Dining & Nightlife | Features
For the love of honey
Author: Michael Isenbek | Published: Thursday, April 26, 2012
The buzzing is faint at the entrance to the Spy Coast Bee Farm. Flying dots flicker across the forest clearing. A large barn at the center dwarfs a well-cared-for group of small houses. The last time I was in a barn was during an antiquing trip to East Hampton. While that one was crammed full of priceless possessions, this one is piled high with multicolored wooden boxes and, at its center, a gleaming steel device resembling a metal alien with a handcrank. Cows or sheep I’d expect in a barn, antiques even. But this? I inch past, turning my attention outside.
I see a white cotton man-figure. The faint buzzing becomes louder. I take one step closer, then another. My eyes widen to the swarm of thousands of miniature menaces around him. I’m going to get stung. I know I’m going to get stung. I hate getting stung. I hope I don’t swat. I’m just a few feet away. Oh God, don’t let me swat my arms.
The cover comes off a box in front of me. I’m frozen at the sight of thousands of bees—a sea of little bodies all moving at once.
I tilt my hand up to peer at a bee on my finger, expecting a monster with an evil smile and furrowed, meaningful eyebrows threatening his sharp stinger at my flesh. But all I see is a tiny creature inquisitively examining my hand with antennae wiggling and probing—no malice. Actually, he’s kind of gently tickling me. The wind picks up, carrying away the smell of burning paper to reveal the scent of the beehive: Strong, musky, primitive. I finally notice the human beneath the buzzing cloud and fixate on his tender, dexterous hands—he’s gloveless.
The “Spy Coast Bee Man” (aka Wayne Vitale) doesn’t fear bee stings. In fact, that flash of pain is little more than a mild occupational hazard. “I’m not afraid,” he says. “Some days I get stung more often than others, depends what mood they’re in and depending on the weather.” This matter-of-fact approach about his “ladies’” love bites betrays Vitale’s real concern: Fostering a thriving collection of beehives at Spy Coast Bee Farm in Setauket—a full-time job, 365 days a year.
“This is my life,” Vitale declares simply, as he stares out at the bee yard, a picture of serenity on a mild spring afternoon. “So when you’re in the yard and you’re hearing the buzzing and they’re landing on you, it’s just a very tranquil thing. They’re really docile creatures,” he adds. The bee is not some vague, buzzing insect to this beekeeper—he can discern where the bees are going and where they’ve been. “I see them bringing in a lot of light pollen,” he observes. Sure enough, dangling off the bees are tiny light-hued masses. “The scout bee found a patch of flowers yielding this light color… He just told everyone in the hive through the waggle dance, ‘Hey, I found a really good score, let’s go get it.’”
The creation of honey begins with nectar foraged from flowers by honeybees. This is brought back to the colony, a locale containing one queen, a few hundred male drones and tens of thousands of female worker bees. The nectar is ingested into the worker bees’ “honey stomachs” where it combines with enzymes and is regurgitated as honey. And that’s where the magic happens. “We don’t know how they do that, specifically. We can’t make honey…only the bees can do that,” says Mary Woltz, East End beekeeper and owner of Bees’ Needs in Sag Harbor. Honey is one of two elements of the honeybees’ simple diet. “Pollen is their protein, honey is their carbohydrate, so they can survive on those two things and those two things alone,” Woltz explains. Humans have yet to duplicate the process artificially.
Spy Coast Bee Farm bees forage for nectar up to six miles away from the farm on the Strongs Neck peninsula, “a really pristine area,” according to Vitale. He credits the clean air from Long Island Sound with encouraging the growth of a variety of flora, resulting in his lauded “Setauket Gold” honey. Before reaping the harvest, however, the bees need to be kept alive and thriving across all four seasons. At the onset of winter, Vitale leaves them to their own devices, as it is too cold to even feed them their cane sugar syrup supplement. During this time, the worker bees form a ball around the queen and flex their wing muscles to maintain 92 degrees Fahrenheit. Worker bees rotate between the inner and outer surfaces of the ball and the whole assemblage migrates throughout the hive, eating honey. At the end of January, the queen begins laying eggs at a clip of 1,500-2,000 per day; this is maintained until mid to late summer. “As soon as you see the first dandelion, it’s gangbusters,” Vitale says, referring to the time around March when nectar and pollen collection begins in earnest.
Out comes the white bee suit and veil, a precaution that seems to be based more on the reputation of bees than how they really are. Light colors only please, because with dark colored clothes “you take on the character of a bear and instinctively they know that the bear invades the hive to get to the brood to get to the honey,” says Vitale. In that case, you may smell bananas, probably the worst thing a beekeeper can smell. That scent is the bee’s “attack” pheromone. And thousands of bees would do just that. As a more important precaution, the beekeeper wields a “smoker” of burning paper that makes the bees drunk with smoke. The smoke interferes with the bees’ pheromone communication, but it also makes them think there is a forest fire. In defense, they gorge themselves on honey in case they have to leave the hive in a hurry—this makes them heavy and sluggish and thus, all the more docile.
Vitale goes to work dismantling a super, one of a stack of wooden boxes containing the hives, lifting covers and removing bug traps to reveal a series of internal frames. “If you notice, I’m moving very slowly…We don’t want to crush the bees.”
