Human Beeing

V incent Kay stands in front of his pickup truck, suited up in white, ready to check his six hives at Yale’s Marsh Botanical Garden. It’s a sun-bathed October afternoon, the kind everyone will dream of a few months from now. 

“Your food comes from my bees,” he says. In spirit, it’s true: today’s farm-fresh apple is on your table because somewhere, a bee pollinated a blossom. It may well have been one of Kay’s bees. From Westbrook to Oxford, he maintains 450 hives, many of which are rented out to local farms and orchards.

Kay has just finished harvesting his honey: the nearly black buckwheat and the “water-white” clover and the sweet pepperbush, one of his favorites. Back at his East Rock workshop, he’s used a steam knife to cut wax from the combs, spun the honey out in a large centrifuge, filtered it through cheesecloth and blended the different varieties together for a more consistent amber elixir, which will next be jarred and labeled and sent out into the world. Kay’s Swords into Plowshares honey can be found in many local retail stores, restaurants and even Yale’s dining halls.

sponsored by

Fairhaven Furniture

This late in the season, hardly anything is blooming except for sprays of tiny asters at the edges of gardens and roads. As the season’s flowers dwindle, the queen bees stop laying eggs, and the colonies begin to hunker down for the winter.

Kay’s job through the cold season—aside from delivering honey, sometimes one case at a time—will be to check the hives regularly. He’ll need to ensure that their food supply is adequate, that protective fences are in good repair, that black bears haven’t broken in and helped themselves. If the bees run out of their own food, he’ll feed them sugar syrup to keep them alive. Regardless, many of them won’t make it through the winter.

Kay lifts a screened hood over his head and moves in to take a look at his Marsh Gardens hives, puffing calming smoke with a tin smoker. The staunchly green leaves of a nearby tree are backlit by the low afternoon sun, casting dappled shadows on Kay as he works. A few bees have ventured from home (as far as three miles from the hive), but most are clustered at or within the entrances to the stacked wooden boxes.

sponsored by

Joyful Learning at Cold Spring School

One might be surprised to find bees thriving in this urban environment just off Prospect Street, but Kay isn’t. Years ago, he says, the city of New Haven planted hundreds of linden trees. They’re big now, and they produce “a wonderful honey.” In a state that’s become less agricultural—“more hyper-groomed”—it’s important to find places where the bees can thrive, Kay explains. “[There’s] a model for landscaping which doesn’t include dandelions and clover, which is sad,” he says, “because that’s one of the main early sources of nectar for honey bees.”

For obvious reasons, he’s no fan of chemical lawn treatments. “You might want to ask what they’re going to put on your lawn,” Kay suggests. “Is it a chemical that’s friendly to honey bees as well as other pollinators?” And what about all those invasive plants that are being removed? Maybe they don’t belong, but Kay would like to see them replaced with flowering natives that would help keep the bees healthy and happy.

As he checks his hives, Kay is impressed by the heft of one weighty box. He pulls out frames, looking for the honey he’ll leave behind for the bees. Even after 35 years on the job, it’s clear he hasn’t lost his taste for it.

“It’s fascinating,” he says. “I learn things every year.” This year, he opened up his hives in August and discovered how “personal” they were, each one involving some “quirk” in their process of selecting a new queen.

There’s a note of what almost sounds like pride in his voice when he talks about the skill of the bees, who know exactly how long to fan their wings over the nectar they’ve gathered in order to reduce it to honey before they seal it over. The moisture content, he explains, is always between 14 and 17 percent. A higher moisture level would put the honey at risk of fermentation.

Kay gently replaces the lid on the last hive. All is in order. He treks back to his truck with smoker in one hand, feeding can in the other. As afternoon’s shadows lengthen, it’s time to get back to the thousands of pounds of honey waiting back at his workshop. More food, courtesy of the bees.

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is a writer and communications pro whose perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the Green and a coffee milkshake. She posts twice-weekly content for book clubs in her Substack newsletter, Better Book Clubs.

Leave a Reply