By Chelsea Staub
On an early summer evening with streams of gorgeous flooding light, Robin MacEwan drove to a friend’s farmhouse in West Virginia, a temporary home for the summer. Nearing the house, MacEwan looked to the mature apple trees that stood in front of the house, only to find a dense cloud of tens of thousands of bees moving their way through the sky. After only one day of beekeeping, the bees absconded from their new boxed homes, leaving the farmhouse behind.
This was MacEwan’s introduction to beekeeping. A memory of running into the house and throwing on a veil with the question, “Is this what it’s like to keep you?”
Despite reading books on beekeeping and hours preparing their boxes, no one prepared her for the possibility of a swarm. For some unknown reason, the bees simply did not like the boxes they were put in (possibly due to the cleaning agent used), causing them to take flight to find a new home.
Large clouds of bees from movie stills flooded my mind. The striking, and somewhat traumatic, memory for MacEwan contrasts greatly with her calm demeanor that I’m introduced to.
But that summer evening was almost 30 years ago. “I’ve learned a lot since then,” said MacEwan. “Bees are very complex and fascinating and amazing and so you never run out of things to learn about.”
Far from West Virginia, in a hidden Northampton neighborhood removed from the bustle of downtown, Little Wren Farm sits between residential houses, tightly tucked onto a .17-acre plot. MacEwan raked quietly in her backyard-turned-apiary, welcoming me in with a warm smile. As I pushed past the gate, a quaint backyard revealed a lively world.
“This is pretty active today,” said MacEwan. “A few weeks ago, if you came here, you would not know that we had bees.”
A nearby pot of slate rocks and moss created a treasure trove of flowing bees. Far from the warmth of spring, their low hum contrasted with the stagnant temperature of 45 degrees, making it a special treat to witness their movement on such a chilly day.
MacEwan pointed at the bees flying around the moss. “This is where they’re getting their water right now,” said MacEwan. “Few of them found it a week ago and they told the other bees and now they’re drinking water, bringing it back to the hive, and sharing with other bees.”
Besides the moss and movement from the bees, no other form of life had sprung up yet. Although it was the end of March, winter’s dregs held on tightly, keeping the backyard garden bare. The bees seemed like the only indication of spring’s inevitable arrival. MacEwan’s private garden, which usually grows an assortment of organic fruits, vegetables, and various pollinator plants, laid dormant. To an outside viewer, the hives appeared silent.
But behind the scenes, the preparation for the new season already began brewing. Thousands of bees clustered inside the hives, waiting for warmer temperatures to rise. The colonies successfully made it through winter (a nerve wrecking wait for the beekeeper) and although spring hadn’t fully hit yet, the bees slowly started coming out again, ready to start their season of rebuilding. Warmer months mean building stores for next winter.
Like the age-old, overdone New England joke, the bees seem to follow the two seasons of winter and construction. It seems to work that way for MacEwan too, as the most important goal during the year is to ensure the colony goes into fall strong and healthy with plenty of resources.
Despite the lack of greenery, the bees have been bringing in pollen on and off for a few weeks, primarily from maple flower buds on a nearby Silver Maple tree. By May, their pollen and nectar intake will increase, and depending on the weather, MacEwan will have the first honey harvest in June. The honey from June brings a light shade with nuanced flavors; local spring flowers create distinctive flavors that differ from the fall’s dark hue and robust taste.
For the bees, early summer means rapidly growing colonies and bringing in resources for the hive. The queen lays eggs, and the population continues to swell. At some point, the expansion of the colony results in too many bees and a decision among the hive is made. If things are looking good to the worker bees (meaning a booming population with plenty of resources of nectar and pollen), they prepare for a process known as “swarming,” or an event like MacEwan’s experience in West Virginia.
To the outside world, or to us humans, their preparation feels hardly noticeable at first. But when worker bees begin building separate cells for the queen, the beekeeper can prepare for the shift.
“At some point it becomes obvious that they begin to build a different kind of cell for the queen to lay eggs in,” said MacEwan.
The newly constructed cells allow room for eggs meant to grow new queens. The eggs turn into larvae then to pupa, then the worker bees cap the cell. However, unlike regular bee cells, the capped queen cells resemble something larger and more peanut-shaped.
“At the point of which those are capped, the worker bees say, ‘OK, we’ve created the beginnings of a new queen for this hive, and half of us, give or take, a third, half, are going to leave with the existing queen,’” said MacEwan.
After deciding on the day and time of their swarm, the bees run the queen out of the hive, ready to begin a new colony. The bees follow the queen until she lands, then form a large cluster on top of her until a new home is determined. While the cluster waits, scout bees leave and return with information on potential new homes, communicating with the other bees of their findings.
“They come back and they dance a little dance that you might have heard about, in which describes to the other bees what they’ve found,” said MacEwan. “And then the other bees say, ‘That one sounds like a good one, I’m going to go check it out too’ and they eventually come to essentially a consensus about the best option.”
This agreement among the bees means that the entire cluster flies to the new spot, moving into their new home, and now, one colony has transformed into two.
MacEwan’s calm voice and detailed narration of a bee’s life further enhanced my moment of escapism – the adventures of bees felt like listening to a beautiful children’s story book. MacEwan’s portrayal gave them exciting lives, while a quiet passion and tenderness toward the bees made them feel somewhat humanized.
While the conversation provided me with a deeper understanding of bees, it also reflected a sense of harmony MacEwan brings to beekeeping.
