Valley Bounty: New England Apiaries
The Recorder, March 24, 2021.
For Bill Crawford, the magic of beekeeping captured him at a young age and hasn’t let go. “I started with just one colony my sophomore year in high school, selling honey out of my backpack,” he recalls. “It just kept growing every year.”
These days, as owner of New England Apiaries in Southwick, he cares for over 1,000 hives that crisscross the state and nation, pollinating crops, dodging the winter chill and returning to the Pioneer Valley each April to make sweet local honey.
What started as a hobby became a profession for Crawford after college in 2012. When a beekeeping family friend needed help in a pinch, Crawford didn’t hesitate. “I got in the car in Massachusetts one evening and arrived in South Dakota the next. In my excitement, I drove straight through the night and all day the next day,” he says.
“Right after that, I got a job at an apiary in Pennsylvania and was there 2½ years,” he explains. “They’re the ones who really taught me the trade and helped me get off on my own.”
All the while, Crawford was returning to Massachusetts often to care for an expanding collection of his own hives, investing all he could into the bees. In 2015, now with several hundred colonies, he left his Pennsylvania job to focus full time on New England Apiaries .
Like most commercial beekeeping operations, he makes money a few different ways. Crop pollination contracts with farms provide stable income. “That’s what pays for the bees,” Crawford says. “Honey production is where we can make a profit, but that’s quite variable year to year.”
They also sell bees in “nucs” — a five-frame hive with queen, brood bees, worker bees and honey — and “packages,” which are “three pounds of bees and a queen in a box,” Crawford explains. Nucs are pricier, but a stronger start for a hive. They also sell queen bees individually.
Honey from New England Apiaries is sold as Billy C’s Raw Honey. That was what Crawford first called his honey, and even though the name of the business has evolved and few call him “Billy,” the name stuck.
Crawford is quick to share how his honey is both local and raw, two distinctions that set it apart from others.
“Local” honey isn’t a strict definition. It can mean the bees foraged from local flowers, or that the honey was packed into jars by a local business. Some brands just do the latter, but Billy C’s checks both boxes, with honey-producing hives spread west to east between Russell and Palmer, and north to south from Greenfield to Hartford.
“Raw” honey hasn’t been super-heated to avoid crystallization, which changes its properties. One reason people seek raw, local honey, Crawford says, is because it contains unaltered pollen and particles from local plants, which some consume as a preventive for seasonal allergies.
Currently, most of New England Apiaries’ hives are finishing the winter in Georgia. Soon they’ll come north, kicking off a whirlwind seasonal circuit. “We bring bees back to Massachusetts in April or May,” Crawford says. This begins their two-month stint as honey producers.
On a good year, when the weather supports a long and
strong spring bloom, they average over 40 pounds of honey per hive. Last year, that amounted to 74,000 pounds total. It’s harvested all at once, but bottled a little each week to deliver to customers.
“We’re pulling the honey off by the end of June,” he says, “because by July we need to have the bees in Ohio to pollinate cucumber and pumpkin farms.”
Extracting honey and prepping hives for transport requires aroundthe- clock work for a few weeks. “It’s grueling,” he says, “but so rewarding when it’s all done. And that’s when we make our profit for the year.”
“By September, all the bees will be back in Georgia,” Crawford says. “Then at the end of January, we send one or two semi-truck loads of bees to California to pollinate the almond crop.”
In March, all the hives come back to Georgia. This is when Crawford divides hives that are strong enough, keeping some and selling the rest. And the cycle repeats, in the same order but rarely with the same timing as conditions vary.
Some years bring more challenges than others. In 2015, Crawford lost most of his hives to colony collapse disorder and had to rebuild. The causes of colony collapse are not well understood, but the results are what they sound like — after winter passes, few or no bees remain in the hive.
Varroa mites are another issue Crawford manages.
“They’re the number one pest in beekeeping,” Crawford explains. “They’re tiny, eight-legged insects that reproduce in the hive and feed on the bees as parasites. This hurts the bees directly and makes them vulnerable to disease and viruses.”
Still, it’s the challenge that keeps Crawford going year after year.
“Conditions are always changing and hive management is so complicated, but the fact that this job is multifaceted is what I really enjoy,” he says. “You’re always on your toes, and you’re always learning.”
To find Billy C’s Raw Honey and other local honey for sale near you, check out CISA’s searchable online guide at buylocalfood.org/find-it-locally.
Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator for Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA).