Pembroke restaurant owner gets a buzz out of beekeeping

Jody Feinberg

On a warm day last August, restaurant owner Jimmy Burke harvested 80 pounds of honey from the two hives he and a friend keep next to a large garden in Scituate. The honey won a blue ribbon at the Marshfield Fair, and Burke was eagerly anticipating a fall harvest. But last week, he discovered that the 100,000 bees produced only enough honey to tide them through the winter, leaving too little to harvest.

“I was a little bit disappointed, because I think the fall honey has a little bit more character,” said Burke, owner of Orta in Pembroke, where he uses the honey on crostini with gorgonzola cheese. “But part of the thing I like about the hives is that they’re somewhat unpredictable. That’s kind of the beauty of it.”

Burke is one of hundreds of people in the state who pursue beekeeping and stick with it, despite the challenges bees have been facing recently from mites, disease and weather.

“There’s an increased interest in beekeeping across the board,” said Tony Lulek, director of the bee school run by the Norfolk County Beekeepers Association.

Five years ago, the association had 65 members and 18 people in its beekeeping classes at Norfolk County Agricultural School in Walpole. Now there are nearly 200 members and 80 graduates from last winter’s program, which ran from January into April and cost $50. Association members come from 27 towns, including many in the Quincy area, and about 45 percent are women, a striking change in a formerly male-dominated hobby, Lulek said.

While every county has a beekeepers association that runs a school, Burke learned the hobby three years ago from beekeeper Tom Chessia of Scituate and from reading books and watching DVDs. Since he already was growing vegetables for his restaurant in a large garden at the home of his friend Peter McEachern, the bees seemed like the next step.

“As a chef, I’ve taken a tremendous amount of pride in growing food for my customers,” Burke said. “Harvesting my own honey was the next thing for me. It’s controlling what goes on the table. It may not be better than what I could buy, but it’s ours.”

Burke and McEachern share the harvest from the hives, which they bottle and label Scituate Coastal Honey. Burke gives some away and saves the rest to make Orta’s crostini and to use in its sauce for duck.

He likes that the honey’s flavor reflects the pollen the bees gather from wildflowers, garden flowers, vegetables and flowering trees, some as far as 2 miles away.

“A friend told me the honey I gave him tasted like chestnuts,” Burke said. “I found out there are three huge chestnut trees in the neighborhood that I didn’t know about.”

And the bees themselves interest him.

“It’s just miraculous what these bees do,” he said. “There’s a constant, wonderful motion in and out. Watching them work, you learn what a bee line is. First thing in the morning, they make a bee line to wherever it is they’re going.”

Many beekeepers share Burke’s fascination, Lulek said.

“Their biology and social structure are amazing,” said Lulek of Holliston. “They’re the only insect, other than silk worms, that produces something of use.”

They’re also crucial for crop pollination, responsible for about 80 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That’s one reason why colony collapse disorder, in which worker bees flee the hive, has raised so much concern in recent years.

“They’re absolutely crucial and there’s a lot of research going on now to find out what is happening to them,” Burke said.

These threats to bees actually have motivated people, rather than discouraged them, Lulek said.

“All the press about the colony collapse disorder has brought beekeeping to people’s attention,” said Lulek, who is president of the Norfolk County Beekeepers Association. “It’s made people more aware of their environment and made them want to know what they can do to help.”

While only a small piece of land is needed to keep bees, hobbyists need to spend about $400 to buy the bees, protective gear, tools and hive materials, he said. They also need to make a commitment.

“It’s exciting and thrilling when you get honey in the first year,” Lulek said. “But the true test of a beekeeper is making it through the second year when you realize you have to do a little management.”

Like Burke, Lulek, a graphic designer, has been disappointed by the output this year. He gathered only 120 pounds of honey from seven hives, compared to 230 pounds from two hives two years ago. The wet and cool spring and summer weather was a big factor in the poor honey production, said Lulek, who sells creams, lip balm, soaps, candles and candy made from his honey.

As he looks to next year, Burke is optimistic.

“It really was not a great season for bees, but we did very well with the summer harvest,” Burke said. “Maybe next year, we’ll have a better fall harvest.”

The Patriot Ledger

Where to find beekeeping schools:

Norfolk County Agricultural High School, Walpole,

Plymouth County Agricultural Extension Center, Hanson,

Barnstable Community Building, Barnstable,

Bristol County Agricultural High School, Dighton,