What's the buzz? Just ask Andrew, College professor has lifelong love affair with bees

By Jonnie Bassaro CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Article Last Updated: 06/04/2008 06:37:15 AM EDT

 

Andrew Cote's students at Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport have just handed in their final term papers.

"So basically the school year is almost over," he says. "Now I can devote full time to my bees."

"I like teaching," he adds. "But I like bees more."

"Why?" a visitor to his Norwalk apiary asks.

His face lights up.

"Because bees are perfect," he says. "They're a very orderly society. They're self-supporting. They're team players. They're selfless, for that matter. Plus, they seem to magically pull honey out of thin air. Who else can do that?"

Cote's affection for the tiny, industrious and uncanny insects may be genetic. His family has been keeping bees since the 1800s. His great-grandfather kept bees in northern Ontario, Canada.

Andrew Cote's father, Norman Cote, is one of the best-known beekeepers in Connecticut. Norman Cote maintained beehives for Martha Stewart for many years on her Westport and Katonah properties and appeared on her television show twice. He's also been on "Good Morning America" and "Late Night with David Letterman."

Following in paternal footsteps, Andrew Cote runs Silvermine Apiary, a full-service beekeeping business in Norwalk. The apiary provides pollination services, hive management and, when necessary, swarm removal. Cote sells bees, and answers all questions posed by novice beekeepers. He also presents programs on beekeeping in schools, clubs, churches and synagogues. Best of all, he sells excellent local honey.

We should mention his most important employees ­-- several thousand hardworking honeybees that labor continuously to concoct Andrew's Taste-Bud Bursting Local Wildflower Honey, or, briefly, Andrew's Local Honey. You may have seen jars of it in Bethel Food Market, or at the Ridgefield Farmers' Market.

Sarah DiGregorio, columnist for The Village Voice in New York City, met Andrew Cote and tasted his honey in the Union Square Green Market in March.

"His honey is delicious," DiGregorio wrote later, "especially the dark, almost bitter buckwheat variety, which is especially good on blue cheese."

"Eating local honey may help relieve the discomfort of seasonal allergies," Cote says, "because bees use pollen from local plants." Honey is also a rich source of antioxidants, he adds.

For bees to make one pound of honey, they must collectively visit 1 million flowers and travel over 55,000 miles, which is farther than twice around the earth. That's a favorite statistic with beekeepers.

Cote maintains and services about 100 hives throughout Fairfield and Westchester counties. Most are placed on plots of gardeners who need pollination. In a good year, one hive might produce 80 to 120 pounds of honey.

"I don't pasteurize (heat treat) or tamper with my honey in any way," Cote says. "It is exactly as the bees have been making it for millions of years."

Cote, who is 37, runs his apiary and bee business from a small white Victorian house in Norwalk. He lives upstairs, but the first floor is given over to large stainless steel honey extractors and other beekeeping equipment. In a corner of what used to be the house's kitchen is his collection of honeys from around the world.

"I travel a lot," he says. "I've taught school in Japan, at a University in Bosnia, at a high school in Ecuador." Currently, he is teaching English as a Second Language at Housatonic.

For the past six years, part of Cote's summer break has been spent voluntarily teaching beekeeping to groups of people in economically depressed areas as a means of poverty alleviation. The idea is, if you can learn to maintain a hive, or hives, honey is a cash crop. Plus bees help pollinate other crops. Cote has taught beekeeping in Iraq, Pakistan, southern India, and Nigeria.

He recently established the nonprofit organization, Bees Without Borders, to help raise funds for such endeavors. Ten percent of every sale of Andrew's Local Honey goes to Bees Without Borders.

Cote and all volunteers who assist in the project pay their own travel expenses, and sleep and eat in the homes of the beneficiaries. In a few weeks, he will be off to teach beekeeping in the Ukraine.

He has been teaching at the college level for 10 years. This might surprise anyone who knew him as a teenager. He dropped out of high school at age 16.

"I thought I could get more of an education seeing the world. At 16, I was in Greece, at 17, Hong Kong, at 18, North Africa," he says. He supported himself by working in construction, as a sheep herder, and with any job he could find.

"He's never been afraid of hard work," his father says. "I wasn't upset that he was traveling around Europe. But I was very upset that he left school, because he's very bright. He kept in very close touch with us, so we knew where he was."

Andrew Cote eventually returned to this country and enrolled in a community college.

"A box on the entrance application asked if you'd completed high school. I checked 'yes,' and they accepted it," he says.

He then stayed in school long enough to obtain a bachelor's degree in Japanese language and literature from Friends World College, a branch of Long Island University in Kyoto, Japan, and later a master's in teaching English to speakers of other languages (TESOL) from Manhattanville College in Purchase, N.Y. He's also done post-graduate work at Yale University in New Haven. Along the way, the U.S. government awarded him a Fulbright Scholarship to teach applied linguistics in Eastern Europe.

Outside his Norwalk house, it's easy for passersby to recognize the dwelling as an apiary. Three working beehives reside in the front yard, plus a large statue of a bear. Italian honey bees, known among beekeepers for being docile, fly in and out, landing on the entrances of the hives silently, unperturbed by the traffic whizzing by a few feet away. They seem to know this is a safe place.

"No harm is done to the bees when we extract honey," Cote says. The same can't be said of Cote. Although he wears protective clothing, he gets his share of stings.

Andrew Cote is occasionally helped by his brother, Michael, a policeman in Norwalk and also by their father, Norman, who retired as a lieutenant with the Norwalk Fire Department in 2000 and has his own full-time beekeeping business.

"I was the typical little kid," Andrew says, "following my father around, asking all kinds of questions. Anything I know about beekeeping, I learned from him."

Norman Cote calls his business "Norm's Other Honey," explaining that his first "honey" is his wife and childhood sweetheart, Polly. He's been keeping bees for 25 years. Like Andrew, he maintains about 100 hives throughout Fairfield and Westchester counties.

"He sells the honey he collects to me." Andrew says. "He works seven days a week. He retired in order to work."

Father and son have bicycled from England to Morocco together, by way of Holland and Spain.

"It took us about six weeks," Norman Cote says. They've also hiked across England together.

It's a good thing both father and son love bees, because caring for them is laborious. And a beekeeper's daily activities depend upon the weather.

On a cool spring morning, Andrew Cote looks up at an overcast sky and says, "It's too cold and too rainy to open up a hive today, but I can place supers on top of hives." A super is a square wooden extension placed on top of hives so the bee colony within will have more room to store honey.

As he loads the structures into his pickup, he says, "The older I get, the heavier the supers get."

Has colony collapse disorder, a disease killing millions of bees across the country, affected his business?

"We have zero cases of colony collapse disorder in Connecticut," Cote says. "I think this may be because the bees in this state are not treated in the way bees in a large migratory commercial operation are treated. In such operations, bees are trucked for long distances and this does harm to the colony. Also, genetic modification of crops can do harm, as can insecticides.

"We're very fussy about placing our hives with owners who use no chemical fertilizers or pesticides. We're an organic operation. But bees forage for nectar within a 3-mile radius of the hive, so this is hard to control."

Cote says about three newspapers call him a week.

"We sell every drop of honey we make," he says.

What's the most important thing he learned from his father?

"I think, he taught me never to be too invasive with a hive, and to treat bees with respect. You may cajole them, but never force them. They've been around doing their thing for over a million years. They don't need me. I need them."­

Note: Log onto Bees Without Borders to learn more about the project. To order honey, pollen, royal jelly and other bee-related products, contact Andrew Cote at beekeeper71@gmail.com.