Beekeeper Howland Blackiston Offers Tales from the Hive

In spite of his success as a businessman, Howland Blackiston prefers to bill himself as a beekeeper. “At cocktail parties if I tell people I’m a beekeeper, I have ‘em all night,” he says jovially.

The author of “Beekeeping for Dummies” also loves sharing stories about his bees on the lecture circuit. “When the stud services of drones are no longer required at the end of the season, the females kick them out or sting them to death,” Blackiston explains. “That one’s always a hit at garden clubs.”

But lately, Blackiston is worried about the species’ health and future. Bee populations in the United States continue to decline because of pesticide use and habitat loss. Bees are natural pollinators and vital to a stable ecosystem. The loss of millions of bees would have significant ecological as well as economic consequences.

According to “Beekeeping for Dummies,” Blackiston writes, “The value of pollination by bees is estimated around $16 billion in the United States alone.”

Declines in Bee Populations

Beginning about 14 years ago, there have been unprecedented deaths of entire honeybee colonies, attributed to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), the umbrella name for a variety of mass honeybee disappearances and deaths. There is no one cause, but likely a combination of factors.

“We need bees to pollinate our crops…especially berries, nuts, fruits and vegetables,” Blackiston says. In Easton, where there are abundant fruit trees, a single season’s apple crop would be reduced significantly without pollination.

Scientists fear hundreds of native bee species in the United States might be headed for extinction if populations continue to decline. The Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity estimates that of the 4,000 known bee species native to North America and Hawaii about one in four are at risk of extinction. The problem extends beyond North America. Bee populations are declining globally as well.

Blackiston identifies the threat to bees as “The Four Ps: Parasites, Pathogens, Pesticides and Poor nutrition.”

In lay language, bees get sick from parasites or mites as well as from pathogens, i.e. diseases and viruses. Controlling the invasion of parasites and preventing apian diseases are arduous tasks for beekeepers, even those who keep only a few hives as a hobby.

The remaining responsibilities to keep bees healthy and productive are easier to accomplish, especially in Easton.

Feed the Bees

Planting bee-friendly flowers will help bees fight off illness. Think of a bio-diverse garden as a vitamin supplement. There are many plants, trees and flowers that thrive in Easton. Blackiston recommends a call to the Easton Garden Club for a list of the heartiest flora, those which will attract bees and offer them the best nourishment.

In addition to flora, The Honeybee Conservancy recommends providing bees fresh, clean water. “Fill a shallow container of water with pebbles or twigs for the bees to land on while drinking. Make sure to maintain the container full of fresh water to ensure that they know they can return to the same spot every day in your bee garden.”

The Dangers of Pesticides

Pesticides are a major cause of bee deaths and Blackiston urges all gardeners to stop using them, especially those that contain neonicotinoids, “a class of insecticides that act on the central nervous system of insects…Prolonged exposure can decimate a colony,” he says.

While all pesticides are harmful to bees, he advises gardeners to read labels. “If you see neonicotinoids in the ingredients, do not use them.”

According to Kendra Klein, senior staff scientist at Friends of the Earth US, “This is the second Silent Spring. Neonics are like a new DDT, except they are a thousand times more toxic to bees than DDT was.”

Ultimately, “the use of all herbicides and pesticides are not only toxic to bees, but also are best not introduced to children or adults that visit your garden. Ladybugs, spiders, and praying mantises will naturally keep pest populations in check,” advises the Honeybee Conservancy.

Bees Need Good Nutrition, Just Like We do

The fourth P, Poor nutrition, is an outcome of, among other things, a decrease of natural forage. As land is cleared for development, bees lose their foraging habitats. Blackiston advises us to create flower, fruit and vegetable gardens in our backyards to compensate for lost bee habitats. As a bonus, we’ll see a lush garden courtesy of bee pollination.

“Bees love flowers, but they also love trees. Especially apple trees.” Blackiston says. “They also love maples, honey locusts, tulip poplar and black tupelos.”

Professor Jane Memmot, president of The British Ecological Society, believes a little neglect will go a long way. “Leaving the grass to grow 8-10 cm (3-4 in) tall means clovers, daisies, self-heal and creeping buttercup can also flower,” says Memmott, who encourages gardeners to halve the amount of mowing they do.

“Bees love dandelions and wild flowers that grow along the roadways,” adds Blackiston. “And don’t forget skunk cabbage!”

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The Big Pay Off

“No other honey tastes as good as the honey made by your own bees. Delicious!” Blackiston beams. “And I love sharing it.”

Every August, the Citizens for Easton’s Annual Farm Tour draws hundreds of visitors and one of the most popular stops on the tour is Golden Pond Farm, Blackiston’s apiary.

“Last year they cleaned us out,” he says with a laugh.  Guests sampled honey from his hives, his wife’s honey apricot bread and his granddaughter’s honey-sweetened lemonade.

But honey is just one of the sweet rewards.

Blackiston says, “Working with bees is so calming and almost magical. I am at one with nature, and whatever problems may have been on my mind tend to evaporate.”

Now that’s a sweet reward.

Beekeeping for Dummies, Fifth Edition, by Howland Blackiston, published by John Wiley & Sons will be available in August

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