In yellow bee-patterned boots and full beekeeper suit, Becky Newman, Program Coordinator & Naturalist at in Westport, carefully lifts a frame crawling with bees out of a hive. Bees fly overhead and nearby, cars slow along the street to watch her at work.
Newman is a board member at Backyard Beekeepers Association, one of the largest bee clubs in the country. The Backyard Beekeepers have close to 500 members in southwestern Connecticut and maintain not only their own hives, but hives at nature centers and educational settings throughout the region. For members, monthly meetings provide a chance to learn more about beekeeping and to find camaraderie with others who keep hives.
“There’s no one type of person who keeps bees, it’s anyone from a farmer to a corporate lawyer,” Newman said.
Neman began keeping bees five years ago, when she discovered the world of bees while caring for the observation hive at Earthplace. After taking a class with the Backyard Beekeepers, she fell in love with beekeeping. Today, Newman also works with the Wannabees — the Backyard Beekeepers children’s club, made up of members ranging from five-year-olds through high schoolers who learn about bees and maintain their own hive at Aspetuck Land Trust.
Marina Marchese of Weston, CT is the president of Backyard Beekeepers Association and author of “Honeybee: Lessons from an Accidental Beekeeper.”
Marchese became an “accidental beekeeper” twelve years ago when she visited a neighbor in Weston who had hives.
“I was amazed. I thought they would swarm, but they were so calm. He pointed out the queen and showed me the hive,” Marchese said. “I was fascinated, it all sounded like a fairy tale.”
At Earthplace, Newman tends to three hives and each hive can house 80,000 bees. As she opens up a hive, she lifts a frame and identifies drone and worker bees. Newman checks for certain things that indicate a happy hive and other signs that could point to problems. One hive in particular has been a challenge lately.
“They haven’t liked any of their queens, but there are two new queen cells there now,” Newman said.
The queen cells are larger than worker cells and while the worker cells are flat, Newman describes the queen cells as peanut-shaped. The first to emerge will become the hive’s next queen.
“The first queen to emerge will go around and take a nip out of the remaining queen cells, shes not killing them, but the workers will see that they’re not right and go around and destroy the rest of the queen cells.”
In many ways, Carol Scott and her husband, Don, of Stamford are also accidental beekeepers. The pair have kept bees for 15 years, after taking an interest in a neighbor's hive spurred him to bring them bees of their own. The Scotts are also members of the Backyard Beekeepers Association and have seen the group explode in size over the past several years.
“It’s something we can do together and for me, it makes you stop and relax — you get in the zone,” Carol Scott said. “It’s like being the manager of a crazy little household.”
The Scotts check on each hive every 10 to 12 days to be sure that everything is running smoothly. Over the years, Scott has witnessed many of the goings-on of hive society: the waggle dance used to convey information between bees, the many roles taken on by a worker bee in their brief lifetime, the complex transitions between queen bees, and the process of a bee bringing pollen back to the hive.
“They do an orientation flight that’s fun to watch — “Okay, a tree is behind me, a pond is over there” — they need to know what they come back to,” Scott said. “It’s fascinating to get into their little world.”
Before opening up a hive, beekeepers use a smoker to calm the bees and allow the beekeeper to open and inspect the hive without provoking the bees.
“A lot of people claim that figuring out the smoker is the hardest part,” Newman laughed.
Newman is allergic to bees, and while her EpiPen is never far away and she wears the full suit for protection, she stresses that honeybee stings are fairly rare.
“They’re really not interested. If a honeybee stings you, she dies,” Newman explained.
“You have to be calm to do it,” Scott said. “A honeybee is different from a yellow jacket, a wasp, a hornet — they don’t want to sting.”
There are some things that beekeepers can do to prevent being stung, and while staying calm and gentle is the primary defense, there are some lesser-known tricks. Eating bananas before working in a hive can actually increase your odds of a sting because bananas contain a pheromone similar to that of bees. Certain chemicals in shampoos can also increase your risk.
After her first encounter with bees in her neighbor’s yard, Marchese began reading as much as she could about beekeeping and soon, she was joining their ranks. Today, she is a full time beekeeper, running RedBee, a gourmet honey company, and educating others about bees. She has also began to hold honey tastings
“A lot of people are waking up to honey,” Marchese said. “We’re seeing a turn where doctors are telling people to seek out local honey for allergies.”
Over twelve years, Marchese has also seem an uptick in interest as beekeeping has become more and more mainstream.
“It’s an ancient art and it needs to be passed down,” Marchese said.
As the bees pollinate her gardens, Scott even finds herself planting things that she knows the bees will like — sometimes only to discover that their tastes have changed from season to season.
“I will never stop learning—there are always new techniques and new ideas,” Newman said.
As she closes up a hive, Newman uses a bee brush to gently coax the bees off the edges. The lid is set down at an angle to ensure that each tiny resident is kept out of harm’s way.
“My mentor when I started out told me that every bee is precious,” Newman said.