CUMBERLAND, R.I. — Six years ago, Teresa and Mark Ramos went to a beekeeping class hosted by the Rhode Island Beekeepers Association — a course that teaches novice beekeepers everything they need to know about raising honey bees.
Mark Ramos, an environmentally friendly chicken farmer, fell in love with the idea of raising the honey-making little bugs, considered livestock by the US Department of Agriculture, but his wife thought it was a crazy idea.
“Insane,” was the word Teresa Ramos used to describe beekeeping.
But, still, she got on board with her husband’s wild idea and they opened Honeybee Havens apiary in Cumberland.
In the years that followed, they produced hundreds of pounds of honey some years, and others practically none.
Last year was one of those bad times.
The varroa destructor mite is a parasite that preys on honey bees. It weakens their immune systems by feeding on fat from adults and larvae. Honeybee Havens’ bees had been treated for them. But in February 2020, the Ramos’ discovered that 75 percent of their hives had been lost.
But at least three hives absconded, “which is unusual,” Mark Ramos said.
Honeybee Havens shared their terrible news on Facebook, and asked fans of its honey to donate to a GoFundMe fundraiser.
“If we can’t get new bee packages we will NOT have honey this year! So many count on our raw honey,” Honeybee Havens posted.
In the thread beneath the post, they expressed some despair.
“Hope this works, I do not want to let down our clients. So heartbreaking and emotional on many levels.”
A month after the upsetting discovery of the lost bees, Honeybee Havens closed to regroup. In April 2020 it announced that it had received four new packs of bees. Each of the 3-pound containers had about 10,000 worker bees and a queen.
The Ramoses introduced the new bees and split some older hives to regrow their colonies.
They harvested less honey to boost the bees chances of surviving the winter. As they waited, customers left bee-themed trinkets, pictures and notes of support in their mailbox.
Honeybee Havens came up with a sweet new deal this spring to bring in more swarm. Individuals who bought $100 sponsorships to help them buy new bee packages would receive four pounds of freshly harvested honey. They took the first 20 or so sponsors and added others to a waiting list.
“We were surprised at how many people were interested in doing something like that,” Mark Ramos said. “With the difficulty in raising honeybees these days, there is a significant loss and dollar value associated with it. It’s a struggle to keep things going.”
“This came up as a possibility to continue to do what we do.”
Bee packs cost $135 to $145 each, so the 20 sponsorships went a long way.
Mercymount Country Day School Parent Association bought one of the sponsorships.
Jenny Collins and Kristen Mallinson, who lead the Mercymount Parent Association’s Enrichment Committee, came up with the idea to compliment a tulip garden planted by students outside the school.
Honeybee Havens asked the students to paint two hives that would house new bee colonies.
Led by art teacher Corey French, kids in pre-kindergarten through seventh-grade painted the wooden boxes sky blue. Each student pressed their little red and yellow paint-covered fingertips onto the boxes and used their prints to make yellow bees and red ladybugs.
Collins was in attendance as the new bees were introduced to their houses because students could not attend due to coronavirus restrictions.
Donning a hat and veil, and forgoing the bee suit, Collins used her cell phone to record within inches of thousands of honey bees.
Not bad for a first-time beekeeper. Most nervous new honey farmers wear the full protective gear.
“I was braver than I thought,” said Collins, noting the bees were “gentle and calm.”
Honeybees are not aggressive, and will only sting if handled aggressively or threatened. Neither Collins nor the Ramoses were stung.
”It’s absolutely fascinating,” Collins said. “I’m not afraid of bees. That was good because I was covered in them. They were everywhere. Within minutes, the bees were doing orientation flights, ‘This is my home and I need to see it from all angles.’”
Raising honey bees has become a popular hobby in Rhode Island ,with more than 200 potential beekeepers attending the R.I. Beekeepers Association’s Bee School every spring, according to instructor Stephen Burke and Betty Mencucci.
Burke said the group saw a drop in attendance this year because classes were online.
All Rhode Island beekeepers are required by law to register their hives with the state Department of Environmental Management. Most state apiaries are hobbyists who sell their products locally or at the county fair, Burke said.
Data regarding state registrations is currently unavailable because of the recent retirement of State Bee Inspector Jim Lawson, but Burke said the R.I. Beekeepers Association has more than 500 members.
The honey bee (also known as the European Honey bee and western honey bee) is not native to North America. It is the only bee that makes honey, but there are other bugs that produce honey. They were originally imported from Europe in the 17th century, according to the US Geological Survey. Honey bees now help pollinate many US crops like fruits and nuts, the USGS says.
In a single year, one honey bee colony can gather about 40 pounds of pollen and 265 pounds of nectar, the USGS says.
Most bees in Rhode Island are solitary bees found in people’s lawn, according to Steven Alm, professor of entomology at the University of Rhode Island. The ground-nesting bees collect pollen and nectar and then dig a tunnel into the soil where they provision cells and lay eggs, Alm said.
The Ramoses plan to stick with beekeeping as long as people want honey. They also sell
fire cider — a “hot” remedy and tonic used to ward off the cold or flu — honey straws in sweet and spicy flavors, and a beeswax that keeps puppy paws safe from ice and snow.
“It’s floral honey. We don’t filter it. We don’t heat it,” Mark Ramos said. “It’s just raw natural honey that we strain and collect. We used to small-batch it by hives to save the flavor profile. Every floral honey has a very distinct taste depending on which flowers and where” the hives are located.
“Spring honey is lighter and sweeter,” he explained. “Fall honey is darker and less sweet.”
Mark Ramos has one request for yard workers this spring.
“Don’t cut the dandelions,” he said. “That’s an early source of food for bees. A lot of people spend time and money to get rid of them, but anything with a flower really helps bees. There’s not a lot, especially in Rhode Island, for bees to forage on. That helps bees survive into the next generation.”