If you'd told Paul Okula a year ago that he'd remain calm with a pack of 40-plus bees crawling all over his bare hands, he wouldn't have believed it.
"I was afraid of being stung," says Okula, an arborist from Manorville. "Now, I don't worry about it."
Okula is one of about 100 students learning the art of keeping hives with the Long Island Beekeepers Club. After two months of attending classes and making field trips with a master beekeeper, he's about to fly solo.
"I've read all the books, I think I'm ready," says Okula, 62. His first two colonies of bees are due to arrive any day by mail -- he'll introduce them to a pair of man-made wooden hives.
If all goes well, they'll be fairly self-sufficient -- minding the queen, gathering pollen and nectar -- and Okula will get to harvest 60 or so pounds of surplus honey and beeswax this summer.
Pretty sweet for a few hours' work.
The Long Island Beekeepers Club has been active for about 60 years, says president George Schramm. More than half of today's members are hobbyists who maintain three or fewer hives. While it takes time, money and logistics to get started, established hives require but an hour here and there from their keepers to stay healthy and productive, says Ray Lackey, of Bohemia, who has about 60 hives in Suffolk County.
He and fellow master keeper Rich Blohm of Huntington run group classes that meet monthly year-round to expose rookies to all stages of caring for a colony. Students can join at any time, but typically cycle through a full nine-month series before starting their own hive, Lackey says.
The perks of beekeeping extend beyond collecting pure honey, says Blohm, who -- ironically -- owns a pest-control business along with running about 50 hives. But bees, he says, aren't a nuisance.
"The whole environment benefits from having bees," says Blohm. The winged creatures pollinate at least a third of the world's food -- colonies placed near gardens and fruit orchards help the growth cycle along.
Expect to spend $400 to $500 for protective gear, a wooden hive and a colony of live bees, Lackey says. Classes run $75 to $150 for a nine-month cycle.
One of the most important questions to answer early on is where you're going to set up your hive -- it can't necessarily be in your backyard, due to varying local ordinances.
Those who can't or don't want to keep their hives at home can get permission to host them on sites such as community gardens, farms, parks and preserves. The Long Island Beekeepers Club helps procure safe locations.
"With the increase in community gardens, we're hoping to put more hives on these sites," says Schramm.
The community garden in New Suffolk, which has doubled in size this year, is one of those hoping to connect with a willing beekeeper, says co-coordinator Shannon Simon.
Beekeeping classes involve time spent learning about the habits of bees, visits to an active colony for hands-on work inspecting and replenishing a hive.
"Once you learn about the bees, you're hooked," says Barbara Talbot, 43, of Cutchogue. The sales manager has been taking classes with Lackey and is planning to put a hive in her yard this year. She'll get help caring for them from her 13-year-old daughter, Emily, and her mother, Judy Kayton of Riverhead.
Says Talbot, "There will be three generations of us taking care of our bees."
WHEN | WHERE 7 p.m. third Monday of the month in Holtsville; 7 p.m. third Wednesdays in Riverhead, or 10 a.m. third Saturdays in St. James
Taught by master beekeeper Ray Lackey; registration required
WHERE | WHEN 7 p.m. third Friday of the month in Cold Spring Harbor
Taught by master beekeeper Rich Blohm
WHERE | WHEN 9 a.m.-noon first Saturday of the month (May 7-Sept. 3) at Garden of Eve
INFO 631-722-8777, gardenofevefarm.com
Taught by master beekeeper Christopher Kelly
MORE INFO longislandbeekeepers.org