What’s the Buzz: The First Parish Beehives

The First Parish Beehives were funded by the Lydia Maria Child Fund in late 2017 as an environmental stewardship initiative. The Fund has provided ongoing support since then. Located in Wayland’s Community Apiary field adjacent to the Community Gardens — where First Parish’s Pantry Garden is situated — the beehives are tended by a team of First Parish volunteer beekeepers.

Bee Team members take beekeeping classes to prepare for their role. Throughout the spring, summer and fall, the Bee Team tends the bees as they gather nectar and pollen from the nearby Community Gardens, providing essential pollination for the flowers and vegetables there. It is estimated that bees pollinate one in three bites of food. They are essential to the health and prosperity of our ecosystem.

The Bee Team posts periodic updates here about our activities. We also make occasional presentations at First Parish or in the community, for adults as well as children. We enjoy educating people about bees and the critical role they play in sustaining the world’s food crops, including many of the foods we eat every day.

Spring 2023: Growing the Team and the Hives

The First Parish Bee Team prepared for the spring beekeeping season by cleaning equipment and hive components, building and painting new hive boxes so we can add more hives, and creating lesson plans for teaching about bees. We’re delighted to have added more people to our team; we are now a team of seven beekeepers.

In April 2023, we begin the season with four hives. Three First Parish hives overwintered successfully, and we added a fourth hive with a new package of bees. We expect to split one of the overwintered hives, and grow to five hives. This will help us continue to build our beekeeping skills. 

Education about bees is part of our mission, too, and in March Nan Jahnke and Ann Gordon presented lessons about honeybees to two classes at Creative Preschool, located in our own Parish House. The children were enthusiastic learners as they each took on a “bee job” to learn how bees live and work together cooperatively. 

If you’re curious about bees or beekeeping, please speak with any member of the Bee Team. We’d love to chat!

Summer 2020: Busy Time in the Bee Yard, and Honey!

The First Parish beehives are buzzing again this year after a rocky start and some adjustments on the part of the Bee Team. We now have two growing colonies, some COVID protocols, a plan for mite treatment, and a new grant from the Lydia Maria Child Fund. We even have honey to share!

The rocky start was winter losses. Honeybees winter over in their hives, huddling up against the cold and stopping reproduction. It is a precarious time, and this year all but 2 of the 15 colonies in our apiary perished, including all three of the First Parish colonies. The cause, we believe, was viruses carried by varroa mites, a common and destructive bee parasite. We treated for mites in the fall, but apparently too little and too late. By January, the colonies were dwindling, and by March all the bees were dead. It was a sad day in the apiary on Old Sudbury Road, which we share with four other Wayland beekeepers.

Beginning Again. Fortunately, beekeepers can buy new bees (they come in “packages” of about 10,000 bees, each with a queen), and that is what we did. We bought two packages, installed them in two of our hives, and fed them with the honey left behind by the winter bees. Both hives are now humming, sending thousands of foragers out each day to pollinate trees and gardens for miles around, including the Wayland Community Gardens (home to the First Parish Pantry Garden)—and maybe your garden, too.

COVID restrictions have changed our beekeeping habits—no more group inspections, lots of shared photos and online discussion—and mite suppression has become a high priority. We are grateful to the Lydia Maria Child Fund for continuing to support our work by helping with the costs of equipment, mite treatments, education and training (welcome to our newest member, Kathie Schmidt). We feel we are in good shape for this year and next.

And now we have honey to share! To be honest, honey harvesting is not a big priority for the First Parish hives. Honey belongs first to the bees—it is their primary source of carbohydrates, and their only source of food in the winter (unless we feed them sugar). In our first year of operation, we took no honey from the hives, but last year the bees that died left many frames of honey behind. We took 12 of those frames and Ann Gordon spun them out (because of COVID restrictions, only one of us could operate the extractor, which we borrowed from fellow beekeeper Kaat Vander Straeten—thanks, Kaat!).

What To Do With the Honey? The harvest was nearly three gallons of honey and about half a pound of wax. The wax we will use in our teaching, but what to do with the honey? Answer: Give it away! Molly Faulkner, head of the Pantry Garden team, has already delivered two quarts of honey, along with the Garden’s fresh produce, to First Parish’s longtime partner Turning Point Shelter, and a quart each to the Garden’s two South Middlesex Opportunity Council (SMOC) partners, Pathways Family Shelter and Sage Family Treatment Shelter, all in Framingham. The rest we are sharing with staff and parishioners, so everyone can enjoy the sweet dividend of this First Parish environmental action project.

The First Parish Bee Team: Ann Gordon, Nan Jahnke, Kathie Schmidt, and John Thompson

Summer 2019: Three Hives

First Parish now has THREE hives in the Community Apiary. Our original hive successfully overwintered, and entered the spring of 2019 strong and robust. With additional funding from the Lydia Maria Child Fund, we established a second hive in April. (We had learned that beekeepers can do more to boost colony health and strength if they have more than one hive — you can literally use one hive to save another, in certain circumstances. And we had encountered just such circumstances with our original hive, and had been lucky to have a neighboring hive to draw on for resources.) 

The third hive was an unexpected surprise. In May 2019, our original colony was so big and strong that we decided to split it into two colonies. When beekeepers create the right conditions, the “split” colony will raise a new Queen, which is exactly what happened. 

