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Ted Elk scrapes honey off the comb.  (Photo: Julie Grant)
Ted Elk scrapes honey off the comb. (Photo: Julie Grant)

Traditional Work, Pt. 5: Master beekeeper says the job has gotten more challenging

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This week and next, North Country Public Radio is exploring the lives of people who do traditional work. These are arts and types of industry that people would have been using to make a living in our region a century ago, or even longer. Ted Elk has been a beekeeper for nearly 20 years - with hives from Clayton, to Evans Mills, to Fort Drum. He says it's become much more labor intensive in that time. Julie Grant visited him Hammond.

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Elk uses a smoker to keep bees close to the hive.  (Photo: Julie Grant)

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Julie Grant
Reporter and Producer

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It’s no secret that bees have been having a hard time in recent years.  Colony Collapse Disorder, the name give to the mysterious death of bees around the world, has been making headlines since 2006. 

And Ted Elk says it hasn’t been easy for beekeepers either…

“If I knew 18 years ago how much work this was going to be, I would have chosen a different profession.”

When Elk started his first hives, it was easy…

 “Almost as simple as just setting the hive of bees up, and walking away.  And then come back in the fall, pick the honey off, cover them, wrap them, and put them to bed until next spring.”

But in recent decades, hives around the country, and much of the world, started having troubles.  And it started happening well before Colony Collapse Disorder first appeared.  Diseases and pests have been plaguing bees since the 1970s. 

“There’s just so much out there.  You’re playing veterinary most of the time and not able to enjoy what I really set out to do.  I love to keep bees.  But it’s just a horrendous amount of work.”

I visited Elk last fall.  He took me out to see some hives.  The stacks of colorful wooden boxes were tucked away in the brush behind a cornfield.  I borrowed protective gear –  a heavy white canvas jumpsuit, thick gloves, and a net to cover my entire head. 

Elk lit what looked like an old coffee can, called a smoker.  He puffed smoke around the hives, so we could get a look at the bees…

“It simulates a fire. It just kind of keeps them settled.  And keeps them on the comb.”

Elk still gets a kick out the bees.  He explained how different groups of bees are like different types of humans. 

Each has a job to do…

Elk: “ See this here, that would be an undertaker bee, getting rid of a dead bee.  See that?”

JG: “What’s he going to with it?”

Elk:  “Just drag it off…”

Elk opened a hive box and pulled out a honeycomb thick with  golden honey. But  other hives had almost none.

When I visited Elk last fall, he was trying to figure why he’d lost a couple hundred hives... 

“Here’s a hive here that’s not going to make it through the winter.  It’s light, there’s no bees, there’s no weight to it.”

After losing so many hives, Elk put his bees on a treatment schedule.  Mite strips, to get rid of pests.  And an anti-biotic called Fumidil, to prevent a common bee disease called Nosema.

“That was one of the survivor bees, it just wasn’t doing anything before I put the Fumidil on it.  So I know the Fumidil works.”

JG: “What did it look like before the Fumidil?”

Elk:  “Just like that one. Little or no bees.  Dark comb on top.  It just didn’t smell good.”

JG: So the Fumidil saved you temporarily ?

Elk:  “Yep, it’s a temporary fix.  It’s one of those things, you’ve got to keep doing it.  You can’t stop because it looks better.”

People have been keeping bees for literally thousands of years.  These days more people are keeping bees in backyard hives.  Elk has 800 hives.  He’s worries about the future of large-scale beekeeping…

“It’s a battle.  It’s a wonderful life, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.  I get stressed out in spring, and I get wicked stressed in the fall, putting logistics together.  My big worry is now, I’m only 55, who’s going to buy my operation out, who’s going to be the next generation of beekeepers.”

When I visited Elk, he was getting ready to harvest his honey and close up the hives.  In mid-October he loaded them up on his tractor trailer and headed to South Carolina for the winter.  When we spoke earlier this week, he gave me some good news -  his winter losses were minimal…

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