For Kevin Shea and Sue Baron of Rizzo Farms, beekeeping isn’t just a hobby or something to do on the weekends, but a way of life.
And even though Shea manages the hives and Baron oversees marketing, the real stars are the bees.
Shea started keeping bees as a way to help his fruit trees produce a harvest.
“I was getting no fruit. Year after year, I was doing everything right and couldn’t figure out what was going on,” he said during an interview. “And then I started doing the research, and found out that we lose half the bee population in this country every year due to pesticides and people using Roundup on the yard to get rid of dandelions. Dandelions are really [the bees’] first choice to feed their babies. Most people have no idea, and I was one of them.”
Shea stopped using pesticides for weeds and bugs in his yard, and since then has relied on a healthy bee population for the past 11 years. In 2019, Baron joined the Rizzo Farms team to lead sales and marketing.
“It ended up working out,” Shea said in an interview. “Sue loves the craft sphere, and her son and the whole family gets involved. I have so much going on, we presented a business opportunity together, and I said ‘Would you be interested in doing all the fairs?’ And that’s where Sue kind of took over, and has really blossomed Rizzo Farms to a whole other level.”
For Rizzo Farms, the beekeeping season starts in April, when Shea receives 3,000 to 5,000 honeybees, including a queen bee, from Northern California to replace the dead hives that didn’t make it over the winter. The bees then reproduce and create honey until late summer.
“That’s pretty much it,” Shea said. “The bees really do all the work.”
Shea explained that inexperienced beekeepers run the risk of injuring the queen, which can set honey production back by several weeks.
“It takes 16 days from egg to hatch for a queen to come out,” he said. “Then she has to fly out of the hive for the first week and mate before she comes back. And then you risk her getting picked off by a bird.”
He recommends that anyone interested in beekeeping or starting their own hives should take a certification class through the Rhode Island Beekeepers Association.
Rizzo Farms is not based in a single location, but rather all over the state. Shea has beehives in locations like Smithfield, Johnston and Chepachet, and leases hives in Sterling, Connecticut. Currently, Shea has 20 hives, but says he unfortunately lost quite a few during the past year.
Shea said fertilizing the fruit trees got him started, but then love of the process took over.
“All of a sudden, I had more honey than I know what to do with,” he said, adding that he isn’t even a fan of honey.
Baron is a big fan of honey; she says it helps with her seasonal allergies.
“It’s funny how you should buy honey, and I’ve been telling people this for years,” she said in an interview. “The fall honey you should buy for next fall. And the spring honey you should buy for next spring. There’s an old saying: ask five different beekeepers and you’ll get six different answers.”
Despite the competition among local beekeepers, Shea says there is more camaraderie than one would expect. “I know so many other beekeepers that I get honey from them when they have too much and don’t know what to do with it. We all became friends.”
The main focus for Rizzo Farms is “to keep the price low, make a small profit, and move as much as we can to help everyone out,” explained Shea. “We’re not looking for a huge profit.”
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Baron found it easy to sell at farmers markets and local craft fairs, like the Scituate Art Festival.
“People would just come up to my table, and I would have a small jar with a little taste spoons and [the customers] would taste it and then buy four or five jars. But now because of COVID, I can’t allow samples, but we do have 340 regular customers,” she explained. “I love going to farmers markets. You meet so many really nice people that are so down to earth. It’s just a different culture.”
Rizzo Farms honey can also be found in 11 local establishments like Belmont Markets and Dino’s, as well as a few hardware stores and cigar shops. Honey can also be purchased by contacting Baron directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. One pound jars of raw honey cost $12, honey sticks in a variety of flavors are $0.50 each, and wooden drizzlers are $1.
“We pick up little spots here and there, and believe it or not, some quaint little places sell the best,” Shea said. “You think Dino’s being a grocery store would outsell a lot of these other places, but I’ve found the hardware store sells the best out of everybody.”
Both Shea and Baron are passionate about saving the bees. The top action to take toward preserving bee populations is to stop spraying weed killers and pesticides in the backyard.
Shea advises people to put up birdhouses, welcoming more birds into the yard to take care of unwanted insects like ticks and grubs. Baron encourages people to plant flowers, like black-eyed Susans and daisies. Even keeping dandelions around is helpful to bees. If dandelions must be removed, Shea invites people to pour boiling water on the plants instead of toxic chemicals.
“That’s the sad part,” he said. “We have everybody spreading pesticides to kill all the bugs that they don’t want, but they end up killing all the ones we do need.”