An interview with the Remarkable Apiarist Rick Harvey.
Contributed by Vanessa Deeg
I met Rick at the Fonthill Market, when he invited me to experience the honey harvest. Having had a long-time respect for the hard-working little creatures, I jumped at the opportunity. It wasn’t until I drove home that it dawned on me what the heck I was getting into. Envisioning thousands of swarming bees trying to crawl their way into my bee suit, and up the gaps in my pants and sleeves, I wondered if was going to get stung to death, like that kid in that ‘My Girl’ movie.
The next morning,sun-shining, undaunted by my anticipatory nightmares, I met Rick and his dog Willow, in the 91.7FM a parking lot where I proceeded to follow his truck, off-roading into the unnamed, unmemorable winding gravel trails to the location of the hives. It was exhilarating already.
No sooner did we park the cars, Rick is already suited up and getting out smoker equipment. He tells me to zip up this head to toe suit, and I pull the screened hood over my face. OCD kicks in and I check if that Velcro by the zipper closure is fully sealed at least fifteen times. He tells me he only has one glove for me, and I try to act nonchalant, but past visions return to my mind as I’m now trying to hold the left sleeve of my suit tight into my palm so the bees won’t get in, and with the other hand, trying to maneuver the camera and a notebook.
‘They’re not going to be happy’, he says, ‘it’s early and overcast out’. Bees, if you didn’t know, have personalities, and mood swings. Since they usually go out to collect pollen and nectar later in the morning, when it’s a little warmer, right now they’ll all be sleeping in, cozy in their hives, and we’ll be waking them up. “The blue hive in the back corner is particularly nasty, but they’re good producers, so I put up with it. They’ve already harvested 100 lbs since spring”, Rick tells me. Yup, feeling pretty confident about being stung to death now. I heard somewhere they can sense your fear, so I took a few deep breaths and tried to stay calm.
Rick’s dad had been into bees since Rick was two years old. When Rick grew up, his dad owned a blueberry farm on Pancake lane. He called one day and said “Rick, I got a swarm that you want.” “No, I don’t”, Rick said. He lost that argument and he’s been into honey farming ever since.
We start with the least aggressive hive and work our way up, just in case we’ve got a ‘situation’ and we need to leave. He lights the smoker and puffs a little smoke around the opening. He lifts the lid and asks “can you smell that? It’s the venom coming off the hive” from the bees exposing their stingers. The buzzing gets stronger, and yet,… I am still alive. I check the opening of the suit, relief swims over me as I find no bees on me. They are busy at work and are surprisingly gentle and calm. Rick speaks to the bees in a soft tone and waves them away with his hands. One tried to sting his suit, as it lifts its stinger, Rick waves it away before it strikes. “They’re my workers, my employees”, he says. If they sting, it’s to protect the hive, and they will die, so Rick is careful to protect them.
He stops to answer a cell phone call. It was the bee inspector, Bill Minnick, from Smithville. He found a small hive beetle in one of his hives in Niagara Fall’s earlier this summer, a threatening infestation that requires close attention. They’re going there this afternoon to put out traps.
As Rick tends to every hive one-by-one, he teaches me about the apiary craft. He takes out the frames that the bees have filled up with honey. He knows they’re full by the weight of them and when he sees that the cells are capped with what looks like wax. The frames of honey will be really heavy at that time, they are also covered in working bees and Rick has to be careful as he gives the frame a good shake. I watch as all the bees fall down onto the hive. They don’t get mad, they just carry on and look for another cell to fill somewhere else. He’s surprised by the low quantity of honey. “The flow has stopped”, which he attributes to the hot, dry weather, we’ve been having. Everything in nature is affected by the heat, even the bees. If the rain comes before the golden-rod blooms, then the bees will make the really strong tasting honey that Rick loves.
Some hives he leaves alone. The bees need honey to eat. It takes twelve bees their entire lifetime to make 1 tsp of honey, and then they die. “For five to six weeks they work like dogs and then they can’t do it anymore and they get kicked out of the hive, or their wings wear out and they just can’t make it back. If you can’t work, you don’t eat. It’s the ultimate communist society”. That’s why the queen has just one job only – make eggs, to replenish the staff. We sat and watched the bees flying into the hives. You can see the balls of pollen on either side of some of their little bodies. Pollen coming in is a good sign, it means the queen is making babies, and the bees have room to expand their colony.
He switches out some of the frames, putting frames full of honey on the outside of the box, and empty supers to be filled with honey on the inside. This way the bees work faster to fill the hive. After Rick collects all the honey, he takes it to the production facility and uses a refractometer, like the ones they use for making wine, but set at a higher scale, to check for how much water is in it. #1 honey is set at less than 18.5% water. Yeast can live in it, but can’t reproduce in it. You don’t want the yeast to grow. If the honey has too much water, the yeast can grow, and the honey will ferment.
Every autumn, Rick lets the brood nest diminish, meaning the queen will not replace with cells with new eggs. He puts 2:1 sugar water in with treatment for the two worst diseases and treats the hive for mites. Repeated in spring, he feeds the hive with 1:1 sugar water. In wintertime, the hive entrance is reduced and he protects the hive with screens that let in a smaller amount of air, and keeps all the critters out. Newspaper and Styrofoam are used to insulate it, and the tops are screwed down, so the wind doesn’t blow them off. “The wind has been getting worse and worse, every year”.
Skunks will invade the hives in summer. “The bees will sting, but the skunks don’t care, they’ll eat ‘em up like popcorn and eat the honey too”. Having grass in front of the hive is a great way to check if you have a skunk problem. Old-school apiarists will also keep a brick on top of the hive, depending on its direction, it will signal if the hive is alive, needs a super, or is dead. Rick records it all in a book. With over ninety hives in multiple locations, coincidentally most of them near train tracks, he needs to keep track of who needs what when, and what is going on in each hive.
It’s finally time to take on the nasty hive now, Rick has to move fast. It’s the most productive hive here. The bees are now fighting over the collected honey in the back of the truck, and taking it back to their respective hives. This hive is buzzing loud, but by now, I’ve been transformed into a calm person. The bees do that to you. Rick says they make you patient, by necessity.
“Bees are color oriented too. They see in better color than we do; infra-red and ultra-violet”. The nasty hive’s bottom box is blue, the top one is unpainted. If you switch the unpainted one, with a white box they’ll be confused for a few days and will have trouble landing. He tests his theory and puts a blue box on top, and none of the bees land. Then he switches it to an unpainted box and they all started going into the entrance. Logically, it seems like some sort of survival mechanism, so they don’t go in the wrong hive and get killed by the other bees. Rick is in the process of painting them all blue. “It’s just something [he’s] noticed through the years”.
“There used to be fifteen hives in this location. There was a clover field here, but now it’s all soybeans, which don’t give out that much honey”. I mentioned the ‘why can’t it be a meadow campaign’ where folks mowing five acres of lawn every week might turn a few acres into native habitat; “The more native habitat, the better, for the bees”, and the environment. Rick referred me to Richter’s herb catalogue where you can get native plants, like spotted knapweed, which attract bees. Bees also love lavender.
As soon as he got out of the truck, he’s off again. A busy farmer, he has to go meet with Bill Minnick now, the bee inspector, and check in on his hives in Niagara Falls.