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Bee-ware for the Humble Honeybee

The Laker - September 13, 2017

ByBarbara Neville Wilson

It’s an unusually cool, late summer morning when I visit Wonalancet Honey Bee Company in Ossipee, and Athena Contus is worried for her bees. The current temperature hovers just above 60 degrees Fahrenheit, and honey bees start “clustering”—or huddling up for warmth—at 57 degrees. If her bees cluster now, it will cut into important foraging time. The next four weeks of pollen collection is crucial to building the inventory of honey that will sustain the colony in the winter ahead.

A petite woman with a warm voice and serious face, Athena is one of those rare people who positively loves what she does, but raising honey bees, educating about honey bees and being a purveyor of all things honey bee does not come without its worries. You see, the honey bee is a sensitive creature in a less-than-sensitive world.

Perhaps you’ve heard that honey bees aren’t doing well these days. News outlets report shockingly high statistics for honey bee mortality across the nation, and it’s no different in New Hampshire. The 2016-17 Hive Loss Survey by the NH Bee Keepers Association reports that 65 percent of the state’s hives did not survive the winter. Athena, however, has been able to buck the trend, reporting no losses from 2012 to 2016, and the loss of just one hive this year. “And that’s only because of robbing from a southern hive,” she says.

Athena attributes much of New Hampshire’s hive loss to the importation of southern hives, communities of bees brought up from warmer regions and expected to quickly adapt to a very different climate and growing season. Although no honey bee is native to the United States—they were brought over by European settlers—bees that originated in northern climates and have lived in the north for generations are better acclimated to New Hampshire’s short growing seasons and cold temperatures.

Athena takes me to a hive and points out the pollen-laden bees entering the hive at the bottom. The bees are busily gathering, making honey and storing it in honeycomb for the long seven months when they will cluster, eating the honey they made in summer.

Southern bees, on the other hand, don’t have the instincts to store honey for the winter ahead. Instead, Athena says, “they eat like there are a million tomorrows,” expecting they can leave the hive and gather pollen at whim. And that’s exactly what happened this past winter.

Athena takes full responsibility. She mistakenly assumed that bees named “Minnesota Hygienic Bees” were bred to withstand freezing winter, so Athena introduced a hive into her holdings. She discovered too late that the bees were bred in Minnesota, but their original stock descended from Italian – i.e., southern bees. The newcomers happily clustered in their hive last fall, eating honey at their customary prodigious rate and when they were hungry and an unusually warm March day signaled “spring” to them, they broke cluster and went marauding through the neighborhood.

Following the pheromone trail, they discovered a neighboring hive of truly northern bred bees who had eaten into their honey stock more moderately, snuck in and stole 35 pounds of honey from that hive, leaving the clustering resident bees to starve.

It’s a sad story, and Athena is obviously grieved in the telling. As we talk, she repeatedly advocates for the humane treatment of bees. She has been studying the honey bee for nine years and proclaims them “remarkable.” She ticks off admirable characteristics: Adult honey bees navigate by the polarized light of the sun. They work in harmony, altruistically, for the good of the community. They help one another. They make plans and know how to execute them. “If you understand honey bee biology, you’re absolutely in love,” she says.

You may be tempted to wave away Athena’s concern about the bees, saying to yourself that some people are “dog” people, and some are “bee” people, and it’s just a preference. But actually, all of us should be concerned about the health of our bees. As Jack Kittredge writes in “The Role of Pollinators,” “Scientists estimate that between 75% and 95% of all flowering plants—more than 1,200 crops and 180,000 species—need at least some help from [pollinators.] Another way to put it is that every third bite of food you take only exists because of pollinators.” (The Natural Farmer, Summer 2017)

Two years ago, Athena opened Wonalancet Honey Bee Company to supply local beekeepers with the tools and knowledge to build sustainable hives. Clean eating trends, and the news that pollinator populations are dropping have led to an explosion of micro-farming. As Athena puts it, many people react emotionally. “I want to be a beekeeper and save the bees,” they think, but they don’t always know how to find the tools to successfully bee-keep here in central New Hampshire. She gives three broad guidelines.

First, she says, “start with healthy bees from northern beekeepers willing to split a hive” of Russian, Carniolan, or Buckfast bees that are acclimated to our cold temperatures and short pollen seasons. Check that the bees are “not dependent on artificial supplemental feeding,” and make sure they have already overwintered in the north, in a plant hardiness zone of 5 or 6. You do not want bees that have been treated for mites. Hardy bees that have built their immune systems will be able to fight off mites themselves.

Second, she recommends that prospective beekeepers join a reputable bee school. There are great beekeepers in central New Hampshire and across the border into Maine, who are “really learning how to sustainably raise their own bees” and are willing to share their knowledge. Look for teachers who will instruct you on how to take care of healthy bees. For years, the emphasis has been on trying to bring health to sick bees through forced supplemental feeding and artificial pollen. Beekeepers successful at overwintering honey bees start their students with healthy, climate-ready stock and teach them how to retain health in the hive. In addition, a reputable bee mentor will make sure they take on only enough students as they can connect with a healthy starter hive. Although it used to be common for mentors to hook students up with bees gathered commercially, the market has become increasingly infested with mercenary providers who don’t think twice about selling sick bees, Athena warns.

Yes, beginner and intermediate bee school will cost $200 or more, but keep in mind that the investment can be recouped in savings from having to restock your hives. Besides, reputable bee school educators aren’t looking for quick money. Like their bees, they tend to be incredibly altruistic. “If you’re making a profit in [backyard] beekeeping, you’re probably doing something not honest,” says Athena.

Finally, just like honey bees, beekeepers thrive best when they live and work cooperatively. Athena strongly recommends that both new and veteran beekeepers join a club. Beekeeping practices are changing and bees thrive under a variety of management practices. It’s important to keep up, and a team-led club, like the local Winnipesaukee Beekeepers, can offer invaluable opportunity to learn about a wide variety of methods. No single leader dictates how things “should” be done.

Not interested in beekeeping, but still want to support a friendly environment for pollinators? Keep in mind these guidelines: when landscaping, use native plants to attract northern-acclimated pollinators; plant in “waves” so something colorful blooms all season long; include a water source or bare ground that will collect water—bees drink loads of water when pollinating; plant a variety of flowers in clusters so the bees can find them easily; and avoid pesticides. Pesticides are carried in pollen back to the hive. They weaken bees’ immune systems and can be transferred in honey production.

Looking at her hives, Athena says she anticipates four more weeks of good foraging for her bees and looks forward to teaching her current class of 22 students about overwintering of their hives. She expects to open a new class for beginning beekeepers later this fall. It’s good for her soul, she says. “When you start losing faith in humanity and wonder what this world is coming to…and then you have 22 students who care about the world and are doing a great job with their resources…” her voice trails off, satisfied.

To learn more about beekeeping in the Lakes Region, contact Winnipesaukee Beekeepers at, or attend their first Thursday monthly meetings at the Tuftonboro Townhouse. Athena Contus can be found at Wonalancet Honey Bee Company, 1805 Route 16, Ossipee, Monday through Friday, 10 am to 3 pm, or call 603-733-7736.






































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