Local honeybees help grow local food, naturally.

Raising Island Queens

by Ali Berlow

Raising Island Queens

Nina Carelli

Queens are hard to come by. Good Island queens, that is. Though it’ll take a few generations to create our own royal lineage of the honeybee, Apis mellifera, the good news is that we’re on our way.

Simply put, the queen is mother to all in the hive. The drones are her sons, the workers are her daughters. A hive is a very matriarchal community, according to Vineyard beekeeper Fred Thornbrugh, because the health, stability, and productivity of it is reliant on the worker bees—the queen’s female offspring who do all the work. “While”, as Fred puts it, “the male drones do nothing except leave in the morning, go hang out at a singles bar all day, and then come back home to the hive expecting dinner.”

A queen’s genetics play a critical role in a hive because half of each worker is the genetic reflection of her. The queen’s health, work habits, fertility, manner (aggressive or docile), hygiene, and resistance to disease are all passed on to the buzzing biomass that is her working hive. Consequently it is the workers that are the future of the hive. The other 50% of their genetic makeup comes from random, unknown drones, almost always from other hives, who mated with her and then died shortly after. So for a progressive beekeeper like Tim Colon of Vineyard Haven, who is interested in building strong Island bee stock, the place to start is with the Lady, because all those deadbeat dads are dead and gone.

There are two perspectives about what a successful hive means to people. For many beekeepers, productivity is weighed in the heist: the amount of honey that’s taken from a hive. From a farmer’s perspective, success is measured by what happens before honey: pollination. Busy worker bees go from plant to plant collecting nectar and pollinating, and out-and-out pollination makes for greater crops. According to the American Beekeeping Federation, every third bite of what we eat every day is dependent on a honeybee to pollinate our food.

On the Vineyard, local cash crops like blueberries, onions, broccoli, apples, cucumbers, tomatoes, corn, zucchinis, melons, and squash are all greatly dependent on honeybees to pollinate them. Just ask Heather Thurber of Breezy Pines Farm in West Tisbury, or Rebecca Miller of North Tabor Farm in Chilmark, about the positive impact that honeybees maintained by local beekeepers near their fields have made.

Healthy bees are hopeful golden omens on the otherwise ominous horizon of Colony Collapse Disorder—the something (or somethings) that’s causing mysterious and devastating die-offs of bee populations across the country. A hive affected by CCD will go from being a vigorous, productive colony to a deserted one—abandoning the queen and her brood, in the space of a few weeks.

CCD is a threat to agriculture because our nation’s food supply relies heavily on intensive pollination. Crops raised by agribusinesses require equally industrial-strength populations of pollinators. Large-scale agricultural operations pay professional beekeepers to lease out their bees for a few days, a few weeks, a month— however long it takes for the pollinators to get their job done. And then the pros pack them up again and move on down the road. Commercial beekeeping is big business. Millions of bees are trucked to pollinate the next crop, again and again. And so it goes, bees zigzag across the country like the Rolling Stones on tour in 18-wheeler Kenworths, pollinating crops from the almond orchards of California to the citrus groves of Florida. A Cornell University study conducted in 2000 reveals that nationally, the value of bee pollination is $14.7 billion annually.

The problem with coast-to-coast bee convoys that toil to maximize both pollination and honey production is that the colonies never get to rest, nor do they stay in one place. These factors increase both the risk of disease and the spreading of it, as they roll through local communities.

Because honeybees are hardwired to their environment and to the earth’s one year circle around the sun, when their seasonal clock isn’t allowed a winter’s rest and it’s constantly taxed, their system and the colony become stressed and worn down. Some beekeepers use chemicals to bolster hives and ward off disease causing pests like the varroa mite that threaten weakened bees and lower their productivity. But some beekeepers don’t. Chemical free, or natural beekeeping, is a method of apiculture that’s growing in popularity with beekeepers in the Northeast and the Island. The theory is that by purposefully not applying chemicals, such as fumagilin-b and apistan strips, the strong bees will survive. Yet there are trade-offs in chemical freedom. In the short term, there could be losses in honey harvest, or swarming and die-offs. But it’s about “weeding out the weak,” explains Tim. “If a hive dies, that’s great. I take it as a positive thing. I autopsy the hive, learn from it, and move on.”

Just as the average food item on our dinner plate has traveled an average of 1,500 miles to get there, the average bee has been shipped across the country to live in some hive across the country. Most honeybees are sold to hobbyists and commercial keepers through major bee farms, the majority of which are located in southern states. Make a call or order off the internet, and bees will be shipped overnight. One wry Island beekeeper once told me, “It’s amazing how fast the Post Office reacts when my bees come in. They call me right away and will even meet me at the backdoor after hours, if need be, so I can pick up my shipment.”

The centralization of commercial bee operations and the consequential homogeny of honeybees’ genetic makeup may be necessary to meet the demands of these large businesses, but on a local level, is it the best scenario? Are southern queen bees (belles) going to be as strong, vigorous, and productive in our New England climes? Most likely not, especially when a beekeeper goes chemical free.

“Raising local queens is an art,” says Tim. It’s an interesting intersection that complements the local food movement, and is the antithesis of national cross-country “bee-exploitation.” Tim is learning to breed queens using a natural methodology, specifically for this place, this environment: 41.416N latitude, 70.616W longitude, plant zone seven, grey winters, wet springs, short humid summers, frost bottoms, lots of oak, outwash plains, salt air and noreasters. It takes time, between five and eight years, and there’s a steep learning curve. If Tim’s successful, the bees will be available to local and regional apiarists in a few years. In a quick-fix culture, Tim’s efforts may seem to some to take too long, for too little return. On the national market, a queen prices out at only about $20; a proven breeding queen can cost up to $100. But when there’s a problem in a hive and a beekeeper needs a queen yesterday, shipping costs time, money, and stress. Minimizing all that with strong local stock will be a good thing for both local beekeepers and local farmers.

The way Fred and Tim talk about it, bees are beguiling. This is about a long-term connection—part science, art, and lore—between man and bee. It’s a dance of wait, watch, listen and then, what’s next. That’s its beauty—it’s so much more than that sweet, sticky, seductive stuff…the honey.