Dr. Danny Girton has been keeping honey bees full time for five years. After a full life in both the military and civilian worlds as an air traffic controller, pilot and physician, he returned to the passion of his youth — as he puts it, “the little creatures.” Honeybees.
Girton said it isn’t about the honey. The most important aspect of his work as a beekeeper is to keep the bees alive. He says if we take care of the bees, they will take care of us. Although he says he is retired, this is not a little hobby.
The bees and other pollinators are in trouble, and it is not a distant problem that only happens in California or Iowa, or Florida or other countries far away. In New York state last year, according to different sources, anywhere from 37 percent to 52 percent of the honeybee hive colonies died out. According to Girton, though colonies are surprisingly resilient at times, they are also fragile, especially when exposed to small hive beetles, varroa mites, tracheal mites, viruses, pesticides, derth and many other things that are commonly found in beekeeping today.
Girton said all around us we see green manicured lawns, housing complexes and commercial green areas, all with no dandelions or “weeds.” Pesticides, which are harmful to all pollinators, are used more on lawns than in commercial agriculture. Those pesticides are transferred from plants through the nectar and pollen the bees ingest, and by contact. These compounds are later found in the beeswax, combs and honey, which we ingest. Honeybees are more susceptible to the viruses that mites carry after being exposed to such pesticides, as some weaken the immune system of the bee, permitting viral, bacterial and fungal infections in the honey bee. Also, the brood of honeybees, when exposed to some pesticides, may become predisposed to hypothermia, which can cause short-term memory deficits and disorientation in those bees as they grow to adults. Under the repeated exposure to these toxins, the hive becomes sick, dysfunctional and dies off.
Pollinators are crucial to life as we know it. Though there are plants that are pollinated by other means, such as the wind, or self-pollinated, the honeybees play an important role in pollination just by walking on those plants’ flowers and passively collecting pollen. Life without the pollinators would create major changes necessary in order to create food to feed the world’s populations.
In discussing the role of hobby, or small scale beekeepers, Girton said he believes the hobby beekeeper is vital to the long-term health and well-being of the honeybee. Both the hobby beekeeper and the commercial beekeeper follow an art and science in their beekeeping methods. The commercial beekeeper, however, does not have the time to invest in each hive that the hobby beekeeper does; the commercial beekeeper must treat the colonies as part of an industrial process in order to survive. Both may love the honeybee, but time and numbers must be utilized in different ways. The hobby beekeeper is in a position to gauge the quality of bees and queens that suppliers are producing by inspecting for parasites and diseases, and reporting findings to reputable state and national bodies, and by participating in such groups themselves. In addition to maintaining 15 hives, helping others with their hives, performing splits, capturing swarms and removing bees from homes this past year, Girton is an advocate for honeybees and teaches in many facets.
When Girton was in medical specialty training after medical school, he learned the training technique that was called, “See one, do one, teach one.” This technique entailed watching his mentor physician perform a task, then performing the task under his or her guidance, and when his work checks out, he began teaching. Girton has taken this method and turned it into a lifelong philosophy. Upon his retirement he began a period of serious time with a mentor, learning more about honeybees and actively working on hives as much as he could. He has continued to learn everything he can about honeybees and has made it his mission to share everything he knows with his community.
Girton founded the Stony Kill Foundation Apiary Group under the auspices of Stony Kill Foundation, which manages Stony Kill Farm. That group has monthly educational presentations covering honeybees presented by local members, professionals, scientists, authors, bee supply dealers and even a world famous two-day seminar on bee diseases. Most of these are free to members.
In February, Greg Dreiss, flower and garden guru, and manager of the outdoor and garden shop at Adams Fairacre Farms in Wappingers Falls, which is also a distributor for Mann Bee Supply, presented a wonderful program on “Honey Flowers,” including information on nectar production, flow characteristics and pollen production. Dweiss and Girton recently completed an interview on WKZE (98.1 FM) “Garden Show” with Sally Spillane, which may be heard as a podcast on Girton’s website, beenation.net. Girton also presented a “Beginning Bee Keeper Seminar” in February at Adams and serves as Dweiss’s “bee guru.”
Girton will be hosting two workshops for Common Ground Farm this month. A “Beginning Apprentice Bee Workshop” on Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon for prospective and novice beekeepers with less than one year experience with bees, and an “Advanced Apprentice Session” on Feb. 28 for persons who want more detailed information and have gotten their bees through at least the first year.
In March, Girton will be teaching two honeybee courses every Thursday at the Desmond Center at Mount Saint Mary’s College in Newburgh.
Girton said he believes that children are able to learn, understand and keep bees at a very early age with adult supervision and has found them to be much more calm and less afraid than adults. Last year, he taught a Bee Camp through Stony Kill Foundation with two groups of children in third through seventh grade. In the five-day, 25-hour course program, children learned how to safely use smokers, opened and inspected bee hives every day, learned how to recognize diseases, did microscope work, built hive boxes and frames with hand tools, collected, processed, and extracted and bottled honey, and much more. In addition to Bee Camp, Girton has worked with school groups that visit Common Ground Farm on field trips and has led presentations at Common Ground Farm’s Farm Camp. Girton said it is vital that awareness of the importance of bees and the art and science of beekeeping skills are passed on to our children.
At the most recent seminar at Adams Fairacre Farms, he saw one of his former Bee Camp students — a 14-year-old boy and his mom. After the presentation, she bought him his first package of honeybees. Girton said he believes this young man is destined to be a beekeeper for life.
“It just seems to me, every time I do one thing with the honeybees, it just leads to another and another,” Girton said.
His love for bees and his investment in their future is an inspiration. There is always more to do, and Girton takes it on with joy, enthusiasm and charm.
Sember Weinman is the education director at Common Ground Farm in Wappingers Falls.