Some people play golf in their leisure time. Some plant flowers and work in their gardens. Others like to cook or study wine or practice photography.
Then there are people who like to suit up in puffy white hazmat suits and nurture fuzzy little insects.
According to Bee Culture—the magazine of American beekeeping – and the National Honey Board (yes! there is such a thing – Winnie the Pooh, chair), there are an estimated 115,000 – 125,000 beekeepers in the United States, the vast majority hobbyists with less than 25 hives. (Commercial beekeepers are considered those with 300 or more hives.)
And these hobbyists are an enthusiastic – and growing – lot.
Beekeeping is on the rise across the US and in Delaware, as more people find great reward and solace in the often-challenging work of growing bee colonies.
Greenville resident Chris Saridakis manages four hives on his property with his teenage sons Harry and Sander. At their peak, each of their hives houses about 80,000 bees. He also has an electrically-powered honey extractor, which makes him quite popular among other local beekeeping enthusiasts.
Saridakis finds the entire process to be meditative. “When I go out there, I’m in a whole different world. But I also like what it does for the environment. That’s probably the one reason I got involved with it four or five years ago,” he said.
As calming as the experience may seem, beekeeping can come with its nettlesome challenges and potentially be dangerous. One of Saridakis’ hives is particularly aggressive, and the three caretakers aren’t sure why. They always suit up with the appropriate protective gear. (Beekeepers wear white because bees supposedly mistake people wearing darker colors as bears.)
But on the day we buzzed by to learn about their hobby, the high schoolers lifted off the lid of the more aggressive hive, and as they began removing the vertically slotted frames filled with wax, bees and honey, one or more bees managed to sting both Harry, 17, and Chris Saridakis – puncturing their gloves.
That was a first for both of them.
“I was really surprised. As soon as we opened up the hive, they all just started swarming around me, and I couldn’t even count how many were on me,” said 17-year-old Harry. “They were being really, really defensive. I wasn’t wearing the correct gloves. So I guess they stung through the fabric. But I was annoyed because I had my smoker,” said Harry. The smoker is a device beekeepers use to calm the bees while they are examining the hives.
Ask any beekeeper and they will sing the praises of the sometimes-ornery little creatures, pointing first to their vital role in the health of our planet. Bees are essential to a healthy environmental ecosystem – their pollination missions are central to stable food supplies by helping plants grow, breed and produce food products. Bees are the catalysts for the virtual cycle of life.
Researchers say that honeybees and other pollinators help to produce about $170 billion in crops.
Yet, evidence suggests a troubling decline of the honey bee population. Just last winter, an estimated 37.7% of managed honey bee colonies in the United States were lost – the highest level of winter losses reported since 2006.
The US EPA and Department of Agriculture have a Colony Collapse Disorder Plan in place to address the problem, but Delaware beekeepers like Steve Boyden aren’t waiting for those results.
He and other local beekeepers are doing their best to sustain the bee population through their own cultivation efforts, an enterprise they say is a fascinating journey into the “enormously complex system of life” that is a bee colony. Of course, the honey derived from their work is a sweet payoff.
“My alarm around the falling populations drew me to beekeeping, and I discovered it offered real mindfulness practice … to coexist with these alien creatures brings great benefit,” said Boyden, a retired banking executive.
On a chilly morning in April of 2008, Boyden set up his first two beehives on a meadow beside his Greenville home.
Since then he’s added two more hives and he now harbors a quarter of a million bees on the side of his house. “I sort of hit on something that turned significant. And it’s something I can do and feel great about doing it.”
Boyden doesn’t know if his bees have contributed to stemming the tide of colony collapse. But he says they have done a great deal to put him back in balance. “Any time you can learn something new and have the idea that you are benefitting others – in this case, our neighbors, the bees and the world — that’s a good thing,” he says.
He also admires the highly evolved nature of the insects. “They’re industrious and selfless and really enormously complicated insects. Each colony seems to have a personality and you get to know that and you become fond of it. So, I’ve enjoyed all of that. And the honey’s great, too, as a byproduct.”
Chris Saridakis says he has a profound amount of respect for bees. “I think they’re much smarter than we are and will ever be.
“In fact, the entire bee colony, from when one egg is laid to the job that every bee performs inside the hive and outside is very deliberate. And I think society can actually learn a lot. And there are certain industries that have probably learned a ton — from manufacturing to servicing and to efficiency and logistic from following bees and the formation of colonies,” said Chris Saridakis.
Boyden maintains four hives throughout the year on his property near Hagley Museum but says the bees’ cyclical work depends on the season. May and June are the ‘big months for nectar flow,’ when trees and plants begin to flower. But Boyden says their work starts back up again in the fall, when bees again forage for pollen and nectar, bringing more back to the hives and filling the frames inside with the sugary liquid.
As one honey frame fills up, beekeepers put another one on top. “These boxes might weigh seventy pounds each when you’re at the point where the colonies are going full blast,” said Boyden, who adds that it is not uncommon for as many as three of his hives to die off over the winter.
“I’ve been at it eleven seasons, and the process continues to fascinate me,” said Boyden, who recently gave a TedTalk on the topic. “I don’t have any hard data but believe we are having an impact on a two to three-mile radius around our house. Of course, we love the honey and sharing that with family and friends.”
This has been a banner year for honey production. In typical years, the Saridakises produce about twelve gallons of honey. But this year their busy bees generated 24 pounds of the sticky stuff. “People have so much they are filling larger jars and giving more away,” said Chris Saridakis.
He and his sons have bottled 300 jars already this season. One of their favorite parts is cleaning off each jar, sealing the lid and putting the label on. The Saridakises actually have three different labels – each with a cheeky name.
“Much to the chagrin of people who sell it locally, we end up giving away pretty much all of our honey — whether it’s to local friends and family or family abroad, or even to various nonprofits,” said Saridakis.
Boyden and the Saridakises say there is a learning curve for first-time beekeepers. “It’s very confusing and complicated at the beginning,” says Boyden. And if you go on YouTube, you’ll find 1,000 different ways to do the same thing.”
Each of Boyden’s four sons has helped manage the colonies.
And Harry and Sander Saridakis, now high school seniors, have been learning the ropes for years and have introduced several of their friends to the process. “A lot of kids like seeing pictures of beekeeping that I do that I show my friends – they’re all fascinated by it,” says Harry.
Turnout for a one-week mini class on beekeeping was so high last spring that Harry started a new beekeeping club with classmate Ben duPont this year at Tower Hill School. The students use a pair of hives the school installed two years ago just off of Route 52 near the baseball field.
It’s been one of the most popular clubs at school – with 42 students joining this fall. With suits for eight students, they rotate Saturdays when students come help manage the hives.
“I really like sharing the environmental aspect of the bees, and that’s why I am so fascinated by and really enjoy beekeeping,” says Harry, who is also the chair of the Environmental Stewardship Board at Tower Hill.
Sander Saridakis says his father Chris took lots of courses before setting up hives on their property, and that Chris made sure his sons read lots of books and watched several beekeeping videos before they were put to work with the bees. But he says the knowledge coupled with the hands-on experience makes the learning curve short.
“The big aspect that I think I like most about beekeeping is that I do it with Harry and my dad. And it’s just something that we can spend time doing together. It’s our senior year, and so it’s special coming out here and tending to the bees together,” said Sander.