By Rita Savard
John “Chip” Hamblet has been stung more times than he can keep track.
“It happens a fair amount,” says the Lowell beekeeper.
But when it comes to raising these seemingly tireless insects, the greatest challenge isn’t avoiding stings, says Hamblet, it’s keeping the bees alive.
Since 2005, worldwide honeybee populations have plummeted, putting farmers, scientists, and beekeepers on high alert about the future of food. Wild and domestic honeybees are responsible for 80 percent of pollination — that translates to about a full third of the American diet, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“Whole Foods supermarket recently posted a photo of what their vegetable and fruit area would look like if all the honey bees disappeared,” Hamblet says. “There was nothing left. It was a very depressing picture.”
Scientists call it colony collapse disorder, and although the exact cause still remains a mystery, four main factors have been attributed to bees demise: poor nutrition, pathogens and pests, pesticides and genetically modified food.
Besides eliminating the use of harmful pesticides in our daily living, Hamblet says there are simple steps the average person can take to make a difference.
The first: embrace wild flowers and bee-friendly plants. Bees collect nectar and pollen — their sole protein source — from plants for food. They make honey from the nectar. Most of the important bee plants in the northeast are wildflowers. Dandelions and Dutch clover, multiflora rose, blackberry, wineberry, wild asters and goldenrod are all valuable to these precious insects.
The second, and easiest thing that anyone can do: buy and eat lots of local honey. Unlike commercial brands from China and Argentina, raw honey doesn’t get processed to remove all traces of pollen.
“You really can taste the difference,” Hamblet says. “Here in Lowell, there’s a big difference in taste just between spring honey, that has a bright yellow floral taste from all the wildflowers, and summer and fall, a more traditional amber color with richer layers.”
The good news, he adds, is that people are taking notice of the honeybee crisis and many more are becoming interested in maintaining backyard beehives.
Hamblet, who is also vice president of the Merrimack Valley Bee Keeper’s Association, teaches classes on how to raise bees each March.
“We used to get about seven to 10 people a year,” he says. “For the last two years, we’ve had about 100.”
Students range from beekeepers to farmers who need to pollinate crops, to hobbyists.
Many also swear by the health benefits, believing that ingesting raw honey, can, overtime, help immunize them from seasonal allergies because it contains pollen from local plants.
Hamblet is one of those people.
“I have a spoonful on my cereal every morning,” he says.
Find local honey at a farmer’s market or farm stand near you, and learn more about honeybees at mvbee.org