Beekeeping in Western New York helps the environment, locally and nationwide
Whether they do it for the honey or to protect pollinators, there is a varied and committed community of beekeepers in Western New York. Both hobbyists and larger apiaries go through the same processes, overcome the same obstacles, and all enjoy the rewards that beekeeping brings.
For some, like Father Ryszard Biernat, the interest in bees has been buzzing for years, if not decades. He remembers becoming engrossed by bees as a young boy in Poland, almost entirely by chance.
“I love books,” he said. “I was in the library volunteering and I spotted this old-looking book on the shelf. I pulled it out and looked at it. It was from 1902. I looked at the back page, and nobody had ever taken the book out in 100 years. So I felt sorry for the book. I brought it home and it was the story of a beehive. And that spiked my interest in beekeeping. When I finished reading it, I started getting other books about beekeeping from the library and eventually started saving money, and a year later I had enough money to get a hive.”
Fast forward to 2011, a year after Father Ryszard received his first church assignment in Orchard Park, when another chance encounter introduced him to Michael Myers of Chestnut Hill Farm. Father Ryszard had car trouble at the side of the road, and Myers stopped to ask if he needed help. He recognized Father Ryszard as a beekeeper, suggesting caution because there was a bear in the area. Myers then offered Father Ryszard some extra electric fencing from Chestnut Hill Farm to protect his bees from wandering bears.
“The next day I came over and I borrowed the fence, and I became very good friends with him from then,” Father Ryszard said.
Father Ryszard now runs the bee program at Chestnut Hill Farm, and, through agreements with landowners, cares for a total of 140 hives throughout Western New York. He has additional hives in Cuba, Aurora, Elma, North Boston and Hamburg. A close friend of his founded Buffalo Bee Company in 2017, which he joined in 2018. The priest bottles and sells honey through the company, under the label “Father Ryszard's Holy Honey.”
His approach — and the approach he hopes others adopt — is to help the bees become happy and healthy, which is when they produce surplus honey.
“If you don’t help the bees and steal their honey, you’ll soon wind up with empty hives,” he said.
Once you have happy bees, you better get ready to have more hives.
“We started out with one hive, caught a swarm, bought more hives and expanded,” said Joshua Gibbs of Gibbs Apiaries in Gowanda.
Gibbs Apiaries was founded by Joshua’s father, John. It started as a family hobby about 35 years ago. Today its hives number in the thousands.
“I remember making honey in our farmhouse kitchen sink as a kid,” Gibbs said. “Now we normally max out at about 5,000 hives. With beekeeping in the commercial setting, it’s always two steps forward and one step back. We build up in the spring and max out in the summer, then lose a percentage in the winter.”
The current monoculture system of the food chain (in which single crops are grown over large tracts of land) keeps thousands of Gibbs’ hives busy each spring. They lease bees to growers in California — 3,500 hives this year — to pollinate almonds within the Central Valley. According to the Almond Board of California, the state produces 81% of the world’s almonds and 100% of the U.S. commercial supply. During a time when the bees would still be hunkering down before anything blooms in Western New York, these bees get to enjoy six weeks of feeding until the last almond blossom falls, and then they are sent back to their home base in Gowanda. They may find themselves on a local farm later, as Gibbs has various rental agreements in the area.
“We will start going through sorting and grading them about a month beforehand,” Gibbs said. “We can do it all inside that [winter] barn. We have red lights and can work in there without them flying. It’s a lot of cleaning and prep work. For the actual bees themselves, we have to put a pollen supplement on them. And we physically band the hives, with green nylon bands, so they don’t shift on the load. Sometimes we give sugar water for the drive.”
The process of creating a new hive comes from “splitting” a strong existing hive. Screens of the brood (the eggs, larvae and pupae) can be transferred to a new hive without a queen, and usually the nurse bees will select one of the unhatched bees as their next queen. To make her the queen, they feed her royal jelly, a high-protein superfood, longer than they do the other larvae. In other cases, if a hive gets too large, it will branch off by itself with a new queen, creating a swarm on a nearby tree or structure. This process happens more often in warm weather.
“In the summertime, one of the big maintenance items is making sure swarms don’t occur,” said Merle Robbins of M&D Farm in Arcade. “We remove some of the brood so it’s not so full.”
Merle and his wife Danette have been operating M&D Farm and selling honey and beeswax products for the last four years. It was a decade prior to launching their business that Merle started getting involved in beekeeping as a hobby. Merle helped an Amish man with his hives, which sparked his own interest in beekeeping.
The Robbinses currently have 15 hives in their field but have the capacity for 30. The hives are protected by a fence, so bears don’t have easy access, but that doesn’t keep smaller animals from trying to steal honey. Skunks and raccoons have pried lids off in the past, but the Robbinses found an easy fix by placing large rocks on top.
Threats to bees
The worst threat to bee colonies is much smaller: the varroa mite, a parasite that feeds off of honey bees, infiltrates brood cells and takes over hives, spreading viruses and feeding off of the bees’ fat reserves.
Colonies can be treated for varroa mites with a variety of natural substances, including hops. A 2012 study published in Experimental and Applied Acarology found that when bees were wiped down with a 1% HBA (hop beta acids) solution, 100% of mites placed on them died. There are HBA cardboard strips on the market that are successful at killing varroa mites. Formic acid is another natural varroa mite killer. Other preventive measures include conducting regular hive inspections and splitting hives to slow down the brood, and therefore, mite production.
Father Ryszard teaches beekeeping classes and gives talks at schools, as well as various community groups. He found that people are disappointed when they learn they cannot keep “treatment-free” bees.
