“O, how shall summer’s honey breath hold out …” – Shakespeare, Sonnet 64
Near the new roundabout in the Midtown section of Kingston, in a front yard just off Albany Avenue, some 400,000 honeybees are holed up, huddling together for warmth in six hives.
The hives, reminiscent of windowless apartment towers, are wooden, rectangular and sectioned like a stack of shoeboxes. No buzzing is audible. This stretch of street is almost always noisy with the sound of traffic.
When the sun is shining and the weather is warm, the tenants come in and out through an opening at the bottom of their hives three honeybees wide and two honeybees tall. Honeybees are sensitive to cold. When the temperature drops below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, all foraging operations cease.
Inside the hives, honeybees crowd together around their queen in a giant ball to generate warmth, rotating all winter long, with the warmed worker bees on the inside trading places with the cold ones on the outside.
Mindful of the months of cold weather still ahead, apiarists Tom Pfeffer and Susan Hereth have constructed these hives.
The rigid caste society flourishing within the hives is female, with the queen matriarch at the top of the pyramid and the exclusively female worker bees comprising the base support of honeybee society below. Goldbricking layabouts to a one, male honeybees, or drones, are tolerated exclusively for their value as sires of the next generation. But their easy way of life, eating honey and mating when called upon, only lasts for a season, biblically speaking. After mating, they die. Or are cast out from the hive come winter to perish in the cold.
When the times of plenty return, new males will be reared up, but until April the males exist down on the brood level of the hive only in their grub state, sequestered inside sealed wax cells of the hive honeycomb. Having stored up surplus honey in other sealed wax cells, the females alone survive the lean months.
Keeping them tranquil
To get at the honeycomb inside the beehive is to court trouble in any season.
Bees communicate their alarm to one another by releasing chemical compounds known as pheromones. One startled honeybee alarms another honeybee, and so on until the entire hive is on the same startled page, ready to attack.
Beekeepers have found over the centuries that smoke interferes with the alarm pheromones. Keeping the honeybees tranquil is the desired effect.
“Most of the time I don’t even use a smoker,” says Tom Pfeffer. “Each colony has its own personality, and you get so you can sense the mood of the bees on a given day. Sometimes if they seem a little aggressive I’ll put it off for another day.”
It is a common misconception that swarms of bees are dangerous. A swarm happens when a hive grows too large and the hive has to divide. One group stays and makes a new queen. The other group fills up on as much honey as they can eat and take the old queen with them in the center of the swarm.
“When you see a swarm, they are super-passive,” explains Pfeffer. “Full of honey. They find a tree branch, and everyone waits there together while scouts go out looking for a new spot. I’ve seen some perfect swarms. You can come by with a box set up below and shake them into the box. And you have a new hive.”
The secrets of honey
Inside the kitchen of their home, Hereth has arranged four spoons set before four Mason jars full of honey. “We harvest three, four times a year, March through October,” she explains. “The honey harvest tastes different based on whatever’s blooming. Spring’s honey has the lightest color and the lightest taste. That’s when the bees are foraging from blossoms in the treetops. Black locust. Red maple. Pussy willow.”
Each subsequent harvest becomes darker.
Summer’s offering had become crystallized in its jar.
“I love it when the honey crystallizes. There’s nothing wrong with that,” says Pfeffer. “When honey isn’t pasteurized, it does that sometimes. You know, native honey is an excellent inoculation against hay fever. The bees bring back the pollen, we eat in the honey. Somehow it works.”
In midsummer, the bees forage among the aster. Purple loosestrife. Sunflower. The flavor of the honey becomes more complex. In late fall, the honey has a richer taste, more like tamarind.
“That last one, the darkest one, was a mystery,” Pfeffer says. “and then we put it together. The bees had found the buckwheat crop over at Hudson Valley Farm Hub, and we started getting darker honey.”
