Feature

Honey Talks

A peek inside Rhode Island’s nearly century-old Beekeeper’s Association

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There’s been plenty of buzz in the news lately about how honeybees – and therefore pollination, and therefore human food sources – are endangered. Even if you’re deathly allergic to bee stings, you’re probably still rooting for their survival as a species (and that one Black Mirror episode shows why technologically replacing them is probably a bad idea). With so much attention to the problem globally, you might not even know that our little state boasts an official beekeepers club with more than 600 active members.

Far from a response to recent headlines, the Rhode Island Beekeepers Association (RIBA) was founded nearly a century ago and members “run the gamut,” according to board president Keith Salisbury. “Some really young members are currently taking our bee school classes through RIBA, and then we’ve got 90-year-old beekeepers,” he says. Occupations vary: “Everyone from junk collectors, to IT guys, to potters, to doctors and lawyers – it really crosses all lines.”

Now in his second term as board president, Salisbury first joined RIBA in 2012 – the same year he began keeping bees. Partly inspired by a beekeeping uncle, Salisbury “dove in with both feet” to beekeeping. Involvement with RIBA naturally followed; thanks to the help of other members with growing his operation, he now maintains 20 hives year-round, supplying about 800 pounds of honey a year to Salisbury Farm, his family’s sixth-generation 60-acre farm in Johnston.

Rhode Island’s beekeepers swarm to all parts of the state, but RIBA’s members are mostly from the northern regions since monthly meetings take place at the Coventry Rec Center in winter – although Salisbury notes that many from South County do make the trip. During the summer, meetings rotate through various members’ homes “depending on who will let us take over their back lawn,” he says. Speakers and hive inspections typically draw between 70 and 100 attendees, and the Spring Banquet & Silent Auction on April 7 is a yearly highlight. Each spring, an influx of around 200 participants in RIBA’s bee school receive a year of RIBA membership with their classes.

Most people take up beekeeping for two reasons: they want to help pollinate or they want to harvest honey. Rhode Island is “not a commercial state,” according to Salisbury. There are a couple of small commercial operations with 2,000 hives or so, “but most of us are either what they call ‘sideliners’” – (100 hives or fewer) – “or just hobbyists” (one to 12 hives).

“I’m pretty honest; I’m just in it for the damn honey,” jokes Malinda Coletta, Vice President of RIBA and half of Professor Chef, an in-home culinary school she runs with her husband, Phillip Griffin, in North Providence. The two use their home-grown honey in culinary pairings. It was Griffin who originally pushed the couple to get into beekeeping; at the time, Coletta says, her response was “Absolutely not. I’m afraid of them, I get stung by them, and I swell up like a balloon. I don’t want bees.” She now happily tends 10 hives.

“My husband didn’t know what he was in for,” Coletta says. “This was going to be his hobby. We went to bee school together, and that was it.” She’s the “beekeeper,” she says, whereas Griffin is the “bee-haver. He avoids it like the plague.”

Many people get into the hobby with good intentions, Salisbury notes, but don’t realize how much time and money is required, or how much damage they can cause to local bee populations if they don’t keep up with seasonal requirements for maintaining their hives.

“People who just want a box in their backyard and who aren’t going to look in and care for them don’t get it,” Salisbury says. “Pesticides happen, and it’s bad, but I don’t think they’re as big of a threat for us as hobbyists and small-time beekeepers.” Bees, he says, are “basically livestock; if you’re going to have an animal under your charge and not take care of it, don’t do it.”

Coletta’s first hive is a cautionary tale for what not to do if you wish to keep bees. First, she bought the hive on Craigslist, “which is a big no-no.” She brought it over Connecticut state lines without an inspection, not knowing what she had done was illegal. Upon arriving home, she called the association president for help, “and that’s how I found out what I was doing was not the right way to do things.” Former RIBA president Ed Lafferty and RIDEM state bee inspector James Lawson came to her property and inspected the hive specifically for American Foulbrood, a disease spreading in Connecticut.

“The cure for it is this: to dig a hole in the ground, toss the beehive into the hole, throw kerosene or gasoline on it, and light a match,” Coletta warns. “It’s incurable, and the spores will live about 50 years. That’s why you have to burn it.”

Fortunately her hive wasn’t infected, but it was “a very weak hive, and all of the honey had been taken out of it – and this was in August.” Hives must produce stores of honey in the warmer months to survive the winter.

“If you don’t have a strong colony when the queen starts laying her winter bees, you won’t have bees to get you through the winter,” says Salisbury. “We leave 80 to 90 pounds of honey on the hives for the bees to survive the cold weather months.”

Many people associate bees with rural areas and may be surprised at the number of suburban and urban beekeepers. “Right in my little neighborhood, there are 25 hives that I can walk to,” Coletta notes. “A lot of restaurants are starting to put beehives on rooftops.”

Proximity to other hives isn’t usually an issue if there are enough flowering plants within a region. “I could have 200 hives on my property, and it’s not too densely populated, because there’s plenty within a five-mile radius that they could go to,” says Salisbury. Real problems occur when one hive becomes infected by diseases or mites, forcing bees to relocate to neighboring hives, including feral ones.

“In a last-ditch effort to keep the colony going, they try to take their diseased selves out of the equation. They know they can’t be there anymore,” Salisbury says. “The hive peters out, and there’s nothing left” – yet another casualty of would-be beekeepers who don’t take their responsibilities seriously.

But there are ways to do right by bees without putting in hours of effort. For those with busy schedules, RIBA member and newsletter editor Cindy Holt runs a business called Little Rhody Beekeeping, which will place a beehive on your property and maintain it for a fee – and you get to keep the honey. Supporting bees means supporting “all bees,” Holt adds, including bumblebees, mason bees, carpenter bees, butterflies, and bugs. “Plant flowers that they love in abundance and break the pesticide habit,” she urges. “Let the weeds be, leave the large patches of clover and dandelions. Learn more about insects and start to care about them.”

Buying local honey and knowing your beekeeper goes a long way. “Invite beekeepers to put hives on your property if it’s large and full of forage,” Holt advises. “Take a class, join the local club and stay connected and educated. The health of your bees will affect the health of all of our bees.”