Megan Denver is a graphic designer who built a house in the woods a decade ago, and three years later started keeping bees. What started out as a hobby soon became a passion. “Once you open the hive and look inside, you’re changed,” she said. “It’s such a beautiful society. It’s an organism. Bees are so gentle” – she didn’t get stung until two years after starting her hives – “and they’re not centered on the queen. They’re one being, and so purposeful.”
To promote beekeeping among the public and create a kind of community hub for beekeepers, on January 1 she opened Hudson Valley Bee Supply (HVBS), located at 600 Sawkill Road in Kingston. She and her business partner, Jorik Phillips, run 200 colonies, the hives stretching from the store all the way up to Delhi, scattered across farm fields.
She is a dealer for Brushy Mountain Bee Farm, selling supplies from soup to nuts for experienced and aspiring beekeepers, including a $200 startup kit. (The bees are additional: You start with 13,000 bees and one queen, which are typically ordered in January.) She also hires local woodworkers to build the hives that she sells, and conducts classes in beekeeping in the spring, which include hands-on experience with her hives.
“We’ve had crazy amazing overwhelming success,” said Denver. “There are hundreds and hundreds of beekeepers in the area. They come from as far away as New Jersey and Connecticut.”
Once a hive is up and running, it’ll produce 50 to 100 pounds of honey. HVBS sells $400 centrifugal extractors and other tools for extracting it. “Newbie beekeepers will have honey, though it’s not typical,” said Denver, noting that the amount of honey can be impacted negatively by extreme weather events, such as Hurricane Irene, which washed away the nectar, or by drought. Unlike storebought honey, which is heated to prevent crystallization, raw honey is full of pollen, which can be part of an allergen exposure therapy program, Denver said. And you don’t need a lot of room, given that bees forage up to three miles.
Honeybees, which were brought over from Germany in the 1800s and “are knit into our consumption of fruits and vegetables,” pollinate a huge number of species, from flowering trees such as black locusts and catalpas to wildflowers to clover, apple, carrot, pumpkin, onion, strawberry and dozens of other crops. Each bee lives for three weeks (except the queen, who can live as long as five years; overwintering bees also live longer). The biggest challenge, said Denver, is “keeping them healthy and getting bees through the winter.”
Denver said that her store sells organic acids to treat disease in bees. Honeybees have an easier time of it in the mid Hudson Valley than in areas of the country with large-scale agriculture, where their populations are crashing; one possible cause is exposure to chemicals used on corn crops called neonicotinoids, which have been banned in Europe. Being transported to different monoculture crops also stresses them, Denver said. Another challenge to this most important insect, as far as human food sources are concerned, is habitat loss. “Bees are the canary in the coalmine,” she said. “If they’re getting sick, it means we’re losing part of our ecosystem.”
Denver said that fear of getting stung is pretty common among all neophyte beekeepers. But in fact, bees “don’t fly out and sting you. Usually when someone gets stung, it’s because the beekeeper was careless.” She wears a veil but not gloves when working on her hives.
“We all get to a certain age in life when we want to give back and make a difference. Beekeeping is a kind of calling,” said Denver. “Grassroots movements make America cool. When enough people get behind something, we can change things.”
Hudson Valley Bee Supply, Tuesday-Friday, 12 noon-5 p.m., Saturday, 10 a.m.-3 p.m., 600 Sawkill Road, Kingston; (845) 336-6233, www.hudsonvalleybeesupply.com. Read more about local food and learn about new restaurants on Ulster Publishing’s dinehudsonvalley.com or hudsonvalleyalmanacweekly.com.