Of Hives and Honey
Beekeepers Keep the MV Buzzing
Twenty years ago, Tom Rando kept a handful of apple trees on his Andover property. The trees weren’t producing much fruit, so Rando thought it might help to have pollinators nearby. He built a hive in his backyard, provided almost no care and collected over 200 pounds of honey that first year. The colony made it through the winter, showing few signs of disease or pests.
Rachel Chandler of Lowell began beekeeping in 2013, and she finds Rando’s story almost unbelievable. Chandler has labored over her bees since the beginning. She provides food for them in the spring before the plants begin to bud and regularly treats them to protect against pests and disease. During the colder months, she wraps the hives. Even with all of her tending, she regularly loses hives each winter.
“I’ve never known a time when I didn’t have to treat my bees,” Chandler says.
She’s not alone. In the most recent available data, hive failure rates for 2017-2018 in Massachusetts were between 50 and 65 percent, according to Kim Skyrm, the chief apiary inspector and apiary program coordinator for the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources. This data was reported by beekeepers who listed environmental factors such as weather as the biggest cause of colony losses, followed closely by a parasitic mite with the sinister-sounding name of Varroa destructor. Left unchecked, this mite can wipe out a honeybee colony. Similar failure rates for hives have been reported in New Hampshire.
Rando began noticing the problems about 10 years ago. “At that point, I was losing hives every single year,” he says. A self-taught beekeeper, Rando joined the Essex County Beekeepers’ Association (ECBA) and took a class to learn how to combat common problems.
Like many beekeepers, Rando believes multiple factors have led to the decimation of honeybees. Area spraying for mosquitoes has weakened hives, as has the loss of wildflower habitat to new construction. “The mites were the tipping point. Now if there’s harsh winters, they just can’t make it,” Rando says, noting that winter survival has always been his marker of good bee health.
Sadie and the Ladies
For Chandler, bees aren’t just a hobby — they’re an integral part of her business, Red Antler Apothecary, an herbal skin-care and health solutions company. Chandler uses about 100 pounds of honey and wax in her products each year. “We use it in balms, lotions, creams and soaps,” she says. “We have 97 products, and about half of them contain honey or wax.”
Her bees, which are located near the banks of the Concord River, feed on the wildflowers and herbs she grows in her yard, and in neighbors’ gardens, which, she says, include apple, quince, pear and peach trees. In addition to mites, she and assistant Melissa Fedorchuk have battled bad weather, hive moths, and yellow jackets, which Chandler calls “the bane of our existence.”
But it’s not all hard work. “I’m surprised by how adorable and fascinating they are,” Fedorchuk says. She and Chandler name their hives — Sadie and the Ladies, Beatrice and the Brood, Pearl and the Girls are just a few of their past favorites — and they keep track of a hive’s habits and temperament.
“When you lose a hive, it takes an emotional toll,” adds Fedorchuk, who says a curious honeybee will often find her and carefully explore her fingers while she’s selling the store’s products at farmers markets.
For Chandler, one of the hardest parts of beekeeping is recognizing early on when bees are in distress. “Most animals are bigger, and you can see their symptoms,” she says. “Bees can’t hold up a sign saying, ‘Hey, there’s a handful of hive beetles in here and it’s taking all of our energy and attention and you need to find them and kill them before they spread.’”
For Rando, the most difficult part of his beekeeping experience is even more dire. “[It’s] watching them die at a faster rate than they used to.”
Some help for the beleaguered bees may be on the way. Several bills that could aid pollinators are currently making their way through the Massachusetts legislature. One of the more prominent is sponsored by state Rep. Carolyn Dykema of the 8th Middlesex District. Her bill, “An Act to Protect Massachusetts Pollinators,” aims to limit the application of a class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids to licensed individuals, and to give consumers the right to know what is in their lawn or garden treatments. This is the third year the bill has been filed.
“Every year it’s getting more support. And I have to credit local beekeepers because they have really organized since this bill was originally brought up,” Dykema says. “The outpouring of unprompted support from the beekeeping community has been incredible.”
Dykema became interested in the issue of neonicotinoids, which are absorbed by plants and can be present in nectar or pollen, as part of a broader interest in general ecology, she says. “I recognize that there is a connection between all our creatures,” Dykema says. “What happens to bees is going to have an impact on our ability to pollinate trees and plants. The signs of decline in bees is having a broader impact on our environment.”
Dykema says pesticides such as neonicotinoids have their uses, citing an invasion of Asian longhorned beetles that decimated trees in central Massachusetts a few years ago as an example. “These pesticides were one of the few treatments (against the beetles),” she says. “They are still needed in limited and carefully managed doses.” Her bill balances a variety of interests, including that of the agricultural sector, she says.
Beekeepers With Class
Area beekeepers are also doing their part, banding together to share knowledge and expertise. Chandler, Fedorchuk and Rando strongly recommend that new beekeepers take a class on the topic. “I think it’s worth the small price to speak with people who have been keeping bees for years,” Fedorchuk says.
The ECBA, which has been in existence since 1923, runs one of the largest honey shows in the country every year at the Topsfield Fair. The organization also hosts a nine-week beekeeping class every spring at the fairgrounds, beginning in February.
Chandler and Fedorchuk took classes with the Merrimack Valley Beekeepers Association (MVBA) in Merrimack, N.H. Like the ECBA, the MVBA is part educational and part social, giving newbies and experienced beekeepers a chance to swap stories and ideas, and to learn more about how to raise and protect honeybees.
Even after the loss of one of his two hives this past winter, Rando still has hope. He talks about how resilient bees are, how on a winter day he’ll check the hive and see bees flying around, then drop to the ground because they are so cold. “I’ll put a little sugar water on my finger, blow on them to warm up, and they come back alive,” he says.
The one piece of advice he’d offer new beekeepers:
“Don’t give up.”
For more information:
Essex County Beekeepers’ Association
Merrimack Valley Beekeepers Association
Red Antler Apothecary