Nyack Sketch Log: The Bees and Trees of Hummingbird Ranch

NSL_151_Featured Image_featured Imageby Bill Batson

Twelve million bees and 1,500 trees keep Richard and Debbie Focht busy 365 days a year. Business at Hummingbird Ranch is sweet, but it can also sting. And when you add tapping trees for syrup to the equation, you have a good living tied to the rhythms and realities of our delicate ecosystem.

In this interview, Richard presents a “colorful” idea about combatting bee colony collapse disorder. Nyack is fortunate to be one of the five Farmers’ Markets where Hummingbird Ranch share the products and wisdom they carefully coax from nature.

Meet beekeeper, tree tapper, and, wait for it, …dance instructor, Richard Focht.

NSL_151_smoking bees

Richard and Debbie using smoke to calm the hive

When did you meet your first bee?

Even though I only started beekeeping 10 ago, I have always been fascinated by insects. When I was two-years-old, I went to the Ulster County Fair and saw a beekeeper in a screened in gazebo demonstrating basic beekeeping functions.

I tried to persuade him to let me. He said it was not allowed, citing insurance requirements. I never forgot it. When I moved into the house I live in now, I read some books on beekeeping and then ordered 2 hive packages.

When the packaged bees came in the mail, it was time to man-up and put the bees in the hives. I didn’t know what to expect, so I had my wife, Debbie, sit in my truck with the window open and the cell phone in one hand, set to call 911. She yelled out the instructions step-by-step from the book “Beekeeping for Dummies.”

All went well, even the part where, after I shook the package of 10,000 bees into the hive, I put my hand in and “smoothed out” the pile of bees so I could put the frames back in over them.

NSL_151_Langstroth Hive

Langstroth Hive

What kind of hives do you use?

Many forms of hives have been used by those who want to collect and harvest honey. Among them are the Skep hives (typically a bell shaped structure usually associated with honey bee hives) and many designed through the 1700 & 1800s. The big difference came in the form of the Langstroth hive, designed and patented by Reverend Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth in 1852. The overwhelming advantage of this hive is the ability it gives you to access the comb without destroying the hive. Prior to this you had to disassemble, or destroy the hive and squeeze the comb to collect the honey.

Langstroth took the discoveries of other famous Apiarists (Beekeepers) and added his discoveries to produce a hive that was re-usable. This allowed the hives to be inspected, managed and the honey harvested without destroying the hives. This is still the most widely used hive today.

NSL_151_beesHow many bees do you have?

It is hard to say how many bees we have because it changes day to day. Generally speaking, we have around 200 hives. This time of year each hive has around 60,000 bees, so that would be around 12,000,000 bees.

How many times have you been stung?

NSL-151_bees in hiveSurprisingly, bee stings are not as prevalent as you would think. Routine inspections of hives go pretty much without stings, unless you crush a bee. If you kill a bee, it gives off a pheromone (scent) that triggers an attack from the surrounding bees. This is the way the bees protect the hive from predators.

Considering all the times we go into the hive and do not get stung (most of the time), the bees are pretty tolerant. There are hives however that are aggressive. Don’t forget all the bees in the hive have one mother, the queen. Queens do have different personalities and if one is aggressive all her children follow suit.

There have been occasions where I have been stung by many bees from a hive. I can recollect several times of 20 or more stings. The good news is, its good for my arthritis.

Really?  Bee venom has medicinal qualities?

Bee venom is the poison that makes the sting painful. The venom also has medicinal attributes and is used to treat a number of medical conditions. It is not to be confused or associated with other bee products such as bee pollen, honey, royal jelly or propolis.

NSL_151_Inside the hiveBee venom is used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, nerve pain (neuralgia), multiple sclerosis (ms), to reduce the reaction to beestings in people who are allergic (desensitization), swollen tendons (tendonitis) and muscle conditions such as fibromyositis and enthesitis, due to its anti-coagulant and anti-inflammatory properties

Bee venom can be found in many beauty products. It is believed to increase blood flow, and produce collagen. This effect aids in smoothing out lines and wrinkles.

Debbie make bees wax candles

Debbie make bees wax candles

Though not fully recognized in this country “Bee Therapy” is prevalent around the world.

How do you extract the honey?

To get the honey from the hive, we start by removing the “honey super, ” the box that holds 8 or 10 “frames,” removable structures that the bees have constructed wax comb on. The bees fill it with honey, then cover the cells with wax “cappings” sealing in the honey.

The cappings are removed, unsealing the honey. The frames are placed in a centrifuge and spun until the honey is removed from them. We then pour the honey into jars and bring them to the market.

What are some of the things you make from bee products?

A colorful plan to counter colony collapse

The following is a list of some of the flowers that are beneficial to bees:

  • Aster
  • Alyssum
  • Basil
  • Buttercup
  • Butterfly bush
  • Borage
  • Calliopsis
  • Coneflower
  • Coreopsis
  • Candytuft
  • CatnipChives
  • Clover
  • Dahlia
  • Daisy
  • Goldenrod
  • Lavender
  • Marigolds
  • Poppy
  • Sage
  • Sea Holly
  • Sunflower
  • Zinnia

According to Friends of the Earth (FOE) bee killing  pesticides were found in 51 percent of “bee-friendly” plants from garden centers across U.S. and Canada; Home Depot, BJ’s Wholesale Club. To find safe seeds visit Friends of the Earth.

