James Suttles and his wife have always loved bees. Searching for an activity to do as a couple and certain that bees would help their efforts to grow a flourishing garden of fruits and vegetables, they decided to give beekeeping a try. They signed up for a five-week class at URI Kingston with the Rhode Island Beekeeping Association, or RIBA.
And thus began an involvement in Rhode Island’s buzzing beekeeping community. With 500 members, monthly meetings, and an extremely active Facebook group replete with pictures, recipes, requests for equipment, and questions on hive care, RIBA is fighting the good fight to protect and increase the bee population in the state.
RIBA’S main purpose is to educate the public and beekeepers. The organization receives requests from schools, garden clubs, civic organizations, and senior centers for lectures by its members, which it provides free of charge, and prices of entry are kept low, with $15/year for family memberships. All staff members are volunteers. The organization also runs a bee school: 2 or 3 classes a year for 5 weeks each to teach new beekeepers the ropes. Since the majority of newcomers to RIBA are first-time beekeepers, the classes are necessary: “You learn just enough information to be dangerous to the bees [and] to the other beekeepers in the area,” says Malinda Coletta, RIBA’s former programs director and newly elected vice president. “Just when you think you’ve got it figured out, you realize you don’t.”
Going into her third year of beekeeping, Coletta says her initial forays were somewhat rocky, starting when she and her husband purchased a populated hive from Connecticut on Craigslist and had it delivered to their home. At a loss for what to do next, Coletta called RIBA, which put her in touch with Jim Lawson, the state apiary inspector. “The next day,” Malinda recounts, “Jim and the [RIBA] president Ed were in my backyard for 2 hours ripping apart my hive.” The Craigslist seller hadn’t provided a permit to transport the hive over state lines, and Lawson needed to check the hive for diseases. “I had been ripped off,” Coletta says: “I had been given a queen, a handful of bees, and a hive, and I needed to feed the bees sugar syrup so they would have enough food to make it through the winter.” The men told Coletta to sign up for the RIBA bee school.
Every year a couple hundred people take RIBA’s courses and are unleashed into Rhode Island’s beekeeping community (part of the class’s fee grants them membership in RIBA). The organization steers these newcomers to its list of mentors, some of whom have been RIBA members for 20 to 30 years. Meetings are always educational-including speakers and group inspections of hives-but also include opportunities for members to socialize. Suttles says he’s made several friends through the organization, which holds two annual banquets in the spring and fall where an average of 150 members make an appearance. Its monthly meetings usually draw a crowd of around 100.
Spreading the bee gospel
Suttles and his wife have “tremendously enjoyed” their experience with RIBA thus far and make sure to tell everyone they meet that they’re beekeepers, spreading the bee gospel. Suttles praises RIBA’s members for their enthusiasm in training new converts. “That’s what beekeepers are about,” he says. “They’ll help you out.” Coletta confirms, “Bee people are A plus. Your success is their success.” The mentors “really want you and your bees to survive.”
This helpful attitude may come from more than kindness and empathy: bee hives are inextricably linked, even when they’re miles away from each other. A parasitic mite called Varroa destructor has been menacing hives, killing millions of colonies in the last ten years, according to the US Department of Agriculture. The mite, which carries diseases, weakens adult bees and causes new bees to be born with deformities. A beekeeper living near Coletta did not treat her hives with miticide; the hive died. “My bees go and rob her hive out,” Coletta says, “They go and steal all the honey, they bring the honey back to my hive but they also bring back the mites.”
The mites are getting progressively worse, Coletta says, “because people are not treating the way they should be. We’ve got a lot of new beekeepers who have either not gone to bee school or have gone to bee school and have decided they’re gonna be a non-treatment beekeeper.” She says people try all kinds of unsubstantiated methods for getting rid of mites, including dropping Hall’s menthol eucalyptus cough drops, still wrapped in paper, into their hives.
Jim Lawson, Rhode Island’s apiary inspector, reiterates that beekeepers deciding to be “treatment-free” is a major problem, causing hives to crash and the mites to spread to the bees that rob them out. He’s often called to help new RIBA members with any bee issues; most often these are related to the Varroa mite. Lawson has been Involved with RIBA since 1998, when he began working for the Department of Environmental Management. As an inspector, he’s required to keep his own bees, and he’s given presentations at several RIBA meetings on swarm control and re-queening.
A colony can consist of up to 60,000 bees and most of the time contain just one queen, who lays up to 20,000 eggs a day. The drones (all male) spend their time eating and mating with the queen-after mating, they die. The workers (all female) bring nectar back to the hive to feed to the drones. The queen’s life cycle is 3 to 5 years, and she can hold sperm in her body for that entire time. She leaves the hive only if it gets too crowded; if she does leave, she’ll take 60 percent of the bees with her (a process called swarming). The workers fly up to 3 miles away from the hive, and one bee can pollinate up to 50,000 flowers in its lifetime.
Many people purchase their bees online in packages (though often from more reputable sources than Craigslist). While some sellers ship pounds of bees at a time, others raise only queens to sell to beekeepers. When a queen is fully matured, she is put in a cage with screen wire, which keeps her separate from the rest of the bee package. If the queen is not kept separate, the rest of the bees will kill her-though they’ll continue to feed her while she’s in her cage.
That’s the “quirky thing about bees,” says Keith Salisbury, newly elected president of RIBA. “Even if they wanna kill something, they’ll still feed it.”
