BEE HAPPY Lutz at work.
The flavor of the honey produced by Grove St. Apiary, according to its proprietor Peter Lutz, is in part attributable to the linden trees common to the West Side of the Providence. Bees don’t have to travel far to collect a variety of plant pollens in such a concentrated urban environment, Lutz says, so his honey is uniquely dense and flowery.
It’s a weekday afternoon and Lutz is roaming the neighborhood, tending to his bees in the Grove Street Community Garden, on Arch St., and on Bowdoin St. As he checks in on “the ladies” (all of the honey-producing workers in a hive are female), he puffs calming wood smoke into and around each hive from a bellows attached to a tin burner he carries. Wearing a white, veiled suit with mesh face protection and moving fluidly to disrupt the bees as little as possible, Lutz pries open each hive, and examines the frames within for signs of health or disarray.
The signs of progress are there, to his relief: one newly installed queen is already laying eggs and many of the frames are coated with sticky honey and capped with wax, which means that larvae are developing within the cells. In mid-to-late summer, this methodical process will result in amber floes of sweet, robust honey. The specially packaged and labeled jars will be delivered to Lutz’s supporters, with the remainder sold at farmers’ markets as a “hyper-local,” neighborhood-specific product.
Now in his third season of beekeeping, Lutz, who just turned 30, considers himself very much a novice. But thanks to a recent Providence Provision grant and financial backing from a handful of local residents who want to host hives on their property (or just donate money in exchange for a sample of the finished honey, similar to purchasing veggies through a community-supported agriculture program), Grove St. Apiary is expanding quickly. Of the 14 hives Lutz has placed throughout the city, 10 are new this year. He is gambling on an ambitious plan that might result in a viable business, he says — or “just a very involved hobby.”
Running an apiary — a collection of hives or colonies of bees kept for their honey — is no simple task. It requires hard-won knowledge of the life cycles and natural behaviors of bees, local flora, weather patterns, and seasons, plus specialized equipment, a regimented schedule, luck, and good instincts. It’s not all about the honey, exactly — it’s about establishing a propagating bee colony that thrives year after year. There is failure involved, sometimes on a catastrophic level. Sometimes, the queen dies, or leaves the hive, or just doesn’t lay eggs, and another queen has to be raised. Sometimes, a large proportion of a hive’s population, including the queen, will “swarm” and just leave the hive for other digs.
But in his enthusiasm, Lutz can’t help going full-tilt. He says there’s a direct connection between beekeeping and his visual art background in installation, sculpture, and printmaking. His role — guiding the frenzied activity of the hives, forming healthy colonies that produce spectacular honey — is its own technical process, its own craft. And, much like an artistic process, he’s not sure exactly what the result will be.