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People Talk: A conversation with Geri Hens

Geri Hens defends all pollinating insects, but her real passion is the honeybee. Hens Honey Bee Farm is based in Pendleton and maintains 1,000 bee colonies in 11 counties throughout northern and Western New York.

Hens pampers her bees, and as an organic bee farmer she is certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The global concern over the declining pollinating population has prompted Hens, 58, to tour the state as an advocate for insect health. She also is a vendor at numerous farmers markets in the area.

A Haudenosaunee Seneca, Hens spends much of her spare time outdoors. Nature energizes her, she said, and apiculture helps keep her young.

PT: How many times have you been stung?

GH: A few thousand times but I’m here to talk about it. When I get stung it’s basically when the public uses pesticides on insects and I have to go deal with it. Before those insects die they are often frantic, almost like a steroid rage.

PT: Do you get to know your insects?

GH: My own insects are fairly used to me, but I pick my moments with them. I understand their behavior. I know when to back off because they get crabby sometimes – just like people do – if it’s very hot and humid or before a thunderstorm when the barometric pressure changes. They are smarter than people think, and more interactive. They learn things, especially when it’s the same group of insects in the same family unit.

PT: How did you get into bees?

GH: It’s actually a second career. I was a tenured K-12 teacher in the Red Creek Central School District near Oswego but at age 29, I was hit by a drunk driver and nearly was killed. I had numerous surgeries and a lot of therapy, and I ended up retiring from my teaching position. I found myself put out to pasture by the federal government, who said I was permanently disabled.

PT: When managing a bee colony, what must you never do?

GH: Make assumptions that you know more than the insects do. They know what they need. It’s the role of someone in apiculture to make sure bees have access to native vegetation so they have adequate nutrition as they forage every day. Bees are vegetarian by nature. Wasps on the other hand are omnivores, capable of eating another pollinating insect. Hornets are totally carnivorous. They only eat other insects.

PT: Where are your colonies?

GH: Near state lands in wild ecosystem situations and away from people. I also have bumblebee colonies, and yellow jacket and hornet colonies. I get all the insects I rescue from removals. I’m not an exterminator so all those insects get rehabbed and go back out in the wild.

PT: How far does a bee travel in an average day?

GH: A honeybee is capable of traveling 5-plus miles. Bumblebees may only go a few hundred feet. Honeybees usually forage in the first mile, mile-and-a-half. They’re not going to fly to Lockport and back when they can get something nearby.

PT: Can you make a living as a bee farmer?

GH: Yeah I do, not just from sales. I do a lot of presentations, and consulting work. I take care of removing insects from military installations and airports. Sometimes during swarm season they can get into equipment.

PT: Why shouldn’t people be afraid of bees?

GH: They should have a respect for them. They need to understand bees don’t intend to sting people. It’s actually more an accidental thing, like when humans stumble upon their nest and damage it. It’s usually yellow jackets that you see on a picnic. If you give them a little bite of food on a plate, they’ll go to it instead of pestering you.

PT: Anything else you’d like to say?

GH: My mother is an enrolled Seneca, but my father was a Mohawk so I was put up for adoption. I grew up white until I received a state job, and I had to have security clearance. I found out I was 100 percent Native American. For the last 20 years I’ve been getting up to speed.