A quiet hum over the holly bush is the tip-off. Grace Mehl's bees are gathering pollen at the neighbors' house.
Up a 200-foot driveway and past a modest gray house, Mehl's hives are out of her neighbors' line of sight.
"All my neighbors love the fact that I have honey bees," said Mehl, a Navy veteran who lives in Smithtown. "I give them all a jar of honey every year; so they all know, and sometimes they report to me that the bees were visiting this flower or that flower in their yard."
In her 12th year of keeping bees, Mehl is one of many Long Islanders using their backyards to make a home for thousands of the five-eyed, six-legged pollinators. Beekeeping regulations vary across the Island, but are more prevalent in Nassau County than its eastern counterpart.
Mehl lives on a 4-acre plot that has been in her family since 1947. Formerly a chicken farm, the land is suited to bees for its surrounding woods and proximity to Blydenburgh County Park and Caleb Smith Nature Preserve, Mehl said. In her own backyard, there are a vegetable garden, a dog run and a full landscape of trees.
But Mehl's acreage, while beneficial, is not the standard for backyard beekeeping.
"You don't have to have a large yard," said Mehl, who teaches as a Master Beekeeper certified through Eastern Apicultural Society. "You don't have to have a big garden or a lot of flowers on your property for the bees."
The insects travel two to three miles in every direction to gather nectar and pollen from verdant green linden trees, black locust trees with delicate white blooms, classic maple trees.
That bees travel in search of honey both simplifies and complicates backyard beekeeping: little land is required, but consideration for the neighbors is paramount. Mehl is one of approximately 300 members of the Long Island Beekeepers Club, which has developed a set of suggestions termed the "Good Neighbor Policy."
"The good neighbor policy gives some guidelines — recommended guidelines — they're not rules, they're not laws," Mehl said.
Guidelines include making sure backyard bees have a consistent water supply, and keeping hives a certain distance from a neighbor's fence.
To keep the bees from hydrating at neighbors' pools, Mehl offers them a makeshift beach. She has filled a large saucer with gravel arranged on an angle, and oriented the pan beneath an outdoor spigot with a constant drip. The bees can access the water because of the sloped gravel, Mehl explained.
Usually, it's not trouble. However, the neighbors, if they see you working the bees, tend to get nervous.
— Grace Mehl
The club's policy is not law, but beekeeping is prohibited by law in some Long Island towns and villages.
"Most towns in Suffolk County do not have any regulations against bees, but that's the first thing that people have to check before they even think about getting bees," Mehl said.
Beekeeping regulations are generally established by local government. In some localities, residents can apply for a permit; but there is no guarantee. Among areas that prohibit beekeeping without special authorization are the city of Glen Cove, the Town of Oyster Bay and the Town of Hempstead, where a spokesperson said obtaining a permit for bees is unlikely.
"You can apply, it is possible; but it's not usually permitted," said spokesperson Casey Sammon, adding that beekeeping was prohibited for reasons of safety.
In towns and villages where beekeeping is legal, safety concerns are mitigated by the precautions detailed in the "Good Neighbor Policy" and common-sense strategies. Mehl, for for instance, suggests beekeepers avoid working the hives on the Fourth of July, or at the time of their neighbors' Memorial Day picnic.
"Usually, it's not trouble," Mehl said of opening the hives. "However, the neighbors, if they see you working the bees, tend to get nervous."
The fascination never ends.
— Richard Blohm
Huntington resident Richard Blohm has been keeping bees since 1973. Over the past five decades, his venture has expanded to include 10 hives working on honey, 14 mating nucleus colonies used to raise queen bees to sell, and a front-yard honey stand with an honor-system cash box.
"There's a number of us that are lifetime beekeepers," said Blohm, 78, who got his first package of bees when he was on the cusp of 30. "The fascination never ends."
Blohm teaches intermediate and advanced beekeeping classes. Those who do not keep bees themselves can still contribute to the bee population, he said.
"If they want to do something for the bees, plant flowers for pollinators," Blohm said.
A three-pound box of bees with a mated queen is one place for first-time beekeepers to start, said Long Island Beekeepers Club President John Most. The more advanced option, he said, is to buy a nucleus colony: about five frames of bees with a queen already laying eggs.
Mehl started over a decade ago with one hive, which she says now was a mistake.
"I advise everybody else that starts now to start with two hives, because if you have two hives you can then help the other hive, and you can see the difference on how they grow," she said.
Having two hives enables a beekeeper to both compare hives and allocate resources accordingly. If one hive is struggling, the keeper might elicit help from the stronger hive.
She stresses the importance of education for successful beekeeping. A class offers the opportunity to watch an experienced beekeeper handle the bees, she said. Commonly, beekeepers inspect their hives year after year to find that some of the bees have died off during the winter.
"The normal loss of bees over the winter is between 25 to 40 percent of the hives are lost," Mehl said.
For the second year in a row, Mehl said she has had zero losses. She credits the 100% survival rate to her effort to further her education on what the bees need throughout the year.
The startup cost — education included — is high, she concedes. The hive, bees, protective equipment, tools, extractor, and extra supplies that prepare a beekeeper for a swarm quickly mount. Mehl estimates it costs $800 to $1,000 to get started, and more in the few years that follow.
Over 12 years, she has broken even.
"I remember putting my first jar of honey on the table and looking at it and saying, 'That is the most expensive jar of honey I have ever seen. And it was hard work, too,'" Mehl said.
The Long Island Beekeepers Club's 'Good Neighbor Policy'
- No more than four hives of honey bees for each ¼-acre or less of size will be maintained on any lot.
- No hive of honey bees will be maintained within 10 feet of a boundary line of the lot on which said hive is located.
- A 6-foot hedge or fence (partition) will be placed between the hives and the neighbors if the hive is 10 feet from the neighbor's yard and the entrance faces the neighbor's yard.
- No hive of honey bees will be maintained unless an adequate supply of water will be furnished within 20 feet of said hive at all times between March 1 and October 31 of each year.
- No hive of honey bees will be maintained unless such hive is inspected not less than four times between March 1 and October 31 of each year by the owner of the lot on which said hive is located or his delegate. A written record including the date of each such inspection will be maintained by said owner and will be available by authorized individuals.
- No hive of honey bees will be maintained in a residential area in such a manner as will constitute a substantial nuisance.