In early spring, honey hasn’t entered the equation yet, only the breeding of thousands of bees in brood supers. The beekeeper’s priority at this time is creating grafting queens to put in nuc boxes. After careful extraction of honeycomb from the frames of the super, the grafting begins. The new queen and small colony create a nuclear colony or nuc.
Vitale only fosters local bees to optimize the genetics of his honeybees and control infiltration by harmful pests he finds “disgusting” and “brutal,” like beetles and parasite flies brought with bee colonies from the southern US. “I don’t want it here, so it’s the reason why I only promote local bees. I’m pretty adamant about that,” he declares.
Around mid-April, the honey supers go on top of the brood super. The honey super is a virgin honeycomb that gets filled with honey over three to four weeks. Each bee produces a mere quarter of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime. When the product of thousands of bees is compounded, the total yearly production at Spy Coast Bee Farm is around 450-600 pounds, but if Vitale is “fortunate enough to manipulate them properly” in the 2012 season, he could top 1,000 pounds.
Vitale has his strategy down: “As soon as I pull the honey super off I decap it and extract it right away. And I’ll do it all in one clip. I’ll take five to ten boxes off and then spend that whole day just whipping out honey. And then right away it goes into a container and then right from there into a bottle. As soon as I whip them out I put them right back on—twice if it’s a good season,” he says.
After this bonanza, in mid to late summer, the bees start getting ready for winter. Egg laying is curbed and stores are built up. Then in early fall, the drones are kicked out of the hive to die so they won’t eat any of the winter stores. At the onset of winter, the worker bee ball emerges once again.
In the waning light, Vitale tucks his “ladies” in for the day and I make for the car, arms still gently at my sides. As I reach for the door, I’m struck by my newfound awe at these little creatures. Admittedly, I’m also grateful that I never smelled bananas and the only sting of the day was the Spy Coast Bee Man’s deliberate demonstration of “acupuncture” by one reluctant honeybee.
Brood super: A super exclusively for the breeding of honeybees. The honeycomb is mostly filled with developing larvae, instead of just honey.
Nuc Box: Housing for a nuclear colony.
Grafting: Creating queens by extracting one-day-old larvae from honeycombs and placing them in queen cups in a hive with no queen. Worker bees detect a lack of queen and feed the larvae royal jelly, which turns the larvae into a queen.
Queen Cup: A kind of incubation chamber.
Royal Jelly: Nutritious secretion from the glands of worker bees. Fed to larvae initially and queens throughout life.
Nuc: A smaller bee colony centered on grafted queens; a nuclear colony.
Extract: Spin the frames of a super in a centrifuge that looks like a cotton candy machine, whipping the honey to the sides for collection.
Decap: Remove the wax cover on the comb.
BEEhavior has been occurring far longer than modern humans have existed. Bees can be traced back at least 100 million years and the earliest evidence of honey is fossils dating back at least 55 million years. At this time, the ancestors of modern humans greatly resembled squirrels, but as evolution progressed, it would seem that honey played a big part in humans becoming human, especially when it came to the nurturing of our ever-enlarging brains.
Alyssa N. Crittenden, Nutritional Anthropologist from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, concluded that now-extinct early humans living in Africa, Asia and Europe used the earliest known stone tools to cut open beehives and extract large amounts of honey as early as 2.5 million years ago. By this time, hominid fossils began to show a noticeable increase in brain size, and Crittenden says, “The enlarging…brain would have greatly benefitted from the energy provided by even a modest amount of honey. Glucose [a sugar that is one of honey’s major components] plays a critical role in meeting the high metabolic requirements of neural development and function.”
Today, the other half of the honeybees’ existence is more important than ever. In the act of retrieving nectar, the bees pollinate plants—making them a vital part of modern agriculture. “One in every three bites of food you eat had a honeybee involved,” Woltz explains. Half of the country’s beekeepers crisscross the US every growing season transporting two million bee colonies to pollinate such staples as almonds, apples, avocados, blueberries, cantaloupes, cherries, cranberries, cucumbers, sunflowers, watermelon and much more. And not just human food. Hay and alfalfa consumed by animals supplying dairy and meat know the honeybee well.
In recent years, Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) hit, and has eradicaded more than one third of all bee colonies annually. When CCD strikes a colony, the bees fly off and never return, leaving behind doomed young, honey and pollen. Both Vitale and Woltz cite pesticides as a major contributing factor to CCD, and Vitale asserts that that the prevalence of diesel fumes from farm equipment and vehicles, along with the constant transportation between pollination stops, leaves the bees “severely stressed out.” An official statement by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) also mentions pesticides, along with parasites, pathogens and viruses. Stress and weakened immune systems in honeybee colonies caused by adverse food and water conditions are also possible causes. Vitale theorizes that all these factors mess up their navigation system and they can’t find their way back to the hive—a death sentence.
The USDA acknowledged that the recent sequencing of the honeybee genome and a deeper understanding of manmade or natural conditions or substances could result in the breeding of more resilient bees, stopping CCD cold. Imagine: Genetically modified super-bees.
Until that day it’s frustrating to those in the trenches who are doing their best to sustain the delicate interconnection that is the bee colony. “It’s staggering when you really think about the role of the honeybee in our food system, and how relatively lightly we have taken what’s going on,” says Woltz. “With them goes a huge chunk of our produce—our fruits, our vegetables. Most of the vitamin content goes if the honeybee goes.”