The Call and Times, Column 16 – As Sweet As Honey: The Art and Science of Urban Beekeeping

9 02 2015

(January 9, 2015)

The Urban Farmer

As Sweet As Honey: The Art and Science of Urban Beekeeping

“Once you think you know about bees, you realize you don’t know a thing.” Thus began an enlightening conversation, when I sat down with my friend, The Beekeeper, for a chat about his sweet hobby.

The Beekeeper began his practice over a decade ago, at the suggestion of his wife and a neighbor. He began with little agricultural experience, but was immediately engrossed, and rose up the ranks in the Rhode Island Beekeepers Association within his first year.

“Bees are a communal insect,” he told me. “They actually live for each other, not for themselves. They will protect the colony with their life, because a honeybee can only sting once.”

This is a remarkable thing about honeybees – they literally work themselves to death, fulfilling their roles as laborers and protecting their colony. Immediately upon breaking out of their larval cells, bees are put to work as nurses, maintenance staff, and guards in the hive, while their older sisters are out gathering nectar.

I asked The Beekeeper about the differences between honeybees, bumble bees, and wasps, something I’ve often wondered. “You can tell the difference just by looking at them”, he explained. Bumble bees are bulbous and furry-looking, with yellow and black coloration and little tendency to sting. Wasps (hornets and yellow jackets) vary in color, but are all more aggressive. Honeybees are often “softer and cuter-looking”, and are not prone to aggression. A surefire way to tell them apart, he explained, is that wasps’ stripes are more distinct than honeybees’.

We moved on to our next topic, the benefits of eating honey. “Nutritionally, honey is very similar, no matter where you go, as long as it has not been super-heated or super-filtered”, The Beekeeper explained.

He made a point to define a locale as a place where “the same basic plants are growing in the fields”, citing the examples of Woonsocket, Cumberland, and Worcester on the one hand, and Bristol, Warren, and South County on the other. As The Beekeeper explained, eating local honey has the additional benefits of asthma alleviation, “increasing the good qualities of the foods that you’re already eating” by aiding digestion, and allergy mitigation, something I can attest to personally.

He offered a word of warning, that “cooking honey reduces a lot of the enzyme health benefits”. He suggested to use it raw, or to heat only to low temperatures in things like tea, lest we mistakenly pasteurize it and lose those benefits.

As the meat of the interview, I asked my interviewee about a typical beekeeper’s year, and when and how an aspiring urban beekeeper could get started.

The Beekeeper explained that winter is a relatively quiet time: the beekeeper is getting ready for the spring, buying equipment and preparing the hives, while the honeybees are at home, keeping themselves warm during the cold weather. In the spring, new bees are installed, and are fed supplemental sugar syrup if their stores are low; it’s a time of cleaning the hives, watching and waiting for the first nectar flow. This happens in early June, at which point bees produce enough for themselves and the beekeeper alike. After this point, sometime in June or July, a “honey super” (an additional box that will be harvested later on) is installed on the hive, and the goal is for the girls to produce as much honey as they can, which they will gladly do, “whether they need it or not”. Early fall is the time for the harvest, after which the Queen reproduces much less and the population decreases in preparation for winter.

If you’re a new beekeeper, he said, “this time of year is the time you want to start”. Mail-order bee colonies become available in March and April, but there are a lot of considerations to make before that: where to get the equipment and what type of hive you will get, and leaving time for the actual hive setup. He suggested and as good sources for beekeeping supplies, with free catalogs to boot.

The Beekeeper was also adamant that “now’s the time to really whet your intellectual appetite”. He explained how talking to a beekeeper, contacting the Rhode Island Beekeepers Association (, and even taking late winter classes at the RIBA Bee School all help an aspiring apiculturist to make decisions about their style and practice: where they will operate on the spectrum between aggressive chemical treatments and “earthy, crunchy” beekeeping.

He explained that, barring a fear of bugs, “if you want to get into agriculture, bees aren’t a bad choice for most people.” “They are much lower maintenance than any other pets”, and you can go on vacation without worrying about their immediate wellbeing, because they feed themselves. “It’s a good idea to start with two hives, so that you can compare them”. He directed me to, which has tomes of information about building beehives and many other beekeeping interests.

But why should we care, why should we keep bees? “People don’t realize that you can get incredible quality honey in an urban environment”, The Beekeeper explained, praising the trees growing in Woonsocket as the reason for this. “It’s very primal, and yet also spiritual, to watch these girls work together”. What’s more, production distributed amongst many small beekeepers is the formula for sustainability – these alone are reason enough to keep honeybees. But I can’t help thinking that there’s a bit more.

Bees are directly responsible for one of every three bites of food we eat. Considering this, The Beekeeper solemnly told me that “if you take away the honeybee from the equation, agriculture as we know it would collapse”. Our very continued existence rests on the health of local pollinator populations. Yet, like with freshwater, topsoil, and fossil fuels, our actions are threatening the long-term wellbeing of the honeybee.

Colony Collapse Disorder, a mysterious illness in which entirely honeybee colonies abruptly disappear, has surged in the past decade. Heavy winter losses, 25 or 30%, and even up to 90%, of American beekeepers’ colonies, have been destroyed as a result of CCD, raising a national alarm about the populations’ continued health. This affliction is associated with stress placed on the colonies by the “bigger, faster, stronger” mentality of industrial agriculture, and by dangerous neonicotinoid pesticides used by the same. But that’s the story of modern agriculture, eh? Bite the hand that feeds you, and at least you’ll be full for the rest of the day.

The preservation of as vital a natural resource as the European Honeybee is reason enough for me to sign up for bee school next month. I hope it is for you, too.

I will publish more information on this topic, including the full interview, on my blog.

My column appears on the first Friday of each month in The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times. The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.




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