Embracing Bee Culture: Sustain the planet and encourage kids’ curiosity
By Clara Logan, Director, Mastro Montessori Academy
Earlier in the Spring, I interviewed two local beekeepers about their practices and what got them into beekeeping. One is a Renaissance man and a great hobbyist, and the other is a Master Gardener. They shared numerous tips and tricks that I plan to take back to my one hive at Mastro Montessori Academy. Spring is the season for bees and a favorite time for beekeepers when they can finally re-open and interact with their bees after a long winter. Some beekeepers choose to check their hives over the winter months in the right conditions, while others leave them safely sealed to ensure the hive and the bees stay warm. Bees are fascinating and are a great example of a species working harmoniously for the greater good of the whole colony. Our hive is primarily there for educational purposes. Still, much like many others who begin in beekeeping, it is fast becoming a passion; the bees are a true inspiration and provide me with a sense of awe and peace. As a novice beekeeper, I greatly enjoyed hearing from some local experts and would love to share more about them.
The first beekeeper we met, Broeck Steadman, has a few hives in Rumson just behind his home. Broeck had always had an interest in bees but got into it at a friend’s suggestion almost as a joke for not indulging in a mid-life crisis by buying a sports car. He began attending meetings at the Central Jersey Beekeepers Association and has never looked back. The first beekeeper we spoke with was Broeck Steadman. Broeck has a few hives in Rumson just behind his home and has been beekeeping for 20 years. In addition to beekeeping, he is an amazingly talented artist and illustrator and an avid bread maker. Broeck gives away all his bread, honey, and beeswax candles to friends and family. This year, he will have five active hives with over 250,000 bees. The second beekeeper we spoke with was Angela Juffey, who has been beekeeping for seven years and is currently caring for 11 hives in Morganville. Angela is a Master Gardener, former teacher, and beekeeper. She also sells her honey, as well as a variety of other bee-related products.
Seasonal allergies lured Angela into beekeeping. As an adult, she would take various allergy medications but felt in a fog because of them. A friend of hers suggested local honey and got her some. The idea being that she would ingest a little of what she was allergic to in the honey and then, much like immunizations, develop an immunity. She reported that she was allergy-free within 15 months of regular and continued ingestion of local honey and remains so today. These experiences led her to beekeeper when she retired from her 37-year career as a teacher. She began with two hives that turned into six and now eleven.
Last year alone, Angela went through 900 pounds of sugar in feeding her bees. She supplements their nectar supply from August through November to ensure they have enough food to survive through the winter. This year all her hives survived the winter. Her success was partly due to the plentiful feeding preceding the cold months and partly due to her treatment of the hives for Varroa mites.
Both beekeepers treat their bees for varroa mites. Varroa mites can be devastating to a hive and ultimately cause the whole hive to fail if they go untreated and turn into an infestation. Varroa mites generally reproduce and feed on bee pupae and larvae, although they can also feed on adult honeybees. Not only can the mites prevent the life cycle of a bee from completing, but they can weaken the bees’ immune systems and spread viruses among bees. Worldwide, the Varroa mite is the most devastating pest to honeybees. Treatment for this harmful mite is essential in maintaining a healthy hive. There are a few different treatments for Varroa mites. Both beekeepers interviewed chose to use strips to help keep their hives mite-free.
Both beekeepers cited harvesting honey as one of their favorite aspects of beekeeping. Broeck also said that having the bees survive the winter is a favorite part. I must say, that was my favorite part this year. I was so worried about them over the winter, as this was our first winter with bees. There is always a bit of worry in the beekeeper’s hearts about whether the bees will survive the winter. A telltale way to check them in the winter months when it is too cold to open the hive is to go over to the box and pound on the side of it pretty hard. If you hear some buzzing from that, it is a good indication that they are doing well.
Being a new beekeeper, we have yet to enjoy the actual honey harvest but hope to this year. Broeck harvests his honey right in his kitchen, boiling it slowly on his stove after his whole kitchen has been carefully covered in paper to reduce the amount of honey that gets all over. He also harvests it only one time at the end of the summer. He says it is a lot of work but well worth it. Angela harvests her honey in her garage, which she sets up as a honey harvest room when the time comes. She has an extractor and has the help of her daughter to harvest the honey.
As you might imagine, the flavor of honey changes based on the kind of flower that gathers its pollen from, which varies depending on the year. The honey in the Spring is lighter in color and flavor, while it is darker and heavier in the fall. Additionally, honey is classified differently, depending on the source of nectar the bees have to produce the honey. Both Angela and Broeck harvest wildflower honey as their bees access many different kinds of plants from which they pull the nectar.
Dandelions are some of the first flowers that pop up in the Spring that the bees can collect nectar from and pollinate. To that end:
If you can push off your first lawn mowing for a few weeks to allow the bees to gather nectar from the dandelions, it is a great help to the bees.
Additionally, not using pesticides in the grass and on yards helps keep the bees safe and healthy.
Birdbaths or another water source are beneficial for bees too, but they must have rocks in them to not drown when trying to drink.
Children can help plant pollinator gardens to help support not only bees but other pollinators as well.
The process bees go through to make honey is fascinating. They gather nectar from flowers and store it in their honey stomach. They will travel from flower to flower, gathering nectar and gathering pollen in their pollen pockets. The process of moving between flowers naturally pollinates them. When the honey stomach is full, the bee will return to the hive and pass the nectar from bee to bee, with each bee chewing it and then passing it along until the nectar is deposited into the honeycomb cell. At that point, the nectar contains 80% water, but the bees continuously fan it until the water content is reduced to 18% water, transforming it into honey. Once it is dehydrated enough, the bee will cap the cell with wax to keep the honey clean. Bees by nature are very clean and like to keep their hives clean as well. In properly developing hives, the bee brood will be in the center of each frame and the center of the hive with capped honey around the edges. This process is something that some of our older Montessori children learn about in-person by opening the hive and conducting hive checks. They love the process and love the hands-on learning with our bees from within the safety of their bee suits.
Beekeeping is challenging yet rewarding work. Beekeepers usually develop a relationship with their bees and, therefore, a rapport with them as well. Bees pollinate 80% of our fruits and vegetables and are hugely important. Without bees, the cost of food could jump up significantly, as many things would have to be hand-pollinated. Simply adding a few plants to your yard that are good for pollinators can help support bees and their populations. Refraining from using chemicals on your yards and plants can help keep them safe and healthy as well. Also, educating children about the importance of bees and that they are generally pretty docile and eager to do their work can help children appreciate and respect bees instead of fearing them.