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Honey beekeepers find sweet success in family-owned enterprise

Wednesday, May 21, 2003
By Cheryl Lecesse / Staff Writer
Billerica Minuteman

When it comes to their business venture, Andy Card, Jr. and his son, Glenn, aren't afraid of getting stung.

"Beekeepers on a whole are very healthy because they do get stung a lot," said wife and mother Crystal, adding that bee stings can treat Multiple Sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and allergies.

Bee stings are part of the job for the Card family's Merrimack Valley Apiaries, a bee-keeping company which hires out its bees to pollinate plants throughout the country. Today it boasts 12,000 hives, fed with almost a half million pounds of corn syrup.

In the spring, bee hives accent the Cards' Greenwood Farm on Dudley Road, which has 10 full-time employees. Andy makes sure the company's bees get from Louisiana, their winter home, through New Jersey and New England into New York, their summer home, for pollination. Andy said the business produces three quarters of a million pounds of honey annually, which is sold to honey processing companies like Dutch Gold.

"It changes every day," he said of bee-keeping. "It doesn't repeat itself too much. You're either going someplace different or doing something different with the bees." In 1950, Andy Card, Sr. started the business in town with one hive. "He had a natural curiosity about bees," Andy said of his father.

"In my case I grew up around it." Andy Jr. has continued in the business and his wife Crystal, a developer in town, is a queen bee breeder. She spent seven weeks this past winter in Louisiana breeding queens. "It just seemed like a very intriguing type of thing," she said. "Bee keeping gives you a different way of looking at the world," Andy said, adding that he notices behavior of the smaller insects and bees when he looks outside.

Their two sons, Wesley, 23, and Glenn, 18, have studied agricultural business in college and plan to work on the farm. Wesley is graduating this spring from Cornell University and will start work this summer. "Just the fact that they do want to work with us is a big thing," Crystal said.

Glenn, who will be a sophomore at the University of Vermont in the fall, said he became interested in the farm as he grew up and worked on it. He remembers first walking around the bee yards when he was 9 or 10.

"It gives you time to go out and see the countryside," Glenn said. "You spend a lot of time on the road during pollination season." Each spring, Andy said 10 trailer loads of bees come north for spring pollination.

From Louisiana, hive-toting trucks carry bees to pollinate blueberry bushes in New Jersey; apple, pear and cherry trees in the lower Hudson Valley; apple trees in New Hampshire and Massachusetts; blueberry bushes in Maine and cranberry bogs on Cape Cod. Andy and Glenn will be on the road this year with the bees. While on the road, beekeepers have to feed their hives and protect them against deadly pests. Andy said they often wear protective hats to keep from being stung in the face, but they usually don't wear protective suits.

Glenn said employees wear jeans and blue, button-down, long-sleeved shirts when working. Besides holding bees, Greenwood Farm sells nucleus hives to local hobby beekeepers. The hives, called "nucs," are rectangular-shaped boxes beekeepers form bee colonies in.

Andy said the farm started selling them last year to "diversify a little bit" and has sold 400 this year so far. The farm also sells beeswax and raw, unprocessed honey. "Bee keeping is having a resurgence among hobby beekeepers," Crystal said.

"I think that people are becoming a lot more aware of bees." Massachusetts is home to about 1200 beekeepers, said Paul Desilets, a president of the Massachusetts Beekeepers Association and a beekeeper in Sandwich. "The majority of the beekeepers are hobbyists," he said, so the economy has not effected them. He said he only knows a few commercial beekeepers, including Andy. Hobby beekeepers play a vital role in pollination, Desilets said.

He said bees from hobby beekeepers are the ones that pollinate home gardens, while those from commercial beekeepers pollinate larger areas, like cranberry bogs and apple orchards.

"Bee keeping has become a little more of a challenge as well," Crystal said.

The industry's expansion has brought bees - and bee diseases and pests - from other parts of the world, she said. Bees from other countries are also brought to the United States to breed with native bees. "It's almost a world-wide business right now," she said.

Technology revolutionized bee keeping, Andy and Crystal said. Highways allow commercial beekeepers to have stakes in several parts of the country, while also taking up less time loading and unloading trucks. Both take regionalism out of the industry and make it more competitive.

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