Hundreds of first-time beekeepers across the state are waiting anxiously for their first shipment of honey bees this week. The hobby is growing in popularity and it could have both good and bad impacts on the pollinating insects’ struggle for survival.
If you want to learn how to take care of bees, the best way to do it is to enroll in a bee school. About of a dozen regional bee clubs around the state run them. And this year, they’re proving especially popular.
“Bee clubs that would normally have 20 students have 40 students. Bee clubs that have had 40 students have 100 students. It’s really big right now.”
And Wendy Booth should know. She’s the New Hampshire Director of the Eastern Apicultural Society and visits bee schools around the state trying to inspire new bee enthusiasts.
Booth has been at this for a while. She calls her bees her “girls.” And she has several hives scattered around the state. Including one in her bedroom.
“So there’s a lot of activity right now in the tube which is fun. The rest of the time in the evening they’re fairly quiet, low level buzzing, a little bit of communicating…”
It’s a window frame-like box with a glass face called an observation hive. The bees come and go through a tube that feeds through her window. Booth says the gentle hum from the hive is better than a white noise machine at night.
She opens it up for me and we take a look inside.
“Here’s the queen. She’s right there. She’s underneath my flashlight beam. See how she’s much larger? So she just looked in. She’s laying an egg right now. She’s putting her abdomen into the cell. She’s lowered her abdomen in, she’s turning around and she’s gonna lay an egg in that cell.
Booth says the queen is capable of laying a thousand to fifteen hundred eggs a day. It’s clear that moments of pure fascination like these are the real currency that’s returned from the investment.
That’s a good thing, Booth tells me, because one should not expect to make a profit from keeping bees. But it turns out, very few are getting into it with dollar signs on their eyes.
“So what we’re gonna do is rehearse. The single most important thing you can do as a beekeeper is (Everyone) maintain a healthy hive. Okay, just the ladies…”
John Hamblet is the Vice President of the Merrimack Valley Beekeepers Association and the head of its bee school. He works with first time beekeepers who attend his weekly class for $35. At a local apiary they can order a three pound box of bees with a queen for $100 and spend a few hundred more on the hive equipment.
“Six years ago, we would get about 10 new beekeepers. This year we have about 120, so it’s been a fairly rapid growth.”
Hamblet says the reasons for that growth have changed as well. These days, he sees far fewer commercial beekeepers and far more hobbyists.
“And in the hobbyists there are people who want to raise bees for the environmental impact, not for the product from the hive; the honey or the beeswax.”
Some only want the bees to pollinate their gardens or crops, like Tom Mikulis of Merrimack.
“I’m primarily interested in the pollination. I have a very intense garden. I have quite a unique selection of plants.”
Others plan to dip into the honey for themselves, like Jessica Steele of Amherst.
“I just really want to take back what we put in our mouths as far as, like, not worrying about GMOs, not worrying about—God only knows what they put into packages. And this is one little way that we can do that.”
Then some, like Casey Loose of Amherst, are thinking even further outside the hive.
“My wife has always wanted to do it and she’s read recently about this issue with bees, y’know not being as prevalent as they used to be and stuff. So the ecological reasons is one of the main reasons why we’re doing it.”
While the number of beekeepers is increasing, the bees, it seems, are not. Issues with Varroa mites, pesticides, diseases and the mysterious colony collapse disorder have beekeepers playing secondary roles as amateur scientists. As experts grapple with the problem of disappearing bees, they are turning increasingly to hobbyists to gather data, essentially crowdsourcing the search for a cure to small-time beekeepers everywhere. Which is another reason John Hamblet says the more beekeepers, the better.
“Because we’re gonna learn from every one of those beekeepers. And they’re gonna bring in creative solutions to problems. So, absolutely, the more people who’re keeping bees, the better chance we have to finding solutions to the challenges.”
But there’s a hidden side effect to increasing numbers of start-up beekeepers, says Penn State entomologist MaryAnn Frazier.
“Ironically, the people who want to save bees, all these new, small beekeepers who’re thinking they’re saving bees, are putting so much pressure on the industry to produce, produce produce that, in fact, it’s contributing to the demise, if you will, of bees.”
Frazier says breeders in the south are shipping more and more inferior queens that, given increased economic demands, may not have been vetted properly before being sold. It’s a catch-22, she says. Demand for quantity cuts down on quality which in turn creates more demand on quantity. That, coupled with cyclical health problems, bodes ill for honey bees.
“I think bees’ immune systems are compromised. They’re susceptible to more diseases. So, in general, I think the honey bee population is unhealthy.”
Frazier’s solution is to have more local bee breeders, so beekeepers rely less on shipping from a few strained sources. And she prescribes an emphasis on breeding for quality so bees become more resistant to mites and diseases. Frazier compares this to the local food movement, which, ironically, led to what made beekeeping so popular in the first place.