As an amateur entomologist, I jumped at the chance in mid-April to visit Wellesley’s Nichole Bernier and Tom Ahern in welcoming 20,000 honeybees to their hives.
Bernier’s the bee school veteran, Norfolk County Beekeepers Association member, and chief beekeeper in the family. She’s also now mentor to Wellesley’s Kara Sullivan, who was on hand as she readied for her own first hives. Bernier isn’t quite sure how many beekeepers are operating in town, but knows of at least a handful of new ones this year doing their part to increase bee colonies in the area threatened by pesticides, parasites, and more.
I donned a bee suit for the first time upon my arrival, checking off a bucket list item in the process. Then I joined the small crew of people and dogs on hand for the transfer of two cases of bees and their queens (marked with white dots on their thorax) who had arrived from Georgia by way of Lincoln, R.I. Sugar water kept them satisfied during the trip, which has rewarded them with access to the springtime flowers and plants now blossoming across town. Bernier’s bright yellow wooden hives and and friendly bee signage made for a warm welcome, too.
Anticipating that I might be challenged to operate my camera and iPhone while wearing protective gloves, never mind trying to scribble down quotes and facts, I didn’t even bother with a notebook. I sent Nichole a handful of questions before I arrived, and her answers are below. As a journalist herself, she made my job easy.
That left me to taste honey, let bees crawl on my masked face, and soak in the captivating hive sound.
What inspired you to get into beekeeping?
When I worked at a magazine in New York, one of our star contributing writers would tell me about beekeeping on top of his brownstone down in the Village. I thought it was incredibly cool that such a thing was possible on a city rooftop above the traffic, not even in the grass. Since then I’ve learned you can keep bees just about anywhere, and they fly 3 miles in any direction for foraging and water. I’ve always been into wildlife rescue and rehab and fostering and backyard chickens, and I guess the more I heard about bees over the years the more it lodged in the back of my mind and the more possible it seemed.
How long have you been keeping bees?
This is just my third year. When I served on the Rec Commission a few years ago, I learned the [Natural Resources Commission] was working on pollination corridors, and I thought a beekeeping program would be great to establish in the town. I thought there could be all kinds of programming and educational tie-ins for kids and adults, maybe a class in the Rec catalog, and a beekeeping club at the high school that could lend itself to research projects, etc. But working out the town budgeting for a professional company to manage our hives got steep and complicated. One year rolled into the next and when I was so disappointed it wasn’t happening, I realized I really wanted to do it myself. I inherited a few used hive boxes from a friend in Vermont, started researching, and ordered two packages of bees to arrive a few months later in the spring. The Norfolk County Beekeepers Association offered an annual beginner’s beekeeping school, so I was doing that at the same time I was starting with bees.
What are the most important things you learn in bee school?
There is so much to learn. It’s fascinating. The bee lifecycle and community is so complex, and the learning curve is tremendous and ongoing. You have to stay on top of the testing and treatments for diseases and parasites, constantly monitoring their status, because the bees all have varroa mites now. It’s a real responsibility and it has to be taken seriously by anyone keeping bees. If your bees aren’t treated, they fly around and infect other hives and cause a whole domino effect of colony destruction. That’s why joining the regional club and Facebook groups and email networks is so important— advice is shared freely, and when you go to bee school, you’re assigned a mentor. I had one, and now I’m being one. It’s just what you do. You have to work and cooperate for the good of everyone. It’s like the model of the way the hive lives.
How has your hobby/passion expanded over that time?
The time involved is actually caring for the bees is fairly seasonal. Weekly inspections start up when the weather gets warmer through late fall, and you’re in the hives about once a week, keeping tabs on evidence that the queen is alive and laying eggs, pollen is being gathered, enough honey is being stored for winter, and making sure they’re not getting overcrowded and showing signs of swarming. There’s honey harvesting in the summer and fall, after you make sure to leave enough for the bees to get through winter.
It turned into sort of a double hobby when I started making beeswax candles as gifts, then a triple hobby once I got the idea to make them in the shape of vintage bottles, and started to researching the history and companies and people behind the bottles (because that’s the occupational hazard of being a journalist, right?) So that became The Hive Lives, and it’s extraordinarily fun, and a big part of raising awareness, and raising funds for bee conservancy. I give 10% from my little web business to the Urban Bee Laboratory in Boston, which shares research data with MIT, NASA, and National Geographic Society. Because that’s part of the responsibility too when you’re respectfully using the products of the bees.
