Additional reporting by COURTNEY LAMDIN
At the outset, Gail Wells wasn’t too keen on the 600 fruit trees her husband, Silas, bought and planted three years ago. Nor was she eager to add up to 40,000 bees to their Georgia backyard this spring.
“I said, ‘Bees? Oh no, are you kidding me?’” Gail Wells recalled. “Then I really kind of freaked out a little bit.”
Her husband wanted the insects to help pollinate his peach and apple trees, which yielded just 185 pieces of fruit the year they were planted. Since then, the produce has declined.
Silas Wells hopes the bees will solve his plight, though he acknowledges they’re not a sure thing: “This is an experiment for us,” he said.
Fortunately, it’s gone well. His once-skeptical wife now loves the bees, which arrived in three hives this May.
“I find them very fascinating,” she said.
Nationwide, honeybees are on the decline, partially due to a still-mysterious affliction called colony collapse disorder. The number of managed bee colonies has decreased by more than half since 1947, federal data shows.
In Vermont, however, the beekeeping industry has grown in the last decade, the Vermont Agency of Agriculture says. The state now boasts 2,000 beekeepers with 11,000 hives, mostly backyard hobbyists like the Wells, the state says.
Beekeepers see their subjects as more than just nuisances at a summertime picnic. Bees boost crop values by $15 billion annually; some are entirely dependent on the busy insects, the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture says.
But the Wellses work on a much smaller scale.
As the Georgia couple walked through a row of apple trees one warm, sun-dappled evening, Gail Wells explained the bees’ unique social structure and singular aim: to keep the colony thriving. Most hives are comprised of female worker bees, male drones and one queen.
“The whole hive is kind of run by females,” she said. “They’re so structured.”
The Wellses, who are in their sixties, are learning to support and maintain that structure. Before their hives arrived, they did as much research as possible, reading, watching how-to videos and consulting with other keepers. They also joined the Vermont Beekeepers Association.
“You talk to 20 different people, and they all tell you a different story” on how to raise bees, Silas Wells said. “We’re trying to figure out what the best way of doing this is.”
Dressed in a full white suit with gloves and a netted hat, Gail Wells removed each screen in the hive as part of her weekly inspection that the brood – or bee larva – had hatched and that honey was being produced.
“You want to make sure they’re eating well,” Gail Wells said.
With starter “pollen patties,” containers full of syrup on each hive, and clover planted nearby with other flowering plants, the bees were well supplied. Gail Wells also checked for the queen bee – without her, the hives don’t function.
“Sometimes you can miss her,” she said.
As she worked, single bees crawled along Gail Wells’ sleeves, some with bright, orange “baskets” of pollen on their hind legs.
“They’re working,” Gail Wells said, indicating the honey clinging inside the honeycomb. “This is just a month.”
Honeybees are the official Vermont state insect.
Honeybees pollinate approximately $10 billion worth of crops in the United States each year. Almond crops are almost extensively pollinated by honeybees.
Domesticated honey bees, commonly used to pollinate crops, have declined dramatically in recent years, most recently from colony collapse disorder.
In 2014, the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture provided $8 million in funding to establish new habitats for declining bees.
There are 2.5 million honeybee colonies nationwide, compared to 6 million in 1947.
The average Vermont honey yield is 60 pounds annually.
Honey is 1 to 1.5 times sweeter than sugar.
Bees make honey by mixing flower nectar with enzymes in their mouths, then store it in honeycombs to reach a 17 percent moisture level. The bees then cap the cells with wax, which can keep indefinitely.
Sources: Vermont Secretary of State, U.S. Fish & Wildlife, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Vermont Beekeepers Association
As she moved from hive to hive, Gail Wells used a smoker to puff pine needle smoke to calm the bees.
“It’s a cool smoke, so it doesn’t hurt them,” she explained. “The bees, when we got them, were very, very rambunctious.”
On that night, however, the smoke may not have been necessary, Silas Wells said.
“They’ve settled in,” he said, observing.
The Wellses have had few hiccups in their experiment, only “re-queening” a hive once when they noticed it wasn’t producing much honey. Soon enough, it held healthy, working and honey-producing bees.
Hives are sensitive to weather, particularly cold and high humidity, Gail Wells said. If they’re healthy, bees will make it through winter by huddling and shivering to keep warm, creating heat with their wings.
The Wellses are dedicated to giving the bees the best life they can. They use only organic fertilizer products on their plants and continue researching the best bee care for their short lives: While a queen can live up to five years, workers live up to six months in the winter and only three weeks in the summer.
“They literally work themselves to death,” Gail Wells said. “They work so hard, so you don’t want anything to happen to the poor things. You just try to take care of them.”
Though the couple wouldn’t mind selling honey in the future, their focus is keeping the bees alive, and of course, waiting to see whether their fruit trees are more productive. That evening, the trees were heavy with round, healthy-looking apples.
“We’re just beginners,” Gail Wells said. “We’re trying to do everything as best as we can.”
Editor’s note: In addition to being a beekeeper, Gail Wells also manages the classifieds sections for the Milton Independent and St. Albans Messenger.