The ABCs of bees

Emerson Hazell wants to get people involved with beekeeping.

Emerson Hazell holds up a healthy comb, checking the amount of larvae to decide whether or not to move it into the new hive. —Bella Bennett

Emerson Hazell wears many hats. He is a college student, an EMT, a landscaper, a citizen of Edgartown and Bequia, a world traveler, a glorious friend, a brother, and a son, and when he dons his mesh-veiled hat, he is a self-taught beekeeper.

It feels as though I’ve known Emerson for my entire life, having essentially adopted his extended family in my childhood, but I think that that is also a part of who he is. Emerson makes those around him feel at ease. I’m not sure if he knows that he’s doing it, but he is an excellent presence in any space, and certainly one of my dearest friends. Even so, until recently I had very little idea how passionate he was about keeping bees.

Emerson began beekeeping because he was curious and excited after writing an informative speech for a class at the University of Maine, where he began his education. Now it is a journey of personal education. Emerson finds great satisfaction in keeping his four beehives happy and healthy, and sharing this hobby, and honey, with friends, family, and even strangers.

“I found out about colony collapse disorder, and I found out all of the things that bees do for us, and that blew my mind,” Emerson told me. “From there, I looked at a lot of beekeeping videos, and it looked really fun. For months and months I looked into how to beekeep, and I was very nervous to try it. It looked very complicated, but I decided to pull the trigger, and I got my first hive.”

While he could order a hive online, acquiring the bees themselves was a bit more involved. “I picked up the bees in northern Massachusetts, in Billerica,” Emerson said. “My mom really wanted to come with me, because she was nervous about me driving with a bunch of bees in the car.”

I was curious: “How were they contained?”

“They were contained in a little box,” Emerson told me, modeling a six- by eight-inch rectangle with his hands. “Inside a mesh net, it was a nuke — which is a little tiny hive with five frames. My mom was freaking out on the way back, because she was scared the bees were going to get out. I was trying to play it cool, but as soon as the first bee escaped from the hive, I freaked out, because there were bees flying around our heads while we were on the highway. I got really nervous and pulled off, so I could put the bees in the trunk of the car. I made sure that there was a little hole so that the bees wouldn’t suffocate, but there were still probably 10 bees flying around the car on the way to the boat.”

At this point, I had to ask, “So you didn’t want to open the windows and let them out?”

“No,” Emerson said, “I didn’t want to lose my bees!” I laughed then, picturing cartoon bees circling Emerson’s head as he white-knuckled in the slow lane to the ferry.

I then asked Emerson more about bees on the Vineyard. “I think bees have a very important role in the environment,” he told me. “Personally, I don’t think that I can make a huge change to what’s happening with the bees. I think that my role is more informative, to teach people what they do, and how to beekeep. I think that I can have a bigger impact doing that then having my own hives, and trying to change the outcome.”

This seemed a little cryptic. “What is happening to the bees?” I asked, opening the door to the mysterious topic of colony collapse disorder.

A honey bee flies from the hive, with pollen in tow. —Muhammad Mahdi Karim

As Emerson explained it, “Colony collapse is a phenomenon when forager bees disappear from the hive. I don’t think that there is a definitively known reason, but I think the No. 1 suspect is pesticides.”

“So they just die?” I wondered.

“They disappear. There are no piles of dead bees, they just disappear and leave an empty hive.” Apparently this happened in record numbers a few years back. I was a little confused at first; I’d heard stories of swarming, when bees leave a manmade hive to live in the wild, and wondered about the difference. Emerson shared a story of witnessing a swarm, and the difference was at once evident.

Emerson splits one full hive into two by carefully moving established combs into the new hive. —Bella Bennett

“One time I was walking my girlfriend, Sheila McHugh, out to her car from my house. We were chatting, and we heard loud buzzing coming from the tree above us. I looked up, and there was this giant ball of bees hanging in the tree. They dispersed and started spreading out all above us. Sheila was nervous — she was halfway in the car — she wasn’t sure about whether to get in the car or witness this crazy act of nature. The bees were swarming — splitting in half — and the old queen was flying away to make a new colony.” While this seemed like a bad thing initially, Emerson assured me, “It’s not bad at all. It’s how colonies make new colonies. It’s bittersweet. I hope they ended up in a tree hollow — perfectly fine, as a wild beehive. I did lose a lot of my hive, which was very sad. I felt like a parent, watching children go away to college,” he laughed.

In short, swarming is the natural progression of bee colonies to expand and disperse, while colony collapse is the opposite; bee populations dramatically decline in a somewhat mysterious manner. The Vineyard is blessed with plenty of pollinators, and no shortage of bees; however, Emerson believes that there is certainly room for more hives. His fascination with the insects is contagious.

Emerson points out the queen, with an unmistakable green dot on the top of her head. —Bella Bennett

As Emerson moves calmly and confidently between two hives, splitting the colony to avoid a swarm in his aunt Kimberly Angell’s yard, he tells me a bit more about his goals: “I would love to teach people how to maintain their own beehives.” Being self-taught, he learns as he goes, excited to share his newest lessons with family members and friends. As I watch, Emerson carefully lifts and inspects frames, deciding which to move to the new hive. The bees seem strangely comfortable in his presence. He is equally unfazed, allowing a few bees to land and explore his skin before catching the breeze elsewhere. He is attuned to nature in a way most of us seem to have forgotten. “I would love to get more friends and family, strangers — a ton of people — involved in beekeeping. I think that that would be a lot of fun, and I think that small successes bring great change,” he tells me, gently moving a young queen into her modest wooden castle, among a buzzing mass of subjects.