In 1989, Chris Harp decided to purchase a small home and rustic property off Plains Rd. in New Paltz, close to the banks of the Wallkill River. He was working as a resident counselor at Gateway Industries and at Gadaleto’s Fish Market trying to put himself through college.
On the property there was an old back house the previous owner used as a machine shop. “It was full of all kinds of junk so I rented a dumpster, cleaned it all out and as I did that, I noticed that the roof was rotted and would not likely last the winter,” said Harp. He hired a roofer who discovered that the shed was home to a beehive. “I don’t work where there’s bees,” the guy said. “I don’t like bees.” Not knowing what to do, Harp called his grandmother, Stella Harp, who lived in town, and asked if she knew any beekeepers who might want to addo to their hives. A quick search turned up empty.
“The guy was on the clock and I was paying him to sit around so finally I called an exterminator to fumigate them, which he did,” said Harp.
When Harp walked into his newly cleaned back house with its lovely new roof he found behind an old wall a massive pile of over 10,000 dead bees and what looked like a hundred pounds of honey. “I couldn’t eat the honey because of the pesticides,” he said. “Looking at the dead bees and the poisoned honey I suddenly felt ill. What had a I done?”
Harp felt compelled to try and make some sort of amends, so he bought a beehive. “I felt like I had to replace what I had taken from nature,” he said. “I went from exterminating them to marveling at them. They taught me.”
Thirty years later, Harp is a professional beekeeper, honey producer and seller, apiary (collection of beehives) manager, instructor and naturalist. He and his partner Grai St. Clair Rice have over 60 active hives.
Outside of his modest home is an old-fashioned Spanky and Our Gang pull cart with fresh jars of raw honey for sale. Out back are the stacked boxes of bee colonies with aged bricks weighting the top down. Each one has its own distinct colors and character and varying degrees of height. There are mason jars filled with bee food that include a mixture of water, sugar, chamomile, thyme and sea salt. Nearby are mass plantings of purple coneflower, goldenrod, milkweed, beebalm and Joe Pye weed— all honeybee-loving flowers. Behind one of the main groups of beehives is a grove of trees where you can see the bees dance against the dark backdrop. “If they were in a meadow you couldn’t see their dances that well,” said Rice. “Especially after a long day, it’s absolutely mesmerizing to come back here and sit and just watch them.”
Rice, who used to work for CNN before meeting Harp and becoming saturated in bee culture and life, said that “after you’ve been a beekeeper for a while you start to recognize their dance.”
The bees themselves, when seen through the eyes of an educated beekeeper like Harp or Rice, are fascinating. All of the corny clichés “busy as a bee,” or “making a beeline” begin to make perfect sense as you watch them do their work. The queen bee can produce upwards of 900 eggs a day and she is tended to and fed and protected by the colony. Each colony has approximately 40,000 bees and within those colonies are “thousands of jobs that each bee fulfills and does without having to be told,” said Harp. “They do it because it needs to be done and it’s for the greater good of the community. They’re a super-organism like coral reefs, where each part makes up the whole and they know they cannot survive without each other. We have a lot to learn from them.”
Harp said domestic beehives, if done with organic methods, are necessary to help mitigate the loss of honeybees from insecticides and herbicides. “What is so wrong with a dandelion? People don’t realize that in an effort to keep their lawn perfectly green and free of dandelions that they are killing off our bee population,” said Harp. “Loss of habitat also has a huge impact and industrial farming, but the herbicides cause the greatest damage.”
Bees have been around for approximately 100 million years—98 million more years than humans yet we seem to be hell bent towards destruction. “We’re killing ourselves,” said Harp. “It’s our food supply. Pollinators also help biodiversity.”
In an effort to show Ulster Publishing how meditative and safe beekeeping can be, Harp carefully took the top off one of the hives and lifted the top box, which was heavy with honey. He then inspected a few more of the boxes to get the temperature of the hive, how many eggs were being laid, the music of the nursemaids tending to the about-to-be-born baby bees and the drones flying about waiting to mate with the queen. As he did this he would casually ask Rice for “smoke please” and she would squeeze a little tin puffer of smoke on his cheek or wherever he signaled her to. There were no gloves, no suits, no face nets…. just the sound of humming and buzzing and the spellbinding shapes of the honeycomb and the waggle dances of the female bees which they repeated over and over again to show their fellow sisters where the best pollen could be found. Harp points out that work showing the significance of that dance, which conveys the exact location of distant food sources, was the subject of a 1973 Nobel Prize. “They will beeline straight to it and be no more than a meter from it,” said Harp as he slowly lowered another frame filled with bees back into the box. “It’s unbelievable.” At first there is just the chaos and buzzing of wings and bees circling around. But after a short time there is a quietude that comes in and a strange calming beauty of this intricate super society at work.
Harp and Rice have dedicated a good portion of their work lives to education. They began www.honeybeelives.org a naturalists approach to beekeeping, based in the Hudson Valley, and aimed at inspiring and nurturing beginning beekeepers and arming them with the tools and knowledge they need as well as encouraging veteran beekeepers to get over hurdles they might be facing with their hives and to adopt organic, biodynamic approaches.
Their seasonal courses often take place at Deyo Hall on Historic Street in Huguenot Street in New Paltz, or upon request, and include introduction lectures on honeybees and organic beekeeping as well as how to plan a new hive for the spring, how to inspect and maintain a healthy hive, how to prepare a hive for winter and understanding your bees and caring for them.
“Our classes take place over a weekend so we’re looking at 16 hours of material to focus on,” said Rice. She said it takes around three years for a beekeeper to learn the craft. There are all of the missteps and acts of nature that anyone caring for anything can run into and with bees it could be mites, or bad weather or a swarm that gets away. The queen could die, the colony could succumb to a parasite infestation. But there are always lessons to be learned and new hives to begin.
If bees are not your thing, but you want to do your part to help them and nurture their existence, there are also classes on how to plant bee gardens. Harp suggests mass plantings of the same type of flower because honeybees only visit flowers of the same variety on each flight. That’s why they find concentrations of one type attractive.
They also offer apiary services for people that want to maintain beehives but do not have the time or wherewithal to do so. “There are several estates where I tend to their beehives,” said Harp.
And then there’s the actual honey, the fruit of the bees and the beekeeper’s labor. Raw honey, not the pasteurized honey Harp calls “just expensive sweetener,” has been used for thousands of years as salve for burns or cuts to the skin. Because of its thickness it keeps air out and with all its active enzymes it “kills bacteria and prevents infection,” said Rice. Raw, local honey carries with it all types of pollen and thus serves as a sort of natural vaccine against seasonal allergies, boosts the immune system and helps to coat a soar throat besides just being delicious and full of different flavors and variety based on the season and what’s in bloom.
To learn more about their courses, purchase honey or seek out their apiary services go to www.honeybeelives.org.
Read more articles from our Home Hudson Valley: Fall Home Improvement special section here.