The Sweet Life -Spring 2009

by: Terry Pommett

photography by: Terry Pommett

“Nobody disputes the role of dogs as man’s best friend, but a convincing argument can also be made for the honey bee.” 
–Martin Elkort, “The Secret Life of Food”

For the past three years, bees in America have been vanishing by the billions. In 2007 alone, 30 billion bees, a third of all the honey bees bred by beekeepers, simply disappeared. They left their hives, never to return, in what has come to be known as CCD, or colony collapse disorder. The implications of this disaster for the country’s general food supply is staggering. Fully 35 percent, or every third bite of the food we eat, is dependent on pollination, mostly provided by bees.

Researchers around the world have come up with a number of reasons for this dreadful phenomena. Number-one on almost every list is pesticides, followed by habitat loss, malnourishment, genetically-modified crops, parasites and diseases. Even the stress from electromagnetic radiation spurred by the proliferation of cell phones and the endless transportation of commercial colonies have come into question.

The smoking gun has yet to be identified conclusively, yet the fact remains that honey bees are in a deadly spiral. In an alarmist sense, bees can be considered the “canaries in the coal mine” for the planet’s plant life.

On a local level, Nantucket has a relatively healthy bee population due to the ever-increasing number of back-yard beekeepers. Current estimates put the total between 25 to 30 beekeepers, most with two or more hives. Jim Gross, the unofficial dean of beekeeping on the island, exhibits the same enthusiasm when talking about his charges as would a novice suddenly discovering the wonder of nature’s confectioners.

While researching the market, he decided to get a subscription to Bee Culture, which led him to experiment with a couple of hives.“I probably get a couple of people started in beekeeping every year,” he said. “I got some of my first lessons from Ted Anderson about 14 years ago.” Back then, Gross was suffering through his second bout of Lyme disease and had to give up coffee because it did not mix well with his antibiotics. “I was looking for flavorful honey to put in my tea. Sue Bee didn’t cut it.”

From humble tea drinker to bee expert, Gross now has 10 hives, and harvests anywhere from 300-500 pounds of honey a season. “Some years they just lope along and other times they go gangbusters,” he said. In addition, his devotion to the honey bee has led him to become a proactive bee advocate. He is on the board of directors of the Massachusetts Beekeepers Association and is a member of the Barnstable County Beekeepers Association.

Gross is the beekeeper most often called upon to remove wild swarms from people’s back yards, attics or chimneys.  Swarming is a natural way for colonies to survive once a hive has run out of space. After all, a healthy colony can have 50,000 bees at peak flow and if it can’t provide for the population, it needs to find new digs. Public perception is that a swarm is a ticking time bomb, while in fact, a ball of bees hanging on a tree limb is just protecting the queen and waiting for the scouts to come back with directions to another home. 

Gross laughed while remembering the time he stuck his hand into the middle of a swarm prior to removing it from a tree to gauge its temperature. The man who had called him for the removal watched in horror and disbelief before running from the scene.

Handling bees takes on a whole new meaning with Gross.

“I used to wear gloves until the time I got stung on the elbow where I had tendinitis. The next day it felt better than it had in 15 years. So I joined the American Apitherapy Association.”

Apitherapy is a medical treatment applied to a host of conditions and diseases which includes the use of honey, pollen, propolis, royal jelly and bee venom.

“I have a number of people who come to see me for problems with bursitis, tendinitis and arthritis. I hold my bees on them and sting em. I sting any tick bites whenever I get one because I read an article how melittin, found in bee venom, kills the Lyme spirochetes. Even members of my hockey team come out occasionally before a game. We sting each other to ease the aches and pains.”

For the most part, beekeeping is not labor-intensive, unless you’re managing multiple hives. It does, however, require constant attention. Particularly with the arrival of foreign strains of bees into the country with their attendant diseases, beekeepers have to be vigilant. The most pervasive problem on the island is the Varroa destructor, a parasitic mite which attaches to the bee and sucks its hemolymph. As ticks are to humans, the varroa is to bees but with more widespread destruction. The acarine or tracheal mite is also problematic.

