FINDING A LOCAL BEEKEEPER
My husband and I moved to New Hampshire in 2000 for what turned out to be 22 years of living in the woods -bears and deer and such, where a traffic jam is rare unless waiting for a family of wild turkeys to cross the road. (Tamworth Farmers Market Photo by Tom Holtey)
While working for several of our farm and forest community residents from 2005 to 2007, in and around the villages of Tamworth and Sandwich, it was necessary on a monthly basis to fly to the other side of the country to my mother during her final times of life at our family home in California.
On one work day at a forester’s farmhouse on an apple orchard in Tamworth, I found myself observing a newly arrived delivery in the foyer of many packages of live bees! I didn’t think I’d ever known a beekeeper before or that bees could be transported this way. At some point in conversation about it the forester offered to teach me beekeeping in exchange for website work. This was on the cusp of my mom passing in the summer of 2007.
While deciding if keeping bees was something I was destined to do, all nine of mom’s children sat on our old childhood campfire chairs in the driveway of our South Bay Los Angeles family home trying to decide what to keep or throw out of the over-stuffed garage she left behind before the new owners of the house came to take possession.
There in a box my mom had cradled next to her bed that included childhood treasures from all of us, was a youth book on beekeeping which I had never returned to my 5th grade elementary school teacher Mrs. Brown’s class out of guilt. It was worn to a frazzle.
I embraced it as a sign.
Forester Harold Cook would drop everything to come out to help us in my early years of beekeeping. There were no local clubs in those days. I’d inherited his old smoker, a tool, and a jacket, often coming home to a stack of equipment catalogues or magazines left on our porch. I’d cut pictures out of them for a photo flip book that helped identify life events in my hive. My first swarm felt like a betrayal. My bees left me! I could not talk to anyone about it for weeks… except Harold. He suggested I find a woman known to speak at garden clubs in the area about honey bees to learn more. (Forester Harold Cook photo by Alex Cook)
Wendy Booth was a force of nature. It turned out she held all day workshops on beginning beekeeping two hours south of me that eventually trained the future of New Hampshire beekeeping club leadership. Her students met local hive equipment and bee supplier Ben Chadwick through this course. An apiarist from the age of 12 in the 1950s, Ben also worked faithfully at that time as New Hampshire’s statewide Apiary Inspector. (Photo: Ben Chadwick by Jeff McCormack)
When I could finally take some honey from my bees, our neighboring dairy farmer and organizer of the village farmers market, Bob Streeter, offered his barn and spinner. It taught me the value of a warm space for honey harvesting and was the first time I used an extractor or a hot knife, learned to prefer an uncappings fork, understood the importance of closing windows near a bee yard, and felt the weight of a box of beehive frames full of honey climbing barn stairs to the loft. It smelled of hay and sweet beehive supers and brought back childhood memories of my grandfather’s farm in Colorado.
Soon, as word spread that Athena was keeping bees, a call came out of the blue from a neighbor about five miles or so down the road to town. Ingrid, a skilled outdoors-woman and registered nurse, keeping bees as a hobby and tribute to family still doing so in her ancestral home of Norway, asked if I would be interested in traveling to a workshop in Vermont held by an author of a new book on beekeeping.
Other than my childhood theft from 5th grade I had one book by New England’s Richard Bonney from the 80s gifted to me for Christmas called “Hive Management”. My apiary sun rose and set on his words. This was before Google or YouTube was mainstream or paying any attention at all to beekeepers and when Amazon was still rivaled by brick & mortar B. Dalton and Barns & Nobel bookstores. I came home one day to find Ingrid had dropped off “Natural Beekeeping” by Ross Conrad onto our porch.
I asked her on the phone that night, “Natural Beekeeping? Wouldn’t that be considered an oxymoron?” We called the number in Vermont for the event and the author himself picked up the phone. The workshop was 3 hours away. We booked a B&B offering an amazing breakfast and enjoyed night life in the college town of Middlebury, Vermont that weekend eavesdropping on the young and vibrant student population. Dinner was accompanied by a nice wine at an Indian restaurant we found down a quiet alley with amazing food. At the next table was a professor, complete with corduroy suit jacket bearing patches on its elbows, surrounded by his adoring students. During the day we traveled out of town to a farm and learned from Ross. Joking a little from the back of the classroom we agreed to hit the road home early. It was the first time I appreciated knowing a little something more than was offered in a beginner’s class. (Photo right: Ingrid Albee with student 1990s)
Still, on the drive home we continued to find the book a thorough study and eye-opening read.
