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“Ta lendab mesipuu poole” is one of the most popular songs and sentiments of the massive Estonian song festivals. The poet, Juhan Liiv, writes of bees (signifying patriotic Estonians) who always fly towards the hive (their beloved home land). But this article is not about poetry or patriots, but of those conscientious striped pollinators, integral components of human survival. As Albert Einstein realized, “If the bee disappeared off the face of the Earth, man would only have four years left to live.”


Numerous sources mention that about seventy of the top 100 human food crops, supplying 90% of global nutrition, are pollinated by bees. Estonians have long been aware of the importance of these little creatures, and according to the Ministry of Agriculture, “In all 5,934 agricultural holdings and households produced honey in Estonia in 2012, including 17 professional beekeepers having more than 150 hives and more than 5,200 people keeping bees as a hobby.”


Rich Lepik is an EstonianAmerican who is promoting the importance and value of beekeeping through his position as vice-president of the Morris and Somerset County Beekeepers Association. He explains that honeybees, both wild and domestic, perform approximately 80% of global pollination, including fruits, nuts and vegetables. Rich has been involved with beessince 1961, when his uncle, Riks Morgen, invited him to become acquainted with the honey-makers. “I hid in a tree for three hours to avoid the inevitable. However, I became acquainted with bees and within a few years we had fifty hives on our NJ property” recalls Rich. “I was heavily involved with beekeeping for a while until I had to step back and concentrate on an accounting career. But I’ve always kept hives and especially enjoy presenting the  topic of beekeeping at schools, to civic groups and at community affairs.” In 2015 Rich acquainted Järvemetsa campers with the importance of bees during “Olevi Talu” laager. That is where I first met him and admitted my burgeoning interest in keeping bees. Rich graciously invited me to check his hives with him and gave me his personal calling card which states: Rich Lepik, Beekeeper.


I was told to wear something bright and to arrive by 11:00, since checking hives later than that is more disruptive to the bees. We drove to an organic farm where Rich keeps some of his hives. Handing me a helmet with a veil and gloves, Rich took a hive smoker with him. We neared the five hives, wooden boxes with drawer-like sections called “supers,” each with either eight or ten vertical frames within. Rich lifted the top off of one of them and proceeded to pump a soft, gentle smoke across the top. The smoke calms the bees, although they continue their busy work details. He explained various aspects of the  hives, location, condition, and health of each as he lifted a few frames out to inspect how much honey the bees had produced. Each hive had a small foil packet of material which kills varroa mites, a nasty enemy of bees and their hives. “Beekeeping was so much easier when I was younger,” observed Rich. “We didn’t have the problem with mites and there was much more nectar for the bees to gather from open pastures and wild flowers. Just the last couple decades have decimated so much natural habitat for the bees, and along with seasonal droughts, they’re having a tough time finding enough pollen.”


As my first bee experience ended Rich handed me a book entitled Robbing the Bees by Holley Bishop. “It’s a great book for anyone interested in learning about beekeeping,” instructed Rich. Full of fascinating information, Bishop writes, “Medieval warfare relied heavily on fear and handy materials, so bees were preferred projectiles. . .Being lightweight, portable, and fragile, beehives could be handily dropped over the ramparts onto enemy troops as they approached (154).

Mare Olsen was born in Estonia and arrived in America at the age of six. She and her husband Richard have kept bees for the last six years. “We were inspired to learn about bees so I took a few courses on the subject, which led to buying hardware and getting involved with the Morris and Somerset Beekeepers Association and meeting other beekeepers. There’s a whole world of beekeeping out there, but it has only recently began popping up everywhere. Even our local library in Harding Township has set up two hives,” she explained. “Last year they were able to extract honey, all by demonstration to local residents and hands-on participation, especially with kids, so it was quite rewarding all around.”


Humans need bees, but do they need us?


One might wonder why humans need to keep bees – do they really need our involvement? “Biologists have found more than 150 different chemical residues in bee pollen, a deadly ‘pesticide cocktail’  according to University of California apiculturist Eric Mussen” (“Save the BeesGreenpeace”). The same article explains that global bee colony collapse has become a major concern in recent years and, “Scientists know that bees are dying from a variety of factors – pesticides, drought, habitat destruction, nutrition deficit, air pollution, global warming and more. . .In the U.S. – among crops that require bee pollination – the number of bee colonies per hectare has declined by 90% since 1962.” In fact, according to Bishop, “As pollination and honey prices rise, honey and bee theft are increasingly frequent  gricultural crimes. . .Recently, microchips, the kind used to track pets, have been installed in some commercial hives, allowing owners to locate stolen bees and equipment and more effectively deter trespassers” (160-61).


