HARVARD -- Beekeeper Fred Farmer stands behind a table at the Harvard farmer's market on a recent Saturday morning offering the bounty of his bees to customers.
Spread in front of him are honey-filled glass jars, honey bear bottles, colorful honey sticks in assorted flavors, creamed honey and bee pollen.
Farmer's business, Nissitissit Apiaries in Pepperell, consists of 380 beehives that are spread across acres of wildflowers, berries and apple orchards within New England that include Quabbin Orchards, Plum Island, the Berkshires and Vermont.
Each beehive averages 63 pounds of honey per year, but this year Farmer lost one-third of his business.
"I got less than half, 38 pounds, due to bacterial fungi," he said.
"I lost 23 hives and over $1,000 in equipment; I had to burn the (infected) frames and materials to prevent it from spreading," said Farmer.
Today, honeybees are facing an epidemic, Colony Collapse Disorder, a term that refers to the abrupt disappearance of bees, that scientists blame on the use of pesticides, parasites and fungal diseases.
About one-third of the human diet comes from insect-pollination and the honeybee is responsible for 80 percent of that pollination, according to the USDA.
Tom Fiore, president of the Massachusetts County Beekeepers Association, said many local beekeepers are reporting problems such as decreased honey production and increased winter mortality.
"Honeybees are faced with environmental challenges including pesticides, parasites and the loss of suitable forage, that seem to have increased over the past 30 years," he said.
A second-generation beekeeper, Farmer learned at an early age from his father who kept two hives at his Pepperell farm. "We always had bees for the honey," said Farmer. "We had a farm along the Nissitissit River with dairy, pigs, chickens. I was born there."
Farmer took over when his young dad passed away and continued to farm while working at the Hollingsworth & Vose Paper Mill in West Groton.
Using organic natural pest management (a mix of cider vinegar and soap) he learned from his father, Farmer does not use pesticides on the flowers, berries or trees that provide nutrition and pollen to his honeybees.
On a recent morning, Farmer checked one of his beehives for honey production and the health of the queen. "Each hive contains a queen, most live two to three years," according to Farmer.
The beehives, buzzing with activity, are protected by electric wire to keep the local bear out. "The bears like to eat the baby bee grub. It's like candy to them," Farmer said.
"Right now, there are 45,000 bees working, carrying honey into the hive. The females already got rid of the drones or males," said Farmer.
Wearing his beekeeper's veil and gloves, Farmer used a "smoker" to calm the bees in and around the beehive, then lifted two covers to expose the shallow super containing surplus honey. Using a tool to pry loose frames often stuck with beeswax, he lifted one out to see the honeycomb.
Beneath the Shallow super is the Queen excluder, then Brood chamber containing the Queen and her brood. Below that are two Deep supers where the Queen lays eggs, the workers feed her and they cluster over winter. Farmer does not disturb this area.
Since he retired seven years ago, Farmer's life revolves around bees full-time, selling his honey products and raspberries at weekly farmers markets in Harvard, Shirley, Pepperell and Westford and year-round to customers, including brides who order tiny jars of honey as wedding favors.
Up before sunrise, Farmer is busy as a bee, tending hives and extracting honey. Farmer harvests honey three times per year -- spring when bees have fed on apple blossom pollen, in June, from berries and flowers, and late August when each hive is filled with 85,000 to 90,000 bees producing honey.
Strained three times with cheesecloth, the honey, a delicate sweet amber, won best recognition at the Topsfield Fair, said Farmer.
What can be done to help the honeybee survive? Fiore says people can help the honeybee by minimizing pesticide use, urging local and state officials to choose "bee-friendly" plants and trees for public spaces, taking a beekeeping course to possibly becoming beekeepers themselves and purchasing local honey.
Like all beekeepers today, Farmer is worried but also optimistic and works tirelessly to raise honeybees and produce honey, adding, "We need bees. Without the bees there wouldn't be any food."
Fred Farmer is a member of the Middlesex County Beekeepers Association, a state board member (treasurer) representing Middlesex, Suffolk and Essex District and a member of the New England Vegetable and Berry Growers Association.