No one knows the U.S. Postal Service's true level of dedicated diligence like a beekeeper.
Last week, beekeepers all over Massachusetts and New Hampshire received three-pound packages of bees in the mail - typically one queen bee and approximately 12,000 drones and worker bees - from southern states like Georgia, Alabama and Texas in preparation for the start of beekeeping season.
"Once the bees are shipped, they get to you very efficiently," Gloucester beekeeper Hank McCarl, 66, said with a chuckle. "I have three packages of bees coming up from Georgia. I know I'll get a call as soon as they arrive at the post office to come pick them up. They are very happy to get the bees out of there right away."
And while the chilly temps and strong wind weren't ideal, last Saturday, beekeepers like Newbury resident Barbara Milhender successfully installed new bee colonies into backyard hives all across the region.
"Beekeeping is very addicting - and meditative. You have to be very still in mind and still in body," said Milhender, 57. "If you don't get into that mindset, you'll get stung. But if you're in tune with them, it's really fun to watch them do their respective jobs."
Essex County has long been a hotbed for beekeeping. Rev. Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth, who invented the first transportable beehive in the country in the early 1850s, was a pastor at the South Congregational Church in Andover at one point during his career.
Contemporary beekeepers, like Andover's David Meldrum, keep just one or two hives on their property. Others, like Hamilton resident Gretel Clark, will maintain as many as 30 hives in various locations around the county.
Beekeeping hobbyists are drawn to the potentially painful activity for a variety of reasons. Danvers resident Frank Herschede, 69, started keeping bees in 1995 to help pollinate his dwindling garden. West Newbury resident Jane Wild, 57, started keeping bees in 1991 to produce her own organic honey for cooking. And Middleton resident Alan Wilkins, 59, started keeping bees in 1987 to further his collection of animals, which include rabbits, swans and Hawaiian geese.
"I was interested in it from a scientific standpoint," said McCarl, who became a beekeeper five years ago. "I grew up as kid interested in anything that had to do with nature, whether it was insects, butterflies or snakes. And then I had children who were interested in those things, too. It's fascinating what a positive impact they have on an area. They're very helpful to people and crops and flowers and fruit trees."
Essex resident Gil Guerin, 78, started keeping bees more than three years ago, when his daughter's concern for the dwindling bee population spread to his backyard.
Several known entities have pummeled the U.S. bee population since the 1980s, including hive beetles and varroa mites. But since Guerin got into the beekeeping business, the population crisis has gotten worse instead of better.
Over the last six months, beekeepers are finding that bees are uncharacteristically abandoning their hives because of an unexplained phenomenon that's being called Colony Collapse Disorder.
From November to February, commercial beekeepers - who maintain up to 2 million of the country's 2.4 million bee colonies - from 26 states reported they had lost between 30 and 90 percent of their colonies, according to a report released last month by researchers in Washington, D.C.
"The bees in strong hives are just disappearing," said Sample, 59. "They've hit the professionals first and researchers are trying to figure out why this is happening. They're looking at the colonies that have collapsed to come up with a common denominator. Were all the hives close to blueberry pollen or almond pollen, or were they all in one part of the country? And what are the keepers using for feed?"
So far, no one knows why this is happening, but potential results have the ability to decimate America's food supply. Roughly a third of the U.S. diet is pollinated by honey bees, making their approximate economic value $15 billion in the U.S., according to the report.
"We'd become very dependant on foreign food supply if the bee population disappears. It would be devastating," said Danvers beekeeper Larry Goldstein. "In my own little way, I'm helping the environment. The more people we get to do beekeeping on a hobbyist level, the more it will benefit nature and the environment."
Sample agreed that every hobbyist with just one hive in their backyard can make a difference.
"The more people you have dealing with bees, the better off you are," Sample said. "The (wild) feral colony population these days have basically all died off. The hobbyist beekeepers are keeping the bees in Eastern Massachusetts."
