Vermont beekeepers collect liquid gold
HOOSICK FALLS, N.Y. -- Amanda Haar of Hoosick Falls has always supported local agriculture but never thought much about keeping bees.
That changed in 2009 when she saw an opportunity to make the connection between the two.
And that, she explained, is how a beekeeper often is born.
"I started beekeeping about five years ago in response to all the news about colony collapse," Haar said. "We live in an agricultural community, and if you can you should support farmers, and I saw keeping bees as a way of doing that."
Haar said her family's property includes many open fields and a good natural water source, so the decision was easy.
Novice beekeepers should start simple, she said. The way to do that is through education, modest equipment and, if possible, cost control.
"The first thing I did was read a few books on natural beekeeping," Haar said. "Then I took a one-day class in Manchester. That was extremely helpful... It allowed me to ask all the questions I had [from my] reading. There's a lot of terminology associated with beekeeping that comes naturally to the experienced keeper, but not so much to the novice. That's important to know. The class clarified a lot for me."
Haar then joined the local Bennington Beekeepers Club, which meets several times a year for education and information sharing, for a nominal membership fee and pot luck dinners.
"As for other costs, the biggest cost is the hive itself," Haar said. "You can buy them online or at a local beekeeping store but either way they will set you back a couple hundred dollars. If you want to go the William-Sonoma route, that could approach $600."
There are many components to a hive, she said, that aren't apparent, but most of them are essential to successful keeping. She also needed a beekeeping hood and gloves, and possibly even a protective suit.
"Some old pros go gloveless, but I'm not that brave," she said with a chuckle. "You also need some basic harvesting equipment plus whatever containers for bottling or storage. And, of course, you need bees."
The cost for bees varies depending on whether a beginner procures them in a cage or a "nuc," or nucleus -- a smaller honey bee colony created from a larger colony. That startup for the novice, or hobbyist, should always be undertaken with a good sense of seasonal timing, she said.
"If you're stocking your hive for the first time, get your bees in the early spring," Haar said. "If you do it through a local supplier, place your order early. They often sell out. Start calling around Thanksgiving to find out when they're starting their order list. You can also try sourcing locally through beekeeping clubs."
While Haar's endeavor yields about 70 lbs. of honey a year at best -- which she uses and gives away -- other larger, but still family owned operations cross over into the commercial realm.
Regionally, one such enterprise in Vermont's Champlain Valley is Heavenly Honey Apiary in Monkton, owned by Scott and Valarie Wilson. Established in 2007, it's an operation known as a "sideliner," meaning it produces honey for resale and personal consumption.
"Valarie and I started with one hive garnering about 40 pounds of honey that year," Scott said. "At peak, which is August, a healthy hive will contain about 60,000 to 80,000 honeybees. Our second year we grew to three hives. Our third year, eight hives. Now we are up to about 30 hives."
Valarie explained that not all hives produce honey, as some are the nucleus hives created during mid-summer -- the source of bees Haar mentioned.
"Nucs" are the smaller, denser hives created by the beekeeper from an existing "strong hive" to replace the standard hives that die off during the winter. Creating nucs is a method of increasing an apiary's size and allows a beekeeper to increase the number of hives without having to buy bees.
Since Scott also works full-time, 30 hives is about the maximum amount the couple can currently manage well.
He agreed on the importance of education and guidance from experienced beekeepers.
"All new beekeepers should attend as many hands on/in person workshops as possible," he said. "There is nothing on YouTube or in books that can come close to the value of in-hive workshops. The feel of the tools, the sounds and smells of the hive, sweat pouring down your forehead into your eyes, stings on the hands -- [you can't realize that] while sitting at a desk watching videos."
Theory is good, Valrie agreed, but the hive tells the story, so a beginner should get a mentor -- not just one, but a few.
"Crusty old beekeepers are awesome but sometimes biased in their own personal approaches," she said. "A good cross section of learning will help to develop the new beekeeper's own individual approach and style."
If you go ...
Experienced beekeepers all stress self-research, learning and belonging to a support group. For more information in Bennington and Berkshire Counties on basic start-up, equipment and meetings, contact:
Bennington County Beekeepers Association, Jacob Esh,
Northern Berkshire Beekeepers Association, Alethea Morrison, president: nbba.wordpress.com