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A’s, Bees, and C’s: A hive of experts can teach you the basics of beekeeping

Grace Neale, whose father Geoff teaches bee keeping, holds a frame from one of her family’s bee hives at their home in Topsfield.
Grace Neale, whose father Geoff teaches bee keeping, holds a frame from one of her family’s bee hives at their home in Topsfield.Christiana Botic for The Boston Globe

Standing in the hot sun with thousands of bees buzzing around him, Geoff Neale is focused and calm. Behind the veil of his bee suit, he is smiling.

A beekeeper for 23 years who teaches newcomers through the Essex County Beekeepers Association, the Topsfield resident “is still amazed” every time he opens a hive.

“Beekeeping is about amazement and joy,” said Kitty de Groot of Marion. “For me, it is like yoga. It is about mindfulness. You need to be focused and see what the bees see.”

The Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources estimates there are 4,000 to 4,500 beekeepers managing between 40,000 and 45,000 hives in the state, and the number is growing.

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“The pandemic seems to have stimulated interest in gardening and that has led to increased interest in beekeeping,” said Neale.

While it’s too early to track statistical growth in beekeeping, “Practical Beekeeping” courses sponsored by the county beekeeping associations have seen increased registrations.

“There are definitely more registrations than our organization can handle for the Practical Bee school,” said Neale. With the pandemic, bee school moved online and ”we were able handle 120 students this year instead of the 65 we are limited to in person.”

Geoff Neale tends to the bees in one of the hives on his property in Topsfield. Geoff has been an active beekeeper for 23 years and his wife Nora makes skin care products and wax from the hives and sells the honey.
Geoff Neale tends to the bees in one of the hives on his property in Topsfield. Geoff has been an active beekeeper for 23 years and his wife Nora makes skin care products and wax from the hives and sells the honey. Christiana Botic for The Boston Globe

“If you have any thoughts of becoming a beekeeper, attending a bee school is important,” added Bob Hickey of Wetlands Apiary in Brockton, who mentors new Norfolk County beekeepers.

County bee schools cost between $50 and $100 per person depending on the number of weeks. Most counties offer a discount for youths attending with an adult.

“I discovered the ECBA bee school with a perfect schedule in winter so I had time to buy required equipment, reserve packages of bees, and learn the basics of how to work with bees,” said Anton Kozak of Ipswich, who enrolled in an Essex County program this year. “The school didn’t make me an expert but gave me the confidence that I can do it.”

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Kozak said he feels privileged to have Neale as his mentor. “I started from one hive, now I have four colonies and I’m pretty confident in myself,” he said. “I would absolutely recommend bee school.”

The Bee School at Mass Audubon’s Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary in Lincoln was full this past spring, according to Mel Gadd, the sanctuary’s beekeeper. The five two-hour sessions were $175 for nonmembers and $150 for Mass Audubon members.

“I have seen a steady increase in attendance over the last 5 to 10 years,” Gadd said. “This spring, with classes online, we offered online, texting, and phone assistance to help new beekeepers along on their journeys into beekeeping.”

Geoff Neale points out the queen bee, whose body is longer than the worker bees, to his daughter Grace.
Geoff Neale points out the queen bee, whose body is longer than the worker bees, to his daughter Grace.Christiana Botic for The Boston Globe

Bees also are part of the Farm-to-Food program at Drumlin. “We have found that since the bees were installed, our vegetable production increased 20 percent,” said Gadd. “That’s important because produce from the farm goes to the Somerville schools, a shelter, and we have a farmers market. We sell between 300 and 400 pounds of honey in a good year.”

Hives are possible in urban and rural communities alike. For those who want to support the bees and have a hive for pollination, there are options.

Best Bees, a for-profit company, provides homeowners with an opportunity to pollinate their property and harvest honey without lifting a finger. The company installs and manages hives at residential and commercial properties.

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Neale and de Groot manage hives for individuals and a farm. Gadd established hives for a church and Cambridge schools.

“If you’re thinking about getting started, it requires an investment in equipment,” said de Groot. “I liken it to purchasing a purebred dog. You spend money up front but the enjoyment is over many years.”

Beekeeping is particularly fun when other family members are involved, said de Groot, whose husband, Tom, tends the hives as well.

Geoff Neale, right, points out the queen bee to his daughter Grace, center, while his wife Nora looks on.
Geoff Neale, right, points out the queen bee to his daughter Grace, center, while his wife Nora looks on. Christiana Botic for The Boston Globe

“When we first started my husband was totally into it — I was more hesitant,” she said. “After the first year, he started traveling more for work so I was forced to go into hives and tell him how they were doing. I was apprehensive. Each time, after the adrenalin rush subsided, I started thinking about what I had seen and eventually felt more comfortable. Now I manage between 30 to 35 hives.”

Bees are a “family endeavor” and a part of the Neale family’s nature-centric lifestyle that includes an expansive garden, composting, and bees for pollination and honey.

Daughter Grace, 22, a college student, got her first bee suit at age 3 and is an accomplished beekeeper.

Nora Neale described herself as her husband’s “assistant” and sells the excess honey curbside, along with beeswax candles, and their own lip balm through Lupine Lane Apiary — their family business. Honey from Neale’s 28 hives is prized by chefs and local residents.

“We have regular honey customers that tell us it helps with their pollen allergies,” said Geoff Neale.

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According to the state Department of Agricultural Resources, it takes about 2 million flowers and worker bees flying 50,000 miles to make one pound of honey.

“Beekeeping is a challenge and commitment requiring a lot of work,” Neale said. “There is always something new to learn.”

Hickey of Wetlands Apiary in Brockton, a beekeeper for 15 years, raises queen bees and is a highly sought-after intermediate and advanced level teacher. “Bob’s classes are in such demand,” de Groot observed.

“There are challenges to raising bees — pesticides, mites, climate change …,” said Gadd. “We went from 90 degrees in June to July’s torrential rains. I believe an increase in electrical storms impacts the bees. Recently, I checked on an observation hive with 30,000 to 40,000 bees and it was busy. The next day after a thunderstorm, they were all gone — absconded — just moved on.”

No matter the challenges, the bees bring their keepers joy.

“Sitting on my deck in the morning, watching the bees go out to work for the day is meditative,” said Gadd. “After 15 years, I am still amazed and learning.”

Linda Greenstein can be reached at greensteinlm@gmail.com.

Husband and wife Geoff and Nora Neale in front of the hives on their property in Topsfield.
Husband and wife Geoff and Nora Neale in front of the hives on their property in Topsfield.Christiana Botic for The Boston Globe
Beeking equipment sits in the grass next to Geoff and Nora Neale’s hives at their home in Topsfield.
Beeking equipment sits in the grass next to Geoff and Nora Neale’s hives at their home in Topsfield.Christiana Botic for The Boston Globe