Visiting An Apiary: Beekeeping in Boston

Bees at their hiveSome weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend an introductory beekeeping class led by local beekeeper, Jean-Claude Bourrut. After a quick hop, skip and a jump (i.e. a T journey, a bus ride and a short walk), I found my way to his hives which are nestled between the Boston Nature Center and the Clark Cooper Community Gardens in Mattapan.

Boston Nature Center (left) and Clark Cooper Community Gardens (right).

Boston Nature Center (left) and Clark Cooper Community Gardens (right).

For two days prior to the class, I was forbidden to eat bananas. Why? An interesting bit of trivia: apparently, ripe bananas contain the same chemical or pheromone that bees give off when they are sending out a high level danger alert. If you ever want to anger a hive – throw a ripe banana peel in front of it.

Jean-Claude has been working with bees for about twenty years. His interests originally lay in organic farming and on one farm where he worked, he was asked to manage several bee hives. He did not have any prior experience but threw himself into the project and got hooked. While he has read a great deal on the subject he has learned his most important lessons through trial and error – be it what kind of plants he puts in his smoker or his preferred variety of bees (he is partial to sumac in his smoker, topped off with grass for longevity of burn and he likes Russian bees).

Jean-Claude fills the smoker with sumac and then grass

Jean-Claude filling the smoker with sumac and then topping it off with grass.

I asked Jean-Claude about his honey production and he indicated that for the past two years, he has really only had enough honey to give to friends and family – none to sell – because conditions have not been good. At the shop (availability depending) we carry several local honeys: Carlisle Honey (Carlisle, MA) and Black Pond Apiaries honey (Harvard, MA). We also have a few domestic honeys from a little farther afield: Tupelo honey from Smiley Apiaries (Wewahitchka, Florida), Ames Farm honey from Minnesota, Golden Angels honey from Virginia, Branches honey from Napa Valley, organic honey from Hawaii and honeycomb from Aquidneck Honey in Rhode Island. Julia, our domestic honey buyer tells me that, like Jean-Claude, these producers have also experienced challenging harvests in the past few years.

Jean-Claude's apiary

Jean-Claude’s apiary

However, as challenging as it has been for the beekeepers we buy from, other beekeepers affected by Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) have been hit even harder. CCD was first reported in October of 2006 when some beekeepers began noticing reductions in their hives ranging from 30-90%. The USDA provides us with an overview of the situation. The specific causes of CCD remain unknown – general consensus seems to be, however, that a variety of factors are involved.

Plastic honeycomb

Plastic honeycomb

Jean-Claude mentioned a few potential factors in the course of my visit to the hives – things that were new to me but which seemed to make a lot of sense as things that would negatively impact bee colonies. One of the most interesting things I learned was that humans have artificially increased the size of the cells in beehives. One of the hot topics in beekeeping today is the optimal cell sizes for a hive and whether or not cell size has had a hand in CCD. From what it sounded like to me (albeit still very much a lay person in these matters!), there is a fair case to say that cell size could be a contributing factor.

Natural cell size varies around the globe – African bees, for example, tend to produce smaller cells than their European counterparts. Acknowledging that there is geographic variation, I was given a width of about 4.6mm as a natural size for a worker cell. In a lot of artificial comb – plastic cells created for the bees so they don’t have to build their own – cells can be up to 5.6mm in width, almost 25% larger. An amateur beekeeper in my class told me that this practice was originally introduced in order to amp up honey production. This sounded logical and, after doing a bit of research online, it looks as though she was correct. Comb experimentation began in the 1800s and, no bones about it, it was done to increase honey yields.

Natural honeycomb

Natural honeycomb

Cell size has become a hot issue because it seems as though there have been unanticipated side effects. For one thing, the bees born into these cells take longer to mature as they grow to fill the space they are given. Simultaneously, this seems to allow for another birth cycle of the mites that have a parasitic relationship with bees. The jury is still out on the level of impact – studies done to date have yielded varying results – but it would not surprise me if a meaningful correlation between cell size and mite population was established.

Determining if cell size impacts mite production is important because the more mites in a hive, the greater likelihood of disease and the weaker the hive is. In addition to possibly encouraging mite reproduction, larger cell sizes have also brought into question the resulting size of the bees. Growing to maturity in larger cells, are the proportions of honeybee physiognomy out of whack? Do larger bodies mean larger wings and, if not, does that mean the bees have to work harder to go about their business? If so, the theory postulates, this could also be weakening the bees, making them more susceptible to illness.

In Jean-Claude's hand: the card he uses to measure comb size

In Jean-Claude’s hand: the card he uses to measure comb size

Jean-Claude is actually in the process of trying to scale his bees back down to a smaller comb size. However, you cannot immediately go from 5.6mm to 4.6mm. Right now, he has some 4.9mm comb in order to slowly implement the regression. It is an ongoing process.

Another thing I was interested to learn about bees is that stress is a factor for them as much as it is for humans. When stressed, as with our own species, bees are generally more susceptible to illness or fatigue. Many hives in the US are toted from farm to farm and state to state in order to pollinate crops. This kind of travel is very stressful to the bees and, according to Jean-Claude, these traveling bees often arrive at their destinations half dead. Needless to say, this makes them weaker and more likely to get sick (particularly if there is a larger than normal mite population!).

The basics of beekeeping

Bee hives were never designed for traveling. In order to reproduce and to combat crowding in the hive, a portion of a bee colony will leave, choose a new queen and establish a new hive elsewhere. When they do this, they swarm. A swarm looks very menacing but, I was interested to learn, bees in this state are actually fairly calm – possibly as calm as they’ll ever be – because they do not have a hive to defend. In nature, the bees occasionally move, their hives do not. Given this, it makes sense to me that it would be prudent to encourage the establishment of more stationary hives, rather than depending on migrant hives to pollinate the crops in this country.

Interestingly, it seems that city dwellers are beginning to play a key role in adding to the number of stationary hives. In New York City, for example, beekeeping was legalized in March of last year. Previously, fines ranging from $200 to $2,000 were levied by the health department for illegal beekeeping. Now, folks can e-mail the New York City Beekeepers Association if they have a garden, balcony, or rooftop available to host a hive. Maybe Boston’s apartment buildings will be next?