Honeybees play a crucial role in pollinating our food crops and other plants. Their job is so vital to our food supply that professional beekeepers are hired to truck their hives from farm to farm during the growing season when there aren't enough native pollinators to do the job. But not all beekeepers work the commercial circuit; there are many amateurs who are in it simply for the love of bees and honey.
Honeybees are social insects that live together in a colony. While collecting nectar from plants, they transfer pollen from flower to flower, which enables fertilization and the subsequent production of fruits, vegetables and seeds. The bees convert the nectar into honey, a carbohydrate vital to their survival. Because they don't perish over the winter - like bumblebees do - honeybees produce an excess amount of honey, which they store away for the winter. And if provided with extra space in the hive, they will continue to produce more than they need, and the extra can be collected for human consumption.
Just to clear up any misconceptions: Barring allergies, honeybees are always a welcome presence in the garden. They aren't aggressive and usually don't attack unless they sense a threat against themselves or the hive. Stepping on or swatting a bee would qualify as a perceived threat, as would invading a hive. (Remember Winnie the Pooh? He was the aggressor.) But gardening alongside a few busy bees seldom results in a sting. And contrary to popular belief, yellow jackets aren't bees at all; they're a kind of wasp, and yes, they often attack without provocation, so avoid them when you can. For honeybees, a sting is a weapon of last resort: An attack ensures the bee's certain death because the insect's stinger is torn from its abdomen when it withdraws. Yellow jackets, on the other hand, will sting you a dozen times and live to laugh about it with their friends. Big difference.
Armed - and consoled - with that knowledge, I spent an afternoon recently with Rich Blohm, a master beekeeper who keeps 50 hives at his High Meadow Honey Farm in Huntington. He also maintains the hives at Richter's Orchard in Northport, where he showed me the tricks of his trade.
Blohm is a pest exterminator, a line of work he found as a result of his beekeeping. "I would get calls from people who said they had swarms of bees, but often it would turn out they were wasps, so I would eradicate them," he explained. After learning it is against the law to spray a pesticide on someone else's property without a license, Blohm obtained a license, and a new career was born.
Meeting the queen
After donning a protective bee jacket and screened veil, I approached the hive area with Blohm, who burned pine needles in a metal smoker and directed the smoke into all the cracks and crevices in a hive, a structure about 20 inches wide and 2 feet tall. Smoke calms the bees, he explained. We were, after all, invading their territory, and their natural instincts would be to protect the hive.
Next, using a special hive tool, he lifted off the wooden cover and pried open the hive, which the bees had glued shut with resin they produced. He lifted out a bee-covered frame and let me hold it. Blohm pointed out the queen, larger than the others, and as we examined dozens of bees working diligently to groom and feed and care for her, she unexpectedly lowered the rear portion of her abdomen into a comb and deposited an egg, right before our eyes. Her job, it turns out, is simply to lay eggs all day. But Blohm said it was unusual that she would do so outside of the dark confines of the hive.
The entire experience was surprisingly tranquil. The gentle buzzing sounds lulled us into a calm sense of oneness with the bees, which didn't seem to mind our presence at all. I even removed my suit and veil, and Blohm picked up bees with his bare fingers. Neither of us was stung.
After spending just a few hours with Blohm and his hives, I was sold on a relaxing hobby that can reward you with many years of enjoyment, pollination for your plants and trees, and lots of honey for your table.
So you wanna be a beekeeper? That dream isn't as outlandish as you might think. On Long Island alone, there are hundreds of amateur beekeepers caring for several hundred honeybee hives, either for pleasure or profit.
Before you start collecting bees, you'll need to collect information from the experts. Good reference books include "The Backyard Beekeeper: An Absolute Beginner's Guide to Keeping Bees in Your Yard and Garden," by Kim Flottum; "Natural Beekeeping," by Ross Conrad, and "Beekeeping for Dummies." Penn State's "Beekeeping Basics" guide is available for download in .pdf format at pubs.cas.psu.edu/FreePubs/pdfs/agrs93.pdf.
And the Long Island Beekeepers Club meets in various locations and offers novice classes. There are 10 master beekeepers among the club's 60 or so members, some with decades of experience and knowledge to share. And the apicultural extension program at Cornell University in Ithaca has one- and two-day workshops where you can earn apprentice-level beekeeper certification.
