ELSMERE – A long row of hand-painted boxes set against a backdrop of a thriving apple orchard and a field of blooming grass. Every box is full of life; the secret world of the honey bee.
“It’s a beautiful sight to see the hives against the backdrop of the trees,” said Gregory “Greg” Sheldon. “These are the two things we need to save our planet – planting trees to save our civilization and raising bees.”
Sheldon has managed these bees for three seasons. He is the owner of Jim’s Tastee Freeze, a founding member of the nonprofit Eden’s Rose Foundation, and operates several beekeeping programs.
“Honeybees are an integral part of our food system,” Sheldon said.
They were inspired by Sheldon and his wife Jody’s involvement as Food Security Modernization Act farmer trainers, as well as their work with global food access programs. “We felt we needed to know more to teach people about bees.”
“That winter, about three years ago, my wife and I hit the books,” he said. “We took the Cornell Master Beekeepers course and studied everything we could. We joined our local bee club. We fully immersed ourselves in the world of bees, both the scientific and occult traditions of beekeeping, and everything in between.”
After a difficult start, they succeeded. “We started with 10 hives, it turned into 20, and it turned into 50. “Now we have about 150 beehives.”
Some of the beehives are in Normanskill as part of the Normanskill Pollinator Sanctuary. A second group of hives, located on the land of local farmer Jim Grady, provides a window into more scientific research.
An important part of a beekeeper’s role is to keep their bees safe and healthy. “It would be good to try to minimize the use of pesticides and try to use more natural methods of pest control,” commented Jim Grady.
At Jim Grady’s farm, Sheldon’s hives contain Russian Bees, or alternatively Survivor Bees, hearty bees that can naturally fight off particularly dangerous and invasive house guests.
“The biggest thing is a mite called the varroa mite,” said Rick Cobello, president of the Southern Adirondack Beekeeping Association. “What we need to do is continuously treat the bees strongly so that the mites don’t kill the bees. “They don’t kill the bees directly, but they weaken the bees until they die of something else.”
Beekeepers must make efforts to protect the hives from these harmful mites. Cobello recommends that new beekeepers start with two hives to compare their status. “So you can look at one and say, ‘That looks good,’ and look at the other and say, ‘That doesn’t look so good.'”
“What we feed the bees also helps move the needle forward for bees in our climate,” Sheldon says. “Bees need twenty essential amino acids to survive. They produce about half of it themselves.”
The reduced range limits what they can get naturally from pollination. Foods that are integral to New York agriculture, such as apples, cherries, cucumbers, pumpkins, squash, and strawberries, rely on pollination.
“We grow a lot of pollination-dependent crops in New York,” said Scott McArt, associate professor of entomology at Cornell University. “Honey bees are critical pollinators for these specialty crops.”
He continued, “We estimate that fifty percent of the pollination of the food we eat is pollinated by managed honey bees.”
“If bees disappear, most of our food will disappear,” said Rick Cobello. “In terms of pollination and longevity of food, honeybees are a big part of the pollination here.”
Cobello added that “whether you’re in the city or the country, it’s really helpful to plant pollinating plants that bees can use in general, not just honey bees.”
“I have some apple trees down there and they pollinate the apple trees. They need wide open space,” Grady said. “It’s good to have a wide open space.”
To make up for whatever was missing from the bees’ diet, Sheldon and his team found another way to keep them healthy.
“We give them tea,” Sheldon said. “There is a river called Guayusa River. “He comes from the Amazon rainforest, from a community we work with called the Shuar tribe.”
Tea contains all the amino acids that bees need. “We brew a pot of tea, about a 40-litre pot, and put some of the tea in each hive and let the bees drink from it. It helps to increase their strength and supplement their diet.”
Once the bees are ready to collect honey, Sheldon continues the cycle of giving. “We sell the honey and use the honey to support community food access programs.”
“Bees act as a colony. They care about each other on every level,” Sheldon said. He noticed that his hives “acted in their own way, in the symbiotic nature that they had.”
“Bees show us, teach us, what it looks like when it’s done well,” he said.
He added: “We want to honor not only our lives of service, but also the contribution bees make to the work we do by pollinating the food we grow to feed our community, and the honey they offer us. make sure all of this continues to push the envelope in our own community.”
To continue giving back to the community, honey is sold from their hives, and proceeds support pollinator conservation, habitat restoration, and awareness of environmental issues in the area. Information can be found at Normanskill Pollinator Sanctuary on Facebook.
For those interested in bees and beekeeping in the community, Rick Cobello encourages people to visit SABABEES.org.
“We want people to be involved,” Cobello said. “My goal is to attract more young people to beekeeping. The way to do this is to just come to a meeting and talk to people. It costs nothing.”
Additional resources for those looking to educate themselves are the New York National Heritage Program, the Empire State Honey Producers Association, and local beekeeping clubs.
“There’s a magical and mystical quality to bees and working with them,” Sheldon reflected. “It will always be a part of who I am. There is something very special about beekeeping that I hope more people can discover.”