If bees ceased pollinating, we would no longer enjoy broccoli, asparagus, cantaloupes, cucumbers, pumpkins, blueberries, watermelons, almonds, apples, cranberries and cherries.


According to Rich, “Beekeeping is all about community, with all bees in a hive from the same queen, and each bee has its own responsibility. As they mature survival is based not on the individual bee, but the hive as a unit.” On this topic Mare Olsen highly recommends reading Bee Democracy by Tom Sealy of Cornell University, who field tested and observed the private lives of bees.


“It’s fascinating to read how bees decide to swarm, how they find the best lodging of the right size and depth, how they measure the volume and area and rely on democratic consensus as to which prospective site is the most suitable,” Mare explains. “They’re amazing creatures which can be observed individually, yet to understand them completely, they must also be studied collectively. In fact, we had a wild hive in the siding of an old barn. It had been used by bee colonies for decades.”


“Järvemetsa Mesi”


Rich had proposed the idea that, “Järvemetsa laager might keep bees, which need nectar, open fields, a specific type of microcosm. If they were able to keep a few hives they could sell their own honey under the label of ‘Järvemetsa Mesi.’” Mare shared a tempting product incorporating honey – a mulled wine blending wildflower and orange blossom honey from Lakewood Vineyards of Watkins Glen, NY called “Mystic Mead.” Of course, Estonians produce delicious honey concoctions as well, and over twenty years ago I was able to bring a bottle of honey liquor back.


Bees are relatively small, and one might find it strange to develop an emotional connection to them, yet this is exactly what happens to those who keep bees. As Mare explains, “It’s surprising, but when a hive is ailing or when you open the hive in the spring and see all the bees dead, it’s very sad. You’ve developed emotions for them. Seeing dead bee bodies on the lading feels like a murderer has taken them out of their natural environment and failed them in some way.” Rich also bemoaned the fact that of his ten hives, three were lost to bears.


The mission of bee associations in Estonia and America is to educate its members on proper beekeeping through lectures and demonstrations as well as hands-on group activities. Last September I took part in a honey extraction day at Wagner Farms in NJ. Beekeepers (many of them novices) brought their  honeyfilled frames. Heated wide knives were used to melt and uncap the thin layer of beeswax with which the bees had covered each hexagonal cell in the honey frames. Those frames were placed upright in extracting machines which worked by turning a handle to maximize centrifugal force to extract the honey which flowed into jars or other containers everyone had brought with them. It was a sticky, rewarding experience.


Mare described a lesson she and her husband learned about bees. “We kept two hives in our backyard  and five at our neighbor’s farm. At the farm we needed to split a hive, dividing some bees into a newer, healthier hive. We began the lengthy process in the morning, but around noon black clouds flew across the sky and a torrential rainstorm was heading our way. What to do? Since all the hives were open we decided to close one and return after the rain. When we finally did come back the next day the bees were gone – gone forever! We learned a valuable lesson: if you start splitting hives, you cannot stop half way. Whatever the situation, continue until the job is complete.”


The Morris and Somerset Beekeepers Association sells honey and honey products (candy, soap, candles) at various fairs and exhibits in New Jersey. “My daughters, Alyssa and Erika, have been involved with bees for years,” explained Rich. “They go to fairs with me and sell the honey, earning extra money for college. It’s time-consuming, yet it’s part of the cycle of beekeeping.”


“We eat the honey and share it with neighbors, selling some at a farm stand to promote local honey,” stated Mare. “Last year we got around 100 pounds of honey – it’s a lot. We took only what we thought the bees could spare; they don’t make the honey for us.” Bees need to consume the honey they store to survive the winter. If the hive doesn’t produce enough on its own, some beekeepers feel inclined to feed their bees throughout the winter.


“The Morris and Somerset Beekeepers Association invites scientists, researchers and agriculturalists to discuss the state of pollination, of agriculture and how important bees are and the current state of affairs affecting them,” stated Mare. The myriad benefits of honey are described in long chapters throughout many books. Honey can be used as a salve, for beauty regimens, and as Bishop writes,  Depending on the floral source, a teaspoonful of honey provides twenty calories as well as antioxidants, amino acids, vitamins, and minerals including thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin C, calcium, iron, zinc, potassium, magnesium, selenium, copper and magnanese” (192).


My journey into the world of beekeeping is only in its early stages, but everyone should investigate how they can help our friends, the bees. Beginner beekeeping kits can cost anywhere from $250-$350 and have become quite popular. Even planting specific wildflowers and providing a small water source can help the plight of these hard-working and well-meaning creatures. We owe many thanks to this amazing yet underappreciated insect.


Virve Jõks Lane


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