The Honey Bee Whisperer

Chester County apiarist Carmen Battavio offers locals a look into the world of an important insect.

The art of apiculture, more colloquially known as beekeeping, is often overlooked or entirely forgotten, but this little-known field is highly important to agriculture. Honey bees help maintain the health of crops that humans readily consume, as well as the flowers we admire on a daily basis. The Chester County Beekeeper’s Association boasts approximately 200 members, from novice to professional, who care for local honey bee colonies. Carmen Battavio is among them, an expert apiarist who sells local honey under the name Carmen B’s Honey, and cares for approximately 50 hives in the area.

A plumber by trade, around 10 years ago, Battavio noticed that his large vegetable garden was suffering. After conducting a considerable amount of research, he learned that bolstered honey bee pollination of plants could provide a wealth of benefits. At the time, honey bees were scarce, driven off in droves with no temptation to stay in area gardens.

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Honey bees are currently facing an epidemic called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), the cause of which might be one or a combination of about a dozen different theories, ranging from mites to genetics to global warming to excessive pesticide use. Though it does not directly affect human health, CCD does significantly impact the survival rates of entire colonies, which is detrimental to the quantity of crops that can be pollinated by bees. Honey bee pollination of an estimated 75 percent of American crops adds a value of approximately $15 billion to the country’s agricultural production. “It’s a very, very important part of our food chain,” says Battavio. Without honey bees, people must rely on more genetically modified organisms (GMOs), forced to adapt to changing harvest patterns with inorganic supplements.

To understand the significance of honey bees and how to protect them so that they could thrive in his area, Battavio began taking classes through Penn State University’s agricultural department, eventually becoming certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He began with three hives on his property in 2006 and almost immediately noticed an increase in his plants’ yield.

“Vegetables went wild. Everything went wild.” Battavio says. “All the neighbors were stating how they had good pollination, how they saw bees they hadn’t seen before, so it pretty much proved that it was probably the colony collapse that was giving people problems with gardens.”

Battavio’s hives are now spread across 10 properties. The West Chester Agway hosts eight hives and the rest are split among local farms and privately owned properties. Each colony requires an immense amount of maintenance. Battavio checks his hives once a week or every other week, depending on each colony’s health and cleanliness. He cleans the structures, checks for mites, and inspects the health of each queen, which, should she appear to be unhealthy, must be removed, which mandates that the hive be re-queened.

Carmen Battavio

The wellbeing of the queen directly affects the level of activity among all of the other bees, since she is the reproducer and her presence encourages workers to maintain the safety and health of its inhabitants. In bringing pollen and nectar home to feed the other bees, the workers unintentionally pollinate plants. Should a hive be unhealthy, the colony members must stay in and concentrate on their own wellbeing.

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Battavio must also take his own wellness into consideration. To manage the hives year-round and extract the honey in July, he wears a bee-tight outfit, complete with a screened hood and leather gloves to ensure he stays safe from stings. He also uses a smoker, when necessary, to suppress any aggressive hives.

The honey produced by Battavio’s bees comes from wildflower honey, meaning that they pollinate the plants within a 3-mile radius of their hives, not just a specific variety. Originally intended by the bees to be their winter food store, honey is made in such large quantities that humans can reap the benefits, too. It can be used as a natural sweetener and is safe for animals to consume.

Pure honey like Battavio’s, which is available at Thornton and East Goshen markets, is only strained of bee debris, not boiled, which allows it to maintain its most beneficial properties. When consumed, honey can serve as an allergy cure since it is made out of the plants to which many people are allergic. “We’re taking a dose of what we’re allergic to, which builds up resistance in our body,” Battavio says. Its enzymes can also pass through skin, so it can also be used as a medical grade salve for burns and salves.

Battavio tries to spread the word about the significance of bees through area talks, wary that a lack of consideration of the environment could result in a version of CCD at the human level. “Bees are extremely sensitive to environmental changes, like we are, but because they’re such a small insect, they are affected much more drastically,” Battavio says.

Since weather affects honey production—this year will be lighter because of the rainy spring—humans need to be aware of their own impact on bees to prevent further damage. To thrive, honey bees must be cared for, and that involves limiting pesticide use—even in backyard vegetable gardens. Battavio also recommends planting honey bee-friendly plants like butterfly bushes. “We certainly have to be a bit more diligent in terms of education and development of stuff that farmers can use that’s a little more natural, more organic,” he says of keeping the local bees satisfied.

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Ultimately, honey bee health means sweeter days for everyone.

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