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 resinthey 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.