Sweet Endeavor

by Bill Mares

“The bees are the color; everything else is black and white.” – Kirk Webster, Bridport beekeeper

mares0815Bill Mares, Mares Apiaries, Burlington photo credit: Jim Gross

I’ve kept bees for over 40 years, and from a publicity standpoint, there’s never been a better time to be a beekeeper. That’s because not a week goes by that someone doesn’t ask, “What’s ailing the bees?” or “Where have the bees gone?”

For the last 10 years, American beekeepers have lost an average of 30 percent of their bees annually. But that mystery is only the latest woe for an industry beset by parasitic mites, cheap foreign honey, pesticides, and “killer bees.”

From an infrastructure standpoint, all beekeepers are tied together because it’s the professionals who pay for the research, equipment, and lobbying needed to keep the industry viable.

Honeybees’ importance in the American economy lies not in honey production — a measly $400 million annually — but in pollination for $15-$20 billion in fruits, vegetables, nuts, and forage crops, especially the $2 billion almond business.

Vermont’s 10,000 colonies yield an average of 70 pounds a year each for a value of $700,000. Although Vermont has only a small number of professional beekeepers, it has over 1,000 part-timers, or hobbyists, according to the state bee inspector Steve Parise.

Numbers and activities have grown significantly in the past decade, partly in response to the bee crisis, as ordinary people have learned they can help “rescue” the bees.

I and several other beekeepers have taught more than 600 people beekeeping at evening classes at Champlain Valley Union High School. Around the state there are five or six local beekeeping clubs. Three years ago the Vermont Beekeepers Association hosted a conference for over 700 beekeepers from the eastern half of the U.S.

What’s so appealing about bees?

In the first place, bees are fascinating (and humbling) because we will never learn all there is to know about them. Keeping bees is a wonderful combination of order and unpredictability. Bees live on the cusp between domestication and wildness. They live the most regimented of lives, yet their instinct for swarming is not completely controllable or understood.

To work with bees is to use all your senses: smell, hearing, taste, touch, and sight. In addition to the fine taste of honey, I love the sweet and sour smells of nectar, curing honey, warm wax, and the burlap smoldering in my smoker, the sheet metal device with an attached bellows that all beekeepers use to aim calming smoke toward the bees. Sure, it’s hard work at times. Hauling 80-pound “supers” is truly heavy lifting, but that load is in refined gold.

When you work with bees you work with nature, not commune with it. Perhaps that’s why writer Sue Hubbell called beekeeping “farming for intellectuals.”

No wonder bees have been celebrated by the likes of Aristotle, Virgil, Shakespeare, Jonathan Swift, Emily Dickinson, and Sylvia Plath. In their short lifetimes these “buccaneers of buzz,” as Emily Dickinson called them, perform a wonderful sequence of jobs. They clean cells, feed the young, build comb, receive forage, groom the queen, guard the hive, and, finally, gather nectar and pollen for the colony.

I enjoy the praise of friends who like ”my” honey. I love winning prizes with my honey. I delight in selling the honey, if only to cover my expenses. But I never forget that the bees painted the “picture”; I merely hung it on the wall. Finally, keeping bees has gained me membership in a wonderful fraternity of enterprising, opinionated, quirky individuals, who are as devoted to these marvelous creatures as I am.

As Mark Winston, a Canadian professor of entomology has written, “Bees help to take us out of our increasingly urban and cacophonous world, and remind us that we, too, are part of nature.”

Although I sell my honey, I’m still only a hobbyist after all these years. I asked three friends of mine who have taken their beekeeping up a notch to write about why they did this and what it means to them.

wilson_0815Scott and Valarie Wilson, Heavenly Honey Apiary, Monkton photo credit: Heavenly Honey Apiary

Our interest was piqued in 2007 when we took a course in beekeeping at Depot Hardware in Essex Junction. We spent the day with seasoned beekeeper Lynn Lang, learning until our brains were about to explode. Lynn was using words like “brood box,” “supers,” and “nucs.”

As the season progressed, we read our bee books, inspected our new hive, and spotted our queen. We joined the Vermont Beekeepers Association and went to its summer meeting where Valarie was voted in as librarian. We attended all of the rest of the North Yard workshops for the season and continued to develop knowledge about our newest hobby.

