WARDSBORO—Jeff Battaglini is from the tough-love school of beekeeping.
“I had a tough-love meeting with a beekeeper when I started,” said the former plumber and skydiver. “It was really good honest tough love.”
“He said, ‘It’s going to be the most expensive honey you get,’” he added.
Battaglini’s experience has proved the old beekeeper right.
Several years, several steep learning curves, and several emotional roller coasters later, he is now the president of the fledgling Windham County Beekeepers Association and mentors people entering the trade.
“This is what I tell new beekeepers: this is the worst time to be a beekeeper,” he said.
Honeybees are suffering, Battaglini said.
One of the big causes: varroa mites, a parasite that originated in Asia and was first identified in the country in 1987.
The mites don’t kill honeybees directly; they weaken the bees by indirectly serving as “a vector” for the other diseases that do kill the colony, Battaglini said.
But with all the problems also comes a lot of cutting-edge research and new solutions that beekeepers get to pioneer, he added.
“So it’s the best time to be a beekeeper also,” he said.
Flying and foraging
Battaglini and fellow beekeeper, wife Lesley Weisbrot, protect their hives behind an electrified cage designed to train bears to develop an aversion to attacking the hive by associating that ursine behavior with shocking consequences.
Bears don’t go for the honey — that’s just the icing on the cake, he explained. They really want the larva, to eat the bees before they can even produce a drop of the sweet stuff.
On this overcast July morning, the mature bees fly slowly from the hives in search of pollen.
Battaglini said the weather is holding them back. Once the heat of the afternoon kicks in, he said the bees will perk up.
“They want to be out flying and foraging, and they want to be busy doing something, and there are flowers out there for them to be visiting,” he said.
Battaglini said bees can fly as many as 6 miles to find pollen. He estimates, however, that 2 miles a day is a better average.
Spread away from the apiary are an assortment of raised-bed, in-ground, and container gardens that cover most of his compact backyard. In the center, a canopy casts shade on chairs and a small burner for making tea.
The couple has kept bees for half a decade. This year will be their fifth winter going into their sixth spring.
Battaglini said being in nature has always been important and has remained his touchstone. His gardens, with their vegetables, wildflowers, and fruit trees, were the reason he first became interested in beekeeping.
“I was noticing that we didn’t have as many pollinators around,” he said.
One example: his cucumbers.
“You can tell when a cucumber is not pollinated correctly,” he said. “It has this funny little end.”
The lack of pollinators, coupled with new reporting on colony collapse disorder, spurred Battaglini to think about beekeeping.
Beekeeping has changed how Battaglini gardens.
He used to raise only vegetables and keep a perfectly manicured lawn. Now, he also plants wildflowers and lets the white clover and chamomile run wild across his lawn, mowing it only a few times each summer.
Honeybees — Apis mellifera, brought to the Americas by early Europeans — are not to be confused with Apis bombus, or bumblebees. One of the key differences between the two, according to Battaglini, is that honeybees will live in human-made, manageable hives, where bumblebees prefer smaller villages. They will sometimes nest underground.
The crash course in bee taxonomy is interrupted when Doobie the Dubious Cat prances by with a freshly killed chipmunk.
Battaglini shrugs. Protecting the garden isn’t all about the bees. Since Doobie joined the ranks as garden steward, the strawberry crop lasts long enough to be harvested.
“I mean, today is the day that I’d be saying, ‘Oooh, that strawberry is going to be ready at 3 o’clock.’ And at 2:45, I’d notice the chipmunks have eaten it.”
Battaglini opens a small box containing five wooden frames with a “starter” beeswax panel imprinted with a honeycomb shape.
The bees will fill the starter panel with nectar. Meanwhile, the honeycomb houses the larvae. Over a season, the bees will siphon the water out of the nectar, condensing it into honey, he said — honey that has won awards at the state level two years in a row.
At this point, he explains, you have what beekeepers call a “nuke” — a nucleus colony, essentially a starter colony in a box.
As the queen lays eggs and the colony expands, Battaglini will add more boxes and frames until he has a thriving hive.
The hives weren’t always thriving.
“We were spending two, three, four hundred dollars a year on bees at $150 a nuke,” Battaglini said of his early years.
Each season, the colonies died.
Battaglini and Weisbrot decided they wanted to stop spending so much money and help their colonies winter over — a goal that became the couple’s first steps into becoming full-fledged beekeepers from their previously unsuccessful struggles as “bee have-ers,” amateurs who watch videos on YouTube and think they know what they’re doing.
