Hive Mind

This article about a busy bee, updated for 2014, was originally published on May 2, 2012. Enjoy!

Ben Gardner’s day might sound oddly bucolic for a small business owner in New Haven. Sunrise often finds him in his backyard, collecting chicken eggs and tending to his homemade coop. He might spend the remainder of the morning planting a garden landscape in Fair Haven, afterwards heading out to check on a half-dozen of the 26 beehives he manages in the area.

“I had to see if the queens had been released properly,” he says. “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.”

Seven years ago, Gardner 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,” Gardner says. “He seemed surprised when I showed him my plane ticket.”

The Uganda trip, run by the Connecticut-based nonprofit Bees Without Borders, appealed to Gardner for its international development mission. He returned from Uganda convinced that food production was the perfect center of gravity for community empowerment. In 2009, Gardner won a grant from The Community Foundation to install two bee hives at the William Street Community Garden.

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These days, when not tending to the community hives, Gardner is establishing and managing hives and chicken coops—and his colleague Rachel Ziesk, a master gardener with more than 20 years of professional experience, is doing the same with vegetable gardens—in backyards throughout the New Haven area. His company is aptly named Pollen.

Pollen’s coop and hive customers are “less interested in saving money on eggs and honey, and more interested in having their kids learn where their food comes from,” Gardner says. “Which is good,” he says, smiling, “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, it was surprising 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.

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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, Gardner 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 says with a laugh. “I like having lots of projects going on.”

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Written and photographed by Jeremy Oldfield.

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Jeremy Oldfield holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. He founded the Freelance Farmers, an edible landscaping company, in 2007, and is currently the Farm Coordinator at the Yale Sustainable Food Project.

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