Beekeeping farm

Beekeeping: A Love Affair

The Raths’ lifelong love of honeybees keeps this Laurentian couple in business

Deborah Dudley

Every Wednesday, Sarah Gibbs Rath ’76 spends her summer afternoons “catching queens” on 100 Acre Woods Farm in West Pawlet, Vermont, where she and her husband John “Jack” Rath ’74 have spent the last eight years cultivating honeybee colonies for their beekeeping business in Greenwich, New York. 

“We raise queens to sell, and when they’re ready to be sold, we have to go through the colonies and find them,” says Sarah, explaining that once the queens have been captured, Jack marks them with a small dot of paint on the thorax to make identifying them easier for their customers. The queens are secured in a small wooden cage with a few attendant bees and sealed with a candy plug before being overnighted to both commercial and hobby beekeepers fostering new colonies across the country. 

“I’ll do 150 of these queen cells a week or so,” says Jack, who retired from his large-animal veterinary practice in 2012 and joined two other local veterinarians in taking over the Betterbee company, a return to his passion for beekeeping that began in high school. 

“I always thought they were fascinating,” he says of his early interest in bees. In 1973, he couldn’t resist the opportunity to volunteer and lead an introduction to beekeeping class during the winter “Interterm” session at St. Lawrence. 

“My father encouraged me to take the class,” Sarah remembers, “having had an interest in beekeeping himself, and the rest is history.” A canceled class, a date to see a hockey game at Appleton Arena, and 42 years of marriage later, the Raths have retired from first careers and raised three children, each exhibiting varying degrees of interest in their father’s beekeeping passion.

As a Spanish teacher in the local schools, Sarah was known as the “honey lady” because she always had jars of honey in her classroom for sale until her retirement in 2013. Now, a skilled queen catcher, Sarah is mastering her new role with Jack in their business venture. Joining them is their son, John, who has bought shares in the business, becoming a fully invested part-owner in last year, just in time to weather the pandemic.

“We didn’t know what to expect with COVID,” says Jack. But to their surprise, he says, “This has been the best year ever.” The shutdowns, remote working, and a rise in environmental awareness in sustainability have sparked a boom for gardening and small-scale agriculture hobbyists. 

“You know, people are at home and trying to decide what to do and they want to have a garden. They want to have chickens. They want to have bees. And, so, it’s been a remarkable year. The biggest challenge has been having enough available to be able to keep up with demand.”

The Raths know firsthand that there are several challenges facing bees today. While pesticides are a major factor in declining populations, they point to other threats such as the Varroa parasite that contribute to the frequency of colony collapse disorder. Varroa destructor is a mite, a member of the tick family and external parasite of honeybees. This mite is an invasive species that was accidentally imported into the United States in the mid-1980s and is responsible for much of the decline in bees across the continent. 

“You absolutely need to keep Varroa levels under control,” explains Sarah, “or you’re going to have real poor luck keeping your bees alive.”

“I think one of the biggest factors is loss of habitat,” adds Jack, who is also the current president of the Vermont Beekeepers Association, which runs programming to educate new and experienced beekeepers. “You know, a beautiful lush green lawn is what we call a ‘pollinator desert.’ You’re far better off letting the dandelions grow and letting the clover come up a little bit and leave some wild spaces for the bees.”

The best advice the Raths have for new bee enthusiasts is to respect the enormous learning curve involved in successful beekeeping, look for mentors, and get involved with a local beekeeping chapter. But for the Raths, it comes down to a very simple mantra. 

“If you take care of them, they’re going to take care of you,” says Jack. “And that certainly worked out for us well.”