The Buzz about Bees

closeupbeesA local bee keeper, Gill Menda, has a number of bee hives at Kestrel Perch berries on EcoVillage land. Jim Bosjolie of Learn@EcoVillage recently spoke to Gill about his business.

LEARN: First of all, what is your background and when did you get started in this business?

GILL: Beekeeping goes way back to my grandfather who used to be a beekeeping instructor, so I was around bees throughout my childhood. After college I decided to go to grad school and studied learning and memory of bees. I also worked on queen bee breeding and instrumental insemination.

I decided to have a couple of my own bee hives as a hobby, but I loved it so much that my 5 colonies quickly grew into 50.  After I got my masters degree we bought a farm, and with 200 bee hives this turned into my full time business. Our business produced boutique varietal honey, and specialized in bee breeding. I was selling thousands of queen bees and bee colonies to other beekeepers.

In 2005 we sold the business, and I moved with my family to Ithaca for my wife’s academic career. Three years ago we decided to restart the family business, and we now have more than 30 colonies.

LEARN: How many bee hives do you have at Kestrel Perch berries, and how did you choose this location?

wifebeesGILL: I have 13 bee hives at Kestrel Perch farm. Four years ago when I was looking for bee yards, I talked to an EcoVillage member who connected me with Katie. I really liked the location in Ecovillage, being surrounded with organic farmland as well as non-cultivated land with wildflowers. Katie was more than happy to host our bees at her farm, and we are grateful for that!

LEARN: How have your bees fared since moving to Kestrel Perch? Do they produce good quality honey? And how much of it? 

GILL: The bees have plenty of food sources for foraging for pollen and nectar, mostly from trees and wildflowers. A good colony can produce about 250 pounds of honey a year.

The biggest problem with the location is being on a hill exposed to strong winds. In the first year at EcoVillage we suffered big losses due to the strong winds, and then I figured this out by insulating the hives with hay bales from late fall until the spring. Since usually there is a west wind, all my hives are now facing east and we use tar-paper for passive solar heating on sunny days. After these adjustments the mortality rate is now less than beekids10%, which is far below the average of 30% losses that beekeepers see in our region.

LEARN: How often do you harvest the honey from the hives? 

GILL: We separate the honey by flower blooming, so harvest is at the end of June for spring honey from Black Locust flowers, end of July for Basswood, and mid-October for goldenrod.

Last year we got lucky with Eddydale’s field across the road. They planted buckwheat as a cover-crop instead of corn, and we got amazing buckwheat honey at the end of summer!

LEARN: I understand that bees may range a mile or two from their hives.

Yes, bees can fly up to 3 miles each way, but they only do that if they don’t have closer food sources. At EcoVillage they don’t need to fly far in the honey flow seasons. Honeybees are very efficient, fast learners. For example, if there is a field of dandelions next to a flowering Black Locust tree, the bees would prefer the Black Locust flowers, which have higher sugar concentration.

LEARN: EcoVillage farms don’t use pesticides. How does that impact the quality of life of the bees and the quality of their honey?

beedrawerGILL: This is very important for the health of honey bees! Any pesticide can have a toll on bee health, weakening their immune systems and making them susceptible to diseases. My bees at EcoVillage are very healthy because they are not exposed to toxic chemicals that are used in ‘conventional’ agriculture.

The honey we make is raw, meaning we do not alter it in any way, not filtering or heating in the extraction process, so it is as natural as it can get just as the bees made it.

We care mostly for the life of the bees. We used to have bees near an orange orchard that was sprayed with pesticides, and seeing the thousands of dead bees at the entrance to the hive was a terrible sight I will never forget. Honey bees are amazing bio-indicators for the environment, and when something is wrong you see it very fast!

LEARN: What do you do to help your bees survive the winter?

GILL: The most important thing is to go into the winter with very strong and healthy colonies. We leave each hive at least 60 pounds of their own honey. We also give them an extra boost by feeding them after the last honey harvest in the fall. In the winter the queen stops laying eggs, and the extra feeding is important for letting the bees fill the now empty cells in the nest floor with honey.

The winter mortality rate has been very low, even last year when the winter was very harsh we lost only one colony.