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.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011
Urban Beekeeping: An Introduction
Just this morning, the YSFP office received a frantic phone call from one of our Connecticut neighbors. He was desperately searching for local honey for the treatment of seasonal allergies (more on that later) and he thought that we might be able to help him out. Although the bees that we installed on the Farm at the beginning of summer are still too young to produce honey, New Haven is home to many local beekeepers dedicated to the sometimes-difficult but always-rewarding task of urban beekeeping. This week on the blog we’ll highlight the benefits of urban beekeeping and introduce some of the local practitioners who have been working here in New Haven since long before it was trendy.
At first, urban beekeeping might seem like a contradiction in terms. It’s difficult to imagine a beehive in the middle of a city, and we might wonder if bees can even survive in an environment so completely altered by humans. And if they can make a home here, is there really any benefit to raising bees in what might sometimes seem like a concrete desert?
In fact, bees are constantly at work in even the most urban locations, affecting the landscape in ways we tend to take for granted. So what are bees good for?
1. Bees are pollinators. In the simplest terms, they take pollen from one flower and bring it to others, allowing for the fertilization that produces more seeds in flowers and fruit, thus ensuring a next generation and producing the parts of plants we like to eat. Without them, farmers would have to spend a lot of time hand-pollinating, and uncultivated crops would disappear almost entirely. Among the surviving plants, genetic diversity would plummet, since bees can carry pollen over many miles— and diversity is crucial to the robustness of any population. So without bees, all the flowers, shrubs and trees in parks and medians all over your city? They would pretty quickly disappear.
2. Urban beekeepers are doing their parts to counter Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). In light of the recent and ongoing decline in wild bee populations, domesticated bees are increasingly responsible for the pollination of not just city gardens but also larger scale agricultural crops and uncultivated plants.
3. Perhaps most obviously, bees are the one and only source of honey! Everyone knows that honey is a nutritious and delicious natural sweetener, but some claim that local honey can also serve a medicinal purpose in the treatment and prevention of seasonal allergies. Because local honey is the direct product of region-specific pollen, consuming locally harvested honey is thought to accustom the body to those allergens in small doses, so that when they’re encountered en masse they aren’t seen as a threat.
We reap the many benefits of bees every time we put honey in our tea, slice up a tomato, or enjoy the flowers in our parks and gardens. Later his week we’ll take a more in-depth look at exactly how urban beekeeping works, with a post about the bee boxes Pollen recently installed on our Farm and a post about Vince Kay’s Swords Into Ploughshares, an operation that processes and packs honey just a couple of blocks from the Farm. Hopefully along the way we’ll inspire a few would-be apiarists to start hives of their very own!

Urban Beekeeping: An Introduction

Just this morning, the YSFP office received a frantic phone call from one of our Connecticut neighbors. He was desperately searching for local honey for the treatment of seasonal allergies (more on that later) and he thought that we might be able to help him out. Although the bees that we installed on the Farm at the beginning of summer are still too young to produce honey, New Haven is home to many local beekeepers dedicated to the sometimes-difficult but always-rewarding task of urban beekeeping. This week on the blog we’ll highlight the benefits of urban beekeeping and introduce some of the local practitioners who have been working here in New Haven since long before it was trendy.

At first, urban beekeeping might seem like a contradiction in terms. It’s difficult to imagine a beehive in the middle of a city, and we might wonder if bees can even survive in an environment so completely altered by humans. And if they can make a home here, is there really any benefit to raising bees in what might sometimes seem like a concrete desert?

In fact, bees are constantly at work in even the most urban locations, affecting the landscape in ways we tend to take for granted. So what are bees good for?

1. Bees are pollinators. In the simplest terms, they take pollen from one flower and bring it to others, allowing for the fertilization that produces more seeds in flowers and fruit, thus ensuring a next generation and producing the parts of plants we like to eat. Without them, farmers would have to spend a lot of time hand-pollinating, and uncultivated crops would disappear almost entirely. Among the surviving plants, genetic diversity would plummet, since bees can carry pollen over many miles— and diversity is crucial to the robustness of any population. So without bees, all the flowers, shrubs and trees in parks and medians all over your city? They would pretty quickly disappear.

2. Urban beekeepers are doing their parts to counter Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). In light of the recent and ongoing decline in wild bee populations, domesticated bees are increasingly responsible for the pollination of not just city gardens but also larger scale agricultural crops and uncultivated plants.

3. Perhaps most obviously, bees are the one and only source of honey! Everyone knows that honey is a nutritious and delicious natural sweetener, but some claim that local honey can also serve a medicinal purpose in the treatment and prevention of seasonal allergies. Because local honey is the direct product of region-specific pollen, consuming locally harvested honey is thought to accustom the body to those allergens in small doses, so that when they’re encountered en masse they aren’t seen as a threat.

We reap the many benefits of bees every time we put honey in our tea, slice up a tomato, or enjoy the flowers in our parks and gardens. Later his week we’ll take a more in-depth look at exactly how urban beekeeping works, with a post about the bee boxes Pollen recently installed on our Farm and a post about Vince Kay’s Swords Into Ploughshares, an operation that processes and packs honey just a couple of blocks from the Farm. Hopefully along the way we’ll inspire a few would-be apiarists to start hives of their very own!