Did you know that 33% of our food would disappear without bees? It’s a scary thought. But thankfully there are concerned people out there who are doing their part to protect the bees. For some people, it’s as simple as planting indigenous bee-friendly pollinating flowers. For others, they have decided to take up beekeeping.
In Buffalo, there are numerous beekeepers around the city, which might be a surprise to some. Last fall, I spoke to John Darby and his wife, Candace “Candy” Kellogg Darby, who have been beekeeping for 6 years.
Naturally, I assumed that they had started the hobby to collect the honey, but I was wrong. It turned out that they did it because they felt that the local honeybee populations needed some help.
“It was John’s idea,” said Candy, which I thought was funny because I’ve known Candy for a long time and the project had her name written all over it.
“You’re probably aware of Colony Collapse Disorder?” John asked. “This is essentially the collapse of the hives – nobody really knows why it happens. It could be caused by global warming, stressors such as mites, harmful sprays, electromagnetic disturbances… the bees just go haywire. I wanted to do something to help the bees, and figured that I would build a hive and we could all learn about them.”
Candy told me that the first time that John ordered the bees, he realized that he was going to be out of town on a business trip when the time came to pick them up. I also found that funny, once I heard that Candy was then put in charge of the pick-up.
“I got in my bee suit and hopped in the car to go get them,” Candy told me [laughing]. “I had to go at 5am because any later in the day and it’s too hot for the bees to travel. I went out to Masterson’s Garden Center (Buffalo’s bee whisperers) in East Aurora, where there must have been hundreds of other cars awaiting their own boxes of bees. I picked up two boxes (“hives-to-go”) – each box is filled with between 1500 and 3000 bees. On the way home, a couple of the bees escaped, but I was in my bee suit, so it was OK… and then when I got home, a couple of bees escaped into the house. My brother (Justin) had to go catch them because he thought that one of them might be the queen. As he chased the escaped bees, I walked the boxes out to the hive that John built in the backyard.”
Candy told me that it was her initial “unanticipated” motherly involvement that made her appreciate the bees even more. She also told me that it was such an educational experience, and one that she ended up cherishing, that she has now participated in the “pick-up” process twice.
While Candy is smitten with the bees, John’s passion is equally impressive. “My golfing friends have stopped asking me about my game,” he told me. “And now they ask me questions about the bees. They want to know about the hives, and also about how bees are doing in general. The kids think that it’s cool too – they bring their friends over.”
John told me that he thinks that Buffalo should continue to get more “bee-friendly.” He said that the Garden Walk has been a huge boon for the bees, and has helped to “move the needle.” But he points to other cities such as Paris that have made huge efforts to accommodate for bees. The Parisian gardens are cared for by the City – therefore the City has banned all pesticides. There are 1000 beekeepers, including the ones at Notre Dame Cathedral (the bees actually survived the fire a couple of years back). “Paris has become an urban beekeeping center – if they can do it, we can do it in Buffalo.”
Interestingly enough, John and Candy mentioned that they can spot their honeybees around the neighborhood. “My mother calls them ‘Dar-bees,'” said Candy [laughing]. “Our bees are friendly – they work on a democratic system. Sometimes if the queen is not friendly, people replace her with another queen.”
When I asked John and Candy to tell me something fascinating about their bees, they said that the “swarming” process is intriguing. That’s when a group of bees sets out from the hive to find another location to start another hive. They gather “swarm” around a branch (for example), after examining potential alternative sites. Then the workers fly back to the hive and perform a “waggle dance” for the queen and the drones, to attempt to persuade them which location is best.
Sometimes that “chosen” site is not exactly favorable to the people living on the property, and a professional beekeeper is summoned to remove the swarm to, say, a blueberry farm that could use a new hive. After all, the hives are considered to be quite valuable. “The bees are full of honey after a long winter – they’ve been hibernating,” explained John. “They are very docile – the beekeeper simply cuts the branch off the tree, puts it into a box, and off they go.”
When I asked John and Candy if there was a “lesson in hindsight” that they wish they had known about early on, they warned me about the yellowjackets. “In fall, there’s not much food, and it’s when the yellowjacket populations peak. It’s called “the dearth.”
“They are starving, and they are ferocious,” agreed Candy.
“They will invade a hive,” John continued. “If the hive is weak, or the access is too broad, the workers can’t defend it. It’s important to monitor the invasive species. They can be managed, but you must be aware!”
This spring, I’m going to take a trip out to Masterson’s to get the lay of the land. I’m not planning on starting a hive this year, but the thought has crossed my mind. If and when that day does come, and it’s time to pick up the bees, I will be sure to be out of town on a business trip, so that my wife can pick them up. It seems as if that’s the best way to get your partner immersed into the hobby as quickly as possible, before he or she even knows what’s going on.