For allergy-plagued Nantucketers, eating locally-produced honey is a natural alternative to pharmaceuticals. Gross consumes about 40 pounds a year and hasn’t suffered from allergies since he started the regimen.

Many beekeepers, however, are actually light consumers of the product. Ted Anderson, probably the longest-practicing beekeeper on the island, eats very little. His enjoyment is more cerebral.

“I got roped into helping Roger Young harvest his honey about 30 years ago and then started doing it myself. I’ve tried to read books on beekeeping but they either put me to sleep or don’t teach me anything. I’ve adopted that particular approach of just messing around with them. I enjoy watching them do their work. It’s relaxing,” Anderson said.

In keeping with that philosophy, he no longer raises packaged or commercially-raised bees.

“I only raise colonies begun from wild swarms. I don’t want to introduce chemicals into the hives to combat the mites, the foulbrood, wax moths and beetles. Wild swarms are generally more hardy and disease-resistant.”

Anderson has had great luck capturing swarms that seem to settle on the branches of cedar trees at his Two Sheds Farm. He claims his best colony of the summer came from a swarm he rescued from Rocky Fox’s mailbox.

Wild or feral colonies do exist on Nantucket, but they are rare. Several years ago, Gross was called upon by then town arborist Roger Geiger and Dale Gary to help them with an elm tree they were pruning. While removing a branch, a mad cloud came buzzing out of the limb. Gross fitted the men out with safety suits and the work continued. When the branch was sawn open, the hollow was filled with about 75 pounds of comb and honey. “The inside of the branch was all covered with propolis. It was beautiful. They must have been in that branch for years. I put the bees in a box and took them home. Within a week, the queen was laying again. And this was in February. That’s a healthy colony,” Gross said.

“I planted 20 fruit trees – apple, peach, cherry, plum and pear – with the idea they would help produce more fruit. It’s a losing battle, however. The problem isn’t pollination as much as controlling all the other pests. Wasps, flies and other insects probably do just as much as the bees in the small area I have planted. I started with three hives and now have 10. I never thought it would grow this large,” he said.Five-year apiarist Mickey Rowland began beekeeping with the idea that they would help pollinate his fruit trees.

Rowland is one of the larger honey producers on the island, bottling over 300 pounds a season. He has somehow also found the time to harvest three specific grades: light or early summer, medium or late summer, and goldenrod, his dark autumn honey. Sampling all three at a sitting is a great way to get the feel for Nantucket’s diverse wildflower flavorings.

Like other surplus beekeepers, Rowland is well aware of the adage, “There’s no money in honey.” Any profit he makes from selling his crop gets plowed back into super (hive box and frame) repairs and replacements, extracting equipment and a host of other equipment needed to keep the hives going strong.

From one season to the next, there is hope and expectation that all colonies will survive the winter. But that is not always the case. Rowland lost five colonies last year. “It was probably due to my own mismanagement, because I don’t seem to be getting CCD. I do have a problem with varroa mites, however.”

To combat the pest, Rowland dusts the bees with powdered sugar, which desiccates the mites and is harmless to the host. Unlike Gross and Anderson, who prefer the survivalist stock of wild queens, catching swarms is not one of Rowland’s quests. To expand his colonies, he generally will devote a couple of hives each summer to experiment with.

“I’m not tapped into wild-swarm rescue. I’ve only done it once. I like to split a few hives and then try to raise my own queens. I raised six last summer. It’s pretty easy. The bees do all the work. In good times, I don’t mind having several starter hives along with a few very strong colonies. I’ve had colonies with four or five supers stacked on top of each other at times and that’s really neat to see.”

Rowland’s bee yard is unusually picturesque. He has four to five pods of hives scattered about with the flags of different European nations tacked on the sides.

“I think of them as little continents,” he said.

