Howland Blackiston is always eager to talk about “my passionate hobby” and “my love affair with honey bees.”
Blackiston is a beekeeper. He is so knowledgeable and enthusiastic about it that he wrote Beekeeping For Dummies, now in its fourth printing.
Sitting in the living room of his home in Easton, Blackiston recalls the Dummies publishers approaching him about 20 years ago because they had read his magazine articles on the pleasures and techniques of beekeeping.
“By luck of the draw, after the first edition came out, beekeeping became a hot topic,” he says. “I rode the wave of interest and I’m still riding it. It’s one of the top-selling Dummies books. That’s amazing for a book about bugs.”
Ever since he was a kid, Blackiston has been interested in nature. “I always liked animals — creatures big and small.
“When I moved to Weston 35 years ago from Manhattan, I read an article about Ed Weiss, a beekeeper in Wilton. I wrote to him, saying I wanted to be a beekeeper and asking stupid questions like: ‘Do you think I’ll get stung?’ ”
This was no idle query. “I was terrified about it. But it turned out to be completely unfounded. Honey bees are very gentle. During my first year of beekeeping 30-some years ago, I wasn’t stung once; I was uber cautious. Since then I’ve been stung a few times every year because I’ve become more careless. Now I don’t mind it. It always hurts but it’s not as bad as being stung by a yellow jacket.” (His book includes two pages on “overcoming sting phobia” and tips for avoiding getting stung.)
Blackiston will readily wax poetic about his “super passion.” He confides, “I really do love these bugs. Like anything in nature, their society is so fascinating: their organization, discipline and teamwork, each with a responsibility. You become so close to it. You have the privilege of seeing how they work and live and die.”
He adds, “There’s something very relaxing about it: on a warm day, out with your bees, hearing their contented low hum. And there’s the wonderful smell of the honey!”
But then he addresses the alarming topic that’s on many minds these days. As he wrote in his book: “In many areas, millions of colonies of wild (or feral) honey bees have been wiped out by urbanization, pesticides, parasitic mites and a recent phenomenon called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Collectively, these challenges are devastating the honey bee population.”
Blackiston tells me the cause of CCD is unclear. “It’s probably not one thing. It’s a perfect storm: the viruses, loss of habitat, mites and pesticides.”
He says particularly toxic for honey bees is a relatively new class of pesticides, neonicotinoids. The student-led advocacy group ConnPIRG (Connecticut Public Interest Research Group) is calling on state legislators to ban such pesticides.
Blackiston says these new problems make it harder to be a beekeeper than when he began doing it in 1983. “It used to be that after the winter your hive was just boiling with bees: tens of thousands of them, ready to go. Now you’re lucky if they survive the winter.”
Because so many of his bees starved to death during our past severe winter — it was too cold for them to break their cluster and make it to the honey, just a few inches away — Blackiston drove to Newtown early this spring and bought bees for the new season. They had been shipped to Connecticut from Georgia.
Blackiston used to maintain 10 hives on his property in Weston. But when he moved to Easton two and a half years ago, he downsized to two hives. “There’s no advantage to having more than a couple. I still get the pleasure without the burden of all the work.”
But he says even if you have more than a few hives, it doesn’t take a lot of time to oversee them. “You only need to visit and inspect them about five times a year for a half-hour to an hour.”
When Blackiston brings me out to his backyard to show me his hives, he says I don’t have to worry about getting stung because it’s not yet 50 degrees on this April morning and the bees aren’t very active. But as I move toward the two hives, he warns, “Don’t stand in front!”
We look inside, where the bees are drinking sugar syrup out of a tray. “They’re working right now, building [honey]comb. They’re helping the queen; she’s laying eggs. They all have their job to do. That’s why they call them busy bees!”
He notes, “There are about 10,000 bees in each hive now. A hive will hold 60,000 bees. That could be 120 pounds of honey, if they’re good to me!”
Blackiston says his hobby has never been about money, although he used to sell his jars. “Now I give it away.”
He says this makes his neighbors happy. They also like having honey bees around because they are great pollinators. This results in more and larger flowers, fruits and vegetables. In his book, Blackiston wrote: “You may not have thought much about the role honey bees play in our everyday food supply. It is estimated that in North America around 30 percent of the food we consume is produced from bee-pollinated plants.”
If you don’t want to be a beekeeper but do want to make your lawn and garden bee-friendly, Blackiston suggests you plant garden flowers and vegetables that will give the bees nectar and pollen. Consider joining a bee club. He belongs to the Back Yard Beekeepers Association, with nearly 500 members.
Blackiston hopes more people will become beekeepers, simply because it’s a good way to protect the endangered honey bee. He wrote in his book: “Becoming a backyard beekeeper is the single best thing you can do to help our honey bees.”