One of my very first memories is of stepping on a bee. The details are foggy, but I do remember walking around barefoot on my driveway one minute, then sitting down and crying the next. Fast forward two decades, past countless bee stings while playing in the yard, camping and hiking, and I find myself in a veil, white coat and honey-coated gloves, willingly walking toward a busy beehive. I’m following Saratoga Springs-based beekeeper, Jen Dunn, whose indifference toward the thousands of bees swarming around us makes me feel a little braver. But I’m still in a cold sweat.
“In my experience, knowing a beekeeper is often the gateway to becoming one,” Dunn says. When Dunn was living in Germany in high school, her landlords kept bees, and the idea of taking up the hobby stayed in the back of her mind. It wasn’t until three years ago when she moved back to Saratoga from Rwanda—where a swarm of bees had taken up residence in her laundry room, making her what she calls a “bee haver” rather than a keeper—that she decided to get her own hive. Now, Dunn keeps 14 bee colonies, each of which can have up to 70,000 bees in it, in three locations: her home in Saratoga; Betterbee, one of three major bee supply companies in the country, located in Greenwich; and Pitney Meadows Community Farm, where she’s proposing to the farm board a community apiary where people can rent hives for a year and learn beekeeping from her.
Out in the backyard, Dunn walks me through a hive check-in, making sure the queen—marked with a white dot—is where she’s supposed to be and that the bees aren’t forming swarm cells, which indicate that the queen’s going to leave to form a new colony. Throughout the process, Dunn chats casually about bee reproductive processes and behavior, all the while fidgeting around in the hive without gloves. I, meanwhile, am focused on making myself invisible.
Finally, Dunn puts the lid back on the hive’s box, and I can breathe again. In her kitchen, we extract honey from two honeycombs using a large, barrel-shaped contraption, and fill two mason jars. Dunn sells her honey on Facebook, with the help of her two daughters and to St. Peter’s Church. “I feel like I should share my honey,” Dunn says. “I’ve always felt this. Since I started keeping the bees, I felt like the bees were doing most of the work.” For that reason, she keeps 50 percent of her profits from sales to St. Peter’s, to cover the cost of production, and donates the rest of the money to SNACpack (Saratoga Nutrition Assistance For Children), an organization that provides food for children in need.
Saratoga County’s actually a great place to keep bees, says Dunn, not only because we have a resource like Betterbee so close by, but also because of the diverse flora in our area, which offers bees a number of sources from which to forage. The big picture, though, shows honeybee populations suffering. Between 1947 and 2008, the number of hives in the US dropped 60 percent, from 6 million to 2.4 million, according to the U.S. National Agricultural Statistics. Dunn identifies three main reasons for the decline: monocultures, because they give bees only one foraging source; neonicotinoid pesticides, a type of agricultural insecticide that was just banned in Europe; and the Varroa destructor, a parasitic mite that attacks honeybees. Dunn pulls up some photos on her computer of her bees, showing the adverse effects of the mites, including a virus that causes deformities in bees’ wings and abdomens. “I just learned this, and it’s why SNACpack really appeals to me,” says Dunn. “One of the biggest problems caused by the Varroa is malnutrition. Nurse bees get sick and can’t take care of their brood, so the brood doesn’t have enough food to properly develop. I think that’s so sad—bees are starving as babies!”
With honeybees dying off en masse, it’s caring beekeepers like Jen Dunn who may ultimately save them. And now that I know her, if what she says is true—if knowing a beekeeper really is the gateway to becoming a beekeeper—I may be joining the bee-saving force, too. Traumatic childhood memories be damned.
Watch saratoga living‘s Natalie Moore and Madeline Conroy reporting from a swarming beehive on Facebook Live here.