Beekeeper Robin Blackey sets up a new hive at a local farm.
By Stephen J. Kotz
Honey bees are something of a warm and fuzzy item these days, and that’s not because they are, in fact, fuzzy. Or that when they cluster in their hives during the winter, they have the remarkable ability to maintain the temperature at a balmy 92 degrees.
It’s more likely their rise in popularity is due to the fact that people know bees are facing all sorts of threats, from colony collapse disorder to a host of bacterial and viral diseases, and they want to help.
In fact, in recent years, the alarm has been sounded over an ominous decline in the honey bee population across the United States. Keeping that population stable is vitally important because bees are responsible for pollinating at least 30 percent of the country’s food crops and a good deal more of its wild plant population.
And while some gardeners might be inclined to do a little online research and plunk down the money to buy their own hive, Robin Blackley, the owner of East End Apiaries in Southampton, has an easier way they can help. Through her Adopt-a-Hive program a customer pays $350 and the money is used to purchase the necessary equipment to set up a hive on one of the approximately 10 farms on the eastern Long Island for which Ms. Blackley provides beekeeping services.
“Everyone’s on the honey wagon,” Ms. Blackley said. “Everyone wants bees, but they don’t know you can’t just put a bunch of bees in your backyard.” Besides having the potential to annoy one’s neighbors, bees tend to multiple, and “one hive becomes two and two becomes four,” she said.
For their outlay to Adopt-A-Hive, a customer receives a case of honey, a photo of the hive and a certificate of appreciation for helping the local bee population and a local farmer improve his yield. Ms. Blackley acknowledges that it’s not a cheap way to buy one’s honey, but she pointed out that the program targets directed at those who want to play a role in helping sustain agriculture on the East End.
“I see a young crop of farmers coming up,” she said, “and if I can help them increase their yield by 20 percent I can help them keep farming.”
Ms. Blackley does not charge farmers to pollinate their crops. Instead, she asks them to provide space on their land for her hives. She makes sure there are enough bees on the farm “so they can grow enough apples” in exchange for honey, which she sells at farmers markets across the East End. “It’s a symbiotic relationship,” she said.
Ms. Blackley has been a beekeeper since 1987. She was drawn to the practice because of her own ignorance, she said. “I was in my garden and I couldn’t tell the difference between a yellow jacket and a honey bee,” she said, recalling that she was terrified of getting stung by the honey bees, which, she soon learned, were far more interested in collecting nectar and pollen from her flowers. She began to study bees, and soon enough she had found herself a new career.
On a windy Thursday afternoon, she was busy setting up a new hive at a local farm, wearing only a hat and veil for protection against a possible sting from “one of her girls,” as she calls her bees, almost nonchalantly reaching into the swarm to release the queen bee, which had arrived with the hive in a sealed container, so she could get work laying her eggs.
Contrary to popular belief, “the queen doesn’t really run the hive,” Ms. Blackley said. “She’s just a giant egg laying machine.”
On this day, a local organic farmer stops by for a chat. They both agree that genetically modified organisms, or GMO crops, are wreaking havoc with bee populations. New seeds coming from the agribusiness behemoths typically have insecticides engineered into each cell, the farmer said. Those insecticides, in turn, get carried out by the bees with the pollen and nectar.
“I’m 100-percent sure that GMO crops have devastated the bees,” said. Ms. Blackley. “If the bees are weakened by the poisons, they can’t fight off all the other diseases.”
Even here on Long Island, Ms. Blackley said she has experienced mortality rates as high as 80 percent. There is a trend among beekeepers, she said, to not treat diseases. “They want to bread from the survivors,” she said.
Ms. Blackley paused to explain how a worker bee, once it has found a source of food, will perform a ritualized dance in the hive to tell the other bees where to go. At this time of year, it’s slim picking. “The only things the bees have to eat are dandelions and some deciduous trees,” she said,” so it’s a good idea to leave a patch of dandelions in your yard.”
For more information, visit eastendapiaries.com.