Guerin is willing to do his part. And just like every other beekeeper in Massachusetts, he's quickly learned to enjoyed one specific by-product of his hives: raw honey.
"It does, it tastes better than store-bought. Actually, it depends on the flowers they feed on. In the spring, the honey is lighter in color and less strong flavor. It's not as strong as later in the summer. Some people like it lighter, and some prefer it with the strong, heavy flavor," Guerin said. "I got 50 pounds out of one hive last year. I gave away a lot of Christmas gifts, birthday gifts, friendship gifts. I donated 20 bottles to my church fair. It's a lot of honey," Guerin said.
There are at least a dozen different varieties of honey bees, primarily named after their land of origin. And beekeepers do have strong allegiance to one variety or another; for example, Milhender has always kept Italian bees because they tend to be nonaggressive and hardworking.
"There are Italians, Caucasians, Russians," said Rowley beekeeper Abby Hiem, 48. "The varieties tend to have traits, like dogs. Some people like certain types of bees because of their heartiness, cleanliness, temperament."
Rent a bee
Commercial beekeepers typically rent out roughly 2 million bee colonies for widespread pollination of fruits and vegetables each year.
"If you look at cranberries in New England, most of the (farm owners) hire bees from commercial beekeepers for pollination," Groveland beekeeper Stan Sample said. "Blueberry harvesters also rent hives for pollination. If you go to New York state, where they're doing a lot of squash and cucumber, they hire bees for pollination. You get a better fruit set."
Rental fees vary from crop to crop, but are going up across the boards. Californian almond growers paid roughly $35 per colony in the late 1990s, a figure which jumped to approximately $75 per colony in 2005. And even more recent figures estimate that almond tree pollination fees have risen to $150 per colony.
Why? Supply and demand. Fewer honey bees are available for pollination while California's 550,000 acres of almond trees is expanding, according to a March 2007 report on the recent decline of honey bee colonies by the Congressional Research Service.
Types of beekeepers
* Hobbyist: You own one to nine hives
* Sideliner: You don't depend on bees for your livelihood, but it is a source of income. Hamilton beekeeper Gretel Clark, who's been keeping bees for 25 years and has 30 hives, considers herself a sideliner because she sells her honey by the bottle or the bucket. Anyone with between roughly 30 and 80 hives could be in this category.
* Commercial: You're a professional beekeeper who depends on your bees to earn a living. Some have thousands of hives and travel the country to pollinate various farms and orchards. Some have hundreds of hives and only travel to a few surrounding states.
Source: Beekeepers Gretel Clark of Hamilton and Kathy Sample of Groveland
Getting stung is an unfortunate part of the bee business, as Danvers beekeeper Frank Herschede knows all too well. Early in his dozen years of beekeeping, 20 bees got inside his veil and stung all around his left eye.
"They were mad. I still have a puffy eyelid today," Herschede said. "But you learn how to handle them with experience, and I don't have any problems today."
Herschede, who maintains six hives, said there are ways to protect yourself from getting stung, as well as reducing the pain. Here are a few tips from Herschede and several other experts.
* Wear protective gear from head to toe. This includes a veil over your head and long, heavy gloves. Tuck your pant cuffs into your socks because the bees can - and will - get inside your clothing through the smallest of gaps.
* Do not eat bananas before heading out to the hive, as the odor will alarm and enrage the bees. Likewise, don't wear perfume, scented body lotion of use scented soap - particularly anything floral - before working with the bees.
* If you get stung, pop out the stinger with your thumbnail and treat the spot with an antihistamine, ice and meat tenderizer.
The ins and outs of beekeeping
Queen bees in colonies all across New England have already been busy laying eggs to built up their hive's population since February. To do this, the queen - marked with a gold circle on her back - lays as many as 30,000 eggs a day. However, beekeeping season for humans starts in mid-April and ends at the onset of winter.