Salisbury has been keeping bees for four and a half years. He owns a small family farm; one of his workers told him about RIBA and invited him to place an order for a package of bees. Salisbury bought three pounds of bees and a queen, enough to start a colony which, to his surprise, bore honey the first year. “It’s not super uncommon” to get honey your first year of beekeeping, Salisbury says, “but it’s an indicator that everything’s going really well.”
A man with 34 hives
Salisbury quickly leapt into involvement with RIBA. “Right off the bat I was going to meetings, I was following people around when they were going to inspect their hives.” This year he’s “peaked” at 34 hives. Most of RIBA’s members own between 1 and 5 hives, he says, while some have a couple hundred. This year, for the first time, Salisbury was able to supply his farm stand in Johnston with honey exclusively from his own hives.
Salisbury served as vice president for 3 years under 2 different presidents. He chose to run for president out of a desire for more activities for the membership and a greater variety of paid, professional speakers to cater to both beginners and advanced beekeepers-a departure, says Coletta, from past precedent when the leadership was less willing to spend group funds. Salisbury hopes to invite beekeepers from Northern climates to talk about hive survival in winter and beekeepers with 50 to 100 hives to discuss their experiences, since the methods of commercial beekeepers don’t effectively scale down to those with only 1 or 2 hives.
Beekeepers can extract honey from their hives twice a year-once in the fall and once in the spring. Suttles extracted his first round of honey on October 23rd. He and his wife filled 24 5-ounce jars, then 13 more, then 4 8-ounce jars. Suttles gave samples of his first crop of honey, which was light golden in color, to his neighbors, coworkers, and family members. He expects that his spring crop will be ready in March, once the weather is consistently warm. He plans to buy a second hive next year and work his way eventually to 4 to 6, eventually selling some of the honey.
Coletta and her husband own a business teaching cooking classes. Like the Suttleses, their beekeeping was born of a desire to give a boost to their garden, where they grow the bulk of the produce they use to cook, including herbs, grapes, cherries, peaches, and plums. The two now own seven hives, three of which are in their backyard. The rest are kept on a nearby farm and named after female celebrity chefs: Julia Child, Rachael Ray, Vivian Howard, Nigella Lawson, Anne Burrell, Giada De Laurentiis, and Mary Ann Esposito, who has since been absorbed into Paula Deen.
Suttles says he’s seen the changes in their garden that he and his wife had hoped for. “We had a ton of tomatoes that grew great because the bees were pollinating them.” Since setting up the hives on her property, Coletta has noticed an up tick in her produce, although she acknowledges that with about 25 hives in her neighborhood of North Providence, there are plenty of local bees that have been helping her crops for years.
Though Salisbury cautions that it’s hard to quantify the effect of his bees on the farm’s produce-the climate has a significant effect on outdoor products-he reports similar effects to Coletta’s. There’s been “an increase in production” on his farm, he says, particularly in his tomatoes, raspberries, and strawberries.
Colony Improvement Program
The next big project for RIBA to tackle is its new Honey Bee Colony Improvement Program. Last year Jim Lawson and RIBA’s then president Ed Rafferty applied to the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management for $27,400 to purchase high-quality queens from a breeder in California, in the hopes that the queens would breed well and possibly keep mite counts low. These “genetically superior” queens, as Lawson describes them, are mite resistant (though not immune), with a gentle disposition (to avoid aggressive colonies) and a low propensity to swarm. The grant queens are also bred for good hygienic behavior, which is tied to mite and disease resistance: when the bees detect a larvae that’s not doing well and is possibly disease-ridden, they’ll break the cell down, pull the larvae out and dispose of it (sometimes eating it).
The program’s goal is to saturate Rhode Island with high-quality queens. Volunteer inspectors from RIBA will monitor 25 percent of the hives that have received them, checking to see if the queen is still alive and laying as expected, and to evaluate the brood pattern and mite levels. To qualify for a grant queen, beekeepers must kill their current queen and then pick up a new one from the queen bank. Most queens in the area are marked according to a color-coding system indicating the years in which the queens were born. The new California queens are marked with pink, and thus can be tracked if, for instance, they decide to swarm and leave their home hive. Lawson will keep an eye out for the percentage of new queens that survive the winter.
The program, ideally, will strengthen Rhode Island’s bee population and deal a significant blow to Varroa destructor. Suttles warns of chaos if honeybees were to die out: There’ll be “less food, then people will try to rob [other] people of their food.” People just don’t think about where their food comes from, he says. Bees are the “unsung heroes” of the world; “it would take years and years to populate even a couple of acres” without them. More people are becoming aware “that if we lose our bees, we’re gonna lose our food,” agrees Coletta.
Salisbury is more measured in his bee praise. “The honeybee is not a native species,” he points out. And “there are hundreds of varieties of bees that are native species. We just happen to pay more attention to honeybees. On an ecological scale, I don’t think that honeybees are the end all be all of production.” But at the moment, thanks to Varroa destructor, the honeybee simply can’t survive on its own.
Salisbury will begin his new term in January, but insists that his role is not as significant as the title might imply. Like a colony of bees, it takes more than just a queen to make honey. “Yeah, the focal point goes to the president, “ he says, “but without all the people volunteering their time, pulling in the same direction, it just doesn’t work. And I hope this year everyone pulls in the same direction.”