12-23 Bee Fortress

John Rocheleau, of Sandwich, is shown here with a prototype of his "Bee Fortress," a technologically advanced and rugged bee hive he has been developing for three years. (Adam Drapcho/The Laconia Daily Sun photo)

SANDWICH — Some people look at things a little differently than everyone else, and that’s the case with John Rocheleau. Where some see problems as hindrances, he sees them opportunities.

“I am obsessed with problem solving,” Rocheleau said, explaining how he has spent the past three years re-inventing the humble bee hive.

His design, which he hopes to bring to market, has an automatic, solar-powered ventilation system and is strong enough to frustrate even the hungriest bear. Sorry, Winnie the Pooh.

“I think the bees would be better off if humans just left them alone in the wild,” Rocheleau said. That doesn’t serve the interests of humans, though, who find bees, and their honey, to be useful. That’s the case with Rocheleau, who started keeping bees three years ago to provide pollination services for his organic gardening.

Like the vast majority of beekeepers, Rocheleau used a Langstroth-style hive, the kind developed more than 150 years ago. It wasn’t long before he found problems with the design.

“The Langstroth is the way it’s always been done, so that’s the way people do it,” Rocheleau said. He wasn't satisfied with convention, though. “There are inherent problems with the Langstroth design,” he soon learned.

First, the hives aren’t made of high-quality materials or construction procedures, which means they soon become eyesores. That also leaves the bees vulnerable to raiding bears or fluctuating weather. If humans want to benefit from the bees’ labors, they ought to treat them better, he said.

“I want to do the right thing for the bees, give them the best home.”

Rocheleau was born to a family with 10 children and not enough of anything. “I grew up poor. I had to tape my sneakers together with electrical tape so the snow wouldn’t get in,” he said. “I see problems, there were so many in my household growing up. I’ve come to embrace them.”

He resolved to improve his economic standing, and started working for the local highway department at age 14, left school after the ninth grade, and found his way into jobs with heating contractors in the Concord area. In that line of work, he said he learned to take pride in his work, to not just complete a task but to leave the site looking like a professional had been there.

Seeing a career possibility in heating, ventilation and air conditioning, Rocheleau went back to school so he could get licensed and become an independent contractor.

He found success, but not satisfaction. Hands that were perpetually covered in soot or oil, often due to late-night emergency calls, left him wanting a different path. He found that path through a problem – flanges used in heating systems that were difficult to install and often left their installers with bruised or bleeding knuckles. Through dedication bordering on obsession, personal financial risk and a lucky introduction to a wealthy “angel investor,” as Rocheleau called her, he was able to develop a flange and tool set that made installation easier and more efficient.

“I have my own product line,” Rocheleau said. “If you have forced hot water heating, you probably have my flanges in your house.”

He finds himself with little time for HVAC these days, though, because his attention has been drawn to his beehives.

That first year as a beekeeper went well, he said. His honeybees did their thing and began building a home in his Langstroth hive.

“Very soon the bees were producing sweet honey and beautiful white beeswax. All went well for all involved until December, when the temperature dropped to 15 degrees below zero and every bee perished,” he said. “An indoor climate control expert, I knew what needed to be done.”

He started by building shelters that could surround a Langstroth hive, then realized that he needed to start with a blank slate.

Rocheleau’s resulting design, which he calls a “Bee Fortress,” is made of higher-quality wood, has steel-reinforced corners and is held to a concrete footing by high-tension straps strong enough to resist a black bear’s bite. The hives also have a photovoltaic panel, sensors and an automatic control system which runs a fan when the conditions inside the hive are too warm or humid, or if carbon dioxide levels are too high.

In Feburary, he moved to Sandwich, where his game cameras recorded one of his prototypes successfully resisting a black bear’s advances. When the weather got cold, he brought his active hives indoors and placed them on a heated pad.

Rocheleau is currently working to add heating to his design, and is hoping to test a system he has developed to rid bees of parasitic mites. Ultimately, he hopes his hives will become recognized as the gold standard for beekeeping.

“They’re the most beautiful, technologically advanced beehives in the world,” Rocheleau said. “I want people to care not just about the bees, but where the bees live.”

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