In their field: Tony Pisano keeps honeybees at home
NORTH ADAMS -- Honey is familiar, but bees and their work are otherworldly. They live in boxes, and inside those boxes are cells, and they exist only to make honey and make wax and collect pollen and nectar to make that honey. In the realm of all things agricultural, the way bees work seems to be unique.
Tony Pisano of North Adams, a member of the Northern Berkshire Beekeepers Association and a seller of honey as Berkshire Farms Apiary, very nicely showed me his 10 hives, which are encased in an electric fence on the top of a sharply sloping hill in his backyard, right in the city.
"It's always good to talk to your neighbors first before you get bees," he said.
He started beekeeping in 2005 and said he produces between 250 and 700 pounds of honey per year. He also makes candles and lip balm out of the wax, which is plentiful.
He took me through the process -- you must first order a nuke (also spelled "nuc"), which is a small, established hive. You generally get your bees in mid-April, but this is weather-dependent.
The bees arrive in a wood box, along with some sugar water and a separate, inset box for the queen. After inspecting her, you shake the bees into your hive. Pisano said you may feed them sugar water if it's early and there's nothing in bloom yet.
From there, the queen lays eggs. She can lay 2,000 eggs a day, and it takes three weeks to go from an egg to a worker. The workers leave the hive to get pollen and nectar. Eventually, Pisano said, when there's enough nectar for their own needs, they store the surplus as honey. Pisano removes any wax from the cell, spins off the honey, then runs it through a mesh screen.
While many beekeepers collect the pollen, Pisano doesn't.
"I don't want to take the pollen away from the bees," he said.
A friend got Pisano into beekeeping.
"I was petrified of bees," he said, the arm-swinging, hair-standing-up-on-the-back-of-your-neck kind of petrified. But watching the hive, which is peaceful and preoccupied for the most part, "I realized honeybees aren't like yellow jackets I started thinking, ‘what's the worst that could happen?'"
He started with five hives, investing $1,200 initially for the boxes and the fence.
"After that, I've never taken money out of my pocket," he said. "It's paid for itself, and I make a little bit of money every year."
It's not a living -- Pisano plays the guitar and accordion and does odd jobs also. He's one of the few commercial sellers in the Beekeepers Association. For personal-use honey, he said, you only need one or two hives and about $500 up front.
And it's hard to keep the bees alive. Varroa mites are pretty common, Pisano said. They attach themselves to the bees, suck their blood and weaken the hive. They can only reproduce in a honey bee colony. Wild colonies are few and far between.
Pisano lent me a screened-in beekeeper's veil and a long-sleeved flannel shirt and took me to see his bees. He put on a veil, too, and some painter's pants, but remained barefoot (he said he really doesn't get stung very often).
He filled a smoker with leaves and twine, lit them, and let this mixture burn for a few minutes. The smoker, which looks like a beer stein with a pointed tip, helps calm the bees down -- Pisano said when you blow the smoke on them, they feel like the hive is burning and eat a lot of honey, and they're less likely to sting when they're full.
He pried open the top of one of the boxes -- bee boxes are different colors because bees can see colors and will better recognize their hive -- then pulled out a cell for me. This all took a few minutes. He said one thing about keeping bees is that they teach you to work slowly. There's a real zen in absorbing yourself in a task, and startling a colony of stinging creatures is good motivation to go easy.
The best advice for someone considering adding bees to their repertoire?
"Find another experienced beekeeper to help you out. Joining a club is the best thing you could do," he said.
If you go ...
What: Berkshire Farms Apiary
Where: Honey available at Cricket Creek Farm, 1255 Oblong Road (Off Sloan Road at Five Corners), Williamstown
When: Farm store open daily 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Cricket Creek (413) 458-5888, cricketcreekfarm.com
What: Northern Berkshire Beekeepers Association
When: They meet at 7 p.m. on the fourth Tuesday of every month, January through October
Where: Price Chopper community room in North Adams.
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