Of Smoke and Mirrors

Nearly every time we plan to open our beehives we bring a smoker along, just in case. We use this fire-toting canister, equipped with bellows and spout, to puff smoke into the colonies to calm them.


By Teresa Vanek , Photo by Carol Topalian

Teresa Vanek of Bright Raven Farm and Apiary in Jacksonville.

Nearly every time we plan to open our beehives we bring a smoker along, just in case. We use this fire-toting canister, equipped with bellows and spout, to puff smoke into the colonies to calm them. Smoking the bees makes them easier to work because it masks the alarm pheromone produced by the guard bees. Smoke is a tool that we’ve learned to use more judiciously as our beekeeping skills increase because, while it’s convenient to manipulate the bees’ behavior, we recognize that the puffs from the smoker are an interruption of business as usual for the bees. At the same time, if a hive does get a really outsized alarm response going it’s important to have the smoke on standby.

Maybe the beekeeper’s smoker can be a useful metaphor for those concerned about the honeybee and pollinators in general. Many people observe that they only rarely see bees in their yards and gardens. In fact, honeybee numbers have been declining since the 1940s, with the number of colonies in the United States now at about half what they were before World War II. These essential pollinators have been quietly disappearing behind the smokescreen of modern agriculture: cheap and plentiful food. The triumph of the efficiencies of monoculture over the diversity of the traditional family farm have dealt a one-two punch to the beneficial insects that deliver pollen from flower to flower and make one third of our food crops possible. The physical stresses experienced by bees in an environment contaminated by agricultural chemicals are compounded by vast expanses of a single crop without the weedy wildflower forage bees need for survival.

In the last several years I have been alarmed to see some farmers in the Finger Lakes sacrificing their hedgerows in order to be able to sow corn and soy from ditch to ditch with no interruption. Those venerable rows of stately maple and other trees were an important band of habitat for birds and native bees … and the tree flowers as well as the brambles and other wild growth underneath provided a last stand of floral diversity to feed the honeybees. (Hedgerows provide other important services to the ecosystem but more on that later.)

In her TED Talk the award-winning bee researcher Marla Spivak gives an excellent overview of the honeybee crisis. She also invites her audience to see the difficult spot the bees are in as a mirror for our own precarious position. How secure is a food system that endangers its own pollinators? Rather than leaving her audience feeling hopeless about the problem of honeybee collapse, Spivak encourages us all to take a simple step to help the bees: plant flowers. Bees can collect pollen and nectar from many hundreds of different flowering plants—plants that will thrive in nearly every season and environment.

In 2015 our farm entered a new phase. We chose a new name for our enterprise (Red Tail Farm has become Bright Raven Farm and Apiary) in part to highlight our new emphasis on beekeeping. Creating a rich environment for honeybees and other pollinators will be a priority as we manage our 52 acres for their success. We have several blocks of bee pasture already flourishing. These quarter- to half-acre areas are mowed once yearly to prevent trees from moving in, but otherwise they contain the wildflowers that simply show up on any untended ground in central New York. Burdock, clover and milkweed, dogbane and joe-pye weed, goldenrod and asters are among the flowering plants that provide bee food in these pastures. Some of the open land that we have is fairly poor for growing crops; we are considering planting managed blocks of bee trees there, primarily black locust and basswood. It is important to realize that every gardener on any scale can plant flowers for honeybees and other pollinators and help feed our collective future!

Teresa Vanek lives and farms with her husband Brent Welch in Jacksonville.

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2019 edition of the magazine.

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