Tell the Bees

October 5, 2022

We prayed for rain and we got it. Five solid days of it. In that time, we tackled a boatload of indoor projects—trimming onions, cleaning sweet potatoes, transporting winter squash from the Amityville greenhouses back to the farm. Now we’re ready for some clear weather so we can return to the fields and continue with the harvests. There are still thousands of pounds of root crops, cabbages, and potatoes to bring in, and October is usually a glorious month for this kind of work. We expect the clouds to clear any day, and we’ll be grateful when they do.

Even as our crew looks forward to the slower pace of fall, and to the usual end-of-the-season celebrations, our hearts are heavy from the loss of Donal Peterson, farm beekeeper since 2016 and a good friend. Don passed away unexpectedly on September 27. It came as a shock, both to us and to the many people who knew him. Don was so full of life, and always on the go. He maintained hundreds of hives around Long Island, and he welcomed an unknown number of people into the world of beekeeping, both in his role as vice president of the Long Island Beekeepers Club (LIBC), and through the incidental exchanges that popped up while he was tending to his hives. Don could talk for hours about bees—and people listened. His knowledge and passion were both palpable and infectious. One of my favorite Don memories was a story he told about getting pulled over for driving on the wrong side of the road so he could scatter clover seed from the drivers’ side window. He was my mentor for the two short years that I kept the hives at the farm, and when I passed them on to him because I couldn’t keep up, I knew I was leaving them in the best possible hands.

Before Don’s death, I was unaware of the ritual of “telling the bees.” This old European tradition holds that bees must be informed of significant events in their beekeeper’s lives, so that they can join in celebration or mourning. When I visited Don’s hives last Friday to share the news, I was overcome by a sense of shared loss, but also of comfort—the kind that comes from being surrounded by friends. It’s hard to explain what it feels like to be among the bees. The only way to know it is to experience it. I'm grateful to Don for sharing that experience.

Don’s death is a huge loss to the beekeeping and farming community, and his shoes won’t be easy to fill. The LIBC is working to identify all of Don’s hives, and to formulate a plan to continue as much of his work as possible. But before we worry ourselves too much about the future, we owe it to Don—and to ourselves—to pay tribute to our friend. Before I pass the mic to Alice, Glenn, and Dan, another favorite memory…

On a Saturday afternoon in 2015, Don arrived to help me check my hives. I wasn’t prepared—I had my kids in tow—but rescheduling was not an option. So I gave each kid a bee hat and clear instructions—stay calm, don’t make sudden movements, and if I tell you to leave the field, walk quickly and don’t ask questions. Then, with the kids standing a few yards away, Don and I went into the hives. I don’t remember what we were checking for, but I do remember the moment I noticed my four-year-old son restraining a shriek as several bees clambered up his leg. Before I could decide what to do, Don took matters into his own hands. He carried the frame we’d been inspecting over to the kids so they could get a better look. Standing at Don’s elbow, nose-to-nose with the bees, both kids visibly relaxed. Don spoke at length about the frame, its contents, and bees in general. Before long, he even found the queen. The kids were captivated. That was Don’s magic—dispelling fear. His calm, reassuring, and knowledgeable aura was a bridge to a secret world, for anyone willing to put their trust in his capable hands.

Thanks for reading
—Caroline


 

It has been such an honor to be touched by Mr. Don Peterson’s passion and knowledge. As a ninth grader, almost four years ago, I contacted Mr. Don about my potential research for my research course centered around bees and neonicotinoids. He almost immediately took me under his wing; inviting me to a meeting of the Long Island Beekeepers Club, allowing me to have a glance at the wider beekeeping community. I remember that rainy autumn day when the meeting took place. Mr. Don showed me to the bees and explained to me how they clustered together for warmth, telling me I could put my hand up to them without any fear. It's from then that Mr. Don helped with my research. I remember every year that I came back to Mr. Don with a new research idea looking into another aspect that affects bees, he was always willing to help. And it was every year that he provided me bees for my research and refused any payment. He told me every time to just simply tell him how my research and data turned out instead.

It’s funny how one email to the right person can truly lead you down a direction you will connect with and cherish. Without such an enthusiastic reply from Mr. Don to my first email, I don't know if I would have been able to stick to science research, or develop my passion and further my knowledge. Through my research and work, and through Mr. Don’s support and help I found something that I love. I have grown to love it so much that I have decided to study within the environmental science field in college. That choice would not be so easy to make without Mr. Don’s influence.

His kindness and great passion for his work will truly be missed.

—Alice Sztabinski, CSA Member
 
It has been a long while since I first met Don Bees, which was the nickname I assigned to Donal Peterson, Master Beekeeper, in my contacts.

When Don first came on the scene at Restoration Farm, he placed his hives in the orchard that I caretake for the Farm. He had specific requirements for the placement and ended up with them under a very large Northen Spy apple tree in the lower corner of the orchard. If I remember correctly, it was to catch the morning sun which would warm the hives and get the honeybees motivated. Later in the day, the hives would be in the shade and be more comfortable for the resting bees.

Thoughtful. Thorough. Whenever I observed Don, these characteristics continued to show. I'm a believer that this man and his bees were family. I believe they trusted him to take care of them. Don certainly trusted the bees. It is an art, taking care of bees and Donal was a gifted artist indeed. Generous with knowledge, and happy to share stories, not just about honeybees, but everything else in the orchard that caught his eye.
It's going to be tough to not see Don pulling up in his custom flatbed honeybee/hive truck with his wide smile and an interesting story or two.

You will be very much missed Donal. A friend of the bees.

—Glenn Aldridge
 
As a hard worker in and with nature I felt an instant bond with Don. It feels lonelier now. I will miss him very much. I will miss his strength. I will miss his infectious passion. I will miss his sympathetic empathy for the struggle to protect nature first. I will miss his commitment to our bees and all who have been nourished from their honey. When he came for oysters and vegetables he came for company as well. The give and take of our symbiotic relationship exemplifies the magic of community and makes me feel committed as ever to our place in nature which I often talked about with him as our broader community which need be nurtured. I will continue this journey as a hard worker in nature with memories of Don and with the presence of every bee I happen upon as a reminder of the hard work he took on for the greater good of our community. I miss you Don!

—Dan Holmes





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