Milton's Billion Backyard Bee Project
Photos by Adam Detour
On a hot Sunday evening in August 2012, 8-year-old Sebastian Wright and his parents returned home to a scene that was not quite right. There were no honeybees buzzing around their backyard hive.
Upon pulling into the driveway, Seb’s mother Michelle asked him to help his father bring their bags inside. She recalled the erratic behavior of the bees on Friday morning before the family left for their weekend trip. Bees have a specific flight path that they always adhere to, but they had been flying “all over the place,” she says. “You could tell that they were agitated.”
Having occupied her son before he could visit his honeybee friends, she went to investigate the uncomfortably quiet scene. “It was one big hive of dead bees,” says Michelle.
The Wright family had been tending to the hive for about five months in the back yard of their white clapboard house in Milton. Seb was attached to his very first hive, to “Queen Pikachu” and the 60,000 members of her honeybee family. Michelle instinctively wanted to spare her son pain. She told him that the bees had absconded—when bees spontaneously leave the hive and don’t return—and gone to live at a friend’s apiary in Mattapan, rather than admit that his pets had died. Seb was devastated.
Early the following spring, Michelle told Seb the truth about the death of his hive and apologized for lying. She had been feeling terrible guilt. He took it surprisingly well, she says— nowadays, Seb jokingly refers to absconding as “going to Mattapan”—and they continued their honeybee adventures that year.
Seb is 11 years old now, with short brown hair, freckles, bright green eyes, and a plan for his own local honeybee intervention. Three years after losing his first hive, he has added over half a million bees to the Milton area as part of his Milton’s Billion Backyard Bee Project.
“It’s a project to help save the bees, because bees are dying out,” says Seb.
For Milton’s Billion Backyard Bee Project, Seb and his parents, Michelle Lee Urbano and Ray Wright, tend to a total of 8 hives sprinkled throughout Milton. Each beehive houses approximately 80,000 bees at the height of the summer. Roughly once a week, the family dons their beekeeper garb and opens the hives to examine the bees and honeycomb, taking about an hour to investigate each hive. They then sell the honey and put the proceeds back into the project.
Seb conceived of the project on his own in the summer of 2013. His initial goal was to add 24 more hives: 3 on his street, 1 at his school, and 20 in the rest of the community, he says. He came up with the name “Milton’s Billion Backyard Bee Project” himself.
Michelle, a former public health professional who was first introduced to beekeeping while working for the Peace Corps in Jamaica, was thrilled with her son’s idea. “He had just framed an intervention,” she says.
Two years into the project, the Wright family has 2 hives in their backyard apiary. The other 6 hives are “hosted” by other families. For agreeing to let Milton’s Billion Backyard Bee Project keep bees on their property, the host families receive 1 pound of honey in the spring and fall, 8 ounces of creamed honey, two additional “surprise” products from the hive, and the opportunity to name the queen bee. There is currently a waiting list to become a host.
The Wright family’s 2 hives, a Langstroth hive and a top-bar hive, are tucked into the far left corner of their back yard in between a patio with a small white trellis and a fence. The popular Langstroth-style hive produces more harvestable honey than the top-bar, but the Langstroth has each frame start with a wax foundation upon which the bees then build their honeycomb. Ultimately, the Wright family prefers the top-bar, considered more natural by many beekeepers because the bees build the honeycomb without any wax foundation.
“Whilst we produce honey to support the project, we’re not producing honey commercially just for the sake of making money,” says Ray, Seb’s father. “We’re more interested in what we can do to encourage other people to keep bees or host bees.”
While some wild honeybee colonies do exist, humans maintain the overwhelming majority of the Western honeybee population.
“Bees are really important because they pollinate about one-third of the food that we eat,” says Anita Deeley, state bee inspector for Essex County and operator of the Beverly Bees website for backyard beekeeping resources. “And they pollinate our native plants and flowers and fruit and vegetables that we eat locally. The less bees we have around, the less efficient pollination that’s going to happen.”
The honeybee population has seen a sharp decline in recent years as the result of a number of problems, the most widely discussed being a phenomenon called "colony collapse disorder."
“Colony collapse disorder is a specific disease that bees get, where the bees leave the hive, and all that’s left is the queen and a few bees and brood and honey,” says Deeley. Colony collapse disorder (CCD) was first identified in 2006. While the causes and treatments are still debated, a 2012 study by Harvard professor Chensheng Lu appeared to replicate the effects of the disorder by introducing a particular insecticide into the honeybees’ diet.
CCD is also used as a catchall term for the general decline of the honeybee population, Deeley notes. However, she says, the specific disease of CDD is not as common as the overall population decline. This overall decline is caused by a number of moving factors, including pesticides, lack of forage, reduced genetic diversity, varroa mites, and viruses.
