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Beekeeping for Beginners: A Honey of a Hobby

Posted on 24 January 2012

bees for the web

By Annette Hinkle

Despite their industrious nature and the fact that their pollination efforts are responsible for providing us with 95 percent of the fresh fruits and vegetables we enjoy on a regular basis, bees, it seems, get a bad rap.

Maybe it dates back to our collective memory of the elementary school playground and that one kid who swore that if a bee comes near you, it’s going to sting you.

It’s not a position that Ray Lackey has much patience with — especially when you’re talking about his beloved honeybees.

“People kill everything with a point on the end,” he says. “‘If it’s small, fast and brightly colored, it must be a bee and I’m going to be stung to death.’”

“I always take people on with that,” says Lackey. “Then I tell kids if a yellow jacket lands on them in the playground don’t swat at it. If it’s on your hand, blow on it and it will go away.”

This is a man who is definitely passionate and knowledgeable about bees and he is eager to dispel the myths. Lackey, who has raised bees for more than a quarter of a century, speaks about them at school presentations and civic organization dinner meetings.

“Many times, I have to turn to the people and ask, ‘How long do you want me to speak?” he says.

Beginning next month, Lackey, who owns Sweet Pines Apiary in Bohemia, will offer a multi-part beekeeping course at the South Fork Natural History Museum in Bridgehampton. The course will meet the third Tuesday of the month between February and October, and is designed for novice beekeepers who would like to start a honeybee colony of their own, as well as current beekeepers looking to improve their skills. The first session begins with an explanation of basic equipment (the smoker, veil and hive tool), parts of the hive and proper method of assembly. In the sessions that follow, Lackey will cover topics such as the ordering, handling and care of bees, queen introduction, potential pests and diseases, hands-on inspection of hives, extraction of honey, and preparation of hives for overwintering.

“Most people establish hives in parallel with the class,” explains Lackey. “I teach about a month ahead, so they know what to expect. I’ll tell them, ‘Look for this in your bees next month – what did you see?’”

“Those who don’t start bees in parallel with the course, I encourage to find someone close by in the class and go into their bees,” he adds.

While at first, many beginners may be shy about “going into the bees,” Lackey notes it is important that beekeepers stay on top of what’s happening in the hive for the health of their colony.

“I tell them, ‘You can’t go in too often — you won’t slow them down and you’ll be learning,” says Lackey who notes that working through the process together is one of the best ways to master the art of beekeeping.

“I started bees with a friend,” he recalls. “We checked our hives together, which were two blocks apart. My honey was light and his dark — our bees found a different source of nectar.”

While bees have become a way of life for Lackey, growing up in rural Pennsylvania, he admits that while he was always in to nature — he wasn’t always into bees.

“I left my granddad’s bees alone,” he says. “ I farmed and gardened and helped with the boxes, but I had other interests.”

“Then when I came to Long Island I started a garden,” adds Lackey. “But when it wasn’t producing as heavily as I expected, I started looking into it.”

“I started reading about it and found it fascinating,” he says. “There’s been more written about bees than any other animal except man. Researchers say they still don’t know everything.”

Though honeybees are not native to the United States, he soon realized they are critical for pollinating the garden variety fruits and vegetables Americans love — and on Long Island, they were falling victim to chemical warfare.

“Pennsylvania has 187 different species of bees including bumble, carpenter and squash bees, the main pollinator Cucurbita species,” adds Lackey. “The problem on Long Island is we use so many pesticides we kill off species of pollinators.”

As a case in point, Lackey notes that he often gets calls from homeowners seeking to eradicate a type of ground nesting bee that lives in disturbed areas.

“It emerges at the time the forsythia blooms, then it dies off after six weeks and doesn’t emerge again until the end of the next winter,” says Lackey. “I say ‘Live with them.’”

Then the homeowner responds with, “But I have kids…”

“Kids don’t bloom, they won’t bother them,” says Lackey. “I can lay right on their holes and they won’t bother me. But the homeowner still says, ‘How can we get rid of them?’”

So instead of using pesticides, Lackey advises planting grass on the disturbed area so the bees won’t nest there anymore.

While some species of bees and yellow jackets nest in the ground, honeybees do not — which is why beekeepers set up hives to house them. Knowing what to look for in a healthy hive is vital, given the fact that in recent decades, honeybees have been decimated by a variety of pests and diseases.

Among the most pervasive are tracheal mites, which suffocate honeybees as they overwinter and were discovered in the UK on the Isle of Wight in the early 20th century. Though importation of bee protoplasm from the UK was banned beginning in 1921, infected bees were smuggled into this country in 1984 and the mite has been a growing problem ever since. Another imported pest are the huge Varroa mites originally found in the giant honeybee of Southeast Asia. These mites attack honeybee larva during their summer brooding season.

“It’s a battle that’s being lost,” says Lackey. “Mites adapt quickly to any chemical that aids the bees in fighting them. We are breeding resistance, so there’s been some success.”

But there are other problems facing bees — including the small hive beetles from south Africa, a parasitic fly in California that is now beginning to lay eggs in honey bee colonies, and, perhaps worst of all, American foulbrood — the most widespread and destructive of all bee diseases. Though there are promising new treatments for the disease, currently in New York State, by law bees infected with foulbrood must be killed and all hives and equipment burned.

But being a knowledgeable beekeeper goes a long way toward reducing risks, and Lackey notes that there are many more benefits to keeping bees.

“The main reason is pollination of your own garden. The next is, I get some honey,” he says. “You can give it away for Christmas or make candles. People value it a lot more than a coupon for Appleby’s.”

“It’s also fun,” he says. “It’s been analyzed that one colony of bees in the area will pollinate enough fruits and seeds to increase food for birds equivalent to you spending 1,500 bucks on bird seed.”

“It’s also an opportunity to educate all your neighbor kids. My first bees were a colony in Oakdale. I had every kid go into the bees with me. When it was time to take the honey out they all came dressed in winter coats.”

“But I work and teach beekeeping bare handed — you can spread disease with gloves,” he adds. “These kids 8 to 14 years old were taking in the frames, shaking the bees bare handed and putting them into the box to extract it. I teach people about nature and not to fear it. Kids of all ages are fascinated.”

“It’s one of those things that attracts a wide mix of people.”

In addition to the Tuesday night course at SoFo, the novice class is also being offered in three other locations on Long Island – including on Wednesday nights at the Cornell Cooperative Extension in Riverhead. Lackey notes that students who can’t make their regularly scheduled SoFo course, may attend the session elsewhere.

The beekeeping course begins Tuesday, February 21 and meets from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at the South Fork Natural History Museum (SoFo), 377 Bridgehampton/Sag Harbor Turnpike, Bridgehampton. Sessions in the bee yard will begin at 6 p.m. The course and accompanying textbook is $200. Start up costs for a colony are about $600, but participants need not commit to starting a colony of their own. For more information, and to reserve a place, contact Ray Lackey at, or 567-1936.

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