Published August 17. 2013 4:00AM Updated August 17. 2013 4:07PM
After pumping his smoker a few times, scenting the air with the woodsy aroma of his unique concoction of cedar chips, pine needles and sumac heads smouldering inside, Mark Creighton pried one of the bee-laden frames from the hive for a closer look.
"The first thing I want to do is look for eggs," Creighton, a one-man defense force and ambassador of the state's population of these vital agricultural pollinators, told beekeeper Karen Parker on Thursday as the two hovered around one of the three hives in the yard of her Old Lyme home.
Holding the frame in front of him, thousands of honeybees circled him and the hive, clustered on the frame and festooned off its edges, acrobat-style, some with legs fattened by orange pollen that Parker likened to clown pants. Both Creighton and Parker wore white head-to-toe beekeeping suits, but, unlike Parker, Creighton maneuvered around the frame with ungloved hands, gently pushing bees aside to check the brood nests, then using his palm to scoop a cluster into a kitchen measuring cup for a "sugar shake" test for parasitic mites.
Respect for the bees and a calm demeanor, he said, were sufficient shield.
"The number one killer of bees is the varroa mite," Creighton said. "It vectors many different viruses. There are varroa mites in every hive. You just have to keep them below the threshold level."
As the only person in the state to hold the title of apiary inspector, Creighton is on the front lines of keeping a vigilant watch for pathogens that can decimate hives and quickly spread to neighboring ones. But ask him about bee colony collapse - the well-publicized condition plaguing bee populations worldwide that has been linked to bees' exposure to cocktails of agricultural pesticides - and he gives a surprising response for one so obviously knowledgeable about the complex biology, behavior and husbandry techniques of honeybees.
"I don't know what colony collapse disorder really is," said Creighton, 55, who became the state's apiary inspector two years ago after careers as a Coast Guard paramedic and licensed practical nurse. "We have had no documented cases of colony collapse disorder in Connecticut. But we do have to be proactive about our hives, and to be a successful beekeeper you have to limit your chemical footprint and not use chemical treatment unnecessarily."
Colony collapse disorder, in his view, is a catch-all name for any one of the diseases and pest infestations that can afflict hives, but in most cases, can be kept at bay with attentive management. At Parker's, he noted the carpet squares and black plastic she had placed underneath each hive tower since his last visit in the spring, just after she lost all of her honeybees to a beetle infestation and had to start over.
In a post-mortem consultation, Creighton had advised her to add the carpet and plastic to create a barrier against another infestation coming up out of the soil. Generous with his time and expertise, he suggested the bees were crowded in one of the hives and helped her add a new section, then recommended another change to increase honey production.
A need for expertise
Parker said she's called on Creighton several times for help, lamenting that the state only pays him to work eight months a year. With all the problems facing bees these days, she said, there's a big need for his expertise for public education and one-on-one consultations with beekeepers year-round.
"Most people don't realize that one-third of all the food we put in our mouths is pollinated by bees," said Parker, who's been a hobbyist beekeeper for five years and hosts Sunday morning meetings of an informal shoreline beekeepers group at her home.
Across the state, Creighton said, there are 780 beekeepers with about 6,000 hives registered with his office at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven, along with another 300 or so who aren't registered. He tries to bring them into the fold, stopping to leave his card or chat with the owner whenever he gets a call from a concerned neighbor, or spots an unfamiliar hive along the hundreds of miles he logs going between hives at farms, backyards and at the experiment station's three research farms.
"Driving around as much as I do, after a while you kind of get an eye for spotting beehives in fields," he said.
Most of the state's beekeepers have only a few hives, collecting just enough honey and candlewax for themselves and friends, or maybe selling a few jars at country fairs and farmers markets. Parker, for one, said that while she's passionate about bees and beekeeping, she does it purely for the satisfaction of knowing she's helping foster the continuance of one of the engines of a healthy environment.
"I'm a massage therapist and community herbalist, and bees were just a good adjunct to that," she said. "I always wanted to keep bees, because it's helping the garden and it's helping the earth."
There are about 10 commercial-sized apiaries with 100 or more hives in the state, Creighton said. The number of beekeepers and interest in beekeeping has been growing in recent years, he noted, with hives now found on rooftops of New York City hotels and urban community gardens, and would-be beekeepers filling adult education classes.
"In July I inspected 126 hives, and so far in August I've inspected 75," said Creighton, a longtime hobbyist beekeeper who keeps about 20 hives at his home in Portland and two other sites, and received his master beekeeper training at Cornell University. "Currently I only go to people who call me. That keeps me busy enough. I don't by law need an invitation. But I want that one-on-one interaction with the beekeeper."
A couple of weeks ago, an East Hampton beekeeper invited Creighton to check his hives. There, Creighton found one of the most contagious hive diseases, American foulbrood. He reported it to the state entomologist, who then ordered the four hives be burned.
While that interaction ended in a necessary if painful decision, most of Creighton's visits are more about one-on-one education of beekeepers in how to prevent diseases and strengthen their hives, as well as diagnosing and treating pathogens before an infestation turns ruinous. After visiting Parker Thursday, Creighton headed to Cranberry Meadow Farms in East Lyme to show owner Tom Kalal how to do just that.
"This has been my best honey year," said Kalal, who's been keeping bees for eight years, selling the honey from his 25-acre farm and at the Waterford farmers market. "I took all the honey on the Fourth of July, a couple hundred pounds."
Just like at Parker's, Creighton did the "sugar shake" test for varroa mites at Kalal's, scooping a cupful of bees into a jar. He then covered them with confectioner's sugar, covered the jar with a perforated cap, and shook it to create white "ghost bees" that shed mites that could no longer stay attached to the bees' sugar-coated bodies.
Upending the perforated jar, Creighton shook out the pinhead-sized mites into a bin, and the two counted. The count from the "sugar shake" test of one hive netted 26 mites, while the count from another netted seven.
"I would recommend we treat them both," Creighton told Kalal. He then demonstrated his preferred method: cupfuls of confectioner's sugar sifted once a week into the hives for three weeks. Social creatures with a sweet tooth, bees will groom the sugar off one another, and in the process rid their hives of mites. Kalal said that in the past he had used formic acid, a naturally occurring compound commonly used to control mites, but was willing to try Creighton's way.
"My philosophy is, why go to a chemical when we've got a nonchemical means?" Creighton said. "Why don't we try that first?"