The vitality of our vegetable and flower gardens depends on the health of this hardworking insect. This environmental and conservational concern sparked my interest in the bee population — and a desire to care for hives of my own.
There is something so romantic about the subject of beekeeping. So many novels and books have been written about bees and their honey, so many folk sayings and homilies have been handed down, and so much environmental concern centers on bees as indispensable pollinators — of course I had to have my own hives, my own bees, my own colonies of these mysterious, somewhat frightening, awe-inspiring benefactors of nature.
Years ago, I made friends with the “bee man” in our area, Ed Weiss. He was a rarity back then: an expert on beekeeping who also sold all the accouterments the backyard beekeeper requires. Not only did he teach; he also provided materials. And, in a unique and formal manner, he helped each of us acolytes become a serious and good beekeeper. Ed wrote what is something of a bible for novices: a 1978 book titled “The Queen and I,” which to this day is still my go-to primer when I have a question or a problem.
But backyard hobbyists and serious gardeners alike have become enamored of beekeeping and supplies, and “beekeepers for hire” are far more available and common nowadays. Ed and his late wife, Anita, started an organization called the Back Yard Beekeepers Association (www.backyardbeekeepers
.com) in 1993. It is an excellent source for general information and for finding clubs in your area. I have finally mastered the art of beekeeping to the point that I need help only occasionally, but when I do, I call D.J. Haverkamp, a local instructor and a gentle, knowledgeable beekeeper.
When I first started, keeping bees was a much easier task than it is today. The bees had few serious predators, and hives would grow and expand and produce tremendous amounts of honey year after year with minimal attention. As long as the hives were well placed, somewhat protected during the winter months, and kept clean and tidy, the bees were happy and took care of their chores in a very natural and understandable way.
Now there are real problems facing the bees and their keepers. There has been an epidemic of failed hives, massive departures of seemingly healthy colonies, and tragic deaths of millions of these winged creatures. Scientists are blaming the increased usage of pesticides, loss of habitat, parasites, and viral and fungal diseases. Last year, I lost most of my hives; there was a giant exodus of my bees. But because I know the value of what they do for the landscape and for the gardens, I continue to establish my colony and to nurture it as best I can.
I have four hives. I restocked them with new bees and queens, and I fed the hives with a supplemental diet of sugar syrup to get them settled in. Now that it’s warmer, the flowers and trees produce enough nutrients for the many thousands of creatures that rely on what grows here for their food and pollen.
My gardens are never more beautiful than they are when these creatures are pollinating and encouraging flower development and vegetable production. And once the honey is harvested in the early fall, I use it to make fruitcakes, cookies, ice creams, and tarts; I drizzle it on yogurt and cheese; and I use it to add a mellow sweetness to salad dressings and smoothies. (You can find hundreds of honey recipes at MarthaStewart.com.) I also package the honey in beautiful jars as gifts for my family and friends — that way, everyone gets a chance to enjoy home-grown honey.
Here are some of my favorite resources to get you started on your own beekeeping adventure: Dadant & Sons (www.dadant.com) for bee supplies and tools, and D.J. Haverkamp (www.bedfordbee.com), who offers a beekeeping school and hive-maintenance services.
It’s important to check the hive and frames throughout the season for egg and honey production, and to confirm that the queen is in good health. Honey is then harvested in early fall.
THE RIGHT TIMING: It’s best to work at midday, provided it’s clear and the winds are calm — 50 to 60 percent of the hive should be out foraging then.
PROPER GEAR: I wear a one-piece bee suit that covers me from head to toe; it has no openings for errant bees to enter.
AT THE READY: A smoker should be prepped before you open the hive. (Mine is fueled with bark, straw, and dried leaves.) It calms the bees and establishes a sense of well-being in and around the hive.
ESSENTIAL TOOL: A hive tool will allow you to pry loose the frames — which are often stuck in place with beeswax and propolis — and lift each one out.
PROTECTED CROP: The honeycomb should be capped with wax, so that little honey escapes while you check the frames.