Thursday, July 21, 2011

New Haven, Bees, and the Newby

In the quiet moments before dawn, a gentle breeze wafted through the apple trees as a pickup truck came hurtling down the orchard row with its highbeams on. I was bumping along in the passenger seat, under-prepared and under-caffeinated, bobbing my head to avoid getting whacked with stray branches. Every so often we stopped in front of a stack of overturned apple crates, and Vincent lifted a hive off the back of the truck onto the crates, pulling out a foam stopper (which had kept the hive sealed during transport) just as we pulled away.

A few hours later, the bees would set out to forage from the apple blossoms’ pink blush, kicking off spring pollination and the unofficial start of bee season. This was also my first day of fieldwork working with Swords into Plowshares, the local honey and candle business owned and operated by Vincent Kay in New Haven. Three summers later, I have gotten used to the country roads, the questions about Colony Collapse Disorder, and even the occasional sting. But as any environmental enthusiast will tell you, Nature is a mysterious and many-splendored thing; the practice of urban beekeeping is no exception.

If you shop at local markets or eat in Yale’s dining halls, you have probably seen Swords into Plowshares honey. Once a year (usually in July) we harvest honey from the fields, taking it into the honey house where it is extracted, filtered through cheesecloth, and put into tanks for storage. It is warmed to change its viscosity just enough to pour into bottles cleanly (not pasteurized and thus “raw”, if you’re into that sort of thing). All the honey gets processed here in New Haven, in the humble yet professional honey house Vincent constructed above his woodshop.

But where are the bees? At the season’s peak, we maintain about 400 hives scattered in beeyards around Southern Connecticut. While the closest hives are kept over at Marsh Botanical Gardens at Yale’s Forestry School, most of the beeyards are situated in rural areas a short drive away. In planning his operation, Vincent considered the traditional land-use model, in which agricultural products are grown in the country and transported into neighboring cities for sale to a larger consumer base.

Not to dismiss the value of urban agriculture or even urban beekeeping, but the beeyard-to-big city setup remains more suitable for beekeeping in some ways. Bees are stinging insects, posing a liability (however minor) to schools, businesses, and backyard gardeners. Also, in areas with dense concentrations of residents, the use of uncertain growing methods, including pesticides on lawns, insecticides, and other chemicals, is a threat to maintaining healthy hives. Our “Elm City” bees often have a greater diversity of plants to forage from throughout the year (there is greater plant diversity among gardens throughout the city), but large numbers of hives are better off buzzing elsewhere, trust me.

Beekeeping is a unique agricultural experience in that you do not necessarily need to own your own farmland in order to do it. While this is favorable in certain regards, bees forage a radius of ~3 miles from their hive, putting them at risk to dangers in their environment. Living in the same place as the bees reminds me to be more mindful of how inclement weather, pesticides, and other local hazards affect me, too.

Each day working with bees offers its share of surprises, whether it’s catching swarms, seeing freshly-made honeycomb, or digging hives out of the snow. There are also countless teachable moments, from finding a hive’s queen (or hearing the dissonance of a queenless hive) to deciding how much honey a hive needs to survive the winter. And personally, after harvesting the summer’s honey from the hives we made in the spring, sitting down to my morning cup of tea has never tasted so sweet.

If you’re interested in finding out more, Vincent and I are looking for another helper, initially to fill in while I am away for the months of August and October, but also to eventually become my replacement. See details below.

Job Description: Beekeeper’s Apprentice

Tasks Include:

-Bottling honey

-Hive maintenance (checking hives for healthy populations, disease, food, being “queen-right”, etc.)

-Tranporting hives into orchards for pollination (spring)

-Honey extraction (summer)

Qualifications:

Looking for a helper who is…

-Interested in local agriculture and/or apiculture

-Comfortable working outdoors in general, in most types of weather

-Comfortable working with bees specifically

-Able to comfortably lift ~40 lbs.

-Dog-friendly (specifically with two labrador retrievers that come most places we do)

Beekeeping, like most agricultural work, follows a seasonal schedule. It is busiest in summer and early fall, when preferred weekly availability is as much as 5 days per week (~35 hours). In winter, tasks are considerably fewer and mostly indoors.

Please contact Emily Casaretto at emily.casaretto@gmail.com if you are interested in being considered for this job. Serious inquiries only.

Emily Casaretto held almost every internship position the YSFP has when she was a Yale student. She now lives and works in New Haven.