A Beekeeper’s Sojourn
Keeping bees—good for body and soul
Maria Mackavay Carls finds immense enjoyment and connectivity when she tends to her hives at her West Stockbridge home.
Photos by Matt Petricone
There is nothing more thrilling to a beekeeper than spotting the queen bee moving purposefully over a frame among hundreds of her throng or hearing the piping of a virgin queen emerging from her queen cell. Tending to my bees, there is something so special about the warmth, scents, and sounds emanating from the hives.
Being a beekeeper was never my intent prior to buying our home in the Berkshires in 1999. Our house is nestled in a hillside that was once a cow pasture. The property’s rolling hills settle against mountains to the west, south, and east. This setting of rolling hills and meadows filled with wild flowers and thyme crushed under foot reminded me of my native Greece with its rugged terrain covered with fragrant, wild herbs and dotted with colorful hives. Two years after I told my husband I wanted to keep bees, we were on a one-hour drive to pick up my first package of them. I remember experiencing the same mixture of vulnerability and anticipation I continue to feel 15 years on, every time I approach my hives.
When I light my smoker—a metal canister with a spout and bellows into which I stuff hemp, newspaper, and dry leaves—and arrive at the bee yard wearing my white suit and gloves, the beekeeper’s armor, I begin by checking bee activity in front of the hives. My bee yard consists of four hives, surrounded by an electric fence powered by a solar panel to guard against bears. The hives face the southeast and are set against the edge of dense woods, protecting them from chilling northwest winds.
The steady hum of industrious bees flying into their hive, their rear legs loaded with pollen, is a welcome sight. Opening a hive, I lightly smoke the top of the frames, which are thick with bees. The smoke encourages bees to gorge themselves with honey and remain calm. As I carefully pull out frames heavy with their precious stores of honey, brood, and bees to check on the queen and her egg laying, I become fully present. The bees flying around my head and hands are apt to become agitated and sting if I am clumsy or careless; and in stinging me, the bee also dies because the sting rips the center from its abdomen.
I am a member of the Berkshire community of beekeepers, an unofficial association. According to Kim Skyrm, chief apiary inspector for the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources, registering hives is voluntary in Massachusetts, so there are no exact numbers for beekeepers, but she estimates there are 4,000 to 4,500. Our Berkshire community includes such august members as Massachusetts former Governor Deval Patrick, with whom I shared my honey extractor last summer and exchanged jars of honey. Beekeepers help each other and also perform acts of public service. Last October, Richard Clapper, from Peru, and fellow beekeeper Ed Neumuth of Washington, carefully removed 100,000 bees and about 100 pounds of honey from a giant hive in a wall on the third floor of a Pittsfield furniture store’s warehouse and added it to Neumuth’s apiary.
Beekeeping has its share of heartache. One midsummer night, a bear ravaged a hive I had successfully kept on a friend’s nearby property for several years without an electric fence. Standing amidst the devastation, I watched helplessly as the dazed and angry bees flew around the spot where their hive once stood.
Honey, derived from pollen and nectar, has been considered for thousands of years as a particularly nurturing form of food with healing properties. Modern medicine recognizes the antibacterial properties of honey—it has been used to dress wounds since the 1950s. There is also plenty of anecdotal evidence of the effectiveness of pollens in local honey in building immunity against allergies to airborne pollen.
The renewal of interest in local honey has happened in response to the growing desire to know where our food comes from. How much honey a hive produces depends on weather, location, availability of nectar, and health of a hive. A summer drought can cause honey production to drop as much as 60 percent. A severe winter, like that of 2015, can slow down the production of spring honey. Last year, my bees produced little spring honey, but in September we harvested a whopping 243 pounds—leaving the requisite 60 to 70 pounds in the hive to get the bees through the Berkshire winter. Bees do not hibernate. They generate warmth by forming a tight cluster within their hive, moving as one to feed on their store of honey.
Inadvertent or careless human activity can be devastating on the intimate and fragile relationship of bees, plants, and climate. A preliminary survey conducted by the Bee Informed Partnership shows that U.S. beekeepers reported a 44-percent loss of their colonies for the 2015/2016 winter season, marking a 3.5-percent increase in losses over the previous study year. Although disturbing news, concern for the bees’ fate of bees has led to more people becoming involved in beekeeping and finding joy in the process.
Berkshire Botanical Garden
5 West Stockbridge Rd., Stockbridge,
8 Meader Road,
Eastern Apicultural Society (EAS)
Massachusetts Beekeepers Association
Northern Berkshire Beekeeping Association (NBBA)
Kim Skyrm, PhD, chief apiary inspector/apiary program coordinator, Massachusetts
Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR)
251 Causeway Street, Suite 500, Boston