By Mike Dinan. This article originally appeared on sister site NewCanaanite.com
Liam Orr, who on Wednesday enters the eighth grade at Saxe Middle School, stands with his two kid brothers and mom in a fenced area around the side of their two-story Colonial on Silver Ridge Road—a quiet, woodsy pocket of southeastern New Canaan that the family has called home for 10 years.
Their Belgian shepherd mix, 7-year-old Spanky, watches his family through a sunroom window—until this spring, the area had been his personal dog pen.
Today, anchored by three hives that dad Shawn built amid the Orrs’ rapid foray into a unique and stimulating hobby, the shaded area is abuzz with an estimated 500,000 honeybees.
“You’re looking at bees that are going out to forage for nectar and pollen, and bees that are coming back with the pollen and nectar they’ve collected, into the hive so that they can store that for the winter,” Liam said.
Prompted by the chance viewing at home of a documentary on honeybees last November—and driven by a man who, though not on hand for our interview, clearly delights his family with a penchant for delving with enthusiasm into new and hyper-focused interests—the Orrs have taken up an inclusive, creative and educational hobby that’s yielded real-life lessons in business and website development, marketing and the natural world.
The bees themselves—Italian honeybees in two boxes, 11,000 apiece, including two queen bees (one for each original hive)—arrived in March.
“They get shipped up here by UPS,” Michelle Orr, known to many locals as bassist for New Canaan mom rock group The Miss Understoods, said from inside the sunroom. She was joined there by Spanky, Liam and her younger boys: Caleb, who this week will enter sixth grade at Saxe, and Sumner, who will start third grade at East School. Some of the family’s five cats, each less than one year old, moved in and out of the room.
“They come in a box that has chicken wire so that there’s air going through it,” she continued. “Sometimes the UPS people, they hear bees, and they will actually kill the bees in the delivery because they get freaked out.”
That very thing happened, Liam said, according to a letter the family later received, “saying that one of the UPS guys had sprayed it with poison.”
Nevertheless, the bees arrived and soon would thrive in hives that Shawn assembled himself with a nail gun after ordering the materials.
According to Michelle and the kids, Shawn relayed details of the project about two months after placing the bee order.
“He basically started doing this without telling us,” Michelle recalled with a smile.
The bees at the very beginning lived in their box inside the house, fed by sugar water, Michelle recalled. Asked how long they remained inside, she said: “One day. The cats were trying to kill them.”
So the family focused on getting the bees out of the boxes and into their new hives—a complicated process, Sumner said, as the bees are in “big bunches” and many want to remain in the box (see video that follows, produced entirely by the Orrs, article continues below).
Sumner said his dad has learned to handle the bees bare-handed in order to get a better feel for them, putting it this way: “If you have gloves on, you squish them more.”
Though they own full beekeeper suits, family members always use the beekeeper hat in dealing with the bees, Liam said, because the flying insects are “very curious and they like to crawl up your nose and ears.”
“So we generally just wear the top veil to protect ourselves from the bees walking up our noses,” he said.
Meanwhile, what was once a somewhat frightening prospect of dealing so directly with bees has become far more casual and natural, as the Orr boys are learning first-hand many of the remarkable species’ habits. The queen lays 3,000 eggs per day, Liam said, though in the winter she “stays dormant while the other bees crowd around her to keep warm.” There are three types of bees—queen, worker bees, which are female and do the foraging, and drones which are male and whose main job is to feed the larva that will eventually become a successor queen.
“And it’s really a woman’s world in bees because in winter they kill the drones, because they don’t want the drones taking up their honey,” Michelle said.
The family surmised that dad, head of a CD brokerage firm out on Long Island, who drives 84 miles each way to work, sees the hobby as a relaxer.
Asked for what the experience has been like for each of them, Michelle and the kids answered as follows.
- Sumner: It’s been really cool for me. I always go outside with my dad to see what he’s doing. Sometimes when they’re really angry he says to back up, because I’ve only been stung once and I don’t want to be stung again. And so when they’re really feisty I don’t want to get near them. But other times I usually want to go up to them and it’s really cool.
- Caleb: It’s been pretty awesome but I also think it’s a bit ridiculous because my dad is now getting chickens. (More on that below.)
- Liam: This experience has been pretty crazy, because I never knew that honeybees were so sophisticated in the way they work. They have their own language that they use, which is like a dance. They don’t really sting that much.
- Michelle: It was a little annoying at first because there were all these things in the garage. And there still is. It was taking all of my husband’s time at first, and I thought I’d never see him again, because he’s like ‘one with the bees.’ And I generally think it’s really cool but I don’t really go out there that much with them. He’s a great father and I love that it’s a hobby he does with his kids. But now that we have 500,000 bees—we have three hives here—and my brother-in-law lives in Greenwich and he has a hive on his property, they work together and they commute together so my husband will stop by and check out his bees, too. At first you have to really check on them a lot and make sure they’re doing their job, and if not you have to help them a little bit.
The Orrs’ bees haven’t needed much help—in fact, the flying insects’ success at doing what they’re designed to do has led to a budding enterprise operated by the kids.
Two months ago, Michelle said, she accompanied Sumner to a snowboarding camp in Oregon (in addition to School of Rock New Canaan musicians, the kids are all involved in athletics, with the New Canaan YMCA Caimans swim team) “and when I came back, they had started this lip balm business.”
Shawn all along had been collecting beeswax and burr comb from the hives, and picked up a kit to make lip balm, which he and the kids began to explore. Their ingredients: the home-grown beeswax along with almond oil, shea butter and flavoring.
At first “it was a little sticky, because there was too much beeswax in it,” Liam said of the product. But as they kept working on it, the family started to get the formula right, and a system for packaging followed.
The Orr Bees business—whose website Liam created, here (and here’s their Facebook page)—moved upwards of 400 units of the lip balm at a lemonade stand while vacationing this summer on Block Island. (It comes unscented as well as in peppermint, tangerine, fruit punch, pineapple, blue raspberry, blackberry and bubble gum.)
Caleb, a creative type, created the company’s logo while 8-year-old Sumner keeps a log that tracks the most popular flavors. The boys already have earned enough money to purchase a 3D printer—their first goal—and now are saving up for a drone.
Asked where the rather messy work of creating the lip balm physically happens, Michelle said flatly: “My kitchen.”
Asked what they see in Orr Bees’ future, Caleb said, “I see success,” while Sumner answered, “honey”—the Orrs reckon the bees will make enough honey next year for the family to harvest it, though it’s possible they could have honey sooner. Shawn Orr practices organic beekeeping, in that he does not give his bees antibiotics or put fungicides in the hives. Local shops including Mrs. Green’s already have expressed interest in selling it.
And the boys see plenty more fun ahead, too.
Asked whether the family tends to get hyper-involved in something very specific, all four began laughing and Michelle said: “My husband does.”
“He will just study something obsessively and then get into it,” she said.
In the past, she said, turning to the kids, “before you were ever born, he was really into homing pigeons”—a revelation that had Caleb repeating to himself, through fits of laughter, “I never knew that.”
Michelle said: “He’s going to kill me for saying that.”
Other areas of interest have included a Jeep, Western-style hats and soon could include chickens, a turkey and duck, the Orrs said.
“He just wants the fresh eggs, so they’re just going to be hens,” Michelle said. “No roosters. Because I don’t want cockle-doodle-dooing.”