Dean and I started keeping bees in the spring of 2001. We moved to Leominster, MA, the fall before after decades in the city and I was longing for a deeper connection with nature. I discovered an old book about bees at the Common Ground Fair in Maine and was immediately entranced. I loved the idea of working with an animal that would know where its home was and return to it, yet was free flying, unconfined by tethers, leashes, gates, fences, or buildings. An animal both wild yet one that I could interact with and learn from.
The old bee book was written in 1964, long before the arrival in the U.S. of the predatory varroa mite. By 2001, the mites had taken hold and we were advised to deal with them by putting toxic chemicals inside the beehive. Treating the bees with chemicals went against all my reasons for why I wanted bees in the first place. And so began the now two decades long adventure.
Every beekeeper knows that keeping bees is challenging with many ups and downs, victories and defeats, great joys and deep sorrows. Their free flying nature means that they are subject to environmental pressures often out of our control - lack of abundant, healthy pollen for brood rearing, exposure to pesticides. The varroa mites that feed on their bodies vector viruses that over the past 30 years have become more virulent. Mites are the single greatest obstacle to keeping bees alive.
In 2015 the use of oxalic acid was approved for mite control in the US. This organic acid, found naturally in many plants and vegetables including rhubarb and spinach, is effective at killing mites while not damaging the bees or contaminating their hive.
While I strive to be as treatment-free as possible by not using toxic chemicals or antibiotics and feeding my bees real honey instead of syrups, I have experimented with oxalic acid and may continue to do so in the future. In a not-perfect world, it is the best option I have if I'm going to treat at all.
The bee genetics I've been working with since 2017 originate from a commercial beekeeping friend who hasn't treated for mites since 2007. I love these bees - they have a gentle temperament and are great honey producers. In my friend's operation the bees have historically resisted the mites enough so that losses have been able to be offset by splitting survivor colonies and breeding new queens from the best stock. I breed all my own queens, too, but my operation is much smaller. Each year I face the same dilemma - treat with the oxalic acid and hope that I am able to interrupt the mites effectively or don't treat with the hope that I will have enough mite resistant colonies survive to make up my losses.
I produce my honey in central Massachusetts in beautiful bee yards in rural Fitchburg, Leominster, Lancaster, Littleton, New Braintree, and Ware. All of my Massachusetts honeys are harvested, extracted, and bottled in small batches, by location, under my Free to Bee label. These honeys are blends of mostly wildflowers and tree blossoms. The earlier season honeys are lighter in color with more delicate yet subtly complex floral flavors. The fall honeys are darker, richer, often fruitier, and equally complex. Each bee yard produces slightly different honeys ~ all are amazingly delicious!