Those with hay fever may be suffering this fall, but bees and beekeepers are ecstatic. The bee hives at Warm Colors Apiary put on 20 pounds a day.
“The hives went from empty to not enough room for the queen to lay eggs,” said Dan Conlon who owns the apiary set on 80 acres in Conway, MA with his wife Bonita.
Last year the goldenrod bloom was virtually non-existent due to the drought and they had to feed their bees. They ending up losing 10 percent of their bees.
They weigh the boxes to make sure the hives are gaining honey to get the bees through the winter. If not, they feed the bees.
Conlon has been raising bees since he was 14 and started Warm Color Apiaries in 2000. The challenge was “to learn the business of beekeeping. I knew about keeping bees, but not how to make money at it.” He has since learned and now, with 1,500 hives, he has gained legendary status in the beekeeping community. He is the largest producer of honey in the state. The amount varies on conditions, but on average they sell 25,000 pounds of honey a year.
Currently, “We have no debt and own our own business. Not many farmers can say that.”
The couple sell bees that are trucked from Georgia and Arkansas or other southern states where the climate is warm enough for the bees to start laying queens in February. They sell beekeeping equipment, varietal honeys and comb honey. “All the foodies love the comb honey,” said Conlon. He teaches beekeeping classes and how to raise queen bees.
Representative Stephen Kulik and District Representative John Scibak recently visited his farm during a Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation (MFBF) farm tour.
Farmers request his bees to pollinate their crops. Apple and fruit growers need bees in the spring, and vine crops like squash and pumpkin need bees when they flower in the summer.
“We have been on lots of people’s property. The nice thing about being a beekeeper — you don’t have to own that property,” he said.
There are inherent risks. He lost 40 hives this year to bear damage at Amethyst Farm in Amherst, MA. With the rise in urban and suburban beekeeping, “When somebody’s child gets stung, all the defenses that the bees are good for your food and environment goes out the window,” he said.
His goal is to raise bees that survive the intense New England winters and attain immunities that can resist bee decline. “We specialize in the non-chemical treatment of our bees.” He raises Russian bees that have natural abilities to resist the vampire-like parasitic varroa mites.
Connected with Agricultural Research Services (ARS) USDA in Baton Rouge, LA for 17 years, he has been participating in a study focused on having bees take care of things like mites through their behavior and genetically selecting bees that resist diseases. “It has taken 20 years to build resistance to mites. All these things take a lot of time. We’re finishing the samples now,” said Conlon.
“The rules are we can never interfere with the disease. We check these and send the reports to Baton Rouge,” he said.
Honeybees are affected by another disease — nosema — that lodges in their digestive tract. “[USDA is] hoping they can identify the gene which can help them resist nosema. It will take years,” said Conlon.
The hives that travel and are placed on farmers’ land do not produce much honey. The honey producing hives are kept at Warm Colors Apiaries. The queens in the hives that are fenced off in one area represent 18 genetic breeding lines. “Our mission is not so much selling but preserving genetics.”
If the bees are too closely related, they have the same genetics that can pass on the same weaknesses, making them prone to disease. Hives that are genetically diverse make for healthier hives.
“The breeding hives aren’t used for pollination because of pesticides or spraying. We don’t want our breeding stock damaged in any way, so we’re careful where we put these bees,” he said.
“Bees have enzymes to basically detoxify their systems. The problem with pesticides is that, if bees are healthy, they can handle pesticides. If they’re weak, pesticides can be the final straw and push them over the edge,” said Conlon.
He noted that in commercial almond groves in California and other big agricultural areas, thousands of bees are killed by pesticides. In the almond groves, they found by reducing spray, there was less bee die-off. They are also making fresh water available to keep bees from drinking the runoff water.
“We don’t get a lot of that stuff out here. We don’t do aerial spraying other than for mosquitoes,” he said. “Farmers spraying closer to the ground reduces drift. People can reduce the effect of pesticides on bees by spraying early morning or after dark when bees aren’t flying or when plants aren’t flowering anymore, minimizing poisoning. When there are no flowers, bees have no interest.”
“Healthy bees can withstand a lot of conditions. If mites are introduced and then nosema, [they are] not going to make it. Then add pesticides, they’re not going to make it. It’s not one thing, it’s a bunch of things that come together. We’re trying to be ahead of it. If it’s bad weather, we have to feed the bees extra food.”
In winter, bees can live several months. In order to be raising new bees, the queen has to be kept warm enough. March is the hardest month. Last year’s cold and wet March caused many people to lose their bees.
The beeswax “can hold all kinds of poisons.” Because they don’t treat their bees, people flock to their onsite store to buy their beeswax candles or purchase beeswax in chunks to use it to weatherproof boots and bow strings, coat screws so they don’t distress wood, unstick wooden drawers, or use as molds for metal casts. He’s always surprised when someone comes up with another use.
For more information, access www.warmcolorsapiary.com.