When Joe Douillette isn’t teaching at the high school or buzzing around local government meetings to broadcast them on Swampscott Cable Access TV, he can sometimes be found in his yard with a few hundred bees surrounding him.
The media arts teacher and cable TV coordinator is also an amateur beekeeper. Despite the fact that he has been keeping bees since the 1990s, Douillette still considers himself a hobbyist.
“I took a course five or six years ago from the Essex County Beekeepers Association after I’ve been beekeeping for 20 years,” Douillette said. “There’s always more to learn.”
Douillette grew up in Nahant and attended Swampscott High School, where he got involved in the school’s cable club. At the time, it was run by Lynn’s Warner Cable. That was where he got his first taste of television.
Douillette began his life as a beekeeper while living in Boston. He said he often rode his bike to Allandale Farm in Brookline, where he was instructed by farm workers on how to take care of a hive. He soon established his own hives in Jamaica Plain, getting permission from neighbors to use their yard as a home for his bees.
“I need something that’s not looking at a screen or electronic,” he said. “I need something connected to the weather, the sun, nature.”
Meanwhile, Douillette and his three children keep busy, tending to the two beehives that sit in the family’s garden. In the spring, he purchased a package of three pounds of Italian honey bees and a queen to inhabit the hives, after the previous colony didn’t survive the winter due to varroa mites.
Douillette explained that he doesn’t expect his bees to produce much honey for harvesting this year, as they have to first build up enough to feed themselves through the winter. Once that happens, he will place a structure called a super on top of the hive that the bees will fill with extra honey.
He said that in a good year, he can harvest 100 pounds of honey from his hives.
“It really is a form of escape,” he said. “You have to move slowly and respond to the temperament of the bees. You have to be aware of the ebb and flow of the nectar and the weather, whether it’s the next day or the next month, and really understand how to keep the colony alive.”
His passion for beekeeping is matched by his love for video production. He is a self-described amateur moviemaker.
“I developed a love of it,” he said. “My friends and I would rent VHS cameras at a VHS rental store in Swampscott in Vinnin Square. We would rent a camera for the weekend and make movies.”
Douillette attended Boston University’s College of Communications and settled in Jamaica Plain. He worked for local TV stations and afterschool programs, developing educational programming.
Doing this work, Douillette said he developed a love for public-access television.
“There’s such a celebration of free speech, of local importance, of the power that is given to communities in a medium that could easily exclude them because it’s so expensive to run,” he said. “That’s also why I love working with teens. They’re at the point where they start to realize how powerful their voice can be, and you can teach them how to amplify that.”
Eventually, Douillette and his family moved back to Swampscott and, in 2014, he began teaching at the high school, also taking over Swampscott Cable Access TV.
“Swampscott’s been unique in that it’s only had a government and an education channel in a system where you could have a government, education and public channel,” he said.
Over the years, and especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, Douillette built up the government channel to broadcast many local meetings so that even residents without Zoom could see them, enlisting the help of his media arts students. They also improved the sports channel, spending around $10,000 to install three new robotic cameras and other equipment at the media booth at Blocksidge Field in May. This allowed them to do more with a smaller crew, and broadcast every home lacrosse, field hockey, football, basketball and volleyball game this year.
In class, students get to learn how to use both cameras and a studio, helping with the public-access station but also working on creative projects.
“It’s an elective (class), so you often get students who can’t find a place,” Douillette said. “They get to be in this environment where it’s very hands-on, but it’s not void of context and content … you see them thrive.”