My potential Steve Irwin moment never happened. The incessant drizzle and low 60s air kept all but a few brave girl bees in the Mattapan hives today. As part of the Boston Natural Areas Network Fall Harvest Festival & Perennial Divide, I had been promised a chance to wear the goofy hat and netting, with instructions on handling the bees and frames with honey. Crikey!
Instead, I know quite a bit more about urban beekeeping. My tutor was Mike Graney, who lives just a few blocks from me at the very bottom of Jamaica Plain. He keeps a local hive of what he calls his pets, little furry pets. His heavy-duty honey factory is down at the bottom of Mattapan on the Neponset River.
Actually, there was another beekeeper there, but I didn’t meet Judy Lierberman until I was on the way out. She just started and keeps her bees at the Brookwood Community Farm in the Blue Hills. I bike by all the time and she said I need to stop and see what they’re up to. Just when Allendale Farm would have you believe they are the only game in town, Milton is dueling with Brookline for the bucolic title.
Meanwhile, Mike’s my guy. He lives a few blocks away and keeps a hive in the Forest Hills area of JP. Actually, for those of us who think that rural is a walk in the Public Garden, we need to be aware that cartoon and historic give that looks sort of like a point Bib the Michelin man is not what modern apiarists use.
There’s a local-ish connection to that too. In 1852 an Andover minister, Lorenzo L. Langstroth, developed the frame system that slides grids into slots in wooden boxes. The bees leave their honey and they create the nooks for the larvae the queen lays.
The hive systems look like those below in the Mattapan gardens. Mike owns most of those, but all are pretty much the same, stacked boxes (called supers) where the bees live, breed and make honey. The bees are free to come and go, as in the picture at the top.
Bees don’t like being out and about in cool or wet weather, both of which it was Saturday. A few flew, but not enough to open the hives for giggles, even to please somene eager to put on the netting.
Yet, Mike seemed happy enough to stand in the drizzle chatting up one group of gawkers after another, likely answering the same questions for each set of ignorami. He can be disarming too in admitting, “There’s a lot of book learning about bees out there, stuff I don’t know.”
He knows plenty though, including how honey changes seasonally, week to week. He can smell and taste the differences, starting with the sweeter, lighter spring honey bees make with nectar from fruit blossoms. It changes with the April rains and again around Mother’s day, when the spring flowers produce “a light, pale, delicate honey”.
He pointed to some of the garden’s aging annual flowers that September afternoon. “Later the blooms tighten up,” he said, which leads to darker, more powerfully flavored honey.
Inside a frame, the bees seal (cap off) the current honey. “This really is much like a snapshot of what they bring back, a time capsule of what was blooming,” Mike says.
He says like a vertical beer tasting, comparing honeys from the same place or distant ones is a real pleasure. He collects jars from his travels and will pick up and taste unusual ones from places like Italy as a novelty. Personally though, he likes his pets’ output. “I don’t care for the clover, hay or bulk honey from the Midwest,” he says. He finds those bland and without complexity or variety.
On a note that may seem yucky to some, bees partially digest the nectar to make honey. In effect, they take the runny flower nectar and extract the water, outputting the good stuff back in the frame at home. Ideally, they’ll cap off the honey with 15% water. Any more will mildly ferment the honey, which makes the bees who consume it sick.
Local plug: If you just have to try Mike’s bees’ output, you can pick it jars locally, including at Gadgets, Centre Street, JP, yards south of JP Licks.
For his own hives, he faces the same die-off situation all beekeepers do. Last year, for example, he lost three of his nine hives’ residents. This is not the same situation as in the widely publicized situation for large commercial apiarists. Those businesses have hundreds or thousands of hives. Many of them migrate with crops for six months a year, stopping to rent them to fruit and vegetable growers from Florida to Maine, and returning to their home base.
For these guys, honey is “almost a waste product,” Mike says. They’ll keep enough in the hives to give the workers and queen food, particularly for winter, but many don’t care much whether they sell any. Their business is renting pollinators. Sometimes this can lead to staggering numbers. Although he has not visited when the trucks finish their year in the blueberry barrens of Maine, he says they have up to 30,000 hives Downeast before the trucks return to home base. That sight might be worth a road trip.
Mike’s been at this for several years, starting with one hive and now up to nine. The bulk of his commercial honey output comes from the Mattapan towers.
He’s not as cold a capitalist as the pollinator renters, but he has gotten used to his annual losses. Non-carnivorous bees are much less likely to sting a human than wasps and hornets. Yet, despite his calling bees his pets, Mike knows that 20% or more of his colonies will die annually. The pollinator truck guys lose much more and their losses are the basis for the current articles. Mike notes that some other local apiarists scoff at the stories and say that they lose a third every year and have for decades, with no media coverage.
The bulk of the problem seems to be from two varieties of mites that infest a hive and weaken the bees so that they do not produce enough honey and become asthenic from blood loss.
While you can’t exactly go to Stop & Shop to replace bees, they are sold by the pound. When Mike loses a hive, he orders a 3-pound box for $75 with a queen, cleans out the old supers and restocks.
For the majority of colonies that live, he leaves them with about 50 pounds of honey each for the winter. They kind of hang around in cold weather when many bees die of old age, but most are ready come the spring warmth.
Maybe I’m too much of a city kid, but I wondered about security. Down in Mattapan Square, largely hidden from sight at night, you’d think that hives might be a target from kids with too much time. Mike says that isn’t a problem. Not only are the gardens enclosed in a chain link fence and padlock, he notes that the joves are pretty plain boxes. Most people don’t know what they are. Besides, messing with thousands of bees at a time doesn’t seem like a good idea.