Steve Burke of Wakefield has been keeping bees for 30 years and serves on the board of directors and is the secretary for the Rhode Island Beekeepers Association (RIBA). Along with his own hives, he also devotes his time to relocating honeybees from places like homes and playgrounds to save them from extermination.
Partners Sara Michaud and Sherri Matheu of Charlestown are in their seventh season of beekeeping. They value seeing their colonies grow and thrive as well as the constant opportunities to learn from the small creatures. “The reward is sweet! Bees are fascinating creatures and everyday there is something new you learn from a presentation, book or the bees themselves. It is amazing how a creature so small can do so much. A colony as a whole works as one organism for survival,” said Michaud and Matheu. Michaud is the vice president of RIBA and Matheu is the committee chair for their banquets, is a volunteer coordinator and county director for the mentor program.
“Learning how to care for these remarkable creatures is fascinating,” said sisters Gayle and Laurie Anderson of Wakefield. What began as a means for Laurie to pollinate her fruit trees, quickly became a hobby that they enjoy doing together. The Anderson sisters are third year beekeepers, members of RIBA — who trained under the association’s instruction — and they serve as mentors for new beekeepers — affectionately known as “new-bees.”
Beekeeping is a pursuit of careful attentiveness. Hives and the colonies within them must be monitored not only for honey production but for overcrowding and health. Bees are so much more than the sweet treat they produce. When bees flit from flower to flower they are performing a task essential for their survival as well as ours. It is estimated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that 66 percent of what we eat requires that flowers be pollinated — including apples, cucumbers, almonds, etc.
Bees are vulnerable to the deadly Varroa mite, so their keepers must pay special attention to ensure the safety and longevity of the bees. These creatures are not a disposable hobby, but an immense and rewarding responsibility. A responsibility, that is well worth the effort.
“There are two ways of being responsible beekeepers that are [especially] important to us. We think of [the bees] as livestock and view ourselves as stewards of their lives. People can sometimes take an attitude of ‘oh, I’ll just buy more’ rather than doing what it takes to keep them alive. This leads to the second thing, which is treating for mites. Varroa mites are the bane of the beekeeper,” said the Anderson sisters.
A beekeeper, much like a gardener, is beholden to the whims of each season as they care for their hives.
When the warmth of spring arrives, the beekeeper can finally open the hives after a long, cold winter and assess how well the colonies are doing inside. They check on food supplies, whether the queen is laying and whether the bees are successfully foraging for pollen and nectar. The beekeeper also looks for diseases and takes steps to be sure no large, strong colonies become two or three small colonies through reproduction — a situation which beekeepers refer to as “swarming” and can lead to roaming colonies who settle in dangerous places.
“That mass of bees bigger than a watermelon can be scary for a homeowner, but its candy to a beekeeper. I’ve rescued swarms from chimneys, tall trees and roofs of houses and tall office buildings in Providence,” said Burke of his work relocating colonies.
During the summer, beekeepers open the hive boxes about once a week to make sure the colonies are doing okay. The bees are subject to parasites, starvation, disease and many other problems — all of which can be easily resolved if the beekeeper remains privy to the happenings within their hives. During this time, the bees are raising the next generation, called the “brood,” and are bringing in so much nectar and pollen to feed the babies that they have a surplus. From this excess they create honey and store it in the honeycomb. This method mirrors how humans store food through making preserves. Beekeepers must ensure that the boxes containing the hives get bigger and taller, so the bees do not get too crowded and there’s room to store the excess honeycomb.
In the fall, the duties of the beekeeper are the same as they are in the summer, especially making sure the bees are fat, healthy and well fed as they prepare to survive the New England winter. During this time Burke and his wife Molly also harvest the extra honey that their bees will not need for the winter. “We can take several gallons from every successful hive. In a good year, we get it by the bucketful. I tell my friends, if you like honey, befriend a beekeeper, but if you want to take a bath in honey, become a beekeeper,” said Burke.
Finally, as the winter chill grips the landscape, beekeepers bottle honey, repair old equipment, replace what is not repairable and worry about how their colonies are doing in their hives. The colony lives all winter, huddled together inside the hive, surviving on stores of honey and sometimes on extra food that the beekeeper supplies. On warm winter days, the hives are opened for a few seconds to check to make sure they have enough food eat. If they are lacking in reserves the bees are fed sugar so they can stay warm enough to survive in the cold boxes. This is also the perfect time for the hardworking beekeeper to order any new supplies, order new bees to expand or bolster their colonies and attend a course or two at RIBA.
Michaud, Matheu, Burke and the Anderson sisters devote countless hours to their bees and to producing ethically sourced local honey. A bottle of honey represents hours of labor by the bees and their keeper. Honey is one of the most adulterated food products sold, so Michaud and Matheu advise that you get to know your beekeeper and their practices before buying. What is sold in the grocery store is not always made from the nectar of plants — thus, the taste and health benefits are sacrificed.
Of the honeybee, Burke said, “I’d like people to stop worrying about living near beekeepers and being stung by honeybees. Unlike hornets and wasps, which sting to hunt food, a honeybee only stings to protect itself or its home, and it dies after it stings.” He continued, saying, “honeybees have evolved over thousands of years to sting only as a last resort. Of the 50 or so (on average) insect sting related deaths in this country a year, many of them are from the more aggressive wasps and hornets and many more stings affect beekeepers — who sort of assume the risk when they take up the hobby. So long as you don’t try to grab a honeybee, and don’t get within a few feet of a hive, you’re very unlikely to get stung by a honeybee. She’s just out shopping for food.”
If you wish to learn more about the work of a beekeeper or if you want more information about what it takes to become one, visit ribeekeeper.org.
If you ever find a hive on your property that is not welcome, RIBA urges you to never use pesticides to kill or remove honeybees. If you need honeybees removed, you can call Steve Burke, or anyone else on the swarm rescue list maintained on RIBA’s website (listed above.)