Over the last 40 years, the honeybee population has been cut in half, says Deeley.
“I can tell you that last year, 46% of the hives in Massachusetts died out,” she adds, referencing data from the Bee Informed Partnership which collects information from beekeepers across the country.
In addition to increasing the honeybee population, Seb is using Milton’s Billion Backyard Bee Project to spread awareness about the problems honeybees face, including the need for more bee-friendly flowers and the hazards of using pesticides. In retrospect, Seb and his family believe that the loss of his first hive was caused by the county spraying for mosquitos the night before they left for their weekend trip. “You have to use some pesticides, otherwise insects will eat your crops,” Seb acknowledges. But in a perfect world, “I would limit the pesticides,” he says.
Seb got to try his hand at public health advocacy in the political world when he and his friend Nate McNulty accompanied members of the Norfolk County Beekeeper’s Association to Agriculture Day at the Massachusetts State House in March. They spoke with state representatives for about 6 hours, discussing the honeybee decline and its potentially devastating effects on our agricultural system.
Prior to meeting Seb at Agriculture Day, Massachusetts State Senator Brian A. Joyce knew virtually nothing about beekeeping. “I had no idea about the dramatic decline of honeybees,” says Joyce, who lives in Milton near the Wright family. “I had never heard of anything called colony collapse disorder. Really, it was Seb who made me aware, and his mother of course.”
Nowadays, when issues affecting bees come up in the Senate, Brian Joyce gets a hold of Seb directly, says Michelle.
Beekeeping requires a lot of time and education to get right.
Accordingly, Seb and his parents attended “bee school” as a family. (He scored even better on the 60-question exam than his parents.) They devote a substantial amount of time to continuing education surrounding bees: reading books, watching videos, and using their Facebook page to network with other beekeepers.
The family emphasized that the bees are hypersensitive to local factors. “You could be three miles down the road and get a different result than somebody else, because you’ve got too much sunlight or the flowers that are local are a little bit different, whether it was planted or whether it was wild,” says Ray. “So people try things and sometimes things work and everybody rushes off in that direction, and somebody else says, ‘I tried that and it didn’t work at all.’”
Beekeeping is hard work but the perks are sweet. The Wright family explores artisanal small-batch honey the way oenophiles explore wine, complete with a proper process for honey tasting. “When you eat something, smelling really is half the taste, right?” says Seb. “So what you do is, you take a scoop, and you eat it with your nose blocked”—he pinches his nose to demonstrate—“and then you let go after you swallow it.” “So you should get the taste without the smell, and then the smell comes after,” says Ray.
At a table in the backyard with a view of their apiary, the family has set up a small honey tasting: amber-colored Milton’s Billion Backyard Bee Project honey; “creamed” honey, a whipped honey with a lighter, opaque color; white Hawaiian honey; and imported Manuka honey from Australia, tasting of burnt caramel like the caramelized sugar crust on a crème brûlée.
Underneath a mesh dish cover to keep out the buzzing visitors, a green-rimmed plate is piled with fluffy biscuits as big as your fist. Another day, the spread features “chubs,” Seb’s favorite—finger-sized doughnut pillows rolled in cinnamon sugar.
Both the biscuits and chubs are from The Plate, a small restaurant and café in Milton Lower Mills. And on display on the counter, jars of Milton’s Billion Backyard Bee Project honey are for sale.
Suzanne Lombardi, owner of The Plate, first learned about the project in December 2013 when 9-year-old Seb piqued her curiosity by handing her a Christmas card featuring a honeybee. She asked about the bee, and he told her that he did beekeeping with his mother. “He’s got a mom who has found a hobby for them to really share and experience together,” says Lombardi. “And as a mom—I’m almost crying talking about it, because he’s a boy and she’s his mom, and I believe this project will carry them through.”
Meanwhile, Seb hopes to add more beehives to the community in the future as part of the Milton’s Billion Backyard Bee Project. He has received overwhelming support from the community so far, he says.
However, beekeepers can encounter people who are initially apprehensive about bringing honeybees nearby because of fears about being stung. People unfamiliar with honeybees often confuse them with wasps, which are far more aggressive.
Seb has been stung a handful of times but it doesn’t bother him. “I can’t really get mad at the bees for stinging me because the one who stung me dies after,” he says, noting that the bees are just protecting their family. In his perfect world, everybody would either be a beekeeper or host a hive. When his 7-year-old neighbor points out that some people might object because they’re afraid of the bees, Seb smiles and says, “If everyone had them, then no one would be scared.”
Milton’s Billion Backyard Bee Project honey is sold at The Plate in Milton, at the Milton Farmers Market, by appointment at the Wright’s home, and by home delivery.
To learn more about the project, follow Milton’s Billion Backyard Bee Project on Facebook at www.Facebook.com/MiltonBillionBees.