“You ask, ‘How are you treating your bees? What’s your mite count?’” he said. “And they have no clue.”
As a result, “there are a lot of bee-hadders out there, too,” he added.
What makes a beekeeper?
According to Battaglini, beekeepers actually understand, protect, and serve their bees. They understand how the insects fit into the wider environment.
The first few years as a beekeeper came with a steep learning curve.
“We lost one colony that first year,” he said. “And I wanted to expand the second year, and we had 80 percent losses that year.”
Battaglini jokes that becoming a beekeeper is similar to becoming a new parent.
“It’s an emotional roller coaster,” he said. “When you just have two or three hives, it really was an emotional roller coaster.”
Sometimes all he could do was watch as a hive died.
“You watch and think, ‘Oh my God, my bees are dying. What’s happening here? What do I do?’”
Last year, the couple had 32 hives, but that’s still no guarantee of total success. In a few instances when a few hives seemed in trouble, the couple sat back and observed the bees, to see what they could teach them.
“I guess it’s like a brand-new parent versus [a parent who has had a] third or fourth kid,” he said.
Battaglini and Weisbrot harvest the honey in the fall and then wrap the hives in roofing paper — leaving a few holes for ventilation — to keep the moisture out. The bees are then ready to winter over.
Battaglini stops to watch bees flying into a nearby hive. Balls of yellow pollen stick to their hind legs. He is pleased.
He recently introduced a new queen to the hive. The couple raises a few queen bees a year, but they also — for the sake of genetic diversity — buy a few queens from fellow beekeepers.
The fact the workers are gathering pollen shows they’ve accepted their new queen and that she is busy laying eggs.
“We see the pollen going into the hive,” he said. “That’s a positive sign there. They believe there’s hope, and they use the pollen to make bee bread to raise their young.”
Bee bread is pollen that the bees ferment and “process a little” to feed the larvae, he said.
Beekeepers Association marks its first year
Battaglini points to a picnic table at the corner of his house: “That’s the famous Windham County picnic table,” he said, the site where the Windham County Beekeepers Association came into being last August.
“Our goal with the Windham County Beekeepers is to support healthy, sustainable bees and the beekeepers [who raised] them in southern Vermont,” he said. “We also aim to provide educational opportunities for all beekeepers and protect the interests of beekeeping in Windham County.”
The Windham County group held its first meeting in February at the Moore Free Library in Newfane. It has 31 dues-paying members. Battaglini and Weisbrot maintains a closed group on Facebook with 91 members.
On July 13, the Association will host the Vermont Beekeepers Association’s annual summer conference in Townshend at Leland & Gray Union High School.
“It gives us a prestige” as a new association, he said. “Windham County hasn’t had an official club ever that I’m aware of.”
At the summer conference, VBA members will elect officers, hold certification tests, and host a keynote speaker, Humberto Boncristiani Ph.D., of the University of Florida Department of Entomology and Nematology, a self-described honeybee husbandry researcher who will discuss honeybee viruses.
Amid activities like a potluck lunch and raffle, Battaglini and fellow beekeeper Michael Willard will also teach a breakout session on using oxalic acid in their mite control program.
“The problem with these varroa mites is we’re trying to kill one bug that lives on another bug without killing both bugs,” he said.
Battaglini said that when the mites first started attacking bees, the beekeepers hit them with whatever miticides were on the market.
But with each life cycle, the mites became more resistant to the chemicals.
Advice to wanna-bees
Battaglini recommends buying honey locally. In his opinion, much of the honey imported into the U.S. — because Americans consume more honey than they produce — is “adulterated,” extended with other ingredients such as corn syrup, he said.
To new beekeepers, Battaglini recommends joining a club, finding a mentor, and being patient.
Expect to make multiple runs to the bee store and spend a lot of money on bees and equipment, he warned.
He also cautioned that it’s best to have supplies on hand for emergencies, too.
“Talk to beekeepers who won’t sugar-coat the information,” he said.
New beekeepers should also join a couple of clubs, like the Windham County Beekeepers Association or the Vermont Beekeepers Association. He praised the statewide organization for its website.
Beekeeping comes with tough but valuable lessons, he said.
“Be prepared. Be patient. Don’t rush things,” he said. “And get away from YouTube.”
Battaglini also reminds beekeepers to install electric fences to keep the bears away.
His part of his tough-love approach.
“Your bees deserve better,” he said.