“For me, [it’s like] if you’re raising a cow, and it has an infection, are you not going to treat it because you want a treatment-free cow?” he said. “The best time for us to treat them for varroa mites is the end of July, because you want to have healthy bees going into the winter. Varroa mites live on larvae and pupae. As they are developing, the mites feed off of them and then bees are hatching malnourished. They should be young and strong and ready to work, but [they] hatch sick and weak.”
Mike Masterson, owner of Masterson’s Garden Center, Inc. in East Aurora, said since the bees cannot protect themselves against the mites, those who don’t treat their hives for mites are not good beekeepers. He deals with many new beekeepers, and has found when people first get into beekeeping, they generally start for one of two reasons.
“It’s almost like a bit of a fad right now,” he said. “Some of these people getting into it are not going to stay there. They’re getting into it because they heard it’s a good thing to do and it’s a feel-good thing and they want to help the bees. They legitimately do, but that doesn't mean they will sustain that level of interest. And they won’t, because we see a bit of a fallout every year, even though we gain more than we lose. People read about honey bees dying and want to do their part. Another portion of them get into it just for the honey, whether they’re selling it or they want it for their own use.”
Ultimately, as long as beekeepers treat for varroa mites, every hive helps the bees and helps the environment. Masterson’s Garden Center has been keeping bees since 2012, and started offering classes soon after.
‘Will I get stung?’
“What actually got us started was reading about the plight of honey bees and how they’re struggling and dying and all of that, and we figured we would learn everything we could about it and help other people,” Masterson said.
Masterson’s Garden Center is home to 40 hives and has an indoor observation hive so visitors can view a colony at work. They sell beekeeping equipment, including proper clothing, smokers, tools and boxes. The equipment is secondary to the series of eight classes that start with Beekeeping 101 and work up to more advanced topics. For those interested, Masterson’s also offers an apprenticeship program, which requires a commitment of an hour and a half once every two weeks for three months. The most common question Masterson fields is surprisingly basic.
“‘Will I get stung?’ Yes,” he laughed. “At some point you’re going to lose that battle.”
Another common question is how much it costs to start a hive. The answer is somewhere around $500 to $600 to start completely from scratch. Maintenance is typically minimal; inspections should occur once every couple of weeks. Bees can become unhappy if they are frequently disrupted. Beekeeping requires cyclical maintenance, but even so, lacks the frequency and urgency that care for other animals requires. Its laid-back nature paired with the time spent outside can make beekeeping a relaxing pastime.
In Western New York, honey is harvested in summer and fall. The honey is ready to be harvested once it is capped, or sealed closed, with wax. In the summertime, the honey is often made from basswood tree nectar; the fall nectar primarily comes from goldenrod and Japanese knotweed. There are higher concentrations of goldenrod in the Southtowns, which results in more golden-colored fall honey in these areas. In other, less rural areas, where the Japanese knotweed is more prevalent, the honey is dark, almost black. Local honey tastes unique because it’s the product of the local nectar, whereas honey from industrial bee farms is a mixture of honey from various hives from multiple locations.
“It helps with allergies because it’s all of the local pollen that’s going into your honey,” Danette Robbins said. “Also, with store-bought, if it doesn’t say ‘unfiltered raw honey,’ then it can also have corn syrup and stuff like that.”
Local honey has taste and quality benefits, but it also benefits the bees.
“That’s an important part of local farming: it’s not industrialized and there’s more care toward the animals,” Father Ryszard said. “I don’t care about people buying my honey, but buy local honey. Find a beekeeper and explore different tastes in local honey. You’re not damaging the environment and adding to the gas that is burned to ship the honey. As customers we sometimes forget how much impact we can make by what we buy.”
After fall harvest comes the winter prep. The hives don’t have to move for the winter. They can stay outside, although some beekeepers will place them in a barn or other structure. Lids have to be secured, hives need to be treated for varroa mites to ensure they don’t mate and hatch over the winter, and hives can be wrapped for additional insulation.
“That’s the biggest challenge with beekeeping in the North is trying to get them through the winter,” Gibbs said. “Our winters are really harsh.”
But it’s not just about the cold.
“They can handle the cold; it’s the moisture,” Merle Robbins said. “You have to have good circulation. They stay right in there and they huddle in a little cluster.”
Starting an apiary, big or small, can have a great impact on the local honey bee population. However, other native pollinators like bumble bees, butterflies and moths need protection and support too. Planting native flowering plants can seem like a small act, but may impact a nest of bumblebees, which can be as small as 20 members.
“I would encourage people to shift the focus if you want to make a difference for bees,” Father Ryszard said. “Worry about the native pollinators, because you can make a big difference between what you plant in your yard.”
Combating the pollinator population issue also comes down to what we choose not to do.
“It can boil right down to homeowners using pesticides on the lawn, to the big agricultural districts, and it’s all harmful to the bees,” Masterson said. “It can kill the whole hive.”
Common advice for anybody who wants to become a beekeeper is to make connections with other beekeepers. Join a group or find a mentor.
“It’s a good community,” Masterson said. “We have over 1,500 beekeepers we work with and they’re all very helpful, and we all learn from each other.”
© 2021 by Samantha Wulff
Born and raised in Western New York, Samantha Wulff graduated from SUNY Buffalo State with an undergraduate degree in journalism and a masters degree in public relations. She has written various pieces on local people and places for Visit Buffalo Niagara, The Public, Artvoice and Buffalo Spree. Samantha published her first book, Django the Greyhound: Gets Adopted!, in 2021. The book is based on the retired racing greyhound she and her boyfriend adopted in 2019. Visit her website at www.samanthawulff.com.
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