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How to Be a Beekeeper in the Hudson Valley: What the Buzz Is All About

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Photos courtesy of Carol Clement

At Heather Ridge Farm in Preston Hollow, Carol Clement has cared for bees and cultivated their sweet honey for over 40 years.

Carol Clement of Heather Ridge Farm knows a thing or two about bees. Having kept them on her property in Preston Hollow for over 40 years now, she has learned the ins and outs of honey extraction, protecting her hives from hungry critters, identifying hive problems, and creating a diverse and healthy environment for all of her livestock.

While Clement can cheerfully detail a number of benefits of beekeeping that are sweeter than honey, one of her favorite parts is the challenge of problem solving.

“Identifying a problem, solving it, and successfully having your hive grow strong and make it through the winter, that’s tremendous satisfaction,” she says.

Although the number of hives that Clement keeps each year fluctuates, her knowledge of the craft has only increased over her beekeeping tenure. But how did she do it?

Beekeeping Heather Hill

Step 1: Get back to the land

Originally hailing from Saugerties, Clement admits it was an easy decision to settle within the Hudson Valley. After attending college and living in New York City, she decided in the midst of the “back to the land” movement of the 1970s that it was time to go rural once again.

“I definitely embodied that whole ideal. I wanted to have a piece of land where I could have a few animals, have a big garden, have bees, and homestead,” Clement says. What she didn’t see on the horizon was how much she would enjoy the lifestyle. Through new land acquisitions, including the purchase of an out-of-business dairy farm next door in the 1980s, Clement slowly grew her personal homestead into a fully functioning commercial farm.

Today, the primarily livestock and poultry farm has been full-time and open to the public since 2003 and has an attached restaurant, The Bees Knees Café, named after one of Clement’s projects that started it all.

While Clement has turned her passion into a living, she does heartily encourage backyard beekeeping.

“It keeps the bees in the environment and has more people learning hands on what the problems with bees are,” she says. Whether you have five hives or hundreds, all play important roles in keeping our pollinators buzzing.

Beekeeping Goat

Step 2: Be an “armchair farmer”

Before she went ahead and bought her first bees, Clement spent countless time reading up on the critters. Going into the project, Clement felt that keeping bees was important to the overall maintenance of land and did a lot of studying of the creatures before she established her hives.

“They’re absolutely fascinating, and you need to learn a lot. It’s great to be an armchair farmer for a while and really soak up all the information before you actually do it,” she says. And the learning in no way stops there — Clement continues to learn about her bees when she checks the hives once a week, studies the flow of honey, determines what kind of pollen and nectar they’re bringing in, and more.

Although not common when she began in the 1970s, Clement admires the beekeeping clubs of today and encourages keepers of all experience levels to utilize them as repositories of knowledge. She recommends the Hudson Valley or Catskill Mountain clubs for those looking to get involved.

Beekeeping

Step 3: Suit up

Once she did her research, Clement was ready to don her protective gear and dive into beekeeping head-first. While some beginners like the security of a full suit to save them from any stings, Clement goes for the essentials; her veil, gloves, and one of her husband’s oversized work shirts.

Other essentials include the hive tool, a crowbar-like device she uses all the time to open the hives and remove hive bodies, a brush, jars for honey, and an extractor, which can be shared or borrowed for beginners. These tools, along with hives and bees, typically cost $300 to $400.

After she got started, Clement notes that her bees didn’t require much weekly attention at all to stay healthy in the warmer weather, unless an issue arose.

“If you can check them once a week, you’ll really stay on top of the problems and learn a lot. It’s really 5 to 10 minutes to take off the top, pull out a few frames and look at it, watch the behavior from the outside,” she says.

The larger time commitments that involve putting in a bit more legwork are the extraction of honey, winterizing the hive, and feeding the hive in the spring when there aren’t many flowers in bloom yet. Otherwise, it is not too physically intensive to ensure that the bees are happy and contributing to the surrounding environment.

Beekeeping Garden

Step 4: Get creative

As previously mentioned, a large part of being a beekeeper with hives that thrive is being able to troubleshoot any problems that might arise. Clement says that in the 40 years she has kept bees, the project has become more difficult because of the new diseases for bees that have arisen, among other factors. Intruders small or large, from varroa mites to black bears, can wreak havoc if not addressed promptly and properly, but sometimes the solutions aren’t so straightforward.

Especially in rural New York, having bears get into your beehives is always a potential issue. Installing some form of electric fence or weights on the bottom of hives is beekeeping 101. Clement fends the hungry giants off by establishing the pasture for rams right next to the bees.

After having several break-ins through their original electric fence, Clement and her husband found another way: human noise.

“We used to put down transistor radios out there playing Britney Spears. They hated Britney Spears!” she recalls amusedly.

Now, with the horned rams near the bees, Clement does not even need an electric fence around her hives anymore. While she recognizes that it’s not a feasible setup for everyone, she’s been bear-free for 16 years.

Beekeeping clubs are also great for troubleshooting problems like these, Clement says, as well as borrowing any equipment that might help a beekeeper to keep hives happy.

Beekeeper Guard Llama

Step 5: Reap what you sow

Aside from the recent movement of keeping bees to save our pollinating friends, another big draw is the thrill of harvesting your own honey.

For those just getting started, Clement notes that since honey is anaerobic, meaning bacteria doesn’t grow in it, it is one of the few food items that can be extracted and sold anywhere, by anybody. So, even if you’re not a commercial project, you can still bottle honey in your garage and sell it in your front yard, she says.

This is something that Clement was excited about back in the 1970s, and still is to this day. Named after the buzzing critters themselves, Heather Ridge Farm’s Bees Knees Café sells several dishes focused on the farm’s products, but one that shines is the honey vanilla ice cream. Made with honey from none other than Clement’s bees, it’s no surprise that it gets rave reviews.

But other than being an enjoyable project, keeping bees has benefitted the farm in much larger ways. Something that normally sparks confusion on her farm tours is the statement that Clement’s livestock is as good as it is because of the bees.

“The bees are pollinating everything, especially clover and the legumes, and when they’re out pollinating that stuff, they grow better. Those plants put more nitrogen in the soil and makes all the grass grow better. So, I have better grass when I’m rotating my cattle, because I have bees,” she says.

Clement is the epitome of the saying, “reap what you sow.” Through her dedication to her passion of farming (and her bees), she has successfully grown her property into a thriving commercial farm. She encourages others to try their hand at beekeeping so that they can feel the same satisfaction of problem-solving and of taking part in producing a product for others, just as she does.

Related: 4 Simple Ways to Keep Bees at Home Without a Hive

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