Kind-hearted people rescue stray dogs and cats and find them homes, but Chris Layman does just the opposite when he rescues honeybees. If a hive has formed inside a house, and the homeowners are not happy to have them, Layman resettles the bees in an apiary at one of several sites, including the Thorn Preserve on John Joy Road in Woodstock.
The Thorn Preserve is a former farm acquired in 2011 by the Catskill Center for Conservation and Development (CCCD) and managed by the Woodstock Land Conservancy (WLC). On Friday, June 2, at 3 p.m., the public is invited to visit the Thorn Preserve and help plant native species whose pollen will feed the local honeybees.
Layman, a beekeeper and stonescape artisan, lives with his wife, Lisa, an herbalist and aromatherapist, at Fox Farm Apiary in Greene County, where they produce honey sold at Sunfrost, Woodstock Meats, and Hudson Valley Bee Supply. “Along with a lot of other people who had concerns about bees,” said Layman, “we decided to put our concerns into action and rescue bees from houses when they need to be removed.”
When Layman receives a call requesting removal — often forwarded from Hudson Valley Bee Supply in Kingston — he starts by assessing the situation to find out if anyone is endangered by the presence of the hive. If no one living in the house has an allergy to beestings, he tries to talk the homeowner into keeping the bees. “It’s a little traumatic to the hive to be moved,” he said. “We do some education, so people will know that the bees aren’t out to get us. A lot of times, people get stung when they’re standing in front of the hive or in the flight path.” Like many people of his generation, he grew up learning about bees from movies like Killer Bees and The Swarm, which produced exaggerated fears of the largely peaceable honeybee. Layman tries to raise awareness about the importance of bees and the need to nurture them.
Many environmentalists are concerned about the recent decline in honeybee populations resulting from infestation by the varroa mite, impacts of pesticides, and the reduction of habitat for plants supplying nectar and pollen to bees. With many food plants dependent on pollination by bees and other insects, protecting bee populations has become an important goal.
Moving a hive takes all night and is accomplished with the help of a vacuum designed to gently suck up bees. Once the bees are captured, Layman manually removes the comb, which contains the larvae and the queen, and transfers it to a box. The comb and the bees are relocated to Thorn or to one of two yards Layman has access to in Rhinebeck or Andes. He also examines the comb for signs of mite infestation, indicated by irregular brood patterns or deformed wings. Infestations are treated with organic substances such as formic acid or oxalic acid vapor, which will control the mites without harming the bees.
Two years ago, Layman approached Michael Drillinger of CCCD to propose setting up beehives at Thorn. Drillinger said, “He was willing to do public programming that fits in perfectly with our goals for the preserve,” including education, sustaining the environment, and providing a place for people to relax and commune with nature. The 60-acre property is composed of meadow, forest, and pond habitats. Layman said the field provides one of the few expanses in the Town of Woodstock where plants nutritious to the bees occur in abundance.
“Forests have reclaimed 90 percent of the town in the last 100 years,” said Layman. “There used to be more open space from farmland and from trees being cut down by the tanning industry. Where we are, a minimal amount of pesticides are being used in agriculture, so that’s good, but farms that grow hay don’t benefit the honeybees, since the plants are cut before flowering. At Thorn, they don’t cut the meadow until late fall.”
However, most of the plants in the Thorn meadow have finished flowering by midsummer, leaving a gap in the bees’ food supply. Sunflowers, wild lupine, and echinacea are late-season bloomers that Layman wants to sow in the meadow on June 2. “Sunflowers provide so much pollen,” said Layman, “which is the main food for honeybees. The honey keeps them alive in winter, but they can’t raise their young without pollen.”
The plantings at Thorn will focus on native species, part of the overall plan to maintain the meadow as a legacy property. But Layman said non-natives are also helpful to the honeybee, an Old World import that evolved in tandem with Old World plants. People frustrated by the spread of invasives, such as Japanese knotweed and purple loosestrife, can take comfort in the knowledge that these species provide abundant pollen and nectar for the bees. “Honeybees love Japanese knotweed,” said Layman. “You get an interesting honey with a caramel taste.”
Cultivated roses are often sprayed, but bees love the invasive wild roses, as well as the blossoms of many trees — locust, willow, catalpa, maple — which may have thousands of flowers each. Alder, a native swamp plant, provides all ten of the essential amino acids bees require. The forests have their role too, as birch trees are hosts for chaga and red reishi mushrooms, which are believed to be medicinal for the bees.
In our own yards, said Layman, we can supply food for honeybees by not mowing the dandelions, which provide pollen early in the year, as do crocuses and other bulb plants. Borage, a native of Syria, is a bee favorite that is easy to grow and has starry blue flowers that can be added to salads. Goldenrod, asters, milkweed, clover, vetch, and mint are among the flowers that nourish honeybees and can be easily cultivated in local gardens.
Join Woodstock Land Conservancy and beekeeper Chris Layman in a pollinator planting session on Friday, June 2, from 3 p.m. onward, at the Thorn Preserve, John Joy Road, Woodstock. Seeds and tools will be supplied. For more information on the preserve, see http://catskillcenter.org/thorn-preserve.