Ingrid talked about different kinds of honey bees she wanted to try out that I’d never heard of and some equipment she wanted to experiment with like screened bottom boards and slatted racks… two very valuable tools I use to this day. We got together a few times to go through her hives in some open acres across from her house. She always brought an epi pen and I learned even a nurse might not be over confident working with bees.
Then a friend of Ingrid’s, Maura, an educator and beekeeper that happened to live about three miles in the opposite direction as the bee flies, called and asked me out to her apiary. It was a glorious day on a field of wildflowers in Wonalancet, New Hampshire, surrounded by the Sandwich Mountain Range. (Photo: Maura adding homemade fondant to an overwintering hive)
A storm was blowing in over the hills but there was not a sound otherwise, nor did there appear to be another person, vehicle, or other manmade item in sight.
That image of two beekeepers in the gloaming of the day on a field moving to secure beehives against a coming storm would prove to serve as a peaceful memory during times of needing such a thought-refuge. Maura introduced me to yet another event on an overnight adventure to a Boston organic beekeeping seminar. To this beginner the language of beekeeping seemed rich with redundant terminology.
I never felt like I was much help to Ingrid or Maura in those early experiences but I learned things about bees and beekeeping from all these local folks no one could have told me or written about in a book. As soon as I thought I might actually know what I was doing as a beekeeper I paid these generous mentoring experiences forward asking beginners along for road trips out to adjoining New England states for open hive events and lectures. One of these budding apiarists, organic landscaper Kelly Goodson, from family roots dating back to the 1800s in Tamworth, introduced me to yet another term regarding bee husbandry which absolutely required a drive down to Virginia for a Biodynamic Beekeeping Course at Spikenard Honeybee Sanctuary to see what all the buzz was about. A memorable trip. (Photo: Organic Landscaper Kelly Goodson- photo by Peg Loughran)
A pivotal moment came with a request from Mary, a retired gardener living in a small cabin at the end of our mile-long road who’d been asked to take care of a neighbor’s fallow field. She invited me to build a bee yard that would prove to host the most educational apiary of my experience. Soon it drew attention and advice from area landowners, farmers, hikers, gardeners, and beekeepers alike that evoked both challenge and reward in understanding and working with some of the complex, often contradicting goals for land use among the peoples of a rural community.
All these years later I now help organize bee schools in well-established clubs and sell my hive products in a tent at the local farmers market side by side with those farmers I learned from. Bearing the motto “Food from Friends”, the Tamworth Farmers Market supports at least twenty small farms, four or more of them offering products of the hive. Seasoned beekeepers often stop by with entertaining tales as do beginners for advice. (Photo by Tom Holtey: Tamworth Farmers Market Organizers Annie Burke, Bob Streeter, Peg Loughran)
Beekeeper Wendy is retired from decades of faithfully educating the apiarists of the future; and Ben still reliably shares his insights and stories at club meetings after passing his business on to the up and coming generation in training Jeff McCormack, a young man who would prove to serve our widely dispersed beekeeping community with just as much passion.
Some of my early mentors say hi during the market now and then, but Ingrid came by last summer to say good bye. She passed this month from ALS at far too young an age for someone of her vibrancy and skill. She came to visit our humble farmers market bustling with all her small-town friends whose lives like mine she had played a quiet yet important role in. Her sweet demeanor expressed gratitude for their help with a life well lived in a community that continued to embrace her along that painful journey. (Photo by Ben Chadwick: Jeff McCormack)
Ingrid’s effort to include this wide spread yet close knit community in the final acts of her generous life moved me to write this story. I often reflect on the teachings of professional beekeepers from regional, national and even international events I’ve attended during what has become 15 years of beekeeping… a mere drop in the bucket of years compared to those that have helped me on my way; but I sometimes forget the local farmers and neighbors who set me on my current path by sharing their values and common sense in managing our ancient, amazing honey bees.
I never imagined being an educator or farmers’ market vendor or having anything to offer the future of beekeeping; but all it required was dropping off a book or magazine, lending out the attic of a warm barn, asking for help on a quiet field during a coming storm, signing up to speak about honey bees to the 5th grade class you stole a book from at your old elementary school, or offering a workshop to share what you’ve learned to help other beekeepers on their way.
I didn’t think I’d ever known a beekeeper before that day in that farmhouse foyer but it turns out I was surrounded by this generous culture of unassuming folks all along that has become this city girl’s quite unexpected routine way of life. (Photo Peg Loughran - Food From Friends)
-In memory of Ingrid Albee