by Lisa Cavanaugh
On an early spring day in Sandwich, a determined worker bee is making her way back to a hive, her “pollen basket” laden with light yellow powder, likely gathered from nearby dandelions, crocuses, apple trees, or skunk cabbage. “Sometimes when a bee comes in, she has so much pollen it looks like she won’t make the stoop,” says longtime beekeeper Claire Desilets. “As the season progresses and different plants bloom, we can see quite a palette of color and to see it spread across a frame is quite something. It can be creamy white, red, or purple during the season.”
With 28 hives spread throughout Sandwich, Desilets rarely has a day when she is not interacting with honeybees. “I have ten hives in my backyard,” she says, “and within a mile or so of my house, there are two cranberry bogs where I keep hives. I maintain the hives at Green Briar Nature Center, and I have five hives at Crow Farm.” As the secretary for the Barnstable County Beekeepers Association (BCBA), Desilets also leads the group of volunteer members who tend to the association’s hives located at Cape Cod Organic Farm in Barnstable. “It’s my passion, I love to do it,” she says. “Bees keep me busy.”
Desilets is a retired pharmacist who first embraced beekeeping as a teenager at her local 4H club and has never looked back. “When my brother bought a cranberry bog in the Sandwich area in the late sixties, there was no one to take care of the bees for his hives, so I volunteered.”
Many Cape Cod beekeepers begin their hobby with an eye for producing backyard honey, but soon become fascinated with the complex network they observe within a bee colony. For Hyannis backyard beekeeper, Liz Fallon, caring for bees is both rewarding and exciting. “The first time I harvested honey was amazing,” says Fallon. “Even though the bees are doing the actual work—tending to the hive and caring for thousands of little creatures is truly a labor of love and I enjoy every moment of it.”
Claire Desilets uses a hive tool to carefully inspect a colony of bees for signs of healthy hive activity.
Photo Marcy Ford
Wearing a protective hood, gloves and long sleeves, Desilets lifts a frame out of one of her hives.
Photo Marcy Ford
Each time she opens a hive, Desilets is looking for signs of healthy hive activity; eggs, larvae, and pupae are all indications of a good laying queen. Frame by frame, she methodically inspects the brood pattern. “You also want to see stored pollen, nectar, and capped honey. There has to be honey or nectar for the bees to eat.”
Early in the season, especially if it has been a tough winter, Desilets might augment the bees’ food stores. “If they don’t have enough, I go back into the kitchen and mix up a simple sugar syrup for them. They have to get their carbs, so they have the energy to fly to find more nectar and pollen.”
Desilets, like all Cape Cod beekeepers, will also keep a keen eye out for signs of the dreaded Varroa mite, which has decimated local bee populations. If she sees evidence of mites, or if she needs assistance, she gets in touch with the state bee inspector. The mites have been known to take down entire hives, and local beekeepers have responded by paying more attention to their hives and also breeding stronger, more resilient bees.
"The first time I harvested honey was amazing, Even though the bees are doing the actual work—tending to the hive and caring for thousands of little creatures is truly a labor of love and I enjoy every moment of it."
Hyannis backyard beekeeper
Novice beekeepers have Desilets herself to turn to for advice and recommendations. As one of the longest-standing members of the BCBA and a teacher at the BCBA’s annual “bee school” that runs from January to March, Desilets has been a mentor to generations of new beekeepers. “Each year about forty people enroll in bee school, and I have ten or twelve mentees that I help throughout the season,” she says.
Many of Desilets’s students are drawn to beekeeping because they are looking for a deeper connection with nature, and others feel compelled to do their part to help the local honeybee population. However, for those who are unable to keep hives but want to be involved, Desilets suggests growing more pollinating plants. “Those of us with hives on the cranberry bogs and apple farms are making a difference in the fruit yield, and in turn it will make a difference if people have a vegetable garden and fruit trees in their backyards.”
Pollen is an indispensible and nutritious part of the honey bee diet.
Photo Marcy Ford
Bees are busiest between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., when they are out looking for nectar.
Photo Marcy Ford
One of Desilets’s former students is Eastham-based landscape architect Laura Kelley, who is also a big proponent of growing pollinator plants. “Even if you only have containers on your patio—why not grow something in them to attract bees?” Good pollinating plants include lupine, rose coreopsis, butterfly weed, goldenrod, and New England aster. Kelley shares a fascination for honeybees with Desilets, and although she is not tending to any hives this season, she still tends to pollinator plants in her backyard. “I sit on my porch and get so much value from watching bees,” says Kelley. “They say a beehive is the best communication system on the planet.”
That communication system is intricate, but a hive’s success is largely based on having a strong and healthy queen. To help hives along, Desilets works with Lynn Heslinga, the BCBA’s treasurer, to breed and raise queens. The goal is to breed hardy northern queens who can make it through Cape Cod winters. Currently, they raise queens by following a very advanced and involved process using grafted cells, and they’ve had great success. “When a queen emerges from our little cages, it is the biggest thrill, just the coolest thing.” says Desilets.
Desilets somehow finds time to fix and replenish all her hive equipment, maintain the BCBA membership rolls, extract and make cream honey from her hives, and sell comb honey at a couple of select farm stands. She also hosts her children and grandchildren who visit her often. “One of my daughters is a beekeeper too, but I like to work my hives alone,” she says. “If it’s a good day, then I want to be outside with my bees. I find I’m still learning about them after all these years.”