B en Gardner’s day might sound oddly bucolic for an area resident and business owner. On a recent Thursday, sunrise found him in his backyard, collecting chicken eggs and tending to his homemade coop. He spent the remainder of the morning planting a garden landscape in Fairhaven, and then headed out to check on a half dozen of the 26 beehives he manages in the New Haven area.
“I had to see if the queens had been released properly,” he said. “When you install a new hive, you import the queen in a little wire cage with a candy door. By the time the queen has chewed through the candy, the rest of the hive has been around her long enough to take her in.”
Five years ago, Ben was working at CitySeed when a farmers market vendor invited him to help teach beekeeping skills in Uganda. “I still don’t know if he was kidding when he invited me,” said Ben. “He seemed surprised when I showed him my plane ticket.”
The Uganda trip, run by the Connecticut-based nonprofit Bees Without Borders, appealed to Ben for its international development mission. He returned from Uganda convinced that food production was the perfect center of gravity for community empowerment. In 2009, Ben won a grant from The Community Foundation to install two bee hives at the William Street Community Garden.
These days, when he’s not tending to the community hives, Ben is installing and managing hives, chicken coops, and vegetable gardens in backyards throughout the New Haven area. His company is aptly named Pollen.
“My clients are less interested in saving money on eggs and honey, and more interested in having their kids learn where their food comes from,” said Ben. “Which is good,” he smiled, “because the economy of scale doesn’t pan out best for the home producer. Bringing a coop or a hive into your landscape is an aesthetic thing, an educational thing.”
That said, I was surprised to learn that, after its first season, a well-managed backyard hive can produce 60 pounds of honey in a year. Since bees need to visit 2 million flowers to produce a single pound of honey, that puts the flower-count of a honey harvest at well over 100 million flowers. And since these flowers are by definition “local” (honey bees usually forage within 3 miles of their hive), eating New Haven honey is a tremendous opportunity to engage with the city’s unique landscape of blooms and blossoms.
How can you contribute to robust honey production in New Haven? Well, short of installing your own hive, you can manage your landscape with an eye toward honey bee forage. This is a win-win endeavor: making sure you have nectar- and pollen-producing flowers in bloom all season long adds sequences of color to your property as it bolsters bee populations. Cosmos, Borage, Lavender, Bergamot, and Forget-Me-Nots are nice options for successional blooms.
But to understand the bulk of New Haven’s honey bee forage, you have to look up. The British Beekeepers Association estimates that 5 or 6 blossoming trees provide more bee forage than a full acre of wildflower meadow. Cherry and Dogwood blooms seem most obvious here, but bees also make good use of Red Maples, Tulip Poplars, and American Linden trees, to name a few.
After our chat, Ben was off to collect burlap to burn in his bee smoker. Then he had to inventory beer brewing supplies for an ale he was about to start. Finally, he had to secure his chickens for the night.
“I have a short attention span,” he laughed. “I like having lots of projects going on.”
Written and photographed by Jeremy Oldfield.