How sweet it is: Beekeeper makes honey a generational hobby

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Alan Buchanan examines sugar water used to feed his honeybees. (Photo by Michaela Halnon)

Sixty-seven-year-old Alan Buchanan held up a wooden frame in his Bonanza Park backyard last week, eyes flitting over the hexagonal honeycomb cells with concentration.

“Ow!” he muttered in quiet annoyance as one of the striped insects attacked his bare forefinger, using his thumb to flick the lodged stinger out. “If you’re a beekeeper you’re going to get stung,” he said with a shrug. “You just grin and bear it.”

It’s the height of honey season, and the longtime Colchester resident is busy buzzing between his local hive and a pair in New Haven. The latter two are thriving, Buchanan said, but noted with disappointment that the backyard bees seem to have lost their queen.

Buchanan harvested about 1,000 pounds of the golden liquid in his best season, but said he isn’t distressed during years with small honey yields. The predictably unpredictable conditions have made him more patient, he surmised, especially with his grandchildren.

“I don’t do it for the honey,” Buchanan said, remarking with amusement that he far prefers the taste of maple syrup. “To me, it’s relaxing. If I get wound up I just go out and lose myself, as I say, playing in my bees.”

The bee basics

It was a fall weekend in 1973 when Buchanan spied a hive in a tree. A printer by trade, he’d never met a beekeeper, let alone tried out the hobby himself. But the following Monday a coworker said he, too, had found a honeybee hotspot. They decided to give it a go together.

By springtime, the bees Buchanan first took notice of were dead. He and his coworker (who, incidentally, later became his brother-in-law) focused their attention on the second hive, putting the tips they’d picked up in guidebooks to use.

Those bees didn’t last the week.

“That first year was a big learning curve,” Buchanan said. “Back then, we didn’t know who to contact to mentor with, so we just muddled through.”

A group of honeybees buzz in Buchanan’s backyard. (Photo by Michaela Halnon)

It took two or three years before Buchanan harvested any honey, but by then, he was hooked. For more than 40 years since, the last 30 in Colchester with wife, Jennie, he’s perfected the methods needed to raise eggs to worker bees.

“I never thought I’d stay with it,” he said. “Every year I [say] I’m not going to do it again next year. But it’s my hobby, my passion, you know?”

About 3,000 bugs are mailed in small packages in springtime, literally buzzing with energy, Buchanan said. Keepers shake the contents into boxes called “supers,” each holding 10 wooden frames that encapsulate waxy honeycomb cells.

The queen bee arrives in a special chamber with a handful of worker bees and a piece of hard sugar candy, quartered off for a few days to allow the rest of her hive-mates to adjust to her scent.

Days later the queen will start laying as many as 1,500 eggs per day, Buchanan said, each a fraction of the size of a grain of rice. Worker bees hatch in 21 days, but often die just weeks after, he explained.

A healthy hive, like the ones Buchanan has in New Haven, can hold more than 75,000 honeybees at a time. Even then, the work is far from over.

Without enough space, Buchanan said honeybees will swarm — exiting en masse from their current hive to build a home in a new location. Buchanan said he cringes when friends tell him they destroyed such groups in a panic.

Honeybee swarms were once a common sight in these parts, Buchanan said, but a rapidly declining population has taken its toll in Vermont. Concurrently, demand for honey is rising as folks attempt to eliminate refined sugars from their diets, he said.

In social media posts, Buchanan has asked residents to call him if they see a swarm, promising to carefully transport the bees to a better location.

“It can be frightening when you look at this cluster of bees,” Buchanan said. “[But] they’re actually really gentle.”

At home in the hive

Beekeeping has now spread through four generations of the family, counting Buchanan’s parents who were inspired to take up the hobby during their own retirement years.

Buchanan worked on the hives regularly with his son-in-law until last year, when a sting sent him into anaphylactic shock. Eventually OK, Buchanan said they made sure to keep him away from the bees moving forward.

Alan Buchanan stands with 9-year-old grandson Brady Lumsden in his new beekeeping suit. (Photo by Michaela Halnon)

The frightening experience did spark one positive outcome, though – an idea first proposed by Buchanan’s grandson, Brady Lumsden.

“Papa, do they make bee suits for 9-year-olds?” Buchanan remembers Brady asking. “If dad can’t help you, I will,” he announced.

Soon after, under Buchanan’s watchful eye, Brady went outside without protection from the bees. When a sting on the cheek sent him howling, Buchanan figured Brady’s beekeeping days might be over before they started.

But he quickly returned, Buchanan said, growing more confident with each trip. Two weeks ago, they bought him his own suit.

“I’m kind of looking forward to him working with me because I know he’s going to push me,” Buchanan said. “He’s going to do his research, he’s going to say, ‘Let’s try this.’”

Buchanan is currently moving forward with plans to form a beekeeping club in Georgia, where Brady attends school, and gives annual presentations to a second grade classroom there each fall, always bringing an observation hive so kids can see the bees in action.

“Kids just love it,” Buchanan said. “People think beekeeping is [dangerous], but it’s not. It’s fun, it really is.”