America and Europe. He elected to raise Russian honeybees, saying that “Russian honeybees are known for their ability to survive harsh winters and parasites, both of which have been causes for colony decline in recent years.”

According to Mark Creighton, the state apiary inspector, the loss of so many bees at once was due to a series of factors: environmental changes, pesticides, disease and mites. He said, “When these all hit at once, it becomes a perfect storm, and many of the worker bees become too weak to find food. Without worker bees, the hives cannot sustain themselves.” The backyard hobbyist, Creighton said, helps contribute to a healthy population of honeybees. He also said that having bees is a huge responsibility and that potential beekeepers need to educate themselves: “Raising bees can be challenging. It is therefore a good idea for a potential beekeeper to talk to trained people to learn proper bee husbandry so they can be successful.” Creighton explained that everyone must dotheir part to protect bees. “While bees are not the only pollinator, they are one of the best. Creating bee habitats and testing soil so as not to overfertilize are two ways to help,” he suggested.

Foley now keeps about 20 hives but is thinking of cutting back.

Leslie Watkins, who runs Dandelion Gardening Arts, created a safe haven for her bees. Watkins, a nature lover and bee enthusiast, started raising bees four years ago. She says, “Bees are brilliant, and they are also terrific pollinators.” She noted dramatic results on her fruit trees and said she had “gangbuster apples.” Watkins houses her bees in one-story top-bar hives rather than the more common vertically stacked boxes called Langstroth hives. According to her, top-bar hives have been used for centuries and, though a less productive design, provide a more natural environment where bees build out their own honeycomb. “I don’t force my bees to give lots of honey,” she said, “but enjoy the organic order of things, because when bees are healthy, then the hive does well.” Another advantage is that Watkins does not have to do heavy lifting. “With top-bar hives,” she said, “I can lift one frame at a time. This also makes my bees happy.” Her bees never bore Watkins. She finds them a fascinating puzzle and calming to watch.

Tim Bruey and his wife, Mary, have been raising bees for close to six years. They still call themselves beginners. Bruey said, “We started raising them for pollination. There’s lots to know about bees, and if there is any advice I would give to those thinking about getting bees it is to take classes.” The couple wishes they had taken their own advice. Their hives did not survive the first years. “We live in a area where they couldn’t live through the cold months,” said Bruey. Their other problem was bears. Bears love honey, and the beekeeper is always on alert for intruders. Bruey installed an electric fence with lots of zap power, but still they caught a bear touching it once. He remarked, “We are not sure how much longer the fence will keep the bears away.” However, their many years of experience and continuous updating on information will surely stand the Brueys in good stead.

All but a narrow opening at the hive entrance has been blocked off to help the bees defend against wax moths.

While raising honeybees is vital to farmers and gardeners for pollination, another primary focus of beekeepers is the production of honey and wax. According to Paul Benjunas of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, there is a large increase of people registering their hives for honey production. “While most only manage two to three hives,” said Benjunas, “there are those who keep more.”

Shawn Foley has approximately 20 hives. He first began with four to six hives and found that manageable. Then he split them, doubling his hives and doubling his work. Foley considers himself a weekend beekeeper and is now thinking of cutting back. “It takes a fair amount of time, and my weekends are spent mostly working with the bees. It’s a real commitment,” he said. Foley, however, enjoys his bees and processes his own honey. He said there are five main steps to extracting the honey once he has secured a frame of honeycomb. He must first remove the wax cap that seals each individual cell by passing a heated electric knife across the honeycomb’s surface. He then spins the honey out by putting the frame in a motorized centrifuge, collecting the honey at the bottom of the tank. He then passes the honey through a two-stage mesh filtering system into a bottling tank, where he heats the honey gently so as not to destroy healthy enzymes. The last step is bottling it. Foley can produce up to 200 pounds of honey from just several hives. “The more time you spend on beekeeping, the better the honey production. But I give most of the honey away as gifts, because I am more interested in keeping bees than making honey,” he said.

Beekeeping brings sweet rewards as beekeepers celebrate the honeybee. They understand their valuable contribution to the pollination of crops and appreciate locally produced honey. They also know the benefits of bees to human society and the role they play in the course of life on this planet. That is what makes them beekeepers, and that is why beekeeping remains a viable hobby.

Top photo: Leslie Watkins finds that in the early season, when the bees have little honey to protect, they are not aggressive. Photos by Bruce Frisch.

One Response to “Honeybees on the Rise in Norfolk”
  1. Marie says:

    Loved reading your story Jude. Great job!

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