All pet owners in Montgomery County are challenged with ensuring that the animals they care for remain healthy, fed and protected. That responsibility in households with multiple pets, requiring additional diligence and attention from the humans who choose to open their homes to more than one dog, cat, bird or fish.
Now imagine the duty of caring for 1.5 million creatures each and every day.
That's exactly the challenge that Dan Boylan has taken on as a beekeeper in his Pottstown home.
Boylan's expansive property - lush with the greenery cultivated by his horticulturist wife - features ten or so hives, each housing upwards of 60,000 bees. Together with his offsite hives (some in nearby Coventry, some further off at Green Lane Park), Boylan has about 25 hives in total.
Do the math, folks. That's 1.5 million critters under his care.
"Like owners of other pets, I monitor their food intake and look after their long-term health," Boylan says. "In the winter, if they're not getting enough food, I feed them sugar water. I'm also constantly on the lookout for Varroa mites, which infect bees much in the same way a tick will infect a dog or cat."
How can Boylan tell if the residents of his hives are healthy or not? He weighs the frames, the wooden supports that encourage both honeycomb-building and honey production. "It's a matter of intake and output," he says. "If the bees aren't getting enough to eat, honey production will go down, and the frames won't be as heavy as they should be. When that happens, I supplement what they can forage with some sugar water."
Boylan caught the buzz to get involved with beekeeping about eight years ago, when he took a class to learn all the ins and outs. "Given that my wife was into unusual plants and various breeds of flowers, I thought it was a good fit to raise bees that could take advantage of all that variety," he says. He began his education with an eight-session class offered to beginners by the Montgomery County Beekeepers Association (MCBA) in Skippack. He has risen through the ranks of the organization to his current role as president.
The hobby provides a chance to enjoy the outdoors, a welcome change from Boylan's day job at the Limerick Generating Station.
"The coursework is an excellent way to get started," Boylan says. "Sessions run from February to September, and each class is targeted to exactly what a beekeeper should be doing at that point in the season. We try not to overwhelm beginners with too much information at once."
We tour his hives, which are tucked throughout his garden. A brief shower has stirred activity around the hives, but as the sun comes out, the bees settle.
"How worried do I need to be about being stung?" I ask. Boylan replies, "Not much. Just be aware of the traffic flow," he says, referring to the take-offs and landings occurring at the hive entrance. "If you end up in a flight path, you might find someone becoming defensive." I watch my back and remain safe.
"If you keep bees, you will be stung," Boylan says, referring to his own track record in avoiding the ire of his sometimes grouchy pets. "For me, it's usually when I end up making some kind of rash move. Or one gets under my sleeve, and I don't realize it. For the most part, I don't even treat the stings unless they're on my face. And then, I only do something to reduce the swelling and avoid looking like I've gotten punched in the mouth," he laughs.
He explains the various breeds of bees; the effect that foraging has on honey production; and even the internal politics of rival queens, hive takeovers and the division of labor.
I learn, for example, that bees are not nocturnal; as the sun begins to set, they will return to the hive and hunker down for the night. As with humans, however, their level of rest is often dependent on the temperature.
"When it's really hot at night, like it has been over the past few weeks, they will engage in a behavior called ‘bearding.' That means they will collect on the outside of the hive in large cascades. It's their technique for keeping cool."
Something like retiring to the front porch at dusk, enjoying the breezes that come with the waning of a summer's day.
The honey that Boylan collects is sold commercially at local farm markets and outdoor festivals. He and his wife will be onsite at the Fall Gardeners' Market at the Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge. The event, August 22 from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., is mainly a marketplace for the purchase of trees, shrubs, perennials, ferns and other garden plants. But attendees will also be able to pick up some locally produced nectar to drop into a morning cup of tea or spread on a slice of warm toast.
Boylan spends considerable time making sure his bees are housed in comfort and that their needs are continually met. It's not unlike how Montgomery County hoteliers treat their guests. To see just how sweet our accommodations can be, see our website for a list of recommended places to stay.