‘Easygoing’ Bees At The Victory Garden

Jeff Shwartz is a beekeeper, which entails much more than a sweet, amber-colored reward.

“Believe it or not, I thought I wanted honey,” he said. Regarding the work he began in 2007, he said, “I thought that a couple of times a year you pull on a deep sea diving suit and steal honey” from the bee hives. He soon discovered that tending bees was a far bigger business.

He and his wife Nancy acquired books and delved into the world of bees, he said, “I learned it was much more.” He began attending workshops and consulted with apiculture societies, backyard beekeeping associations, beekeeping clubs, and more.

Now an experienced beekeeper knowledgeable about bees’ colonies, lives, and habits, he in recent seasons has kept a hive at the Victory Garden in Fairfield Hills.

On Friday, June 20, in the early afternoon, he dropped cedar shavings into a canister, set them smoldering, closed its lid, and let gentle puffs of smoke cloud the air as he squeezed a bellows attached at the bottom. He intended to use the smoke around the hive as a distraction.

“Maybe they think a fire is coming and have to fill up on honey and move fast,” he said, or maybe that’s not what they think, but, “they’re not going to pay attention to a guy in their house — that’s the theory.” A few minutes later he was that guy in their house, removing the lid and inspecting combs they had built in frames inserted into slots in the hive.

“The family of bees we’re visiting today is easygoing, mostly girls,” he said, approaching the small wooden structure at the back of the garden among a small grove of fruit trees. The bee family at the Victory Garden is mostly female, he said. And the queen “is a misnomer,” he said. “She is mom, and the workers are her daughters and sons. They tell her what to do.” He said that he “brought the queen elsewhere,” and since the hive is left queenless, “they’ll take a female larva and feed it ‘royal jelly’ all of its life. That larvae will have a larger cell to be in and in a shorter time, he said, “She is much larger and a mature queen.”

As he lifted lids and let the smoke waft over the hive, he began examining the honeycomb network the bees had built on the frames, looking for signs of a large queen’s cell. “I hope to split the hive,” he said. After inspecting several frames, he located queens’ cells, and relocated those frames to another hive. “See those things that look like peanuts hanging down? Those are going to be queens.”

Mr Shwartz also felt that the frame with queens’ cells had enough bees to care for them. Of the three queens, he said, “Unfortunately, only one will make it,” whether all three emerge first and battle, or one emerges first and “takes care of the others … it’s a risky life.” The survivor “goes out to get mated, or tries to,” he said. With the queen cells set in a different hive, he said he hoped for a new descendent colony.

From the frames Mr Shwartz inspected he plucked two bees — a larger male drone, which has no stinger, and a smaller female worker, and held them side-by-side. The male appeared almost twice the female’s size.

Offering a glimpse of bees’ lives, he said, “Drones are welcome in any hive,” and they have “drone hangouts 40–50 feet in the air, waiting for a virgin queen.” They will then “mate in flight.” The queen then becomes a mother of all, while only some of her colony will share a father; she carries the sperm of many fathers, Mr Shwartz explained.

The smaller female workers care for baby bees, make wax, build the comb, collect nectar and pollen.

The hive is placed below the fruit tress, far away from the general rows tended by volunteers in the community garden, which the bees likely pollinate. Mr Shwartz said that even from across the street, “They would find everything here — probably.”

He then pointed out that bees are not bound to the backyard for those who think they may, or may not have a good property for beekeeping. “They’re not stuck in your yard, he said. “They will find what they need.”


Mr Shwartz

“Believe it or not, I used to be afraid of stinging insects,” he said. But as he stood over the open hive, removing the frames full of bees mostly calmly continuing their business on the comb while some flew lazily away, then back again, he mentioned the soft hum of their buzzing. “The sound is soothing, and the feel of bees on my skin is soothing — I love the smell of the hive.”

As he slid one frame back in place, and carefully removed another, he mentioned again, “They’re pretty easy-going things.” Laughing to himself, Mr Shwartz said, “I wasted my childhood being afraid. Weren’t you afraid of bees as a child?” He said, “As kids, we needed someone to tell us, ‘Leave them alone, they’re not a problem.’”

As he closed up the hives, he said he would then wait for the new queens to emerge, “And then they go out looking for guys.”

Learn more about Mr Shwartz and his bee, wasp, and hornet removal services, beekeeping services, and custom hives by contacting him at jeff@shwartz.com.


Bees In The Garden

The Victory Garden, now in its fourth season, is doing “really, really well,” said founder Harvey Pessin. There is an irrigation system that was installed midway through last season that Mr Pessin credits to the hard work of the Parks and Recreation crews, including Assistant Superintendent of Parks Carl Samuelson.

Why are the bees a welcome sight in the garden? “All of the fruit trees we have are flower bearing and without pollination they are just an ornament, it’s more important than ever to have bees in the garden,” he said, especially with news in past years of bee colony collapse. “It’s important for vegetables or any flower-bearing fruit, but especially our apple trees.”

He said, “It’s the flowering produce that needs the bees, and the apple trees, which are a memorial to the Sandy Hook children, so it’s important that the trees do well.”

The Victory Garden is located in Fairfield Hills and is tended by teams of volunteers. All of its produce is donated to the town’s food pantry. According to its website: FoodPantryGarden.org, “Our community garden, on the Fairfield Hills campus, is a private space made up of many individually-managed plots with generous support from the Newtown Department of Parks & Recreation. To learn more, visit the rest of this web site…or, even better, visit our garden.”

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