MacEwan maintains control over the bees by ensuring that a large swarm (like the one in West Virginia) doesn’t overwhelm the small neighborhood, a careful balance needed when beekeeping, especially in a residential area. Swarming can be a huge detriment to the beekeeper, who can easily lose a large portion of their honey producing population. Yet, swarming maintains the greater health of the bees, making it a necessary transition. The balance between the greater health of the hive and the beekeeper’s interest in honey takes careful diligence.
“The other consideration we have in the neighborhood is it’s hard to explain or justify perhaps a swarm of 20,000 bees flying down the street,” said MacEwan. “So, we try very hard to minimize the potential for that to happen by allowing them to expand in a more manageable way.”
This crucial step entails watching the bees closely, then splitting them into a separate hive at the apiary before a swarm can develop. “We try to be good neighbors and not have too much excitement in the neighborhood,” said MacEwan with a smile.
MacEwan balances between caring for two communities: the humans and the bees. Providing honey to humans must harmonize with the overall health of the hive. Taking too much honey from the bees could result in a hive not making it through the winter.
Bees need to collect pollen and nectar to keep raising young, healthy bees while simultaneously keeping the hive warm during the colder months. MacEwan leaves 100 pounds of honey in each hive throughout the winter, a little more than they need, allowing the dense cluster of bees to keep their egg-laying queen comfortable and warm. “Warm” for the area surrounding the queen needs to hover around a balmy 90 degrees.
The hive must also be warm enough for the bees to move comfortably throughout the hive. Sometimes, the winter makes the outside of the bee cluster so cold, that the cluster can’t move. Eating honey offers the bees fuel to stay warm, but they need to be able to access it. The 100 pounds left by MacEwan allows for extra honey, maximizing their chances of surviving the winter by keeping them from starvation.
“So, people often ask us, ‘What do you mean you don’t have honey?’ Well, we left over 400 pounds of honey in the boxes and the bees need it and they’re not producing honey in January ‘cause there’s nowhere to bring it in from and it’s too cold,” said MacEwan. “But it’s fascinating because we’ve gotten, to some extent, so removed from the natural environment.”
My conversation with MacEwan reminded me of how disconnected we’ve become from our food. A 2022 study found that 72 percent of respondents in the United States purchase their groceries at the supermarket, whereas only 20 percent shop at farmer’s markets, and only 15 percent shop at organic food stores.
We’ve become accustomed to accessing food perfectly packaged and readily available, straight from the grocery store. It’s no surprise that many of MacEwan’s consumers don’t realize local honey isn’t available to them year around.
With this disconnect, it’s easy for us to forget how much we rely on pollinators for our food and our own connection to the natural world. Out of the 1,400 crops grown around the world, almost 80 percent need pollinators. Additionally, pollinators create a positive impact on our ecosystem, providing reproduction to plants that aid in purifying our air, water, and soil.
Beekeeping for MacEwan extends beyond simply selling a product; she seeks to educate. “The underlying passion for me relates to the health of the environment and my curiosity about natural systems and ecosystem functions,” said MacEwan. Through honey, MacEwan preserves the “health of the environment” by keeping the wellbeing of local communities (both human and bee) in mind.
With their profit, Little Wren Farm donates 10 percent to organizations such as Indigenous Environmental Network, Climate Justice Alliance, Eden Reforestation Projects, Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust, and more – all organizations that “promote the resilience of our natural environments and our communities.”
MacEwan moves on micro and macro levels. With a commitment to no plastic, only recyclable or biodegradable materials are used for bottling and packaging at the apiary, helping to minimize their environmental impact.
Farmers markets and curbside pickup allows for opportunities to sell honey, but also to chat with the community, educating through meaningful conversations. Whether its introducing children to our ecosystems or connecting adults back to the natural world, MacEwan eagerly shares the knowledge she’s gained throughout the years, ultimately, igniting change through the guise of bees.
“It’s at the most grassroots level,” said MacEwan. “It’s one person at a time.”
Shop Little Wren Farm for honey, body butter, beeswax candles and all-natural beeswax lip balm at littlewren.farm or call (413) 275-7371 to place an order over the phone.
Honey Bread Rolls to share with your community:
(Recipe taken from kirbiecravings.com)
2 tsp active dry yeast
1 cup lukewarm water, around 100 degrees Fahrenheit
¼ cup plus 1 tbsp honey, divided
1 tsp salt
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
In a large mixing bowl, sprinkle yeast over the warm water and leave it for five minutes. Then add 1/4 cup honey, salt and egg and stir until combined.
Add flour and stir until the dough comes together.
In a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, knead the dough for about seven minutes or until the dough is elastic. If dough is too sticky to work with, add flour (about 1 tbsp at a time) and knead it into the dough until it is elastic. Be careful not to add too much flour or it will make your rolls very dense.
Transfer the dough to a lightly greased bowl. Cover it with plastic wrap and a clean dish towel. Leave the dough to rise for about two hours or until it’s doubled in size.
Grease a 9 x 13-inch baking pan or a baking sheet. Slightly punch down the dough to deflate it. Divide the dough into 12 equal parts. Form each part into a ball and place each in the prepared pan or sheet.
Cover the pan with a dish towel and rest the dough balls for about 20 minutes. While the dough balls rest, preheat the oven to 400°F.
In a small bowl, combine the melted butter with remaining honey. Brush the honey over the surface of the rolls. Bake the rolls for 10-13 minutes or until tops are light brown and rolls are cooked through.