The Dirt / Bringing up beekeepers
Mike Masterson and daughter Erin have made Masterson's Garden Center a regional center for beekeeping education
Mike and Erin Masterson
Mike Masterson and daughter Erin have accomplished a remarkable feat. The two have trained some 700 beekeepers in the last five years, a great percentage of them new to beekeeping. Nobody could have predicted that Masterson’s Garden Center (725 Olean Road, East Aurora)—largely known for its extensive water garden offerings—would turn into a regional center for beekeeping education and a very happy place for honeybees, with twenty-five active hives on the property.
Since the 1980s, Masterson’s Garden Center has been an all-purpose garden center with a huge water gardening department filled with pumps, ponds, koi, and plants. What provoked Masterson to turn to a new specialty? Why make a significant personal and business investment in bees? There are two different narratives:
What got you into beekeeping, Mike? Did you see a business opportunity and plan a new division of your store?
Hardly a plan! No. First I got interested in the plight of the bees. For instance, it was—is—shocking: every year for at least ten years, up to forty percent of the managed honeybee hives die. That’s unsustainable! So, I kept on reading books and went to some bee club meetings. Then my son Dan and I went for it: we put a few hives in a back area of the garden center. It took off from there.
Was it difficult to get started? Did you or Dan take a course?
For us it wasn’t a classroom thing. More hands-on. I was lucky to find two mentors to lean on—Joe Montesano and Bob Zahm—and they really helped Dan and me anytime we were uncertain. A mentor makes a lot of difference, and we’re trying to do that for beginners here, too. We were also lucky to connect with Better Bee, a supply company with some new owners, just when they were ready to find an outlet; we helped each other figure out the business end of it, and they’re still our major supplier. Sometimes, it just takes the right people at the right time to make good things happen.
Has anything surprised you about this whole process?
Yes, the numbers! So many people are interested and want to do this. They just need a little help, the right start, and the right equipment. It’s been amazing. You should see our Bee Distribution Day in May. It’s like a Tim Hortons drive-through. In about two hours on a Saturday, 200 beehives (with the supplies and the bees) go out the driveway. We have volunteers and kids from BOCES all getting into it. Even our Honey Harvest Festival built up so fast—we’re in the fourth year. I’m still shaking my head.
Just to catch up, Erin: you were in California with your family, and you had a landscape design business. Did your Dad drag you into the bee thing?
Oh, no. It was some kind of synchronicity. Actually, the bees made me do it. In our yard in San Diego one day, a huge swarm of feral honeybees flew in and took over our large bird house. My neighbors were freaking out, but I was pulled toward the bees, fascinated. My kids were watching, too. People said “Run!” And we didn’t. A beekeeper came and captured them, and it was just so cool. I was hooked.
So, the next step was?
I became a backyard beekeeper. And, in spite of people’s fears, nothing bad ever happened. I’d have parties there and nobody was ever stung. It wasn’t long before I saw the need for a source of supplies for people like me—after all, I grew up in a retail store—so I opened my own business: Bee Happy Beekeeping Supplies.
And that was about the time your Dad was also getting into it?
That’s right, just about the same time. We talked and talked about bees. And, after a time, it seemed right for my family to move back to Western New York. We found everything we ever wanted—a farmhouse and land where we could have our chickens, goats, and bees. And Dad had this business already in progress where I could not just grow plants and bees, but work toward the real goal: more beekeepers.
Growing the beekeepers
Both Mike and Erin stress how the beekeeping business and education component have coevolved. They began with a few seminars in the garden center, where they fit only about forty people at a time, and the seminars just keep selling out. Classes include Beekeeping 101, as well as specific topics such as insect and disease management. Of the roughly 700 people who have taken the classes, Mike couldn’t answer how many were new to it and how many became long-term beekeepers. What is clear: every year there are more trainees, and, increasingly, they are beginners. And they keep coming back for help, supplies, and a comaraderie with other beekeepers.
Another way the Mastersons support beekeepers is through an apprenticeship program. Those who meet the criteria (such as some training and knowledge), but aren’t quite ready to jump in by themselves, can work with an experienced beekeeper. The apprentice is assigned to care for specific hives in the apiary, starting in early spring. Over a three-month period, the volunteer can experience most of the life cycle of a hive. Most of the apprentices go on to become beekeepers on their own.
Who are these new beekeepers? What’s the motivation?
Erin: In San Diego, I observed two groups. There are couples Dad’s age who are retired and have time for a new hobby. Others are people my age, often mothers, who want to do something at home with their kids.
Mike: Yes. They’re hobbyists. It’s so interesting. They might sell a little honey or products, but that’s not why they do it. Most of them get that it’s just the right thing to do.
Erin: Right. Also there’s a coolness factor. It’s fun to become the “Bee Lady.” It’s a little scary at first; most people have to get past a little fear, and then it feels good. I’ve taught a lot of classes for children, too, and it’s fun to watch them really get into it. Bees are easy to love once you know them.
Is it expensive?
Mike: The startup costs—hives, equipment, clothing, and bees—probably add up to around $500, if you’re starting from scratch. But then you’re set for a long time. Hey, it’s a lot cheaper than golf.
Educating on bee endangerment
The big picture should by now be familiar to us all. The managed honeybee population is in grave danger from a phenomenon termed colony collapse disorder. It comprises multiple factors, including widespread habitat loss, widespread pesticide use, and diseases and parasites that further weaken already stressed populations. Homeowners and gardeners can help by planting native plants, increasing biodiversity, providing water in shallow dishes, eliminating pesticides, and supporting beekeepers.
There are other pollinator facts that the public should understand, including:
• Honeybees are the poster children for at-risk species. As many as fifty percent of native bee populations have died recently. Monarch numbers are down eighty percent. The list goes on.
• Honeybees are gentle and rarely sting, but many people call every sting “a bee sting.” Usually, it isn’t. Other hymenoptera—hornets and wasps, including yellow jackets—can be more aggressive (although they’re important pollinators too). We need them all.
• Fewer than one percent of people are allergic to bee stings; many have an itching reaction or some swelling, but serious allergies are rare.
• Bees don’t need a lot of space; they can be kept in a small yard or on a rooftop—and they don’t hang around the yard or bother the neighbors. They fly up and away.
• Beekeeping takes very little time once you have set up hives and learned what to do.
• Everyone can help by planting lots of flowers and buying nutritious local honey.
Masterson’s Honey Harvest Festival in October is a great way to meet beekeepers, enjoy a honey tasting, and try their products. After the experience, you might even want to become a beekeeper as well.
Sally Cunningham is an author, gardening educator, and certified nursery and landscape professional). She offers talks on earth-friendly landscaping, with a focus on native plants to support pollinators. She writes regularly for the Buffalo News and Spree, and leads Great Garden Travel for AAA/Horizon Club Tours.