For The Kelley Family, Being Part Of The 'Bee Squad' Is A-OK
Julie Kelley stands in front of the two bee hives at the Tewksbury Public Library.
Julie Kelley isn't sure those "employees" might not view themselves as the victims of home invasion and grand theft.
Mike and Julie Kelley own Tewksbury Honey, and those "employees," of course, are the approximately 3 million bees housed in apiaries across Tewksbury and Andover. What started as a backyard hobby in 2013 has grown rapidly into a successful home business that also benefits local families in need, as well as the environment.
"We had no idea the response would be so strong and so positive," said Julie Kelley. "It's been great! You tell people you have bees and people get so excited."
The Kelleys entered the world of beekeeping having very little training. Julie works as a teacher at Wilmington High School, while Mike, a former Tewksbury School Committee member, works as an engineer for Cognizant Technology Solutions Corp. But that didn't stop them from erecting their first five hives.
The family, which includes Sean, now 15, and Kathryn, now 12, was inspired by concerns over the impact of the rapidly decreasing bee population in the global ecosystem. They received some tutoring from an experienced acquaintance, ordered the supplies they needed, and went to work.
"Sean and Kathryn are both really great helpers. They're both very involved," said Kelley. "Kathryn loves to get right in there with the bees."
By the fall of 2015, the Kelleys expanded to 11 hives and began selling raw honey, as well as honey-based lip balm and honey-based skin moisturizing bars. That's when an act of generosity and the company's first public appearance led to an incredible expansion of the business.
"We reached out to the Tewksbury Community Food Pantry and offered to include a jar of honey in every one of their holiday baskets," said Kelley. "We really wanted to give something back to the community."
Shortly afterward, the Kelley Family introduced Tewksbury Honey to the public at the St. William's Church Christmas Fair.
Suddenly, there was quite a buzz about the local honey business and orders began flooding in through the company's Etsy-based website. Not only were customers wanting honey products, but farmers and other residents were asking for hives to be placed on their properties.
The growth has steadily continued in the months since, with Tewksbury Honey making appearances at a number of fairs and area farmer's markets.
"Each hive has seven boxes. So Sean and Mike spent all winter building boxes," said Kelley.
By the start of the summer, Tewksbury Honey had blossomed to 44 hives, each with between 60,000 and 80,000 bees. The Kelleys do two honey "pulls" per year, once in the summer and again in the fall. The most recent pull, in early July, gathered nearly 100 gallons of raw honey. A good amount, to be sure, but barely enough to keep up with the growing demand.
"Ours is called Wildflower Honey because of the type of plants in the area the bees pollinate," explained Kelley. "Spring honey is always a lighter color, while fall honey is a darker, richer color."
Some of the Kelley's hives are located on private property, while others are on town-owned land. There are two hives at the Tewksbury Public Library (a big help for the new community garden) and more on a town-owned parcel off East Street. Two were recently erected on the property of St. Robert's Church in Andover. An arrangement has been reached with Tewksbury State Hospital to add three hives on hospital land in the near future.
Why such a strong interest in apiaries and efforts to grow the bee populations?
Ask a farmer what the most important animal on his farm is and he won't hesitate in telling you -- it's the bees. According to naturebox.org.uk, approximately 80 percent of crops in the USA are dependent on bees for pollination. In fact, one hive of around 50,000 bees can pollinate up to half a million plants in just one day.
No bees means no pollination, which means no plant growth, which means no fruits and vegetables. In short, no bees means no food.
"The planet could go on functioning quite happily without any large animals such as primates," said George McGavin, an honorary research associate at Oxford University's Museum of Natural History. "We rely upon bees for just about every vegetable, flower and fruit around. They are a crucial terrestrial group and we would face mass starvation without them. Bees are irreplaceable. Their loss will be catastrophic."
All of which seemed hypothetical until 2006, when beekeepers began reporting sudden massive drop-offs in their bee populations: in some cases, between 80-90 percent. Some reported massive deaths, but in more cases, the swarms were simply abandoning their hives for no obvious reasons. The phenomenon was called Colony Collapse Disorder.
Various reasons have been blamed for the huge drop-off in bee population, including the use of pesticides (which kill both bugs and bees), loss of habitat, climate change, and disease. Included in the later is the parasitic Varroa Mite.
"It's something we have to be aware of all the time," said Kelley. "We have to manage the mite population. They are hard to see, so mostly we have to look for signs of the mites."
Educating people about bees and their importance to life on the planet is something Julie Kelley takes very seriously. More than 50 residents showed up recently for a presentation she gave on bees and beekeeping at the Tewksbury Public Library.
"I want to let people know that bees aren't bad. And they're fascinating," said Kelley. "How do they know on Day 14 of their lives that (their job) is going to be to make wax and then all of a sudden they're a wax builder."
For more information on Tewksbury Honey, check out their web page at http://www.tewksbury.com/ or follow them here on Facebook.