When it comes to tending to hives, Quail Hill beekeeper Mary Woltz is the bees knees. Keeping close to 100 beehives on Marder’s property in Bridgehampton, Woltz works with her fuzzy yellow and black friends from sun up to sundown, and in the evening she jars the honey for her company Bee’s Needs. Woltz sat down with The Express to highlight the importance of bees and why she no longer minds their stings.
You started your business three years ago. How long have you owned beehives? What prompted you to turn this passion into a commercial venture?
I was working for The Hamptons Honey Company prior to starting a business. I was keeping bees for them. They refocused and became more of a distributor of honey than a producer.
I started my own business. I have been beekeeping for eight years. I only had a year’s experience when I was offered a job to manage 100 hives. Honestly the bees taught me everything I know.
What is the relevance of the name Bee’s Needs?
It was very specific and chosen to reflect the need of the honey bee for their own honey because often in commercial operations the bees’ honey is removed and the bees are fed sugar water or high fructose corn syrup. My goal is to always care for the bees’ needs first. I take whatever surplus they produce to sell. The sub line [of my business name] is “Bee’s needs come first.” I don’t get the harvest other beekeepers get, but it is okay. I’m working for them.
Why do you refer to your bees as “girls”?
In the hive they are largely female. Let’s say you have a thriving hive in mid-summer, at this point there is one queen, a few hundred drones who are the males, and everyone else is female. The workers are all female and you have 50,000 to 70,000 bees in some colonies. It is a matriarchal society. It is mostly girls.
Each hive has her own name and the hive is a single entity. It is a whole. There might be 50,000 bees but they act as one. It is a large community and they will sacrifice themselves for the defense of the hive. A honey bee dies when it stings.
You’ve said that, “Bees are involved in one out of every three bites of food we eat.” Do you think people underestimate the importance of bees?
I think the bees have been taken for granted for a long time. It’s like a lot of things. If you want some water you go to the tap and you fill your glass. I grew up with a well. We lived out in the country. When the well was broken, you lived by the saying “You never know the wealth of water until the well runs dry.”
Not until the bees started to disappear and get sick that people said, “oops, they are important.” It is at our peril. We have treated them so poorly. We have taken their generosity for granted. It has gotten to the point where we are damaging and threatening their well being in how we keep and treat them.
According to some sources the bee population in America has been cut in half in recent years. What is causing this decline? What impact does it have?
We are down to about 2 to 2.5 million. Back in the 1980s with Varroa Mites we were between 5 to 6 million. Then the population was built back up, but then with colony collapse [disorder, or honey bee depopulation syndrome, where worker bees suddenly disappear] populations were diminished 40 to 50 percent. This past winter the average colony loss was 37 percent. The average losses are expected at 15 percent so 37 percent is more than twice that. Some beekeepers were losing 80 to 90 percent. They started importing bees, but there is fear and trepidation because you aren’t sure what else is coming in. [Whether it be] more disease or more pests. Having enough pollinators is another issue. A couple years ago almond growers were desperate for bees. Over half of the bee population [is moved around throughout the year]. We haul them to California in January and February to pollinate almonds. We haul them to Maine for blueberries. It is somewhat of a bio-security issue to have that concentration of bees in one place. This is a huge stress. That is how diseases are passed from region to region.
In a video interview with you on your “People Who Feed Us” blog, you inspect your hives without a helmet or veil. Are you immune to bee stings or do your bees leave you alone?
Usually the first question people ask me is “do you get stung.” It indicates where we are in our relationship to the bee. It is very telling that that is the first thing someone thinks about.
Well yeah, I get stung and it never stops hurting. It hurts just as bad this year as it did seven or eight years ago. It is usually my fault when I get stung. I don’t want to [wear a helmet and veil]. When you put all that gear on you look like a Hazmat person and that is just not the way I dress up to see my friends. When I am going to visit them, I find that if I am vulnerable then it makes me not only more careful but it puts me in a mindset into how they might feel. I am moving into their home and their environment.
How difficult is it to keep bees for the average person with little to no bee keeping experience?
It is not a Chia pet. I would say that first and foremost you really need to know some biology. You need to do your homework. It is as rewarding as anything you could take on. Every time I open a hive I am humbled by how much there is to learn. If you like a challenge it is great, but you really need to apply yourself. The more you put into it the better chance you will have a positive result. Because it can be dangerous. These are stinging insects. If you get enough stings you will get in trouble. This is not to discourage people but they should enter it with some respect and awareness.
What are the medicinal benefits of honey and bee products?
Honey has been used as a wound treatment before antibiotics. Internally, honey has tons of enzymes that are very good for you. You can survive on milk and honey alone. Pollen is a terrific source of protein. Propolis, what bees use to glue everything together, is an anti fungal and an antiviral. It is used in AIDS research.
Where does one find Bee’s Needs Honey? How do they purchase a share of honey?
I am at the Sag Harbor Farmers Market every Saturday. My honey is sold at Green Thumb [in Water Mill] and Juicy Naam [in Sag Harbor] and Lucy’s Whey in East Hampton. It’s also at Marder’s Nursery in Bridgehampton. You can become a member of my community supported apiary. You buy a case. I only sell what my bees produce. Everything is a bit of a mix and it is divided seasonally. It isn’t one size fits all there are different tastes, flavors and textures. A share has four jars for three seasons.
Woltz will host a live honey bee demonstration at 6 p.m. during the “Big Show 5″ at the Silas Marder Gallery, 120 Snake Hollow Road, Bridgehampton. The group show will exhibit more than 50 artists, each of whom was commissioned by the Silas Marder Gallery to complete three 8″ x 10″ works on canvas. For more information call 702-2306.