At the beginning of May, an overcrowded hive that made it through the winter - or one with a lazy queen - has the potential to split in half, leaving disgruntled bees to look for a new hive and a new queen. Beekeepers need to stay on the lookout for this phenomenon, called swarming, so they can start a second hive on their property.
The Langstroth hive, still the standard today, is a wooden box that you open and close from the top. Inside, you'll find 10 wooden frames surrounding wire screens where the bees do their work. The hive's height will vary, depending on how many honey-collecting boxes, known as supers, are stacked up.
Inside, a healthy colony occupying one hive can be as big as 60,000 bees. Roughly 90 percent are female worker bees who complete different duties, assigned based on their age and the job's difficulty - like cleaning and guarding the hive, collecting pollen, nursing other bees. The few male bees, known as drones, have only one duty: mate with the queen. Their social status is low on the totem pole - if there's not enough food to keep everyone in the hive going through the winter, the worker bees will drag the drones out of the hive and drop them in the snow to die.
Beekeepers usually hit the honey pot once in the summer and once in the fall, gathering as much as 60 to 80 pounds of honey a hive a season. To do so, they take out individual frames covered in honey that's capped by wax. They remove the wax with a scratching tool that resembled a hair pick. They insert the frames into a barrel-like machine called an extractor that literally spins the frames at a high speed to throw the honey to the sides of the barrel and drain into a bucket. The honey is then strained and ready to eat.
The bees start preparing for winter in August, storing up honey to last through the cold months. To help the process, Andover beekeeper David Meldrum wraps his hives with tar paper to keep the bees warm through the snowy months. A healthy hive can last from season to season, but some don't make it through the cold winter or fall prey to killer mites.
A queen bee can live for three to five years, drones might make it a year or two, while worker bees will live just three to five months. But not all colonies survive from year to year. Last year, Gloucester beekeeper Hank McCarl lost six hives during February's frigid weather. He said emotionally, this was the most difficult aspect of beekeeping.
"I get very attached to my bees," McCarl said. "It's heartbreaking to see them not make it through the winter, all gathered together trying to keep warm, but all dead. You'll find 100 bees with their head stuck in the comb trying to get food. It's just sad."
It'll cost you between $200 and $400 to get one colony up and running. You'll need:
* Bee hive, a wooden box that comes in a variety of grades and qualities.
* Protective gear.
* Tools, like a steel smoker, frame lifter and scraper, steel hive tool and a bee brush.
* Bees, which you can order from a Southern provider by mail or from a local business like Crystal Bee Supply in Peabody. Three pounds of bees, which are typically how much you want to buy for one hive, costs between $67 and $99.
* Beekeeping knowledge. The Essex County Beekeepers' Association, www.essexcountybeekeepers.org, runs a nine-week class every winter.
Source: Groveland beekeeper Stan Sample
Beekeeper Jane Wild of West Newbury won first place in 2000 for her Raspberry Honey Pecan Bars in the Beekeeping Department's Cooking with Honey competition in Cookies and Bars section at the Topsfield Fair. Her recipe below makes 24 bars and is extra tasty with local honey.
11/4 cups flour
1/4 cup honey
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup raspberry jam
Combine flour and sugar and cut in butter with a pastry blender until mix is like small pebbles.
Add honey, continuing to use the pastry blender.
Press into a lightly greased glass baking dish.
Bake at 325' in a 7.5 x 11 glass pan for 20 minutes until edges are golden.
Remove from oven and spread jam over the base.
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup honey
1 tsp vanilla
2 tbsp flour
1/8 tsp salt
1/8 tsp baking soda
1 cup finely chopped pecans
Beat eggs with brown sugar, honey and vanilla until well blended.
Stir in flour mixed with salt and soda.
Add pecans and mix.
Spoon mixture over jam and spread to corners.
Return to oven and bake 20 to 25 minutes longer or until firm.
Cool in pan an cut into bars.