Urban Farmer Helping Give Bees a Chance

By SOPHIE DUNCAN/ecoRI News contributor

BLACKSTONE, Mass. — Natural pollinators such as honeybees are responsible for a third of the food we eat — the equivalent to one daily meal. This essential relationship between pollinators and people makes the recent decline in the honeybee population particularly concerning.

As Chris Combs, beekeeper and founder of the organization Giving Bees a Chance!, explains: “If you like food then you need bees to pollinate your food and flowers.” In addition to being efficient pollinators and spurring crop growth, honeybees also produce wax and, of course, honey.

Even with about 40,000 bees, Combs describes himself as a “backyard beekeeper.” Seven years ago, inspired by a neighbor’s hives, he enrolled in a beekeeping course. Combs started with two hives and two packages, each containing 10,000 bees, and cared for them according to the commercial practices he was taught.

Commercial practices involve harvesting honey both in the fall and spring, which requires beekeepers to substitute sugar syrup for honey, the bee’s natural food source. As the urban farmer learned more about healthy beekeeping practices, he transitioned to only harvesting the surplus honey available in the spring.

“In the summer you can pick a piece of fruit so you don’t need to open a can of peas (until winter … similarly) bees put their honey away for winter for when they can’t collect their honey (from plants),” Combs says.

It didn’t make sense to Combs to introduce an inferior substance to the hive — he describes sugar syrup as the “bee equivalent to McDonald's" — when the bees already thrive on their own high-quality, self-produced food. Having access to honey during the winter increases the well being of the hive, he says.

“Don’t bring anything into the hive that the bees wouldn’t bring in themselves,” Combs says. “It’s not about (harvesting) the honey but keeping the bees healthy.”

Still, Combs harvests about 100 pounds of honey from each of his hives.

He is committed to increasing the number of small-scale beekeepers and introducing bees to new areas. As a non-commercial beekeeper, Combs understands the challenges aspiring beekeepers face. Among the many services Giving Bees a Chance! provides, it eases the transition from the classroom to building a hive at home.

Managing a backyard beehive is a realistic possibility for many people, Combs says. The hive itself only requires a 4-feet-by-4-feet area consisting of the physical structure, which includes the hive, a hive stand, a bottom board with a screen and an opening to allow the bees to come and go freely. Within the hive there is a brood box containing several frames, upon which the bees build their honeycomb.

Traditionally, these frames come with pre-made wax, but Combs sees no need to introduce a foreign substance when the bees will produce their own. “They have been (successfully) doing it a lot longer than we have,” he says. Combs removes the backing from these frames, replacing it with popsicle sticks on which the bees create their own wax backing.

Beginning beekeepers will generally not see honey until the second year, according to Combs, because new hives spend the first year building wax. However, once the frames are full of honey, the wax cap over the honey must be removed and the honey extracted.

Giving Bees a Chance! offers extraction services to enable beekeepers without extraction equipment to enjoy their honey. The wax can be saved and used for candle making.

As a gardener, urban farmer and beekeeper Combs is attuned to the relationship between both his garden and his bees. Combs and his neighbors have noticed increased productivity in their gardens, and the flavor of the honey reflects the plants the bees pollinated that season. Combs describes spring honey as having a “fruity, wildflower flower” flavor, and fall honey as more “earthy.”

Using agricultural chemicals in home gardens impacts bee health, so Combs opts for chemical-free gardening. Because of the danger of chemicals to hives, according to Combs, increasing the number of beekeepers will result in a widespread “commitment to being more natural.”  Honeybees pollinate within a 3- to 5-mile radius of their hive, so it is particularly important that people, not just beekeepers, avoid using chemicals in their garden, Combs says.

With Giving Bees a Chance!, Combs hopes to inspire local action in response to the global disruption of bee populations. Each new beekeeper represents an entire community benefited by the bees’ presence, he says. Combs has taken the initiative to remind people of the impact that bees have in their gardens and on their plates.

“If people want to eat gruel, ignore the bees,” he says.