ELSMERE — With the backdrop of a thriving apple orchard and set in a field of flourishing grass, there is a long row of hand-painted boxes. Each box is teeming with life inside; the secret world of the honey bee.
“Seeing the hives against the backdrop of the trees is such an edifying visual,” said Gregory “Greg” Sheldon. “Those are the two things that we need to save our planet— to save our civilization is planting trees and growing bees.”
Sheldon has been managing these bees for three seasons. He is the owner of Jim’s Tastee Freeze, a founding member of the nonprofit organization Eden’s Rose Foundation, and manages several apiary programs.
“Honey bees are an integral part of our food system,” said Sheldon.
Sheldon and his wife Jodi’s involvement as Food Safety Modernization Act farmer trainers, as well as their work with global food access programs, inspired them.“We felt like we needed to know more, to be able 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 we read everything we could. We joined our local bee club. We immersed ourselves fully into the world of bees, both the scientific and the arcane experiential traditions of beekeeping, and everything in between.”
After a difficult start, they found success. “We started out with 10 hives, which turned into 20, which turned into 50. Now we have about 150 beehives.”
Some of the beehives are at Normanskill, as a part of the Normanskill Pollinator Sanctuary. A second group of hives located on local farmer Jim Grady’s land provides a window into even more scientific research.
A vital part of the role of beekeepers is keeping their bees safe and healthy. “It would be good to try to minimize the use of pesticides and try to use more natural methods for controlling pests,” commented Jim Grady.
Sheldon’s hives at Jim Grady’s farm contain Russian Bees, or alternatively Survivor Bees, a hearty bee that can naturally fight off a particularly dangerous and invasive houseguest.
“The biggest thing is a mite, called the varroa mite,” said Rick Cobello, who is president of the Southern Adirondack Beekeeping Association. “What we have to do is vigorously treat the bees nonstop so that the mites do not kill the bees. They do not kill the bees directly, but they weaken the bees until they die of something else.”
Beekeepers must be diligent to protect the hives from these harmful mites. Cobello recommends that new beekeepers begin with two hives to compare their status. “That way you can look at one and say ‘That one looks okay’ and look at the other one and say ‘That one doesn’t look so okay’.”
“What we feed the bees is what also helps to move the needle forward for bees in our climate,” says Sheldon. “Bees need twenty essential amino acids to survive. About half of that they produce on their own.”
Range reduction limits the rest that they can naturally receive from pollination. Foods that are integral parts of New York agriculture, such as apples, cherries, cucumbers, squash, pumpkins, and strawberries, rely on pollination.
“We grow a lot of pollination-dependent crops in New York,” said Scott McArt, Assistant Professor in the Department of Entomology at Cornell University. “Honey bees are critical pollinators for those particular crops.”
He continued, “We estimate that fifty percent of the pollination of the crops of the food that we eat is pollinated by managed honey bees.”
“If bees disappear, a lot of our food disappears,” said Rick Cobello. “From a pollination standpoint and a food longevity standpoint, honeybees make up a big portion of the pollination around here.”
Cobello added how it’s “really helpful, whether you’re in the city or the country, to plant pollinator plants that the bees can use in general, not just the honeybees.”
“I have some apple trees down there and they pollinate the apple trees. They need a wide open space,” Grady said. “It’s just good to have a wide open space.”
To compensate for anything the bees may be lacking in their diets, Sheldon and his team have come up with another way to keep them healthy.
“We feed them tea,” said Sheldon. “There is a tea called Guayusa tea. It comes from the Amazon rainforest, from a community we work with there, called the Shuar tribe.”
The tea happens to have all of the amino acids that bees need. “We brew a pot of tea, about a 40-gallon pot, and put some of the tea on each hive and let the bees drink from it. It helps to bolster their strength and round out their diet.”
Once the bees are ready for their honey to be harvested, Sheldon continues the cycle of giving. “We sell the honey and use the honey to support community food access programs.”
“Bees operate as a colony. They take care of each other on every possible level,” said Sheldon. He has noticed the way that his hives “move through their jobs, the symbiotic nature that they have.”
“Bees show us, teach us, what it looks like when it’s done well,” he said.
He added, “Not only to honor our life of service but to honor the bees’ contribution to the work that we’re doing by pollinating the food that we grow to feed our community but also the honey that they offer us, we want to make sure that all of that goes back to continuing pushing the envelope forward in our own community.”
As a way of continuing to give back to the community, honey is being sold from their hives with the proceeds supporting the protection of pollinators, restoration of habitat and elevating awareness about environmental issues in the area. Information can be found at Normanskill Pollinator Sanctuary on Facebook.
For those in the community interested in bees and beekeeping, Rick Cobello encourages people to reach out to SABABEES.org.
“We want people to be involved,” said Cobello. “My goal is to involve more young people in beekeeping. The way you do it is you just come to a meeting and talk to people. It doesn’t cost anything.”
Additional resources for those wishing 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 about bees and working with them,” reflected Sheldon. “It will always be a part of who I am. There’s something very special about beekeeping that I hope a lot more people will be able to discover.”