Show Me the Honey!

President of the Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center and the Leland Fikes Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and 2015 ASH President

In this edition, David Williams, MD, discusses the rewards and challenges (and dangers) of beekeeping. Dr. Williams is senior vice president and chief scientific officer of Boston Children’s Hospital, president of Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center, and Leland Fikes Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. He was also the 2015 president of the American Society of Hematology.


Dr. Williams suited up to inspect the hives.
Dr. Williams suited up to inspect the hives.

What is your beekeeping history?

My wife and I started beekeeping when we moved to Boston in the 1980s. We have a small farm in Dover, right outside the city. Many of our neighbors keep bees. One of the first people we met when we moved here helped us get started. We now have three beehives, in addition to horses, a miniature donkey, and chickens.

Having the farm puts me in touch with my midwestern roots. I grew up in Terre Haute, Indiana, and my family members were pig farmers. But beekeeping was a completely new experience for me. I learned from the community of beekeepers in our area and from my own research – there’s a lot published on bees, so when our community of beekeepers gets together, we all teach each other.

How much time do you spend tending to the bees?

Once every week or two, I put on the protective garments, smoke the hive to calm the bees down, take the hive components apart, and check to see that the queen is still laying eggs and that the other bees look healthy.

The hives contain plastic frames with preformed comb shapes that act as the foundations on which the bees build their honeycombs during the warmer months. Once the cells are filled with honey, the bees “cap” them with a thin layer of wax. As fall and cooler weather approach, they start storing honey for their winter hibernation. When we see that they have enough to last them through the winter, we replace the plastic frames with “honey supers,” special frames that allow us to collect the honey.

At harvesttime, we bring our honeycombs to a communal honey extractor that we share with local beekeepers. Because the cells are covered with wax, you “uncap” the honeycombs by sliding a heated wire across the whole honeycomb so the honey can flow out. We place our uncapped honeycombs into a basket within the giant extractor. As you hand-crank the extractor, the basket spins and the honey flings out into a big pail. Then we filter the honey and jar it.

Have you been stung?

Oh, plenty of times. Usually it’s when I’m trying to take a shortcut and don’t put on the protective garments or smoke the hives enough. That’s also why we calm the hives before working with them: If they get disturbed from a sudden movement, the bees can get aggressive.

Bees are generally docile, but every once in a while, especially when the weather changes, their temperament can become volatile. They are more aggressive in humid conditions, for instance, but it varies from day to day. I work around my hives all the time because they’re in our garden, and the bees never bother me while I’m weeding or pruning.

“Bees are generally docile, but every once in a while, especially when the weather changes, their temperament can become volatile.”

What is your favorite part of keeping bees?

No question at all: It’s the honey. We have three hives, and I typically collect 50 to 60 pounds of honey from each per year. It lasts forever and makes a great gift.

Its flavor varies a bit with each harvest, based on the time of year and the plants from which the bees collect nectar and pollen. If you are lucky enough and the weather and bees cooperate, you can harvest honey twice a year: in late spring, when the honey tends to be lighter, and late fall, when the honey tends to be darker and heavier. No matter when you harvest, though, it’s always delicious.

The bees are also just fun to have around and watch. There’s constant activity, with bees going in and out of the hive and flying miles away to collect nectar.

How is your colony this year?

We look at the honeycombs to tell how many eggs have been laid, and this year the weather has slowed them down. We had a relatively cool summer in Boston, with a lot of rain; neither of these conditions is conducive to having successful bee colonies. I haven’t had much luck getting all the hives to survive the winter, so I’m hoping this is my year.

This hobby has been a great learning experience. It’s a challenge to sustain the hives, especially as bee colonies in North America and all over the world are suffering from colony collapse, which causes the loss of as many as half of established hives during the year. There is a huge amount of research going on to understand the cause of colony collapse disorder, and there is much at stake because pollinators are responsible for a large portion of our food chain. Regardless, it’s a rewarding experience: The honey tastes fantastic, and we can get enough from a hive that I have plenty to share with neighbors and coworkers.

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