The first thing to consider is whether your community permits beekeeping. None of Nassau's towns or cities permits beekeeping, but the practice is allowed in Suffolk's towns and also in New York City, where rooftop beekeepers are growing in number.
Where to keep bees?
If you get the green light, you'll have to decide where you're going to keep the bees. Choose a quiet, secluded, sunny spot that has good air circulation and is easily accessible year-round. The site should be near plants that produce nectar and pollen, as well as fresh water - a large container with some floating wood chips where bees can alight would do - and away from traffic and property lines. Windbreaks provided by evergreen trees, buildings or hilly landscapes to the north are desirable, with hives situated to face south. It's also important that colonies are not located near farms or fields treated with pesticides. Lawn chemicals aren't typically a problem.
Next, you'll have to decide which strain of bees to keep. Experts recommend that beginners and suburbanites seek out hybrid strains bred for gentleness. Periodically replacing the queen helps keep the colony gentle, too. Huntington master beekeeper Rich Blohm recommends purchasing a package of bees, which contains three pounds of bees and a newly mated queen in her own box. There are about 3,500 bees per pound, and they will build their own combs from scratch after you install them in the hive. An already established colony - a nucleus, or "nuc" - can be purchased instead, but Blohm said it carries a risk of transmitting diseases and mites to new bees from the old combs.
Beekeeping supply houses like Betterbee (betterbee.com; 800-632-3379), Dadant and Sons (dadant.com; 217-847-3324), Brushy Mountain Bee Farm (brushymountainbeefarm.com; 800-233-7929) and Mann Lake Bee Supplies (mannlakeltd.com; 800-880-7694) are reputable sources for bees and equipment, according to Blohm. Each will ship bees to you by mail. You'll need wooden boxes to construct a hive, frames to hold the foundation where bees will build their combs, a top cover, inner cover, supers (boxes that encompass the hive and hold the frames of the foundation), a bottom board, a hive tool with which to crack open the hive, a smoker to calm bees, a bee suit and gloves.
When your bees arrive, Blohm recommends releasing all but the queen into the box and allowing a few days for them to become acclimated before introducing her.
Honey won't be produced in abundance the first year, he says, but after that, one hive can yield 50 to 100 pounds per year.
Where backyard beekeeping is allowed on Long Island
Where backyard beekeeping is not allowed on Long Island
Where Long Island beekeepers swarm
The Long Island Beekeepers Club was created in 1949 and today boasts some 60 members. Meetings and classes are held at the Holtsville Ecology Center, in members' bee yards, at the Suffolk County Farm in Yaphank, and elsewhere on Long Island. Membership is $35 a year. Visit longisland beekeepers.org for membership information and a schedule of upcoming meetings and classes.
What's behind the die-off of bees?
The honeybee population has been dwindling inexplicably in recent years, and the phenomenon - colony collapse disorder - has captured headlines worldwide. At first it was believed to be caused by a virus or mites, but experts now believe CCD has a number of contributing factors rather than one single cause. In addition to those, "there's the exposure to a whole cocktail of pesticides from commercial farms," said Rich Blohm, a master beekeeper and an instructor with the Long Island Beekeepers Club, along with the stress on bees trucked from farm to farm, "thousands of miles across the country."
Those bees "spend winters pollinating in Florida, then are moved to New Jersey, where they pollinate blueberries, and to upstate New York to pollinate the apple trees and to Maine for wild blueberries, Massachusetts for cranberries and then to Maryland for cucumbers," he said. "The transporting places a stress on the bees. You lose some with every move."
Another suspected contributing cause of CCD is the monodiet - one food source at a time, forced by all the moves. "They don't get a varied diet," Blohm said. "They're brought to a single type of pollen, which could be devoid of certain vitamins, and then brought to a different one."
Bacteria always has affected honeybees, Blohm said, but viruses, too, play a role, as two strains of mites that carry viruses live on bees, puncture their exoskeletons and introduce disease. Beekeepers started to see bees die off in the early 1990s, Blohm said, after using certain pesticides "to kill the mites and not the bees, but that's a very difficult thing to do."
On Long Island the news is good: There is no bee die-off here, at least now, he said: "In fact, the honeybees are making a comeback."