Press-Republican

October 27, 2013

Busy with bees

Area experts talk about honey production

CHRIS FASOLINO
Press-Republican

— Imagine that you are the world’s greatest detective, and that you are now settling down to retirement. What would you do as a retiree? You would want to find a pursuit that was both peaceful and fascinating, and probably one that would let you continue to use your deductive-reasoning abilities in some way.

How about beekeeping?

That was Sherlock Holmes’s choice in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic stories. In the end, Sherlock Holmes leaves London to live in the English countryside and become a beekeeper, studying the bees and writing a book about them.

If you talk to a beekeeper, it’s easy to see why Conan Doyle chose that retirement path for his famous character. While Sherlock Holmes may be fictitious, the fascination of beekeeping is very real — as many in the North Country have discovered.

NORTH COUNTRY BEEKEEPING

Just ask Dick Crawford of Morrisonville, president of the Champlain Valley Beekeeper’s Association. Crawford describes himself as “a fourth generation beekeeper.” Beekeeping is on both sides of his family, in fact. 

“Back to the late 1800s, in Norway and Scotland, in different branches of the family, there were beekeepers,” Crawford said.

When he was about 10 years old, Crawford began to learn beekeeping from his father. Today, he has some 60 hives, each with its own colony of bees. That means, as he puts it, that he has “5 million employees and no labor problems.”

As president of the Champlain Valley Beekeeper’s Association, Crawford also provides support for the other beekeepers in the area. There are about 100 beekeepers in the Champlain Valley, he said. Some maintain only a single colony, while others have as many as 700 colonies. Bees can be kept for honey and also as pollinators for crops such as apples.

Crawford noted that honey production in each colony varies widely according to conditions that year; he sees anywhere from 25 to 125 pounds of honey per hive.

“Usually we harvest the honey here in mid-August. In Florida, they harvest six times a year,” he said.

When harvesting, beekeepers leave some honey behind so that the bees, themselves, will have enough for the winter.

While beekeeping is a family tradition for Crawford, for Timothy McGarry of Essex, it is an interest that he acquired in college. 

McGarry was visiting a friend whose family kept bees. 

“I had some of the honey, and it was amazing; in college, you live on honey and peanut butter,” McGarry said. 

As he learned more about beekeeping, he became intrigued. 

“One thing led to another, and I’ve been playing with the crazy bugs ever since,” he said with a laugh. Today, McGarry has 40 colonies at his Essex farm.

“I’m kind of a hybrid. I raise bees not only for the honey, but to literally raise bees; I sell them to other beekeepers,” he said.

BEE CULTURE

Observing the bees is fascinating. Crawford said that when he thinks he has them figured out, he will see an unexpected behavior, and realize that he doesn’t have them figured out at all.

The bees communicate with each other through behavior often known as a “dance.” 

“Early in the morning, when they’ve found a food source, they come back here and tell everybody where they’ve found something,” Crawford said.

Now, as their food supplies die off, the bees rely on what they have stored — along with occasional attempts at piracy.

Bees will try to steal from neighboring colonies, so all hives have “guards,” so to speak, posted at the entrance. They can be observed examining each newcomer. If he carries the smell of the colony, he is allowed entrance. If he carries the smell of a different colony, he is driven away.

Crawford sees the queen bee of each colony only about once a year, but he can use deductive reasoning to determine whether there is a problem with the queen. 

“I can look at the outside of a hive and know,” he said. 

If the bees are not bringing in pollen, for example, there is a problem with the queen. Depending on the circumstances, options may include feeding pollen substitutes or combining the colony with another, healthier colony. 

The domesticated honeybee is a single species — the European honeybee, Apis mellifera — but there are different breeds, such as Italian, Carnolian and Russian, with their own characteristics of appearance and behavior. They can, of course, interbreed, as has happened with some of Crawford’s colonies.

THREATS TO HONEYBEES

Considerable media attention has been given to the threats facing honeybees; as a beekeeper, Crawford has seen evidence of those threats with his own eyes.

While colonies always take a loss during the winter, losses have often become far more drastic. 

“Over the years, I’ve seen a 5 to 10 percent loss go to a 30, 40, even 50 or 60 percent winter loss,” he said.

The problems facing bees include pesticides. In that respect, Crawford said, “Our problem is what they eat in pollen. What they store and feed on in the winter is usually what causes a colony to collapse — pesticides in pollen that they pick up and bring home, whether from dandelions on people’s lawns or farm crops with altered seed.”

McGarry noted that honeybees have survived for millions of years on “real pollen.” 

“Now we come along and throw in artificial ingredients,” he said.

Lack of food-source diversity is another problem for honeybees. 

Whereas honeybees would naturally gather pollen from a variety of different flowers, today, they may be faced with extensive areas planted with a single crop. Crawford likens this to a human trying to live off of a single type of food. Diversity of pollen sources is like “a multivitamin” for bees, he explained.

Another threat is the varroa mite, an insect parasite that attacks honeybees. While there are artificial defenses against varroa mites, McGarry said that those defenses can themselves cause problems, since a certain percentage of mites always survive, and they are the ones that reproduce, passing on a virtual immunity to whatever was used against them. 

“Treatment has raised some smart mites, and not brought out the best in the bees,” McGarry said.

The importance of honeybees as pollinators has led to fears of ripple effects from the threats they face. 

“From a crop perspective, we need honeybees,” said Amy Ivy, executive director of the Cornell Cooperative Extension in Clinton County. 

Although there are other pollinators, she said, “Honeybees are a vital part of food production.”

So what can people do to help the honeybee? Crawford sums it up this way: “Plant more flowers. Use less pesticides.”

‘SENSORY DELIGHTS’

“I think I would keep bees even if I didn’t take honey from them,” McGarry said of beekeeping.

“There is a deep sense of comfort to watching a particular animal, in this case, the bees. Watching them coming and going loaded down with pollen.” 

Depending on its source, the pollen may be yellow or orange or purple.

The rich smell around the hives tells him what food sources his bees have been using. And, “if the wind is right,” McGarry said, the aroma of the hives carries a good distance across the fields and down the road.

“And then there’s the sound — the gentle hum,” he said.

“There are all these sensory delights.”