Keeping Bees in Vermont: What’s The Buzz All About?

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People / Jul. 16, 2015 10:14am EDT

By Sarah Caouette


Chuck Ashton works with the bees at his hives on the Chelsea-Tunbridge line. (Herald / Sarah Caouette) Chuck Ashton works with the bees at his hives on the Chelsea-Tunbridge line. (Herald / Sarah Caouette) When I was six, I watched my stepfather catch a honey bee in our garage and administer a bee sting to himself. Shocking at first to witness, my immediate reaction was, This man is insane! Who on earth would inflict pain upon themselves?

Like many kids, I was cautioned to be wary of bees. Being barefoot during the summer, traipsing through the high fields and clover came with warnings. Climbing trees, we learned quickly to stay clear of any humming activity above our heads.

Then there was my first taste of real honeycomb at a roadside farmstand— saturated sweet and chewy, the golden goo sticky on hands and lips, and how amazed I was to discover bees were not just pests.

As a gardener, I worry about the population of bees. Over 25 years ago, there seemed to be an abundance of bees. So much so, I remember sitting on the front porch of our house listening to the determined bees collecting pollen in the yard. As an adult, I’m interested in apitherapy (the medical use of bee products) and its long-term health benefits, and have come to appreciate the complexities and mysteries of bee biology.

While my interests are everchanging and evolving, investing in hives seems like an attainable goal and a worthwhile undertaking. But before I could even consider getting my feet wet, I wanted to connect with others who had the know-how and experience, to see what the buzz was all about.

Honey Bees

Heidi Chapman’s curiosity in bees grew out of her love for honey, and from her experience living and working with her beekeeping cousin, Seth Rick, out in Humboldt County, Calif. Her father also kept bees when she was growing up, but back then, she kept her distance for fear of getting stung.

A beekeeper for 11 years, Chapman is intuitive about keeping hives on her property.

“I try to wear white clothing when I know I’m going to be near the hives,” she told me while we are walking out to her garden, to check out her bees. “It seems less threatening to them.”

Dark colors likely resemble the color of a bear or predator, which are actual threats to bees and their colonies. Chapman knows this first hand, having lost hives three springs in a row to a bear.

“Once you have a bear, they keep coming back,” she explained. Other threats are mites, harsh winters and climate change. She’s had up to four hives at different times, but is now down to one.

“We used to mow the fields, but now we just mow paths,” she told me. “I’ve become much more attune to what the bees like. Plants like buckwheat and milkweed.”

She also likes to plant what she knows will attract bees. Her solo hive sits up in a corner of fenced garden, beneath a grape arbor, facing south. Her two-year old, White Shepherd follows us in, also seemingly curious about the heightened noise. Unfortunately, he got a little too close and found out the wrong way what all the racket was about.

Up to 60,000 bees can live in a single hive at a given time, which can generate a great amount of sound, especially if they decide to swarm. Having a large hive population is a sign of the health and prosperity of the bees. With much of their survival dependent on having a safe environment to thrive, there is a fragility to their existence. Yet, there is also something about their biology that is self-regulating and self-sufficient that makes them a fascinating species.

Swarming

Chapman described the unsettling experience of witnessing a swarm. “You can hear them coming before you see them. Then it’s this black cloud. Once it happened when I had guests arriving for a barbecue, and I was like, ‘Oh no, not now!’”

A swarm typically occurs when a queen bee has aged out and a new queen moves into the hive, or it could also happen due to overcrowding. Hives with queens less than two years old are least likely to swarm. When it’s the case of a new queen coming in, the elder queen will send scout bees out to find another place to live. And once a prime spot is located, the exiting queen will leave with 50 to 90 percent of the population.

“Bees will also make new queens if it’s needed in their colony—if their current queen is sick or dying, or has left with a swarm,” Chuck Ashton shared with my partner and me, when visiting his hives up on the Chelsea-Tunbridge line.

Fascinated with Bees

Originally a transplant from New Jersey, Ashton and his wife moved to the area in 2008. Since 2010, they have maintained hives on their property.

“You wouldn’t think bees have personalities, but every colony is different when you interact with them.”

Ashton’s fascination with bees also began in youth, when reading Boy’s Life magazine. “There were always those send-away cards to start your own hive,” he said of his early bee-dreaming years. So, when his wife brought up starting hives in 2009, it was an easy sell.

Like Chapman, Ashton is also very insightful about the nature and temperament of bees. And like his bees, he possesses resourcefulness. Currently, he and his wife house three active colonies. However, with the help of a recycled satellite dish bracket, Ashton has secured a fourth hive up in a tree, in case of potential swarming.

With a couple extra bee jackets and hoods on hand, Ashton had my partner and I suit up to get up close and personal with the bees. He opened up two of the three hives to show us the different things to look for when examining the comb cells—a basic hive inspection for dummies: If the queen is alive and well, eggs are being laid.

Also, check to see how consistent and close-forming the pattern of brood is. With more eggs being produced the worker bees are forced to work harder bringing in the nectar that will eventually become honey.

By the end of the visit, we were sold. We are looking forward to seeing more bees in the future.

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