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The Secret Life of Bees

By Geoff Moore, Lincoln Journal


Beekeeper Rick Reault checks on one of his bee colonies. During the winter, bees will cluster together for warmth, according to Reault, who is the president of the Middlesex County Beekeepers Association.
Lincoln - Even in the dead of winter, Rick Reault has been buzzing about, tending to his hives.

Reault, president of the Middlesex County Beekeepers Association (MCBA), said the Lincoln area may be the perfect place to take up beekeeping.

Most of the 2.5 million colonies in the country are “kept colonies,” which is vital because a colony will only survive a year or two in the wild, Reault said. But even beekeepers have been losing 50 percent of their colonies every year on average due to mites, disease and pesticides, he said.

“There are so many things [that harm them]. The bees are telling us something about our environment. You want to stay healthy and don’t take drugs right? That’s what the bees want to do and we just have to be careful of all the pesticides that we’re using on our soils,” said Reault.

Reault said Lincoln’s open fields, organic agriculture and abundance of flora create an excellent habitat for honeybees — an insect, he said, that is more important to our food supply than simply as a provider of honey.

In order to share his knowledge and love of beekeeping, Reault and Codman Community Farm (CCF) are teaming up to provide a “Beekeeping Basics” course for new and veteran beekeepers. The course, which Reault is teaching in Lincoln for the first time, will begin on Feb. 7 and run for seven consecutive Thursday evenings.

It was long-time Codman Farm member and Lincoln resident Eileen Murray, who is also an amateur beekeeper, who first suggested that Codman Farm run the course, said Lisa Hession-Kunz, manager of administration and outreach for CCF.

“Eileen is a committed volunteer here and also a member of Middlesex County Beekeepers Association. She suggested we run the course and registration is already more than half-filled,” said Hession-Kunz, adding that there has been widespread interest from Lincoln and surrounding towns.

Reault, who has taught the classes in Acton and other locations for the past six years, said that MCBA had members throughout the county and estimates that there are at least 25 beekeepers in Lincoln alone.

In the first year, the entry cost for a beginner is around $900 to set up a single hive, including equipment and a colony, and to take a course, according to Reault, who is also the owner of New England Beekeeping Supplies in Tyngsboro. As for any hobby, there is an initial investment, said Reault, but unlike most hobbies, the sale of honey may yield sweet dividends.

“In our region, in a good season, a healthy hive can produce 100 pounds of honey. I’ve had some hives produce 200 pounds of excess honey in a good year,” he said.

Keeping a hive healthy requires proper feeding before winter sets in and constant monitoring throughout the year, Reault said.

Down in snow-covered fields not far from Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School, Reault was delighted when he opened each of the 10 hives he tends at that location.

“The hives are all alive and so I’m thrilled about that,” said Reault, re-checking a hive that had been overturned by a blustery wind. “The cover had fallen off and it was wide open, but the bees are still alive.”

Inside, the bees moved about lazily, feeding on what Reault called a “pollen patty.”

“It’s made from pollen, honey, yeast and an electrolyte. It’s really important for the bees to have food throughout the winter because in our part of the country they collect pollen and nectar for only six months and then they have no food for six months,” he said.

Without food, the bees are more likely to succumb to mites and disease, which Reault said have previously claimed up to 40 percent of his hives in a single winter.

Pollen is the honeybees’ protein source, Reault explained. In collecting pollen, bees cross-pollinate plants, enabling production of either fruit or seeds. The stem of the flower produces nectar and the bees add their own enzyme and cure it inside the hive to make honey, which can take only a matter of one week, but sometimes as long as three weeks depending on the moisture content of the nectar. To make honey, the bees have to bring the moisture content down to 18.6 percent before covering it with beeswax to preserve it.

“We know it’s honey when the bees cap it over with wax, said Reault.

Reault said he is fascinated by the whole life cycle of the bee and its role in our society. For example, he said, the female population is normally 90 percent in summer but rises to 100 percent in winter.

Where do all the males go and how are the queens eggs fertilized in the spring? How much do 10,000 bees weigh and what makes a female bee become a queen?

These are just some of the many questions that Reault is gearing up to answer during his course next month. Some answers and registration details may be found at the MCBA Web site at www.middlesexbeekeepers.org or the Codman Farm Web site at www.codmanfarm.org/index.html.

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