Tuesday, September 20, 2011

 Reprinted with permission from the Valley News. Not to be reproduced or distributed.

Though gardeners and naturalists can find wonder under every leaf, the production of honey might just be the most mysterious and exhilarating in the catalog of backyard miracles.
   As an aspiring apiarist, I spent this spring reading up on the art of beekeeping. I've certainly dipped my finger into plenty of jars of honey, and I've cautiously watched beekeepers in action at the state fair. But when my friend and fellow convert Hao invited me to help out with a hive he was keeping in my backyard, I nonetheless harbored a degree of skepticism. I had no doubt that professional beekeepers knew the secret of coaxing honey from a stack of wooden boxes, but I found it hard to believe that while Hao and I were obliviously going about our business, a swarm of insects was crawling and flying over the backyard, producing tiny miracles one drop at a time.
   Nationwide, honey consumption is on the rise, as is the interest in backyard beekeeping. "Feral" hives have been almost wiped out by parasitic mites and a little-understood phenomenon called colony collapse disorder, and a growing number of hobbyists-- 95 percent of the 175,000 or so beekeepers across the country, according to the National Honey Board -- have taken on the vital task of keeping orchards productive and roadside flowers blooming.
   "If you were to go out today and find bees in a tree somewhere up in the woods, chances are they swarmed there (from a captive hive)," said Troy Hall, president of the 100-member-strong Kearsarge Beekeepers Association. Hall keeps about 100 colonies in fields and orchards from Cornish to Fairlee, and area farmers have been very welcoming. "We're benefiting each other," he said.
   In Vermont alone, the number of beekeepers has grown by several hundred over the past few years, to over 2,000, state apiculturist Steve Parise said. And nationwide, honey production in 2010 was up 20 percent from the previous year, to 176 million pounds, according to the National Honey Board.
   Some of the newcomers are concerned about the environmental and agricultural impact of the loss of wild bees and want to help, Parise said. Others are retirees looking for a new hobby, or casualties of the recession trying to turn visions of back-to-the-land living into a second career. But many, it seems, are part of a burgeoning group of young professionals turning to the do-it-yourself and make-your-own movements so they can decompress after long hours at workplaces that are increasingly driven by technology.
   "I'm probably the youngest person at most of the bee clubs, but more people my age and younger are starting to get into it," said the 25-year-old Hall. "Anything in agriculture, like having a garden or keeping bees or doing something with chickens or cows, a lot of people are rediscovering that. It's like a renaissance of the local agriculture movement, and beekeeping is definitely a part of it."
   I've admittedly jumped on the low-tech bandwagon. Sometimes I feel like some offbeat superhero leading a double life: newspaper writer by day, aspiring 19th-century homesteader by night. In addition to beekeeping, I've taken to sewing, playing banjo and typing letters on an old Corona typewriter. My backyard is home to a flock of chickens and an overflowing garden, and my kitchen shelves are lined with mason jars of jam and pickles.
   Many of my friends are spurning the technology that dominates their workdays as well; if it weren't for our utter dependence on the Internet to keep our hobbies going, I'd be afraid of falling asleep one night and waking up in Little House on the Prairie. My beekeeping partner is Hao Xu, 42, a post-doctoral researcher at Dartmouth who for years hardly lifted his head from his study of brain functions and biochemistry. Then he realized he needed a respite from the lab, and began to explore a litany of interests that could well belong to someone from another century: swing and ballroom dancing, sailing, pottery, origami, gardening, beekeeping.
   "It was a fantasy," said Xu, of his initial interest in beekeeping. He admits that when he got started two years ago, he had no idea what he was getting into, but he was intrigued. "I saw myself going into a beehive -- a beehive being a house," he said, laughing. Nonetheless, he wrote on his Facebook page that he wanted to become an apiarist.
   "I got responses, so that's how I got started," Xu said. He met up with Hall -- who's since become his "guru" -- and tagged along on an inspection one of Hall's colonies. Then he bought a queen and started his own hive. "I got really fascinated," he said. "I bought my hive nine months before the season started, I was so psyched."
   For Xu, beekeeping is an escape from the lab, but it's also an extension of it. He understands what happens when fructose and glucose from the nectar of a flower are collected by worker bees and brought back to the hive; how the molecules mingle with enzymes, break down in a delicate chemical dance and are transformed into honey.
   "I have to say, when we were doing the honey extraction, I felt like I was doing an experiment," he commented. "I had a protocol, I followed the steps, and it came out pretty good."
   Xu's understanding of the process adds to his enjoyment of beekeeping. I, on the other hand, am drawn to the mysteriousness of it all.
   Though I did the requisite research and learned to handily throw around jargon like "swarming" and "supers" and "queen extruder," I'm content to know only what role I must play in keeping 20,000 or so bees healthy and productive, and chalk the rest up to natural wonder.
   The range of engagement levels you can have in backyard beekeeping is perhaps one reason behind its popularity. At the low end of the spectrum, you can keep a single hive, check it every few weeks and largely forget about it until it's time to reap the sweet rewards: up to 60 pounds per season. At the other end are people like Hall.
   "It just kind of started off as a hobby," he said. Over the past seven years, though, his hobby has grown, and he now spends part of his time as a lumber broker and part as an apiarist, tending hives, selling the honey and breeding queens. "They're fascinating insects," he said. "It's just endless, the growth curve. ... There's always something new to learn."
   "I eat quite a bit of honey," Hall added. "Everything I can put sugar on, I use honey."
   Honey is touted as a pure sweetener, a healthier alternative to processed sugars, and beeswax is a popular byproduct for making candles and beauty products.
   But none of these benefits can really explain the draw that entices apiarists. It's elusive. Like canning or weeding, beekeeping offers something almost therapeutic, especially after a long day spent staring at a computer screen with a cell phone glued to your ear.
   "I enjoy watching the bees," Xu said thoughtfully. "There's something magic about it. I can spend hours just watching them coming out of the hive and going back in."
   The moment it became real for me was an afternoon in late July. For hours, Xu and I and a couple of other friends scraped beeswax off the honeycomb and whipped the frames, heavy with honeycomb, around in an extractor, a large plastic bucket with a hand crank that uses centrifugal force to draw out the honey without damaging the comb.
   We were sequestered in the garage on a hot afternoon, sweating, unable to wipe our foreheads because our hands were dripping with gooey honey. Finally, when the entire garage smelled like a vat of warm honey, Xu turned the plastic spout.
   For a moment, no one spoke, then we jumped around and laughed and gave each other sticky high-fives. A thick amber stream gushed from the spout, 20 pounds of it in all. It was beautiful.

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