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Darien's backyard beekeeping

Published 11:54 am, Thursday, September 5, 2013

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  • Backyard beekeepers Kathy Hammell and Cynthia Heck give away to family and friends the pounds of honey their bees produce. Photo: Megan Spicer
    Backyard beekeepers Kathy Hammell and Cynthia Heck give away to family and friends the pounds of honey their bees produce. Photo: Megan Spicer

 

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The four stacks of beehives, painted orange and white, are just down a slight slope behind Cynthia Heck's Greenleaf Avenue home in Darien. Right on the edge of the woods on the 1-acre property, the hives are a safe distance away from the back patio and fire pit.

Occasionally, one of the tens of thousands of honeybees that have become permanent residents in the Heck's backyard will wander from its hive and toward the home, but they don't pose a threat.

The hives, which she shares with Kathy Hammell, the Democratic registrar of voters, have been at Heck's home for roughly five years.

Heck was flipping through a magazine when she came upon an article about beekeeping, which she showed to Hammell. The article stirred interest in the friends, but at the time had not developed any further.

The women's fate would change, though, when the course catalogue from Norwalk Community College arrived in Hammell's mailbox. One of the classes? How to be a beekeeper.

That was all it took. The two enrolled in the class, and five years later, Hammell and Heck worked their way from two to five hives, which they keep in Heck's backyard.

Some years, they have had enormous luck with the amount of honey that their busy bees produce and other years they come up empty.

"The first year we got maybe 7 to 8 pounds of honey," Hammell said. There are other years, however, that they have come away with 160 pounds of honey.

One year, Hammell said, the bees produced no honey. Earlier in the year, robber bees had invaded their hives, attacked their 50,000 to 60,000 bees and took all of the honey.

"I think when we lose our hives, it's just flukes of nature," Hammell said. She and Heck don't use any chemicals on their hives, some of which have been attributed to the collapse of some hives.

That was the year that Hammell and Heck decided it was time to up their hives and keep one at Hammell's house, just in case they were invaded again. All of the hives have since been moved to Heck's house for ease of inspection.

While some beekeepers may check on their hives multiple times a week, Hammell and Heck look into theirs every other week.

"When you open the hive, you lose some productivity," Hammell said.

The hives are kept at a balmy 90 degrees year-round. The beating of the bees' wings keeps the hive warm. When the hives are opened, heat is lost and the bees need to work harder to regain it.

State Apiary Inspector Mark Creighton said every keeper has his or her own unique reason for starting a hive.

"One reason is because the problems there are with the massive die-offs and they want to do their part to help pollinate our flowers and crops," Creighton said.

"A lot of people want to get back to our historical roots," Creighton said. "When our forefathers came over, everyone had a hive with them. For many, many years, honey was the only sweetener until they imported cane sugar from Africa. Also wax. Wax burns so pure as a candle. There's still a lot of candle making done today from beeswax."

Creighton said he's seen an "explosion" of people that have taken an interest in beekeeping.

Creighton said attendance at their annual beekeeping schools has increased.

"We've probably had over 150 people in each of those programs," Creighton said. "A lot of people want to get back to our historical roots, and when our forefathers came over, and everyone had a hive with them."

When starting a new apiary, owners need to register their hives with the state Department of Agriculture.

For Hammell, keeping the relatively low number of hives is enjoyable.

"I like the honey," Hammell said, adding that she has given it as gifts to friends and family, but she and Heck have no plans of making soaps or candles.

mspicer@bcnnew.com;203-330-6583;@Meg_DarienNews