Pennfield School in Portsmouth gets beehives

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PORTSMOUTH — Pennfield School students hope to get a sweet payoff after planting two beehives in their field Monday.

As part of its Earth Day celebration, the school invited Jeff Mello of Aquidneck Honey in Middletown to talk about the value of bees and how to protect them. Afterward, the upper school students helped Mr. Mello set up two hives on the 19-acre property. He plans on returning May 10 to fill them with bees.

"Typically a honeybee wants to face due south," said Mr. Mello said as he checked a compass app on his iPhone. A wind from the north during the winter is like blowing an air conditioner on the hives, so the bees are better off facing the other direction, he explained.

Several student volunteers agreed to help maintain the hives, which will be used to teach the children about pollination and honey production. Mr. Mello said he might even invite some students to join him on "The Rhode Show" TV program, where he often appears to present cooking demonstrations using local honey.

"We started this company because we're farmers by trade," said Mr. Mello of Aquidneck Honey, adding that it all began with two hives in his backyard. "Now we have over 1,200 hives in three states. It's a passion."

The company collects many of its honey bees during "rescue runs" — when someone calls them to say they have a bee problem. He recalled one home where there were so many bees inside the ceiling that it collapsed and honey dripped to the floor, he said.

Another time he was called to Second Beach to get some bees off a man's umbrella on a hot August day.

Raw is best

Mr. Mello told students they should eat only honey that hasn't been tampered with. For example, he said, honey sticks that come in different colors such as green and red are not all-natural.

"We need it to be chemical-free, pure and raw. It shouldn't taste like bubble gum," said Mr. Mello, who added that pure honey is naturally medicinal. "If you've got cuts and scrapes, you can put honey on it."

Beeswax — the honeycomb or waxy rigid structure used to store the honey — can be used to make different products such as lip balm, he said.

Worker bees and drones work together to produce the honey in each hive, which is ruled over by one queen bee, he told students.

"How many queens are in your home? I think her name is mom," Mr. Mello said.

A queen bee's life expectancy is 3 to 5 years, while worker bees and drones live anywhere from 4 to 10 weeks. All bees are born as adults.

"Then within a day, they're assigned a job," said Mr. Mello, adding that worker bees make a queen by feeding it royal jelly, a honey bee secretion also used in the nutrition of larvae.

He also talked briefly about colony collapse disorder — when worker bees abruptly disappear, threatening honey production. The problem became particularly apparent with the disappearance of western honeybee colonies in North America in late 2006.

Many theories have been offered up for the phenomenon, but most of them are wrong, said Mr. Mello. The real reason for the disappearing bees, he said, is that too many homeowners use pesticides that are killing dandelions and other weeds that bees use for a food source.

Although he didn't handle any bees Monday, Mr. Mello did have a live beehive encased in glass to show the kids. Still, he wore his heavy beekeeping gear as a precaution. Although most beekeepers build up more resistance to the toxins every time they're stung, it's the opposite for Mr. Mello.

He guessed that he gets stung "about 12 times" over the summer months. "I'm getting smarter," he said.

One time he was working on a private estate on Glen Road when he forgot to zip the protective veil over his face to the rest of his clothes, leaving a gaping hole at the neck area. He was stung 23 times, including three in one ear.

"I looked like a Macy's Day parade balloon," he said.

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