What impact on the environment do you think your bee efforts have?
It’s hard to say. Bees fly up to three miles in all directions from their hive — that homing orientation is where the phrase beeline comes from — so I know they’re out there pollinating flowers and vegetable gardens around town. And if people in town are eating local honey, it helps with immunity to regional allergies. But I only have a few hives, so the impact is probably more about the effect on people when they see and hear about it happening locally among their friends, not just out there on some farm. It’s been so satisfying to talk to my kids’ friends about the bees, and see them go from “eeww” to curiosity,
and sometimes even putting on a bee suit to come out and watch. That’s where a bit part of beekeeping interest and passion goes – you move naturally from a caretaker to an advocate. We’re learning so much about the factors that harm bees, from pesticides to dwindling foraging environment to inadvertent harms, like people seeing a hive on their property and going after it with Raid. Or even the mass production of almonds, which have pollination needs that are greater than the bees we have naturally anymore. So an entire industry has sprung up trucking hives around to pollinate the crops. These kinds of things you learn about, and want to share.
How’s the rest of the family involved?
Sometimes someone will put on a bee suit and help me when I’m doing something tricky or heavy. My husband has, and a few of the kids. But their biggest and best contribution was not saying “no” when I said I wanted to do this. And giving over part of the yard that used to be deep left field in whiffle ball games.
They sick of honey yet?
Nope. Not when I make salted honey taffy.
What’s your sense of the level of beekeeping activity in Wellesley?
It’s hard to say, because a permit isn’t required the way it is for keeping chickens. But I think there’s more than you’d guess. There are hives in yards and community gardens, and hives like the ones behind Roche Bros that are managed for restaurants like The Cottage. I know of five people here in town who care for bees or are about to start, and that’s not including the ones cared for by companies like Best Bees (the consumer arm of the Urban Bee Lab in Boston).
What things can those in town who don’t want to go all-in with beekeeping do to help the bees?
Plant pollinator gardens — milkweed, lavender, coneflowers, bergamot, bee balm and honeysuckle. Don’t use pesticides and non-organic fertilizers on your yard. If you come across a hive on your property or attached to your house and you want it gone, let a beekeeper know – they have connections to people who will come take it away gently and establish it in a new hive. (Have you seen that viral video of the woman in Texas who does this with her bare hands? It’s all about being gentle. But I don’t think I could ever do that.)
Of your 20K new bees, is that all considered 1 colony? Aside from you, 1 queen bee amongst them all?
Ha! Each hive is a colony, each colony has just one queen. If she dies, they can grow another from larvae by feeding it royal jelly for three days longer than its “peers.” Queens live up to 3 years; workers live up to 45 days. Queens take one mating flight at the beginning of their life, mating with up to 10 drones (who then immediately die), and then she lays about 2,000 eggs a day for the rest of her life, never leaving the hive again. Unless she leads a swarm out of an overcrowded hive. And even then, the bees are still thinking of the communal good: they leave behind a newly fed queen cell to grow a new one for the remaining half that doesn’t swarm away.
What’s your best beekeeping anecdote?
Oh man. Let me think about that and I’ll tell you when I see you. Last year during the package installation I suddenly got stung on my lip. Inside my suit. While I was holding a box of 10K-odd bees who got worked up by my sudden movement. So I tried to hold still while the buzzing got louder and flying got frantic, meanwhile having no idea HOW IT GOT IN MY SUIT AND HOW MANY THERE MIGHT BE. I tried to get it done gently, and it turned out there were no others in my suit. But I was so frazzled after that installation I had to go sit on the porch and unwind.
If you’d like to unwind with a bit more on beekeeping, check out this article written by Bernier for Edible Boston last fall.
Dear Nicole, was so excited to read your article. My father was granted immigration into this country from Germany in 1929 because he was a beekeeper! We always had bee hives in our backyard and he built a bee house for extra protection. Never wore a suit, just smoked a pipe! Was a member of the Montgomery County, PA beekeepers association and I still have his beekeeping book!
Nichole Bernier says
Martha, I love stories about the old-school beekeepers who cared for the hives with gusto and nerve and a gentle touch! Oh, and a pipe didn’t hurt… these days we use smokers to settle them down in the hives during inspections. Fun history you have!