All morning one cool, drizzly April Sunday, cars pull up to the Reseska Apiaries warehouse in Holliston - one driven by an attorney, one carrying a plumber and a machinist, another a yoga studio owner. The occasion is the arrival by truck of 270 three-pound boxes of honeybees from Georgia, all ready for pick-up by a diverse and burgeoning cadre of backyard beekeepers.
"When I signed up for bee school, I thought there would be six people," says Kristina Ward, a 38-year-old landscape designer from Norfolk. "It turned out there's a whole subculture."
Subculture indeed. Ward is among almost four dozen aspiring beekeepers who recently completed the Norfolk County Beekeepers Association introductory "bee school," up from 17 two years ago.
Across Massachusetts and beyond, interest in beekeeping is exploding. Plymouth County's bee school had 40 students this spring, up from about two dozen two years ago. Worcester County, home of the nation's oldest county beekeepers' association, attracted 200 to its most recent course, almost double its 2005 enrollment. Essex County turned away some 40 aspiring beekeepers this year and taught another 93, a dramatic increase in interest over 2007, when 90 students enrolled, and well above the 60 or 70 typical before that. The Massachusetts Beekeepers Association has 320 members with 2,000 hives, up from 93 members with an estimated 1,500 hives in 2006.
Spurred in part by news of the mysterious colony collapse disorder that has decimated the nation's commercial honeybee population and in part by the ongoing popularity of gardening, the surge reflects a rising interest around the country.
"In 20 years, I have not seen the participation in beginner classes that I've seen this year," says Kim Flottum, editor of Bee Culture, who sends samples of his Ohio-based magazine to bee schools. "For the first time in 20 years, I've run out of magazines. Every year, people say, 'Can you send five or 10 or 15?' This year they're saying 30 or 40."
The packages piled in the Reseska warehouse are simple screened boxes, 15 inches wide by 8 inches tall by 5 inches deep, each with 12,000 bees clustering around a queen and generating enough heat to make the boxes warm to the touch.
Peter Hauschka, a 65-year-old biochemist from Needham, arrives to collect his order. He gets twice as many peaches and raspberries from his garden since he started keeping honeybees two years ago, he says, not to mention the 200 pounds of honey he harvested from two hives. He notices distant trees blushing with early signs of spring.
"Beekeeping connects you with nature in a way you haven't before, because you become very observant, watching what's blossoming," he says. "You think like a bee."
What honeybees do for Hauschka's garden they do on a grander scale by pollinating some 90 crops - including almonds and apples and blueberries as well as alfalfa for livestock - that account for one-third of the food Americans eat. Since late 2006, large commercial beekeepers, who bring their honeybees from crop to crop in state to state, have reported losses of 30 to 70 percent, often to the so-called colony collapse disorder characterized by inexplicably abandoned hives. Since September 2007, more than two-fifths of commercial beekeepers surveyed by the US Department of Agriculture have reported abnormally high losses, averaging 44 percent of their hives.
"It's one of the major threats to American agriculture," says USDA bee researcher Kevin Hackett.
The honeybees' plight - documented on PBS's "Nature" and CBS's "60 Minutes," as well as in newspapers across the country - motivated Robin Lamperti, a yoga studio owner from Walpole, to attend bee school. "I'm actually a gardener. I've always noticed certain plants I had attracted honeybees," says Lamperti, 46. "For several years, I thought I would do beekeeping, and then all this attention was given."
She mentioned her interest to her brother-in-law, Peter Tullock, a furniture maker and restorer who lives in Wrentham. "I said, 'That sounds like a ball. Let's give it a try,' " says Tullock, 40. His 8-year-old daughter, Madison, became curious, so he bought her a protective hat and veil, too.
Now they're making a day of picking up bees and setting up hives.
"Where's the queen?" Madison asks.
"She's right in the middle," her father replies. "You won't see her until we take the cover off."
The next stop is Howard Crawford's Akin-Bak Farm in Franklin, where Crawford and Norfolk County Beekeepers Association president Ed Karle show the "newbees" how to install bees into their hives.
Crawford, 84, started keeping bees 45 years ago to pollinate his apple orchard and truck garden. Most of the apple trees are gone now, and much of his land is untended, but he still has beehives. "I love the bees. Some people think they're mean. I like them. I just sit and watch them come in and out of the hive. It's relaxing," Crawford says. "You never see a beekeeper that's real depressed or anything."
The new beekeepers don their veils for Crawford's demonstration. Marc Zaller, 50, a courier company owner from North Attleborough, and Loretta Lennon, 45, a plumber from West Roxbury, were watching "Ulee's Gold," a 1997 movie about a beekeeper, when they decided to take up the hobby. They and their friend Francis Walker, a machinist and backyard gardener from North Attleborough who had read about disappearing honeybees, enrolled in bee school.
"In a small way, I'm doing something to help the bee population," says Walker, 52. "I hope my bees survive. It's like anything new you ever try. You're nervous about failure the first time out."
The instructors pass around the tiny cage protecting the queen because she and the half-dozen workers attending her are from a different hive than the other bees. Karle sprinkles confectioner's sugar on all the bees to guard against the Verroa mites he considers a bigger problem in Massachusetts than colony collapse disorder, although Crawford says he's lost two hives to the mysterious ailment.
Finally Karle shakes the bees from the box into the hive, between frames that will soon fill with honeycomb and the 1,500 eggs a day the queen will lay. Their buzzing is audible over the whir of passing cars, and their bodies are white with sugar. Stray bees land on shirts and hats, and one stings Crawford. Tullock brushes bees off Madison's hat, which she has decorated with pins of bees and flowers and a heart-shaped button that says "Bee Happy."
They're ready now to install their own bees, first in Lamperti's hive, set beside her day lilies and a Buddha. Step by careful step they replicate what they've learned. Lamperti notices a large bee. "Oh, Pete," she says, "there's a drone." Its job is to fertilize the queen.
With buzzing bees competing with the buzz of a neighbor's lawn mower, they pour the insects into the hive that Lamperti painted sea green and decorated with an "om" symbol. They repeat the process at Tullock's hive near a barely budding crabapple tree, in a spot so quiet that when they load the bees their buzzing pierces the still air. Madison, wearing her bee veil, started the day declaring herself no longer afraid of bees, but now she stands back on a ridge with her mother and her sister.
"Well," Madison confesses, "I felt a little bit scared."
The new beekeepers must wait at least three days to open their hives to give the queen time to escape her cage and the workers time to accept her. If all goes well, by August each hive could house 60,000 honeybees.