A few short months ago, a late-season blizzard buzzed across the South Shore, leaving a thick blanket of snow in its wake. Clustered inside their hives, the region’s honeybees hummed at a low timbre, awaiting their cue from Mother Nature to burst forth and set spring into motion.
On the first official day of spring, 14-year-old Sebastian Wright trudged through remnants of snow in his Milton backyard, where his three hives are located. The temperature that day hovered in the upper 30s.
“The bees won’t fly until it’s at least 50 degrees,” says Wright. “Right now, they’re working to keep the queen warm, and waiting until it’s warm enough outside to leave the hive to gather nectar.”
The Milton Billion Backyard Bee Project
Since he was 8 years old, Wright has been learning the finer points of beekeeping alongside his mom, Michelle, and his dad, Ray. His first hive did not survive the winter, but he was not deterred. “I still wanted to be a beekeeper,” says Wright. “I wanted to learn more and to help spread awareness about the importance of bees. Without honeybees, we lose one third of our fruits and vegetables.”
When he was 10, Wright established the Milton Billion Backyard Bee Project, with the goal of expanding the local honeybee population with hives throughout the town, as well as one at his school. After doing the math, his dad suggested he change the word “billion” to “million,” but Wright preferred the alliteration in the project’s name—and the inherent promise of an ever-growing collective of bees.
Today, he and his parents oversee 13 hives scattered around town. Several “host families” have welcomed hives into their backyards. The Wright family also partnered with two community hive sites, at the New England Base Camp recreation center and at Fuller Village, an independent-living senior community. With anywhere between 60,000 and 80,000 honeybees per hive, the bee count is now closing in on one million.
“Tending to 13 hives is a lot of work,” says Wright. “It’s all about responding to the needs of the bees without disrupting their natural activity.”
About every 10 days or so, he visits each of the hives in town to monitor conditions and ensure that the honeybee colonies are healthy. He has also conducted studies of their habits and habitats for science fair projects, and he advanced to the regional finals last year.
During the warmer months, the Wrights man a table at the Milton Farmers Market, educating the public about beekeeping and selling fresh honey to support the project. They also bring their outreach efforts to local schools and organizations.
Wright’s work with the bees recently garnered the attention of the Conservation Law Foundation, which is guiding the Milton Billion Backyard Bee Project toward becoming a certified nonprofit organization.
Jenny D’s Bees
For Kingston beekeeper Jenny DeFreitas, proprietress of Jenny D’s Bees, protecting and cultivating the local honeybee population has been a labor of love for more than eight years. She tends to bees for small farms and families throughout the South Shore, in addition to the hives in her own expanding apiary.
“I’m excited that beekeeping is becoming more popular and accessible and I would encourage anyone to try it,” says DeFreitas. “The more people understand the importance of bees and beekeeping, the better.”
When a hive becomes overpopulated, honeybee colonies split and seek out a new location: ideally, a hollowed-out tree or similar habitat. But often they land, temporarily, on tree branches or bushes, or under eaves, decks or porches, which are not necessarily sustainable settlements for thriving hives. DeFretias is adept at capturing honeybee swarms and installing them into new hives.
“When bees swarm, it’s an amazing sight to see: thousands and thousands of honeybees flying and landing in a single spot,” says DeFreitas. “When it happens in someone’s backyard, they’re not quite sure what to do, so they call me.”
Last March, on the verge of swarm season, DeFreitas posted a notice on Facebook offering to safely remove swarming bees from local backyards—in the hopes of protecting displaced bee colonies from the threat of being sprayed or otherwise eliminated. Shortly thereafter her phone began to ring and her rescue operations went into full swing.
Depending on the specific circumstances, DeFreitas will climb an extension ladder or enlist the help of a friend who owns a bucket truck to approach a swarm of honey bees. Clad in a protective bee suit, she uses a special brush and bucket to relocate the colony. In some cases, DeFreitas employs creative techniques, such as stringing the bees’ honeycombs onto a wooden frame, to smoothly and securely transport the bees to a new hive.
“Capturing swarms is an adventure, and it’s an adventure that I love,” she says. “I want to save the bees and I’m able to do it in a way that’s gentle and safe for them.”
When she’s not capturing backyard swarms or tending hives, DeFreitas can be found creating bee-inspired pottery in her studio at the 4th Floor Artists community in Rockland, where she also teaches private classes. She makes functional honeycomb plates that incorporate the hexagonal pattern of honeybee cells in an assortment of colors. Along with her Jenny D’s Bees Local Raw Honey, she sells her pottery and “bee tees” at the Marshfield Farmers Market and specialty shops.
This spring, DeFreitas embarked on her latest honeybee-related venture: honey tasting events. She’s also working with local chefs to pair honey with food and wine.
Becoming a Beekeeper
For the safety of both humans and honeybees, beekeeping courses are imperative. The Plymouth County Beekeepers Association (PCBA) in Hanson offers an annual Bee School each winter. The eight-session course addresses modern beekeeping techniques, integrated pest management practices, bee products and alternative beekeeping principles, among other topics.
The association recently introduced Bee Suits for Kids, a program to encourage children, “our future beekeepers” to become involved in caring for bees. Recognizing that bee suits are expensive and that kids outgrow clothing quickly, the program loans out kid-size bee suits on a month-to-month basis.
FIVE FACTS ABOUT HONEYBEES AND HONEY
A common misperception about bees is that they sting at will. However, it’s actually the yellow jackets, hornets and wasps that are the aggressive stingers and can sting repeatedly, discharging a powerful venom. Honeybees are not compelled to sting unless their hives are threatened—once their stingers are released, they cannot sting again and they die soon afterward.
Division of Labor:
Throughout their life cycles, honeybees take on various tasks that support the success of their hives. Among them: housekeepers, nurses, guards, location scouts and undertakers.
Hues of Honey:
Reflecting the change of seasons and availability of pollen and nectar sources, the colors and flavors of the honey harvest will vary from spring until fall.
Honey that is 100 percent natural never goes bad—unless it becomes fermented, in which case it can be used to brew mead—also known as honey wine—which has reportedly been consumed worldwide since as far back as 9000 BC.
In addition to honey, honeybees generate an array of byproducts that can be used to formulate healing salves, including bug bite balm, lip balm and wintertime balm for pet paws.