Last updated on February 9th, 2015
I mentioned back in January that the theme of this past year’s New Year’s Eve party was honey. We weren’t just being sweet; we chose the theme in honor of the 40,000 honeybees living in our hosts’ backyard! LeeMichael McLean talks about why beekeeping was such a big draw.
The multitude of colony collapse disorder news stories had been weighing on me. The bee seemed to be taking a beating and generally losing respect among the human folk who didn’t seem appropriately concerned about the potential total collapse of pollination. Imagine no citrus fruit. No apples. And a lot of missing veggies too. I couldn’t figure out why people were not more worried about the stability of the world’s food supply. Then my partner discovered Best Bees, a Boston-based company that sets up hives on apartment balconies and city rooftops to raise awareness and support research into improving bee health.
Best Bees was founded in 2010 by Noah Wilson-Rich who, to draw a likeness to the Lorax, speaks for the bees. The company installs the hive, manages the bee population, and collects the honey for you (unless you’d prefer to do it yourself). It sustains operations through management fees and invests its profits into developing bee probiotics and researching ways to save the world one bee at a time, as the company says.
We invited Noah out to our house in Milton last winter to see if our property was big enough for a beehive. As it turns out, that was a rather silly question. If you have outdoor space, you probably have enough room for a beehive. We posed our concerns about permitting and stings and our dog. Noah was extremely patient and incredibly knowledgeable. There are no permitting requirements in our area (in fact, cities like New York City and Boston are actively trying to encourage rooftop gardens and beehives to protect the bee population). The dog, he said, was not likely to be very interested in the beehive. And we were certainly going to be stung… but not often.
That last part didn’t sound so great. However, Noah told us, these are Italian honeybees. Very laid back. He assured us that the bees were not interested in stinging people and we were not likely to be bothered while enjoying our yard, but that managing the hive and collecting the honey was where things could get a little dicey. We decided to take a chance and see what happened (paying Noah to do the especially dicey stuff for at least the first year).
A few weeks later, Noah set up the hive on a little hill under a Japanese maple tree in our backyard. It was as if the stork delivered about 10,000 babies all at once—that’s about how many a fledgling beekeeper starts off with. The bees themselves were shipped in a small, packed box that seemed uncomfortably cramped, but Noah assured me the bees were plenty drunk on sugar water and were fine.
The queen came in a tiny mesh cage for her protection, because she would be in mortal danger as soon as the workers were released. As Noah explained, since the workers and queen came from different places, the workers would see the queen as an invader and as soon as they were put together, the workers would begin eating the sugar plug blocking the cage’s opening to try and murder her. But the cage’s mesh sides would allow her to work her queenly magic, releasing intoxicating pheromones that would draw the workers and drones (male bees) under her control.
He wedged the queen’s cage between two of the frames and then literally poured thousands of bees over the top of the open hive. They seemed to know exactly what to do and started climbing down into the hive to make it home. Noah secured the top and announced that we were all set. The whole procedure, from installing the wooden hive and its frames to introducing the bees to their new habitat, took about 15 minutes!
Bryan and I checked on the hive frequently over the first few weeks and gave many tours to interested friends. As promised, the bees were completely disinterested in our dog and us. They established a bee freeway, launching like little rockets from the porch-like opening at the bottom of the hive up and into the sky, then returning from the same direction, appearing seemingly out of nowhere above our heads.
It takes bees a while to get up to full production, but we had three honey harvests in our first year—spring, summer, and fall—with a total take of about 8 pounds. The spring harvest was our favorite: pale in color, the consistency of pancake syrup, and delicately sweet. The summer honey was a rich golden yellow. The later in the season you take the honey, the more the bees will have distilled it down to a darker, thicker treat. This year, the hive has been thriving and honey production is right on schedule, with Noah stopping by to check on the hive every few weeks. When the bees are working at full tilt, we can expect up to 40 pounds!
We have had a wonderful time hosting this hive and have even talked about adding more to the yard. We recommend beekeeping to anyone, but realize it isn’t practical for everyone. If you’d like to do something to support bee health but can’t host a hive, here are some suggestions:
- Buy local honey and beeswax products
- Replace some lawn areas with perennial, bee-friendly gardens
- Don’t use harmful pesticides
- Invite some friends over to watch Vanishing of the Bees
Most importantly, don’t fear the bee! We need them and they need us to treat them with respect. And as for the stings: my partner and I each took one for the team last year, but we were lingering near the open hive during honey harvest and now that we’ve learned that lesson, I think we’ll probably have a sting-free year. Either way, we still think it’s worth it, and can’t wait for the honey to start flowing this season.