I did an interview for our local paper a few weeks ago. It printed as a public interest story on 7/5/06The buzz about Sholan Farms
By Marisa Donelan
Michael Keane checks on his bees at Sholan Farm in Leominster, recently. (SENTINEL & ENTERPRISE PHOTOS / SARAH BRITAIN)
LEOMINSTER -- The city's hardest workers are nestled in a quiet, overgrown grove at Sholan Farm.
There, about 300,000 honeybees will toil through the summer to make hundreds of pounds of honey before September, beekeeper Michael Keane said Wednesday.
"It's like a little society," Keane said of his six hives. "All the workers have roles to play. From the moment they're born, they start working -- It's an endless cycle of birth, work and death."
Female worker bees begin their lives by taking care of thousands of eggs in their hives, then test their wings to fly after only a few days, Keane said.
"They take orientation flights and become acquainted with their hive. Then they'll forage for three weeks and only get about one-sixteenth of a teaspoon of honey each," he said. "Once they start to get tired, the other bees throw them out of the hive. If they can't work, or they're injured, they're useless. All the work is done for the future generations."
The Leominster resident became interested in raising bees four years ago, when a co-worker taught him about the craft.
"A guy I worked with did it as a hobby," he said. "After hearing some of his interesting stories, I decided this was something I wanted to try."
Keane said he has only been stung about a dozen times in his years as a beekeeper.
"It's usually when I'm doing something stupid or moving too quickly," he said. "I try to keep myself well-protected, because the last few times I was stung, it hurt quite a bit. Especially when they get you around the face."
To work in the hives, Keane dons a white cloth bee suit, complete with head protection and thick gloves, to lift heavy trays from the hive compartments and see the bees' progress.
Honeybees are generally not as aggressive as wasps or yellow jackets, Keane said, but he still erects warning signs in the areas around his hives.
"They can become agitated if they're disturbed, or if they think they're being threatened," he said. "Luckily, we're in an area that a lot of people don't go into, so it's kind of safe to do this here.
It's an underdeveloped part of the orchard that they're not using at this time, so people know they shouldn't be up here."
Keane, who works as a tech-delivery manager for a Waltham consulting company, said being a beekeeper allows him to enjoy the outdoors and occasionally give demonstrations about his hobby.
"I do it for love of nature," he said. "It's also to understand the world around us. I also love the opportunity to be able to educate people, so they understand how important bees are."
Bees are essential to agriculture, Keane said.
Not only do they provide honey and wax, they help important plants thrive, he said.
"Our food supply depends on them," he said. "They pollinate the grasses cows and chickens eat. They're critical."
Keane drives his truck down a bumpy path in the orchard a few times a month to check on his hives, which look like nothing more than colorful file cabinets at first glance.
Up close, however, you can see tiny swarms of honeybees entering and exiting the compartments.
The only sound in the unused section of Sholan Farm is a persistent, low buzz from the bees' wings.
"They collect pollen and nectar," Keane said. "Pollen is protein for them, and it helps them build muscle. They also collect nectar from plants, which is made into honey by their enzymes and the process it goes through in their bodies."
Each colony has about 45,000 female worker bees, 500 male drones and one queen, whose only job is to mate and keep the hive working.
"They live about six weeks, except for the queen, who can live from three to four years," Keane said. "When she dies, the bees take one of the eggs, give it special food, and it develops into the queen."
Since late spring, the bees have created perfect honeycombs and begun filling them with gold honey.
Keane will scrape out excess honey in the late summer to process and sell it, then leave a good supply of the bees' collection for the hives to survive the winter, he said.
"When I became interested in doing this, I contacted the Friends of Sholan Farm and pitched it to them as something that will be beneficial to their orchards," he said. "The bees will pollinate the plants in the area, and every year, I give them some of the honey, which they can sell for a profit."
Keane also sells honey himself, using a Web site: leominsterbeeman.com.
"It's hard to make a lot of money," he said. "There are some people who do this as a career, but it's a hard life. There's a lot of heavy lifting, and a lot of careful planning, that goes into doing this full time."
His wife and two children don't come out to the hives very often, and he hasn't found anyone locally that shares his passion for raising bees.
"My family's not too interested," he said. "I get a couple people on my Web site asking for advice, but I haven't heard from any new takers around here who want to pursue it as a hobby."