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PTA professor finds tending backyard
honeybees a therapeutic pursuit

Oct. 24, 2014

Professor Martha Vigneault holds a honeycomb frame from one of her two beehives at her Jamestown home. Professor Martha Vigneault holds a honeycomb frame from one of the two beehives at her Jamestown home.

Most everyone has hobbies. Not everyone’s are a teeming, buzzing, otherworldly live mass of honeybees, though. But for Martha Vigneault, professor in the Physical Therapist Assistant program at the Newport County Campus, and her husband, Roland, there’s little that’s more relaxing than gently prying off the tops of the delicate cities in their backyard and checking out what’s going on with the residents.

“We started out as master gardeners,” she explained one sunny fall afternoon at her home in Jamestown, where they live with their 30,000 tenants. “And we realized that, for a better garden, you really should have bees.”

So two years ago, they took a beekeeping class at the University of Rhode Island and since have settled into a harmonious routine with the bees. She speaks of them with familiarity and calm and, despite this writer’s initial nervousness at watching the bees swarm around the hives, her peaceful coexistence with the creatures is contagious.

Looking around her garden, brightly flowering and vibrant even as the leaves are starting to turn, one can see evidence of a true symbiosis: The bees get the pollen they need to make their honey and raise their young, all the while pollinating and propagating the flora that dots the yard.

“It’s a pretty therapeutic pursuit,” she said, donning a white bee suit and mesh bonnet, grabbing a smoker filled with smoldering pine needles (to mask the alarm pheromones of the bees) and heading for the hives.

Bees on a rain barrel.The Vigneaults have two hives – innocuous-looking wooden boxes filled with honeycomb frames and stacked about 6 feet high in their backyard. Tiny bee-sized doors serve as entryways in the front, while the tops are barricaded shut with heavy rocks to keep the raccoons out. Inside, thousands of bees work on tending to the queen and making honey. She calls one hive the “slacker” hive, revealing a trick she learned in her beekeeping class: “They always tell you to have two, so that you can compare them and see what’s going on.”

Apparently, that hive has always been a little behind, ever since the couple dropped their queen in and she refused to come out of her box and make nice with the other bees. Much of keeping the bees sounds like a strange recipe, particularly how the hives get started.

“You dump a couple of cups of bees in there. Then you put this little box inside. It has the queen, and her attendants, and her exit is blocked with candy. While she sets off her pheromone and the other bees get used to her and understand she’s the queen and they need to protect her, her attendants eat the candy and eventually the queen comes out of the box,” she said.

Despite the one hive slacking off, the Vigneaults have had a decent honey harvest this year. The first year’s honey is strictly for the bees, she said, but the second year has yielded 13 pounds of honey, not counting the fall harvest that they may be able to take up shortly.

Although honey varies wildly by type according to geographic region, Vigneault said their honey is white clover honey, a common, though still uncommonly delicious, varietal. For sufferers of fall allergies, fall honey is best, while spring and summer allergens are buffered by the summer honey. “You can tell the fall honey by its dark color,” she said, “because the fall flowers are darker.”

Closeup of honeycomb framePulling out one of the honeycomb frames, Vigneault shows her guests the bees as they dance around, coming and going according to their own mysterious schedule. She gently puts the frame back in the box, saying, “The hardest part is not smooshing them when you put things back together.”

Although he has had some practice – and some great teachers, she said, thanks to the open and friendly beekeeping community in Rhode Island – the secret to having kept bees for two years running and not being stung yet is all in the slow, mellow movements. Fast movements and loud sounds disturb the bees, she said, admitting that the fact that her husband does most of the heavy lifting helps her spotless no-sting record.

A financial professional in his daytime hours, her husband is apparently a less exacting beekeeper, preferring to open the hives without the smoker. Still, Vigneault said, he has been stung only a couple of times. “They don’t want to sting you,” she said. “If they do, they’ll die.”

While the couple has always been interested in nature, Vigneault said beekeeping has made her more aware of the world around her, particularly the weather. She likens this to her day job, practicing and teaching physical therapy.

“If there’s a storm coming, we’ll wonder about the bees: Are they in good shape? Have we prepared them properly? When you have a patient, you’re always anticipating what that patient is going to need next. And that’s just like the bees,” she said. “Every weekend I go down to the hives and write down my notes, just like I’d document with a patient.”

Vigneault has known from an early age that she wanted to be a physical therapist; her mother suffered from multiple sclerosis, and that experience marked her path as early as second grade, she said. After many years of her own practice, she has been teaching at the college since 1996 and said she loves to watch her students grow and mature over the course of the two-year program.

“I like watching the change in students,” she said, in a tone not much different from the one she uses to describe her insights and observations about her honeybee hives. “It’s nice to see them grow and see some of them realize that now they have a career instead of a job, that they can go in any direction they want.”

A few bees buzz out of the hive and past Vigneault, heading for the pools of water collecting on a rain barrel in her yard, where they stop to drink, their fuzzy reflections shivering delicately in the dark water. “You can see why they call it a beeline,” she said.  


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Last Updated: 8/25/16