According to conservationist Dr. Reese Halter, 500 billion honeybees have been lost to colony collapse worldwide and five billion pounds of insecticides are used annually. One third of these insecticides are neonictinoids, that are not only harmful to bees, but butterflies, worms, fish and birds. In combination with climate disruption, the bees are dying even faster. 

Nothing from the hive is wasted. Besides honey, we use the wax for candles. Beeswax makes the best candles- it burns longer, doesn’t drip and burns bright. It does not require adding a scent because it is naturally fragrant, so there is no reason to worry about the dangerous side effects of added scents.

We also use beeswax for skin creams, lip balms and numerous lubricating and sealing applications.

Have you noticed a change in the bee population, or signs of Colony Collapse Disorder?

The bee population is definitely in trouble. Bees  are dying off and abandoning their hives at an increasing rate. Replacement bees from the large bee producers seem to be weaker and more difficult to get to accept a queen. In addition, these packages can contain diseases and parasites that can kill your bees.

The use of insecticides and herbicides threaten their every trip to collect nectar and pollen. In my opinion, products made with Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) have herbicides and insecticides engineered into the DNA of the plants that are transfer via the food chain into bee pollen and nectar. The bees are putting the nectar and pollen in the hives.

This can’t be good for them, and I could understand them abandoning a contaminated hive. Sounds like colony collapse syndrome, doesn’t it.

What can we do to stabilize the bee population?

Planting flowers that provide nectar and pollen for the bees is a wonderful way to help the bees survive and beautify the landscape .

It is a way that those not able to have a hive can still contribute to their welfare. If you don’t have your own yard, check with your town for any public areas that may be available for planting.

How many trees do you tap?

NSL_151_tree tappingPresently, we have 2 major sugarbushes (a plantation of sugar maples) of around 1000 taps each and a smaller one (450 or 500) taps. We are constantly expanding and improving these areas. We use plastic tubing to get the sap to a tank at the bottom of the hill. One uses a vacuum pump to increase the volume of sap, but requires additional work and maintenance. The others require gravity to get the sap to the tank.

Debbie drives the truck and pumps the sap from the tank in the sugarbush to the tank mounted in the truck. Then she drives the truck back to the sugarhouse where we filter and pump the sap into a 1300 gallon tank mounted above the roof of the sugarhouse.

The sap is gravity fed down to the evaporator inside the sugarhouse where the water is boiled off till only the maple syrup is left. This is a daunting task considering the sap is 98 to 99 percent water. It is then sent through a high pressure filter system and then finished to exact specifications to become maple syrup.

NSL_151_Humming Bird Sketch

Richard’s booth at the Nyack Farmers’ Market

What did you do before beekeeping and tree tapping?

Before beekeeping and maple syruping, I had many varied jobs. I spent several years on the road with a rock group back in 1965 to 68.

I have been a machinist in a metal fabrication company, a draftsman, machine designer, a mechanic,and  a quality control inspector for a military contractor. I’ve worked for the Department of Defense as a quality assurance specialist managing as many as 10 to 15 military contractors. I’ve also spent several years rebuilding automatic transmissions and engines.

NSL_151_American GothicI’ve been certified in many categories including- missile specification soldering, mechanical, electrical, electronic and government contract law. Some of my more notable projects include fabricating parts for the space ship Columbia, The B-1 bomber, and submarine periscopes including the Level1 sub safe program.

In private industry, I worked in the quality assurance field as a manager and director of quality assurance. I have written numerous quality assurance manuals. I have published articles in technology magazines and the Fiber Optic Handbook published by Codenoll technology.

NSL_151_Dancing DuoI have 2 patents: one for an aerosol valve and one for a fiber optic coupler in an optical star coupler (a light, rather then electrical operated modem)

I hear that you are also a certified dance instructor.

I teach line, ballroom and swing dancing. In the early 90’s I was one of the first line dance instructors in this area. I was certified a level 1,2 and3 line dance instructor and level 1 and 2 partners and swing dance instructor.

I started the line dancing group at Bear Mountain, which was the most widely attended line dance event around here. I was upstate New York director for the National Teacher’s Association of Country-Western Dance.

Beekeeping, tree tapping, and dance instructing.. is there a skill set that overlaps all three?

No, they have very little common, except they all require discipline.

You can meet Richard and Debbie at the Nyack Farmers’ Market every Thursday from 8a until 2p and on some Saturdays from 8a until 1p.  The Nyack Farmers’ Market is located in the Main Municipal Parking Lot in Nyack, New York.

Visit hummingbird ranch.biz to learn more.

An activist, artist and writer, Bill Batson lives in Nyack, NY. Nyack Sketch Log: “Nyack Sketch Log: The Bees and Trees of Hummingbird Ranch“ © 2014 Bill Batson. Visit billbatsonarts.com to see more.


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