Hudson Valley Beekeeping: How to Raise a Bee Colony, Harvest Honey, and Prevent Colony Collapse Disorder

The bee’s knees: The Valley is abuzz with honeybees and their keepers


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megan denver beesBusy bee: Megan Denver shows off her honeybees in their apiary

Throughout the rest of the year, beekeepers open the hive a few times a week to monitor its progress, making sure the queen is laying enough eggs and checking to see if the hive needs cleaning or if there is enough nectar to feed the babies. Aside from bravery, the beekeeper needs some special equipment for this task, including a hive tool (a small metal gadget that looks like a paint scraper), a smoker, and a Hazmat-esque suit and protective veil to guard against stings. “The hive is completely controlled by pheromones. The smoke masks the ‘alarm’ pheromone,” Denver explains. “But if you’re very gentle and move slowly, you’re not likely to be stung all the time.” New Paltz beekeeper Grai St. Clair Rice agrees. “A bee will only sting if you slap her or squish one of the others,” she says. “They release a pheromone that tells the others, ‘Hey, Sally just got squished, get this person out.’ ”

Hudson Valley Bee Supply, which opened in January, offers a number of beekeeping courses, including the $35 introductory seminar, “Are Bees for Me?” Another course teaches students how to properly harvest the honey without taking too much from the colony. The trick, Denver says, is to keep making the hive taller, fooling the bees into thinking they need to increase production. “That’s when you see those beehives that look like they’re five or six feet tall,” she says. “It’s not doing anything bad to them, just taking the extra.” The class also demonstrates how to uncap the cells, spin the honey out using a centrifugal extractor, and then bottle the sweet surplus. Although this can be done periodically throughout the summer, Denver recommends doing it just once a year, in the autumn. “It’s a very sticky process,” she says. “Everything gets sticky: the dog, the doorknob, you.”

And as its name implies, the company also sells the honeybees themselves. “We grow our own bees and divide our own hives,” Denver says. “When customers take them home, we put them in frames in a cardboard box, then into the car with the AC on, and people just drive it home. If you can get over the nervous part, it’s really cool.”

For those who might want to approach beekeeping in a slightly different way, Rice and partner Chris Harp teach organic beekeeping in New Paltz and Rosendale via their organization, HoneybeeLives. “Our beekeeping practices are not to do any prophylactic treatment,” says Harp, who explains that many beekeepers use antibiotics to prevent bees from getting sick when they don’t actually need the extra fortification. “They’re like humans,” he says. “If we keep taking antibiotics, we wear out the good things in our system.” Their classes also stress the importance of forgoing the use of plastic, and encourage beekeepers not to manipulate the hive too much. “We’re just trying to take care of the bees,” says Rice.

The pair points to the declining honeybee population as evidence that many beekeepers in the U.S. are not properly caring for their charges. “We’re in a cataclysmic position right now. The national average is a 30 percent winter loss; 25 years ago, it was 15 percent,” says Harp. If the bee population continues to drop so drastically, it could begin to affect our nation’s food supply, since bees are responsible for pollinating numerous fruits and vegetables, among other plants.

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