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For Sanbornton man, beekeeping is a sweet way to make a living

Sanbornton beekeeper Greg Sanderson points out his queen bee to visitors at the Squam Lake Science Center where he has brought a colony to observe through glass. Donna Rhodes. (click for larger version)
September 02, 2009
SANBORNTON — While most people may swat at or run from a bee, Greg Sanderson prefers to get up close and see what they're doing.

A "sideline" beekeeper since 1991, he started beekeeping to help his father's apple orchard. From there his love and knowledge of the tiny winged creatures has lead him to beginning the Pemi-Baker Beekeepers Club a few years ago, producing honey for his consumption and sale, and mentoring others in the art of beekeeping.

Bees are misunderstood in many aspects and Sanderson is quick to point out there is a difference between the honeybees he raises and their more cantankerous cousins, the yellow jacket.

"The honeybee can only sting once," he explained. "Yellow jackets can keep on stinging. If there is no stinger left behind, you were bit by a yellow jacket."

Honeybees are social creatures, each with a purpose. A colony exists around a lone queen who determines the genetic make-up of the colony. She will lay eggs every day from February until late September after one single mating session where she may mate with up to 12 drones. Drones are the males of the colony, kept for mating purposes only. Each fall they are kicked out when the queen is done laying eggs.

Worker bees, the other females in a colony, care for the colony. Housekeeping, cooling or heating a hive, nurturing the young and gathering pollen and nectar are all done by the workers. There are even "mortuary" bees who will remove any dead bees, carrying them out and away from the hive.

It takes three days for a bee to hatch, emerging from the cells inside the colony. They will go through several stages in growth, becoming fully mature in 21 days. The queen will mainly lay eggs that become worker bees.

Sanderson has six colonies at his home in Sanbornton. He chose his exhibit colony, however, on display at Squam Lakes Science Center, to demonstrate the inner workings of a bee colony.

"Here's one dancing," he pointed out in the glass-encased the hive. "What she's doing is telling the others where she found nectar."

The bee faces up on the hive to direct them to fly toward the sun, down to tell them to fly away from the sun.

"They use the sun as a reference on where the nectar is," he said. "The shaking indicates the distance."

Some in the hive were inactive and Sanderson said bees sleep about 30 percent of the time. Others fanned their wings briskly, moving air to cool the temperature.

"Bees keep their hive about 85-90 degrees," Sanderson said. "In February when the queen is ready to lay eggs, they clump together to boost the temperature."

Cool, rainy weather has hindered honey production this year. Sanderson explained that honeybees are inactive in the rain. They remain in the hive, living off the honey until they can go out and collect more nectar.

"Honey is a bee's food," he said. "They had to use a lot of it to survive this spring, and that's when we get that light, delicate honey so it wasn't a good year."

Flowers produce unique flavors and bouquets to honey. New Hampshire commonly produces a wildflower honey, a mix of flowers abundant in the state. There is also commercial clover honey, apple blossom, blueberry, dandelion and orange blossom honey to name a few.

"When I see my bees have produced enough honey from one type of flower then I'll pull it off and let them go on to the next flowers in bloom," Sanderson said. "Sometimes you can tell what flowers they're going to just from the smell."

That fragrance can also be a downfall to bees. Bears, notorious for a great sense of smell, are attracted to hives. Grub eaters by nature, their first destructive move is to eat the "brood," the eggs within a colony.

"They find the honey though, too, which of course they like," he said. "They can really rip up a hive."

To ward these marauders off, Sanderson has two lines of defense. First is an electric fence, which gives them a jolt and hopefully convinces them to leave. He also built a "bee house" to protect his colonies. A shed-like structure, the hives line the interior walls and holes are drilled to allow the bees to come and go.

Skunks are another nemesis. They enjoy a meal of adult bees and can destroy a colony in a short period of time. Mites will also kill bees. Beekeepers will use "soft chemicals" to rid hives of these pests. Never, Sanderson stressed, will a hive be treated with honey inside however. The honey is always extracted before the mites are dealt with. In the meantime, beekeepers continue to look for a bee that will be tolerant of mites.

"We haven't quite come up with one yet," he said, "but we're working on it."

Bees are a business reaping rewards in the billions of dollars each year. Since crops all rely on pollination, farmers will spend anywhere from $60-$80 per colony to import bees for a week or two during blossom time.

"There's a $17 billion dollar industry just in pollination alone," said Sanderson.

Bee products have medicinal properties as well. Honey is used in the medical community for burns and venom has been found to help diseases like arthritis and multiple sclerosis. The cosmetic industry has recognized the value of bee products in lotions, balms and other skin products.

Sanderson's colonies have not produced enough for him to go commercial with his products but he does enjoy the honey and, in good years, has enough to sell to others.

"Right now it's a great sideline," he said. "I am always learning something new about beekeeping and what bees do."

Bee keeping is enjoying a resurgence in popularity and Sanderson enjoys mentoring newcomers.

"This is a good time to start beekeeping," he said. "People can start to gather the tools they need, join a club and be ready to start a colony in February when the queens start to lay eggs again."

Sanderson suggests that people interested in beekeeping refer to the New Hampshire Beekeepers Association. Their Web site, www.nhbeekeepers.org, provides information and contacts for clubs in the state where members swap information, equipment and the latest news and technology on beekeeping.

"It's a great sideline and we'd love to see more people get involved," Sanderson said.

Martin Lord & Osman
Varney Smith
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