TENANTS HARBOR, Maine — When Jan Wirth gets close to the rectangular wooden beehive at Old Woods Farm, the lazy, muted buzzing from the tens of thousands of honeybees inside makes her smile.
“There’s a nice hum,” she said earlier this week. “When they’re happy, the hum is different than when they’re angry.”
And happy bees are exactly what Wirth wants as permanent residents of Old Woods Farm, the conservation neighborhood she’s developing close to the Tenants Harbor village center on a parcel of land that boasts old apple trees, low bush blueberries, meadow grasses, sunflowers and red clover.
Wirth is pretty sure that happy bees also will be healthy bees, and so she has installed a new shape of beehive that was built and is being monitored by a new breed of beekeeper — Christy Hemenway of Bath.
“I’m interested in having healthy bees that will pollinate the neighborhood,” Wirth said while admiring, through a glass observation window, the intricate, golden honeycomb her bees are busy building for the winter.
A heartbreaking problem
Honeybees, the tireless workers of the agricultural world, have had a bad few years. Starting in 2004, a mysterious problem dubbed “colony collapse disorder” has killed off vast numbers of honeybees across the country. While the origins of the collapse are uncertain, new research is pointing to damage to the bees’ ribosomal RNA, which produces proteins, as one problem. Researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported in August that sick bees suffered an unusually high number of infections with viruses that attack the ribosomes.
The varroa mite, a pest that was introduced to the U.S. accidentally in 1986, is a carrier of viruses that damage the ribosomes, according to the researchers.
But Hemenway thinks stress on bees doesn’t start, or end, with the varroa mite.
“We’re messing with things on such an integral level, we should be ashamed of ourselves,” she said.
Hemenway is alarmed by many aspects of conventional beekeeping, including the fact that beekeepers give bees a mass-produced wax foundation that ostensibly helps them get started in their box-shaped hives.
“It’s one size fits all,” she said of the foundation. “But it doesn’t really fit any bee — at least, not well.”
That is one stress on honeybees, she stressed. Another is the fact that commercial beekeepers may feed the bees on a sugar water mixture after harvesting the honey.
“It reminds me of a feedlot,” Wirth said. “Then we wonder why the colony’s collapsing.”
Another stressor is the prevalence of chemicals and pesticides in modern agriculture.
“A combination of things that lethal and that interconnected — that sort of thing is not sustainable. It eventually will take something apart,” Hemenway said. “There’s nothing more heartbreaking than to lose your bees.”
A new way
The 49-year-old Hemenway didn’t always have a passion for bees. In 2006, she owned a small business called Gold Star Alpacas and helped a beekeeping friend shear his alpaca. In exchange, he gave her a jar of homemade honey, and Hemenway was stung with bee fever. She took a class in conventional beekeeping and wondered why her bees weren’t thriving.
“I asked in class: What did the bees do before we started giving them wax foundation?” she said. “No one could answer.”
Her curiosity led her to discover beekeepers who were practicing a different method, called top bar. This type of beekeeping doesn’t provide bees a foundation, and they make all their own wax. It’s meant to mimic what occurs in nature, while still allowing beekeepers a practical, safe way to gather honey and tend their swarms.
By August 2007, Hemenway had decided to start a company — Gold Star Honeybees, based in Bath — and had found a new path.
“I knew what I would be doing is keeping bees as a service for people,” she said.
With some experimentation, she figured out a top-bar hive design that would be easy to assemble, and with pieces that could be made locally. Put together, it looks a little like a 4-foot-long wooden drinking trough on legs with a tightly fitting lid — in other words, nothing like a traditional hive. The hives all have a built-in 3-foot-long observation window which also stands at countertop height to minimize the bad backs that tend to come with beekeeping territory.
Hemenway said would-be beekeepers need only a staple gun, a Phillips head screwdriver and a pencil to get going with their top-bar hives from her company.
So far the concept has been popular. She just came back from a weekend at the Common Ground Country Fair in Unity where she talked to “so many hundreds” of people, promoting the hives.
“I think the product is really going to take off,” she said. “I’m so happy I can’t tell you.”
‘I’m a happy beekeeper’
Hemenway said that a thriving hive like Jan Wirth’s will house 65,000 bees. In her top-bar hives, they efficiently get down to the business of bees — hatching eggs, gathering pollen, and making wax and honey, Hemenway said.
“I’m really proud of the top-bar hives. They work really, really well,” she said. “I’m a happy beekeeper.”
As the fall deepens into winter, Hemenway will do her last bee inspections. So far, so good, she said.
One thing she won’t do is gather a lot of honey, on the theory that the bees need it more than the people do in the cold months of the year.
“The winter might be longer than we thought, and it might be colder than we thought,” she said. “Take your honey in the spring.”
Clients like Wirth don’t mind waiting a little longer for the honey if it means the bees will have an easier, and more delicious, winter.
“The thing about the top-bar hive that’s nice is that it seems to emulate a natural environment for the bees,” she said. “Bees are really fascinating. … I think it’s nicer if we know we have bees pollinating. It’s part of the balance of nature, to maintain a sustainable environment and diversity in our species. To have a beehive included in the community garden just seems like the right thing to do.”
For information about Gold Star Honeybees and top-bar hives, visit www.goldstarhoneybees.com or call 449-1121.