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Hopkinton beekeeper and candlemaker keeps his bee-keeping passion alive

New Hampshire Sunday News

April 14. 2018 11:36PM
Martin Marklin (Shawne K. Wickham/Sunday News)

HOPKINTON - On a rare warm spring morning last week, Martin Marklin was in a local farmer's pasture, checking his bee hives.

With songbirds twittering nearby and honeybees buzzing harmlessly around him, Marklin pried out one of the stacked frames to reveal a sad sight: hundreds of dead bees.

It wasn't unexpected.

Last year, a survey of beekeepers in New Hampshire found hive losses of 65 percent statewide. "It was a tough year," Marklin said.

This winter looks better, but he still figures he's lost 40 percent of his hives.

This time of year, Marklin said, "Beekeepers go through their hives and they look at them to see how many have survived, how many died and, more importantly, the ones that died, what did they die from?"

There are many factors causing the losses, Marklin said: Climate change, development that reduces forage areas, parasites, pesticides, diseases. The odds seem stacked against the bees.

He checked another, smaller hive. There were live bees inside, but the hive is weak and Marklin fears it will not survive. He'll bolster it with bees from a stronger hive, hoping the hardier genetic stock will help.

"What we're looking for are hives that have overwintered multiple years, because they have the genetic characteristics to over-winter," he explained.

Hopkinton beekeeper/candlemaker Martin Marklin checks on the health of his hives. Some are thriving despite the long winter, but others had died. (Shawne K. Wickham/Sunday News)

Losing so many hives is not a sustainable business model, Marklin said, especially for smaller operations. "That means you have to go into the winter with twice as many bees as you want to come out with," he said. "It's hard to sustain that."

For Marklin, owner of Marklin Candle Design, beekeeping began as an avocation and soon became a passion.

He started his liturgical candle-making business 32 years ago in his parents' basement; Marklin beeswax candles have since been used by popes and pastors around the world.

There are seven companies in the U.S. that make liturgical candles, Marklin said. "We're the smallest, the youngest, the best and the most humble," he said.

He figures over the years, he's probably purchased a quarter-million pounds of beeswax to make his candles. "And I had no clue how the bees made wax, which was my livelihood."

So about eight years ago, Marklin decided to start his own apiary. The decision changed his life, he says.

"Keeping bees has transformed my business, how I see my business and how I live my life," he said.

He now has between 100 and 150 hives at several locations around Hopkinton and neighboring towns. "I don't know if it's cheaper than a sports car but it's probably less disruptive than a divorce," he quipped.

His admiration for his industrious bees is obvious. "When a bee forages and brings back food to the hive, it's not for herself," he said. "It's for the community."

"Each gathers according to his or her ability, takes according to his or her need, and that's all for the sake of the community," he said.

Bees never sleep, Marklin said. During the winter, they cluster around their queen inside the hive, surviving on the honey they've made from pollen during the warmer months.

In the summertime, worker bees live just six weeks, Marklin said. "That's their lifespan. They die of exhaustion, having never slept, with wings tattered and torn."

The queen bee lays between 1,000 to 1,500 eggs a day, Marklin said, replacing the bees that die. "The queen is an amazing creature," he said. "She can lay one-and-a-half times her body weight every day."

For Marklin, who is Catholic, there's a spiritual aspect to his beekeeping. 

He shares a favorite quote from St. John Chrysostom: "The bee is more honored than other animals, not because she labors, but because she labors for others."

While people speak of "having" a dog, cat or horse, the term for folks like him is bee "keeper," Marklin noted, "because we simply care for these creatures while they're in our care."

While everyone knows about honey, Marklin calls beeswax "the forgotten gift of the bee."

But he shares a grim fact: Pesticides from crops have infiltrated the waxy substance with which bees build the honeycomb structures they use to both store food and raise baby bees. "This wax, being a lipid, absorbs the pesticides and retains them, and over years, the accumulation of the pesticides causes a detrimental effect on the bees," he said.

And it's not just the bees, he said. Candlemakers only use a small percentage of all the beeswax in the world; most of it goes into pharmaceuticals, beauty products and even candy as a coating agent.

"So what's not being told is that the wax that you're using for your lotions, your face creams, your coatings on pills, are all going to have trace elements of pesticides in them," he said.

"There is no such thing as pesticide-free wax in America anymore."

In Marklin's view, the American model of agriculture has become "unsustainable." He ticks off the "P's" that consumers demand: perfection, proliferation, productivity, profit and proximity. "And we sacrificed a lot for that, and I think we are paying the price for some decisions that were made a while ago on how we feed our people."

Losing the bees would mean giving up many of the crops we rely upon for food and clothing, he said. "The consequences are becoming eye-opening and shocking," he said.

But it's not too late, Marklin said. He comes back to the notion of beekeeping.

"We're caretakers and stewards of creation," he said. "Whether we believe that what we have, the creation in which we live, was given to us by a divine entity or by a cosmic action, nonetheless what we have is what we have."

And that, he insists, creates "a moral imperative ... to care for that which has been entrusted to us, for our own preservation but also for our progeny: our children, our children's children, our children's children's children."

The dire news about the bees has been a wake-up call for many Americans. Marklin calls that a good thing.

"Because from awareness, change can happen," he said.

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