Dan Conlon, co-owner with his wife Bonita of Warm Colors Apiary, President of both the Massachusetts Beekeepers Association and the Franklin County Beekeepers Association, began keeping bees when he was 14 years old. He lived at the edge of a Dayton, Ohio suburb, close enough to farmlands that he got a summer job helping a farmer with haying and whatever needed to be done.
“The farmer kept a few beehives, because many farmers did at that time, knowing how important good pollination was to the success of their crops. When he saw that I liked working with the bees I took on those chores, too. I set up two hives of my own at home and I have hardly been without bees since then, sometimes just a couple of hives, sometimes 100,” Conlon said.
Conlon told me that his mother said beekeeping is the only thing he ever stuck with. He’s done many things in his life including playing in a band named Warm Colors and teaching at Mt. Hermon, but these days he tends between 500 to 900 hives throughout Massachusetts and even a few in New York State.
“Looking back, I think that farmer was an excellent beekeeper. No one used chemicals then and the things he taught me hold up today. All the farmers that I knew are gone, but they molded my ideas about land preservation. That was the best farmland in the world, and now it’s all covered,” he said.
The day I visited the sun was hot and I could see Conlon’s bees flying around, probably foraging in the field of goldenrod beyond the bee yard. Conlon said this year was a better year for the bees than last year when it was so cold and wet. “That whole year was about keeping the bees from starving. I literally used a ton of organic sugar to keep my hives fed.”
Many of Conlon’s hives are spread throughout the Connecticut River Valley for the season, beginning with apple pollination time in the spring. “This year there was a good honey run in May and June, but then it got dry. The goldenrod began blooming but there was no nectar until the rains the last week in August got it jump started.”
With all the talk about starving bees I asked Conlon about Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) that had gotten so much press a year or two ago. He said, “CCD is not an issue so much in our area, partly because western Mass lives in some isolation as far as the bees are concerned. My bee hives don’t travel much more than 30 or 40 miles twice a season for pollinating. That reduces the stress on the hives.
“Beekeepers in the west have the most trouble because they use migratory beekeepers who bring hundreds of hives to fields around the country for pollination. The bees mix with bees from other places that might have diseases.” Conlon explained there isn’t enough business for those migratory operations to come to our area.
In addition to the stress the migratory bees suffer, and the easy spreading of disease, those bees can also starve to death because their winter or spring feedings use corn syrup.
It turns out that corn syrup is just as bad for bees as it is for humans. Beekeepers routinely feed sugar syrup to bees during the winter and very early spring if they see that honey supplies in the hive are low. Cane sugar is pure sucrose, and the nectar that honeybees gather is principally sucrose so bees process it just as they do nectar.
Corn syrup, as we all know, is cheaper than sugar which is why it is used in so many of our processed foods and soft drinks. High fructose corn syrup is also cheap for those large bee companies to use, but the bees do not find it as delicious as sucrose. Aside from their taste preferences, corn syrup is a problem for bees because it crystallizes in the hive and becomes so hard that the bees cannot eat it.
Conlon thinks these are some of the reasons for CCD that do not apply to our part of the world. He says the good thing about CCD and all the publicity it generated is that it prompted the USDA to increase research funding that had been dropping off.
Next week I’ll talk about Conlon’s Russian queen bee breeding, and new approaches to bee management in our area.
Those interested in learning about bees will enjoy the Annual Honeybee Festival from 10 am to 4pm on Saturday, September 11 at Warm Colors Apiary on South Mill Road in Deerfield. Conlon says the bees always behave very well. There will be something for everyone including bee talks and demonstrations throughout the day, honey ice cream, samples of mead (a honey wine) provided by Green River Ambrosia, cooking demonstrations by Brandy Parker of Heirloom Catering and more. Of course, honey and honey products like bee pollen and beautiful beeswax candles will be on sale. This is a great family event. You can stop in for an hour or stay all day. There is no charge.
Between the Rows September 4, 2010