Honey doesn’t go bad, says Pfeffer. as long as it’s sealed. “They found a pot of honey 3000 years old in a pharaoh’s tomb.”
Honey even older than that has been found, still edible, in the excavations of Georgian ruins dating back more than 5000 years. Raspberries placed in the honey had been preserved.
Threats to honeybees
That trees and flowers depend upon honeybees to spread their pollen is generally well known, even to the children raised in the great cities. That the crops humankind depends upon for survival would fail without the participation of honeybees is acknowledged by the largest farming syndicates, which pay companies to truck in tractor-trailers full of beehives to place in their fields. Migratory commercial beekeepers follow the blossoms in search of big bucks.
There was a time when this was not necessary.
Speculation that honeybee populations could be in danger grew loud in 2006, when beekeepers began to report unexplained cases of entire colonies dying out.
A survey was taken that year by the Apiary Inspectors of America (AIA). What became ultimately termed “Colony Collapse Disorder” (CCD) galvanized the interest of the public as well as of researchers. The speculation became hard science.
Fifteen years later, the National Loss and Management Survey takes a census every April. The colony die-offs, no longer unusual, continue. A class of chemicals known as neonicotinoids have been found to be highly toxic to honeybees. Clothianidin, the most popular neonicotinoid, is currently in used on almost all corn crops planted in the United States.
The chemical was first granted full approval for use in pesticides here in America back in 2005. The German pharmaceutical giant Bayer manufactures the chemical.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency had tested clothianidin in 2003 and knew about its toxicity to honeybees before granting Bayer permission to sell its pesticides containing the chemical in the United States.
One kernel of corn treated with clothianidin is enough to kill 80,000 honeybees, or the entire colony of one of Pfeffer and Hereth’s beehives. To this day, Bayer stills sells its honeybee poison in a variety of pesticide products including but not limited to Poncho, Poncho Beta and Poncho Votivo. It’s sold through advertising, including bumper-sticker slogans: “Poncho Votivo is as reliable as my pocket knife!” or “I trust Poncho Votivo more than our combine.”
It’s very on brand for Monsanto, which is now a subsidiary of Bayer.
Medicine and money
“You can actually use it on wounds,” says Hereth. Bacteria can’t live in honey because it contains high levels of sugar and low water content. Bees make the honeycomb. Then they fill it with regurgitated nectar to make the honey. They fan their little wings to evaporate the water, and when it’s dry enough they cap it off with beeswax.
When the bees regurgitate the nectar they’ve eaten from blossoms, an enzyme in their stomach contains trace amounts of hydrogen peroxide. Take into account the naturally acidic pH level of honey, which is between 3.2 and 4.5, and you have a mysterious healing substance. A variety of modern companies are just now cashing in on those properties, known for thousands of years. Some band-aids are now treated with honey.
“We’ve had a year where we almost don’t get any honey,” says Hereth. “And then another where everyone had a real bounty. 200 pints of honey. At one point we had eleven hives. That was way too crazy.”
Pfeffer is well aware that there’s money to be made selling the product of bee labor. But he says he is motivated by something else entirely and harder to quantify.
“It’s funny you should mention it, but we’re not actually in it for the honey. We do harvest the honey,” Pfeffer says, “but it’s not the priority. If it’s just work, it’s not really a valid life experience. We don’t sell it. We give it to friends. As gifts. For family. “Not that there’s anything wrong with selling it. But what it does for me, I can say, keeping bees, it grounds me. Takes me out of daily life. I can be sitting out here in the yard, and they are flying off to go foraging and coming back …. Just watching them, seeing where they’re talking off to, watching them return, is rewarding.”
Hereth agrees. “Obviously we do get honey,” she says. “but it’s an amazing way to connect with the seasonal change.”
A honeybee is nestled in the bowl of a spoon on the kitchen table, its wings not moving but its legs astir. “There’s nothing wrong with it,” says Pfeffer. “It probably got caught out in the cold. It’ll warm up.”