Spain and Italy, Scotland and Belgium, England, Ireland, Holland, Luxembourg, Denmark and Sweden make up his united colonies of bees. Regardless of the outcome of each summer, Rowland finds great peace sitting among his hives.

“I’ll often just sit there and watch the bees flying over my head, buzzing around my arms. It’s fascinating and a challenge to build them up and see them grow strong. The whole hive is much more of an entity than the individual insects. I spend more time with the bees than the fruit trees,” he said.

“I’ve always been interested in the outdoors and was very intrigued by the social makeup of the hive. One queen lays all the eggs, 80 percent of the hive are workers (all female) and the rest are drones whose only job is to find and impregnate virgin queens,” he said.One of Nantucket’s most knowledgeable beekeepers, David Berry has only been at it for five years. He learned his husbandry in Connecticut primarily through a Backyard Beekeepers Club, which shared information with its members through workshops, hive inspections and monitoring programs. After summering on Nantucket most of his life, Berry moved here full-time last year and brought his bees with him. Not having property of his own to set up colonies, Berry has enlisted the cooperation of friends around the island to place hives on theirs. In exchange, he offers them some honey and mentoring should they wish to learn beekeeping themselves. Acting as a sort of itinerant advocate for honey-bee promulgation, Berry has a passion for all aspects of beekeeping.

Besides raising his own queens, Berry has recently eschewed the gentle Italian strain of bees in favor of the more defensive but hardier Russian bees. Regionally, they are raised in Vermont, in a chemical-free, organic environment and have proven to be much more resistant to cold winters and mites than their southern cousins.

“Bees have generally been bred to be docile and produce a lot of honey, but they need to be bred to resist parasites and chemicals as well,” said Berry, who is very persistent in identifying the threats that modern agriculture and landscaping have brought to the survival of the honey bee.  Although Nantucket has ample open conservation land, it has a major commercial cranberry operation, two commercial farms and countless manicured lawns and gardens. That makes for a lot of pesticides dumped into their foraging space.

“I’ve found that beekeepers show a lot of camaraderie and share information. Where it becomes contentious is a situation like what exists with the cranberry bogs. The yield has been much greater with the introduction of migrant bee colonies to help with the pollination of the crop. But these hives are trucked up and down the East Coast from blueberry orchards in Maine, to cranberry bogs in Massachusetts, apple orchards in New York, peaches in Georgia and finally citrus in Florida.   While it’s hard to vilify the commercial beekeeper who is making a living providing a valuable service, it’s clearly what is spreading undesirable parasites and pathogens. There may be ‘no money in honey’, but there is in pollination. Sadly, the feral colonies are gone.”

Some of Berry’s ideas are, as he describes, “pie in the sky,” but he’d like to see Nantucket declared a pollutant-free zone for a queen breeding program, such as exists in Germany and Scandinavia.

“It would be essentially a controlled environment where only Nantucket-bred bees would be allowed,” he said.

That would require a combined effort by beekeepers to provide upwards of 400 hives to pollinate the cranberry bogs, eliminating the importation of transient bees.

On a personal note, a phenomenon Berry would love to discover would be one of Nantucket’s “drone congregation areas,” a place where drones from multiple hives lie in wait for the irresistible pheromones of a virgin queen. Queens often fly directly to these zones, where they can find sufficient drones to mate with in a short period of time, thus reducing  time out of the hive and risk of exposure to birds, inclement weather and other hazards.

Berry is available to share his knowledge, rent equipment for a season and mentor people seeking to become beekeepers.

For reference, honey from “Nantucket’s Big Three” producers is available at a number of island retailers, including Annye’s Whole Foods, Bartlett’s Ocean View Farm and Nantucket Gourmet. But be aware, beekeepers have notoriously prejudiced palates. If asked to evaluate their product, they would all respond as having the best-tasting honey.

Terry Pommett is a freelance photojournalist and a frequent contributor to Nantucket Today.

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