by Myra Saturen
March 22, 2013
A practice hearkening back thousands of years, beekeeping has been a tradition in Sharon Zondag's family for four generations. Her father, Thomas R. Jones, learned the art from his father, who in turn acquired it from his own father, a farmer on Welsh Hill, a community north of Scranton settled by immigrants from Wales. When Zondag's grandparents moved to the Susquehanna Valley in upstate New York, her father continued this ancestral custom, with young Sharon attentively observing.
Zondag, NCC's planned and major gifts officer, is now leading an ongoing beekeeping project at Northampton Community College (NCC). In NCC's Community Garden, she, staff, faculty and students have created an apiary, a collection of hives for honeybees. Containing two hives at present, with plans to house more, the apiary serves many needs--from environmental to educational. It will promote learning, help the campus to bloom and do its part in preserving an endangered and essential insect animal.
What is involved in nurturing bees? Beekeeping is exactly what its name implies. Its goal is to cultivate bees so that they survive and produce enough honey to harvest. At first that means intervening as little as possible. "We want to give the bees the best possible chance," Zondag says.
The hives at NCC began with a swarm brought to campus from New York State's Newark Valley by Zondag's father. Thomas Jones introduced NCC's first swarm in May 2012 and the second one the following September. The chief advantages to adding swarms is to augment the bees' genetic diversity and increase the number of hives.
The type of hive used at NCC, typical in the United States but differing in design from others throughout the world, are boxes stacked in a tower formation and topped by a roof and invented in the mid-nineteenth century by agriculturist L.L. Langstroth.
As with much of life, beekeeping has its seasons. Zondag describes May to October as a time to inspect the hive, maintain it, help feed the colony, and treat the nest against potential pests. September is usually the time to harvest the honey, drawing it out with an extractor that uses centrifugal force to spin the honey out of the combs. This September, however, Zondag left the honey in the hive as a food for the fledgling bees. The hives will be harvested instead in September 2013.
The colder months bring other activities, chiefly to winterize the hives. Zondag received help in winterization from Dr. Sharon Lee-Bond, a professor of biology at NCC. A student in Lee-Bond's class spread mulch as a service learning project. The bees nestle in the hive whenever the temperature drops to about 50 degrees.
An astonishing number of bees reside in the NCC hives--40,000 to 60,000 in each. Members of two species, Italian and Russian, the bees produce about 70 pounds of honey per hive. This honey will add flavor to foods prepared by NCC culinary students and cafeteria chefs.
To protect themselves from possible stings, Zondag, like many beekeepers gears up in a veil, jacket, beekeeping suit, gloves and, sometimes, boots.
Zondag is fascinated by bees' social hierarchy as well as their physiology. "Like ants, bees are eusocial," she explains, meaning that every member of a colony has specific tasks. The queen bee lays the eggs, the workers care for the larvae, collect pollen and guard the hive. Guards fan the hot air away from the hive and emit a scent to guide the foraging bees back to their nest. For their part, the drones (male) fertilize the queen and are evicted from the colony after a single season. "All the bees are interdependent and tireless," she says.
As for bees' physiology, their back legs hold a saclike structure in which the insect stores the pollen gathered from flowers. Similarly, bees carry the nectar they collect in their stomachs. The bee converts this nectar into honey. The honey, along with the protein-rich pollen, are important nutrition sources for the colony.
Zondag derives satisfaction from observing the bees' ceaseless activity and helping the hive along. "It brings me comfort and joy," she says. "Watching bees is meditative."
Moreover, beekeepers know that bees are indispensable to a healthy environment. Through their honey-making, bees enable human survival. By pollinating crops, bees nurture the foods people need. Where would we be without our apple trees pollinated? Yet, these remarkable creatures, bees, are imperiled. Land development, new pests and pesticides threaten their existence. Beekeeping thus has an environmental impact on preserving the balance of nature. "I hope that in America, we will replace the bees we have lost and grow passionate about beekeeping," Zondag says. "It's a win-win."
By tending bees at NCC, students, faculty and staff are helping to advance this preservation effort. In addition to being an important teaching tool, the colony pollinates the flora in NCC's Tribute and Butterfly gardens. They will do the same in the orchard planned for the College's community garden. Both bees and gardens benefit.
Beekeeping is a multisided, fascinating and useful activity. For those who are new to beekeeping, would like to become beekeepers or are simply curious, Zondag, who has formally studied beekeeping with the Lehigh Valley Beekeepers Association and at Cornell and Penn State universities, will offer a non-credit class at NCC this spring. This introductory class will be given Sunday, May 19, from 1:00 - 4:00 p.m. in Kopecek Hall, Main Campus. The fee is $35. To register call 1-877-543-0998 or register online here. Scroll down to COMMG109: First Year Beekeeping.
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