Our honeybees produced 45 pounds of honey our first season. We couldn’t have been more thrilled.

Our first few years were spent trying to figure out if we had the commitment to stick with it once the novelty wore off. After about three years we gained confidence in our skills and started thinking about whether the hobby could grow to provide enough money for a vacation — our initial financial goal.

We also took a look at the skill sets we had and realized that we could run a business. Scott has a bachelor of science in business management and spent nearly 25 years in semiconductor sales and marketing. Valarie has an accounting background, is skilled in Web content, social media, and SEO (search engine optimization), and has quite an eye for packaging and production.

So we began to seek out niche areas to begin providing product. Wanting to avoid traditional routes like local supermarkets, we sought out specialty stores in an effort to keep revenue and margin up. Once we obtained a few customers and started working a local farmers’ market, we began to gain revenue.

In five years we hope to be raising queens, providing overwintered nucleus colonies, and write two children’s books about beekeeping.

englert_0815Sheri and Marke Englert, Vermont Beekeeping Supply, Williamstown photo credit: Janet Wadle

My dad was a beekeeper. I never paid much attention to that — my father had many, many interests and I had other things to do. Then one day I found myself up a very tall pine tree trying to catch a swarm from his hive.

He had suffered a heart attack and he looked pretty defeated as he watched his last hive fly out. I managed to get them into a box and down the tree, but they didn’t stay. That was my first experience with honeybees.

The next year, my father passed. Shortly after, I cleaned out the hive that had swarmed, but I left it set up. I liked having it in the yard. One day, I noticed a few bees flying in and out and a few days after that, I lifted the lid and found seven rows of perfect white comb with capped brood, nectar, and pollen, although I had no idea that’s what I was looking at. I was hooked!

I don’t know that I was ever a hobbyist. I never took beekeeping casually. I’ve tried to be more of a steward, I guess, so I’m not sure any transition to “sideliner” ever happened! If I had to use those definitions, I guess I’d say I became a sideliner when I began sharing my passion with other in-kind people. In 15 years of keeping bees, and the last five years mentoring new beekeepers and selling bees and supplies, my objective has been to provide people the supplies they needed as well as answering my phone at 9 on a Saturday night to answer questions and calm fears.

My store hours are “If I’m home, I’m open.” It’s the passion for beekeeping that has been the fuel for the business’s growth and success. I am blessed to have helped over 500 folks start their beekeeping journeys. Most have continued in spite of all the hurdles, some have not, some have started again, but they all understand the importance of the continuing battle.

willard_0815Michael Willard, Green Mountain Bee Farm, Fairfax photo credit: Stan Willard

My interest in beekeeping started as a casual interest in honeybees that grew into a hobby. It has turned into a full-fledged obsession.

My beekeeping experience truly began when I signed up to take a beginning course offered at Champlain Valley Union High School in the winter of 2008. Taking the class helped boost my confidence and convinced me that I could keep bees.

Shortly after taking the class, I ordered equipment, and the following spring, my adventure began in earnest.

Following our first couple of years managing a few hives, we realized we could turn our passion for beekeeping into a profitable side business.

The decision to start Green Mountain Bee Farm LLC was a natural progression from expanding the number of managed hives we had and the resulting increase in honey production.

We knew we had reached the crossroads of hobby versus business when we had more honey than we knew what to do with.

We were realistic, recognizing that beekeeping is much like any agricultural endeavor: unpredictable and at the whim of Mother Nature.

Understanding that honey production can vary each season, we decided to diversify by expanding our bee-related products to include Vermont-raised queens, overwintered nucleus colonies, and all-natural lip balm and lotion bars made from our beeswax. The addition of the all-natural skin-care products to our award-winning honey has allowed us to offer a nice variety.

In the next five years, we hope to find ourselves a little wiser and still enjoying our beekeeping business. My wife and I both have full-time jobs, on top of our duties related to Green Mountain Bee Farm.

With anything in life, balance is the key to happiness. We hope to keep growing our business up to the point where it starts to feel like “work.” It truly is a labor of love for both of us.

Our goal is to keep sharing our knowledge of beekeeping with other beekeepers and our local community — paying it forward.

Bill Mares, a former teacher and state legislator, is the owner of Mares Apiaries and the author of several books, including Making Beer, The Marine Machine, and Bees Besieged. •