Throughout the summer we tended these three hives, monitoring their health, feeding the new hives sugar syrup, and treating them for varroa mites, one of the biggest threats to honeybee health, and one of the reasons that about 40 percent of managed colonies die every year. 

The new hive we started in April — we call it Polenta, the color of the paint we put on it — is the strongest of the three, with a very large colony and lots of honey. (A word about honey: we feed our first-year colonies sugar syrup to boost their energy for all the work required to build the wax honeycomb for a new hive. As a result, the bees produce a substance that is not pure honey, not the same as if they were using only nectar from nature. First-year “honey” is adulterated, and it is illegal to sell it as honey.) 

Our split hives are doing well but are not as robust as we would like as we head into fall. For that reason, in August we began feeding sugar syrup to our original hive (“Greyhive”), which was disappointing since up to that point we had not fed them syrup, and the honey they were producing was pure. But supporting the health of the colony is our primary goal, and we are boosting their food stores to prepare them for winter. We will likely move some of the honey from Polenta, which has produced so much, into the two split hives before winter: another reason why having multiple hives is beneficial. 

The Bee Team — now including Ann Gordon, Nan Jahnke, Deb Stubeda, John Thompson, and Kathie Schmidt Cromwell — continues to learn from our hands-on experiences and from reading and interacting with beekeeping groups online. We are so grateful for the support of the LMCF, and for the congregation’s interest in our work. 

December 2018: Ready for Winter

Honeybees don’t hibernate. They are free to exit the hive as they please all winter long, though they generally don’t leave much when it’s cold. Instead, they cluster together in a big ball of bees — with the Queen in the center — and they vibrate to generate heat. Not only that, they rotate positions from the outside of the cluster to the inside, in and out, vibrating all the while. Just one of many ways they work together.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about this winter dance is that, with all this wiggling, they maintain a temperature of about 90 degrees in the cluster. Amazing, right? And because of this rather moist heat they generate, they create condensation. This is actually one of the biggest threats to the hive during winter — too much moisture, which can cling to the ceiling or walls of the hive and turn icy cold.

So one of our last tasks of the fall was to add moisture-wicking materials just beneath the roof of the hive. We also wrapped it in roofing paper, a common beekeepers’ trick, to provide added protection from wind and to absorb warmth from the sun. You can see from the photo that we cut the paper away from the lower and upper entrances so that the bees are free to come and go if they choose. Can you spot the two bees near the lower entrance?

The colony will live off the honey they spent the summer making. This is why we did not harvest honey — they need it to survive their first winter. If they do survive, they will have a head start in the spring compared to last year, because they won’t have to build all the honeycomb they built last year. They can make more bees to pollinate the nearby gardens, and they can spend more time making honey. With luck, there will be enough honey for them and for us.

Our heavy strap and big rock are to protect the hive from bears — not a real concern for us, although some hives in neighboring towns have been destroyed by bears — but we hope the strap will keep the hive together if a strong wind should blow it over. Goddess forbid.

We gave them a final blessing and we’ll say some prayers for them through the winter. We’ll probably stop by the hive from time to time and put an ear against it. And we’ll hope to hear their soft buzz.

September 2018: Sugar Roll Test

Varroa mites are tiny but powerful parasites, and when they invade a hive of honeybees — which is very, very common — they can destroy the colony.

We treated our colony for varroa mites prophylactically in the early summer. Now it’s mid-September, and time to perform the Sugar Roll Test to see what our mite load is.

Here’s the recipe: Take a half a cup of bees (about 300), add them to a Mason jar with about 3 tablespoons of powdered sugar. Seal with a screened lid. Swirl the bees around in the sugar to coat. Let sit for about a minute. Turn the jar over and shake the sugar out — firmly but gently — onto a white paper plate that has been sprayed with water. Spray the sugar with more water until it dissolves. Count the number of mites visible on the plate (they look like small rust-colored seeds). This tells you how many average mites your hive has per 300 bees. Do the math to determine your overall mite load, and make plans to treat the colony accordingly.

Oh, and open the jar and pour the sugar-dazed bees back into the hive. The other bees will clean them up.

We couldn’t be happier with the results of our sugar roll test — ZERO mites! We’re glad we took steps earlier this year to prevent an infestation, and we hope our hive stays mite-free going forward.

August 2018: A Summer of Learning

Throughout the spring and early summer we have been tending the bees as they have built their colony from the original 10,000 bees to — we estimate — 60,000 to 70,000 very busy bees.

There is so much for us to do! We give them sugar water to supplement the nectar and pollen they collect, to provide them with enough calories to build the hive to full strength before winter. We do weekly hive inspections – looking for eggs, larvae, pollen, nectar, honey and indications of pests or problems.

We’ve built and added more hive boxes to accommodate the growing colony; administered a week-long treatment to control varroa mites, which can kill off a colony; addressed the threat of aggressive yellow jackets nesting nearby, which can attack honeybee hives; and solved the mystery of our missing Queen Bee by borrowing, installing and monitoring a hive frame from a neighboring hive. (We think she left with a swarm, but the remaining colony raised a new Queen — they are so smart.)

We are beginning to anticipate fall activities and chores — including something called a “sugar roll test” for mites. Stay tuned for more details about that.