Saving the Bees, One Hive at a Time

By Eileen Weber

honeybees on frameFor many of us in the Fairfield County area, a Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, is not an unfamiliar concept. What began with fruits and vegetables has led to meat, fish, dairy, and other products. But another CSA trend is making its way across the country: honey.

Buy a share at the beginning of the season and receive jars of honey after the harvest. Would Fairfield County consumers support a honey CSA?

Tal Reichert of Tal’s Honey CSA hosts six hives in the suburbs of Boston. By mostly word-of-mouth through neighbors, friends, and the Local Harvest web site, he now fills 15 shares each season. His first season was a bust. But by his second season, he had so much he didn’t know what to do with it. That’s when his honey CSA was born.

“I couldn’t possibly use 20 pounds of honey,” he said. “I realized I needed to go to a farmers’ market or find people who would like it.”

The Urban Bee Company in Seattle runs a bicycle delivery honey CSA, the Baltimore Honey CSA in Maryland sells micro-local honey, and the Chicago Honey Co-op in Illinois runs a CSA that functions more like a crop cash program allowing share owners to use their credits through the season.

young beekeepers
Young beekeepers learn the ropes from resident beekeeer Ann Murray at New Pond Farm. Photo c/o New Pond Farm

The honey CSA mirrors another concept that truly supports the bee ecosystem. Known as Adopt-A-Hive, this program is offered by a growing number of beekeepers. It’s essentially a working CSA for honey (Millstone Farm and others in CT offer working CSAs for vegetables). Members “adopt” one hive as their own and receive honey for the season after working with the beekeeper—harvesting, splitting hives, and providing general care. It’s a perfect solution for anyone who likes the idea of beekeeping but can’t host hives on their own property.

Nick French of Frangiosa Farm in Denver, CO, has been running his program since 2009. He was recently featured in an NPR article hyping the Adopt-A-Hive concept.

“For people who are afraid of bees, live in a city, or have no way of raising bees,” he said, “they can support it in this way.”

Robin Blackley of East End Apiaries in Southampton, NY, agreed with French. “Adopters are helping to keep the bee population viable,” she said.  “So many people want to have a hive but live in an area that’s not logistically possible to have one.”

Here in Fairfield County, New Pond Farm in Ridgefield has Ann Murray as the resident beekeeper. For her, it was a natural progression to have an Adopt-A-Hive program on what was already an educational farm. Now in its tenth season, all five family shares are sold out.

“It’s hard to learn beekeeping from a book,” she said. “Families can become beekeepers at the farm with my supervision. That’s the beauty of the program. You don’t need to do it at home.”

checking the hive
Checking the hive to see how the bees are doing and whether the frames are full of honey is part of the beekeeper’s job. Photo c/o New Pond Farm

Murray is also the beekeeping mentor for Back Yard Beekeepers Association, or BYBA, here in Southwestern Connecticut. With over 250 members, it is one of the largest clubs in in the U.S. devoted to beekeeping. One of their strongest initiatives is a mentorship program where they match you up with a keeper in your area to host a hive on your property. Essentially, it’s Adopt-A-Hive without the commute.

Andrea Azarm, who lives in Southport, has been with BYBA for 12 years. She describes herself as a bee “hobbyist.” She was adamant that beekeepers must educate themselves in order to effectively promote the health of the bees.

“You have to be diligent,” she said. “You can’t do it on your schedule. You’ve got to be there for the bees when they need you.”

As Jennifer Slovinski could tell you, that’s typically spring through early summer and then again in the fall to harvest. She and her family worked with Murray at New Pond Farm. Last year was their first experience and they’d like to do it again this year. But it all started when Slovinski wanted bees in her own yard but was unsure if it would work.

“The program was a perfect introduction to keeping bees,” she said. “But as it turns out, I don’t have as deep a yard as I need to avoid the spraying from my neighbor’s yard.”

In the meantime, beekeeping did inspire the Slovinskis to plant a pollinator garden. Murray said that this has also been a growing trend. More people are hosting hives not for the honey but for the pollination of their gardens and flowerbeds. They leave the honey for the bees.

“If the bees are gone, our food is gone,” said Murray. “A lot of the grocery store shelves would be empty. Almonds, for example, are strictly pollinated by honeybees.”

A decrease in the bee population has been news fodder in recent years. Varroa mites—parasites that suck the bees’ hemolymph, or “blood,” and spread viruses—have been an insidious plague that can kill off whole hives. American foulbrood, or AFB, is a contagious disease that can wipe out bee larvae. (NPR reported this week that in Maryland they have dogs that sniff out infected hives.)

But another major enemy to bees’ survival is chemical spraying. The chemicals often contain neonicotinoids, an insecticide related to nicotine, which has been linked to Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD. This happens when worker bees abandon the queen leaving stores of honey behind. First reported in 2006, the rate of CCD has been declining. Based on surveys, the National Pesticide Information Center noted that colony losses attributed to CCD hit 30% in 2013 compared to 60% in 2008.

Public awareness is a key factor in ensuring bee survival. Many people don’t realize just how fragile they are. According to a recent article in the Hartford Courant, Connecticut legislators passed the “Pollinator Bill” to regulate and decrease chemical spraying of neonicotinoids and to plant more pollinating flowers along state highways as a way to further promote and protect honeybees in the state.

Marina at hive
Marina Marchese tending the hives at Red Bee Apiary in Weston.

“Honey is actually rare. The life’s work of one bee equals one-twelfth of a teaspoon,” said Marina Marchese of Red Bee Honey in Weston who wears a tiny jar around her neck with that amount of honey in it. “Two-thirds of the honey we’re consuming is not produced in the U.S. It’s brought in and sugars are added.”

Mass-manufactured honey is often diluted with high fructose corn syrup. But that is not so for one major exporter to our south. Cuba has jumped in the game, as Reuters reported in February. After the collapse of communist rule and a resulting sluggish economy, Cubans couldn’t afford pesticides. So, all planting had to be organic. The bees thrived and subsequently so did the honey business.

Bees play a pivotal role in pollinating almost everything we eat, even meat. That alfalfa your grass-fed cow is eating? Pollinated by bees. We couldn’t even eat a hamburger if we wanted to without the honeybee. So the next time you need a jar of honey, why not promote your local beekeeper and ask to adopt a hive? It makes the honey tastes that much sweeter.

Photos c/o New Pond Farm

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