By MAUREEN PICHÉ
BRASHER FALLS – Raising livestock can be a challenge, especially if the critters come with stingers.
Since 1988, beekeeper Mark Berninghausen has been running an apiary, building up his hives to sometimes 800 a season, and producing honey he sells all over Northern New York. Last year, his bees produced roughly 30,000 pounds of honey.
Squeak Creek Apiaries is a year-round operation for Berninghausen, who not only provides direct sales and wholesale, but also offers pollination services to farmers who find themselves short on a natural supply of bees.
His job, however, is not like a typical farmer’s. The tending to the hives is, of course, a delicate operation that requires careful procedures, a few pieces of special gear, and a certain amount of fearlessness.
“You have to learn how to be around them, how to respect them,” Berninghausen said. While he wears the netted headpiece called a veil, along with a white canvas jacket and gloves, and uses a smoker to dull their aggression, he admits he receives at least one sting every time he works with them.
Berninghausen says stinging is the last thing honeybees want to do, because it results in their death. But their number one job is protecting the hive--and their queen, who is busy reproducing more little buzzing workers.
Berninghausen has a degree in commercial beekeeping from Ohio State, 20 years of seasonal work with the state Department of Agriculture and Markets, and 20-plus years working with and for other beekeepers in Ohio and New York, Florida, and South Carolina.
He picked beekeeping as his business not because of any great love for the creatures, but because it allows him to stay close to nature.
“Ever since I can remember, I wanted to live outside in the country,” he said. His warehouse and home sit on a quiet rural road one might miss if they didn’t have specific directions. “I like working for myself, by myself and setting my own schedule. And I get a chance to travel about.”
While maintaining the beehives requires the least amount of his time—he occasionally checks them to make sure the bees have enough room to build their hives and adds frames accordingly—the rest of his effort is spent dispersing the honey supers or stacked boxes to 18 different locations between Westville and Heuvelton, collecting and processing the honey, and distributing it in his white van through a region that covers Ogdensburg to Wadhams in the northern Adirondacks.
The Potsdam Food Co-op is one of his biggest customers, and his honey can be found at Wight and Patterson’s Feed Store and the Mountain Mart in Canton.
His harvested honey is an amalgam of different pollinating sources—some, surprising. In the spring, as the dandelions begin to dot lawns in the North Country, the bees spend their time gathering nectar from apple blossoms, then locust, basswood and predominantly clover.
But by late summer, they’re attracted to a plant most consider a weed: goldenrod. By the time the asters are finishing up in late October, the bees are also finishing up honey production for the year.
Berninghausen says because of the mix of sources, he doesn’t label his honey as any particular variety.
“The mix makes it honey-colored and not too sweet,” he said.
When the cold weather comes, Berninghausen moves his bees to winter in South Carolina, where the milder weather prevents a big die-off. It also means he can start tending to the hives several weeks earlier in the spring, before he brings them back to the colder North Country.
But Berninghausen also gets plenty of requests for a kind of bee-lending program that benefits all involved.
This symbiotic relationship with farmers and growers is, in part, due to the rise of colony collapse disorder, a little understood phenomenon that scientists say has been reducing the number of honeybees, and so, affecting the pollination of crops.
In the spring, he brings hives to an apple orchard in Peru, N.Y., where they stay for three weeks before coming all the way back up north. The owner gets more pollinated apples, the bees get the nectar, and Berninghausen gets the honey. He also fields requests from big-time growers all the way down to homeowners with a few fruit trees in their backyards.
In recent years, Berninghausen has seen beekeeping grow as a hobby for many in the area. Through the Sustainable Living Project, he gives talks to those interested.
While the start-up costs are a bit more than many hobbies, the rewards can be worth it. Plenty of honey and bee’s wax are the end result, he said.
To learn more about Berninghausen’s business, visit www.squeakcreekhoney.com.