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Bee Here Now

Honey, They Shrunk the Species

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A recent afternoon found Doug McRory, former provincial beekeeper for Manitoba and then Ontario, now retired after nearly 40 years as a professional, stopping by the store for a tour of the hives in the bee yard. The weather started getting rough—bees make beelines for their hives when storms approach—so the group repaired indoors for a casual chat in the classroom. McRory's main concern was foulbrood, a bacterial infection that consumes young larvae in their cells. Highly contagious, it can wipe out whole hives, and travels easily; disease-weakened hives get plundered for food by healthier hives after the honey flow stops, spreading the spores to uncontaminated colonies, so even scrupulously clean keepers must be vigilant.

Novice beekeeper Katie Benevento holds a frame from her hive. - PETER BARRETT
  • Peter Barrett
  • Novice beekeeper Katie Benevento holds a frame from her hive.

McRory strongly advocates prophylactic treatment with antibiotics to control foulbrood, but that's not as much of an option here, where it's increasingly resistant to the most popular antibiotic, Oxytetracycline. Tylisol is also registered for use here, but only in the fall; if used in the spring, it can show up in the honey. A more interesting option for controlling the disease is to breed bees for two recessive, foulbrood-controlling behaviors: eating the infected larvae and capping their cells with wax to prevent spores from spreading throughout the hive. Both McRory and Phillips report some success in this area, as do others.

Honey Laundering
Sad to say, if you're buying honey at a supermarket there's an excellent chance that it isn't really honey at all. It's most likely a combination of cheap and illegal Chinese honey—which can contain lead, banned antibiotics and pesticides, and other contaminants—that has been ultrafiltered to remove every trace of pollen, thus making it untraceable, plus high-fructose corn syrup, and then trans-shipped through other Asian countries. The European Union recently banned (sound familiar?) imports of honey from India, because it could not be proven that it wasn't actually Chinese. Seventy-six percent of US supermarket honey (and 100 percent of that on sale in drugstore chains) has no pollen at all; though some industry spokespeople defend its clarity and shelf stability, more reputable experts emphasize that removing the pollen is exclusively used to hide its origin. The FDA has the authority to crack down on this flagrant fraud, but thus far has not. "This is why it's so important to buy your honey at a farmers market," says Denver. "Or make your own," puts in Phillips.

Jorik Phillips fills a jar with his honey. - PETER BARRETT
  • Peter Barrett
  • Jorik Phillips fills a jar with his honey.

Buying real local honey is a good first step. For those wanting to help the bees but not eager to tend any, Denver has a few easy suggestions. "If you do one thing, buy organic almonds." Two-thirds of the nation's commercial bees are used to pollinate California's almond orchards, where they ingest the chemicals sprayed on the "conventionally" grown trees. This, combined with the fact that these hives are driven all over the country all year—subsisting on largely monocultural diets supplemented with corn syrup and vitamins—is another major factor behind their decline. "People can also mow their lawns less often, letting dandelions bloom; that nectar is the first thing they feed the babies in spring, and then the clover later on is really important." There are also wildflower seed mixes (available at the store) and these "meadows in a can" offer your neighbor's bees a varied buffet all season long. You could also just stop mowing part of your lawn altogether; think of it as the horticultural version of a hipster's beard.

It's Like a Metaphor, Man
Katie Benevento, a newly minted beekeeper in Saugerties who received a hive from her husband for Mother's Day this year (from HVBS) explains her motivation succinctly: "I like food, and I like people. And if there are no more bees, then there won't be any more food or people." Her daughter Ruby, age six, when offered the chance to help open the hive, was initially nervous, but after suiting up in a child-size suit and veil, quickly became rapt and relaxed, smiling as she held the frame of bees her mother handed her. "They're so cute and fuzzy!" she exclaimed.

Photographs from Peter Barrett's visit to the Hudson Valley Bee Supply.

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