Beekeeper Tends to a Dwindling Work Force Parasites and climate change have wreaked havoc on the U.S. bee population. One Massachusetts beekeeper is having a tough time keeping his homegrown industry alive.
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Beekeeper Tends to a Dwindling Work Force

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Beekeeper Tends to a Dwindling Work Force

Beekeeper Tends to a Dwindling Work Force

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This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.


I'm Alex Chadwick.

Honeybee populations have been dropping all across North America for sometime now. And recall your high school biology just for a moment. We depend on bees to pollinate flowers so that plants can reproduce. Beekeepers in New England are finding it hard to keep up honey production.

Intrepid WBUR reporter Monica Brady-Myerov braved the backyard beekeeper's hive in Somerville, Massachusetts, to see what the problem is.

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: I'm afraid of bees, but I've faced my fears and come here to Somerville to meet Adam Sweeting and his bees.

Mr. ADAM SWEETING (Beekeeper, Somerville, Massachusetts): This is an active colony, it's called a NUC. N-U-C, that's short for nucleus.

BRADY-MYEROV: Last year, his colony died from an infestation of varroa mites. Over the past few years, the parasite has wiped out about 30 to 50 percent of managed types, and severely reduced wild bee colonies. I've come to see how Adam is faring this year with his new colony of bees.

Mr. SWEETING: There are five frames in there, and there's a queen and she's actively laying. So I'm basically taking this half colony, five frames, and I'm going to install it into there and close it all up.

BRADY-MYEROV: Adam, a humanities professor at Boston University by profession, keeps his passion in the backyard.

(Soundbite of zipping)

BRADY-MYEROV: Adam zips up his white bee suit and a meshed hood that supposed to fix securely to the body of the suit. But his zipper is broken. He has Velcro around his ankles and long leather gloves.

As for me, I'm wearing completely inappropriate clothing for this. I'm wearing Capri pants that flare open at the bottom. I'm also terrified of bees.

Mr. SWEETING: Oh, dear. But these are, these are Italian honeybees, and they're actually relatively gentle.

BRADY-MYEROV: Sweeting pries off the top of a box, full of about 6,000 bees and lifts out of frame. Despite his insistence that Italian honeybees are gentle creatures, they begin to sting him a lot.

Mr. SWEETING: Oops, just got stung. I gotta let them mellow-out a little bit. I'm getting stung.

BRADY-MYEROV: But these new bees will not be mellowed out. I swat at them with my microphone. I might be going inside.


(Soundbite of footsteps)

BRADY-MYEROV: Sweeting's wife, Erica Foster(ph), has come into the kitchen to see what's happening.

Ms. ERICA FOSTER (Adam Sweeting's Wife): He's got a lot of bees on him, but he's calmly walking away from the hive and the hive looks angry.

BRADY-MYEROV: Not going really well.

Ms. FOSTER: Oh, no?

BRADY-MYEROV: He'd gotten stung already.

Ms. FOSTER: Oh, really.

Ms. FOSTER: Adam?


Ms. FOSTER: Are you okay? Why did you take your hood off?

Mr. SWEETING: Because I was getting attacked.

BRADY-MYEROV: The bees have flown into Adam's veil, stinging his face and neck, which are covered in dozens of stingers, poking out like white whiskers.

Mr. SWEETING: I got stung a lot. Huh.

BRADY-MYEROV: His wife uses a rolled up newspaper to kill the bees in the kitchen. The rest of the hive is buzzing angrily in the backyard, freed from the box they arrived in this morning. Adam has to go back out there to put the bees in their new home. I stay inside.


Mr. SWEETING: Yeah. Nothing else. They'll mellow out. They'll all go in. There's a place for them to get into the hive and I'd say, within a half hour or so, they'll be mellowed out.

BRADY-MYEROV: Despite this bee mishap, I return several more times over the summer.

Okay, so this time I come prepared. WBUR has bought me a bee suit, so that I can get close enough to the hive.

As the summer starts to wind down, Adam finds the bees haven't even filled the first zipper, which holds the honey for the beekeeper, and they aren't ready for another one.

Mr. SWEETING: I'm concerned because we're getting late in the summer, and flowers are going to start disappearing relatively soon, so I may have to - if we're going to get the honey, feed the bees.

BRADY-MYEROV: But he decides against it. And the results aren't so sweet.

Mr. SWEETING: I'm going to take a look today. I'm thinking that we might not have a harvest this year. Yeah. And so this sort of confirms what I was thinking that I'm not really going to get much of a harvest.

BRADY-MYEROV: He's not alone. Bad weather also reduced honey production in other parts of the country.

So does this discourage you in any way, that from beekeeping next year?

Mr. SWEETING: No. I'll keep ‘em going. Actually, what it anticipates -again being optimistic - is that we'll have a really good harvest next year, because this is all built up honeycomb. The colony seems healthy. But I just think that a number of events conspired against having excess honey for the beekeeper.

BRADY-MYEROV: But the season was a victory for me. So…

Mr. SWEETING: You're coming up nice and close.

BRADY-MYEROV: Yes, you noticed. I'm on top of the bees. I was there -has been some success - this bee season - and I have lost the majority of my fear of bees.

(Soundbite of bees)

BRADY-MYEROV: For NPR News, I'm Monica Brady-Myerov in Adam Sweeting's backyard.

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