There has been much buzz about bees recently. As if to underscore the point, the morning I sat down at the computer to begin research on this piece, no fewer than five different stories about bees and honey appeared in my Facebook feed. From a clearer connection between pesticides and colony collapse disorder to the scandalous impurity of most imported honey to the looming crisis in crops requiring pollination, we have reached a critical mass of public awareness that bees are in serious trouble. And if they're in trouble, so are we; one of the photos in my feed was of a supermarket produce section with all the bee-pollinated food removed. It was not a pretty picture.
Concurrently with this shift in consciousness, a new venture appeared on Sawkill Road in Kingston: Hudson Valley Bee Supply, the brainchild of Megan Denver, part owner of the crane business next door, and Jorik Phillips. The couple met at the Catskill Mountain Beekeepers' Club, of which Phillips is the president. They have monthly meetings, and both wax enthusiastic about how collegial and enjoyable the atmosphere is. "There are so many new beekeepers; it's really hot right now," says Phillips. They had no idea what to expect in terms of the business, and have been overwhelmed by the response in the six months since they opened.
Along with chickens, bees represent an increasingly popular option for people keen to keep some livestock on their property without going full farmer. Honey, the sweet reward, needs no explanation, and happens to be a lucrative product; retail prices approach six dollars a pound. Denver puts the initial investment to set up a hive at about $500, but says a good keeper can make $700 in the first year selling honey. "The second year, it starts to get really good."
There is no state regulation of honey, meaning anyone can produce and sell it without a license. This is a function, says Phillips, of the size of the honey lobby in New York, which has to do with our flora, both native and invasive. "We have two honey flows each season; the early one is all the native trees and flowers, and then later on the goldenrod and loosestrife and Japanese knotweed provide another one." There are many anecdotal reports of people eating honey to help with seasonal allergies; since bees gather pollen in a three-mile radius around the hive, homemade honey will contain homeopathic doses of anything that might make you sneeze. Phillips also remembers hearing testimony from dozens of people explaining how apitherapy—intentional stinging on meridian points—helped them kick painkillers and ease the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis, among other ailments.
A Mite Tricky
Beekeeping is harder than it used to be; Phillips and Denver encourage new keepers to buy a couple of books and take a class before taking the plunge. Besides the persistent effects of pesticides, virola mites represent the worst threat to prosperous hives. Mites weaken bees and act as a vector for pathogens, especially viruses, which can kill a seemingly healthy hive during the winter. There are passive techniques for removing mites, and natural treatments (formic acid, present in bee venom and honey, is the only chemical intervention permitted for certified organic beekeepers). Both Phillips and Denver regularly trap feral bees from old barns and the wild, breeding them with their own hives, since the wild bees are accustomed to this climate and exhibit grooming behavior that helps control mites.
Denver speaks about the dramatic difference between soft treatments and hard ones: "We don't sell organophosphates [pesticides for mites] and can't advocate them"; that sort of noxious chemistry is too similar to the poisons that are killing bees around the world. The European Union just voted to ban neo-nicotinoids, a new crop of pesticides increasingly linked to massive bee fatalities, but no such legislation is likely to pass in this country anytime soon. "Aspire to be treatment free," says Phillips, "but don't start out that way. It's really easy to lose your hives before you learn what you're doing." He is treatment free on the breeding side, but uses light interventions on the honey side to ensure a healthy crop.
Behind the store lies the bee yard, home to about a million bees. They open up some hives for photographs, Denver fully clad in protective attire and Phillips just wearing a jacket, head and hands bare. "I've been stung 10 times already today," he laughs, but before I could say "alas, poor Jorik" he told me that, while it still hurts, the pain vanishes quickly. He also confides that he left off the gear for vanity's sake, not wanting to look like an astronaut in the pictures. HVBS holds regular classes: Beekeeping 101, 201, and 301 offer the bee-curious public instruction for all levels. Other seasonal classes will include soap and candle making, a primer for prebeginners, hive management for growth or honey, and plenty of one-off lectures. Friendly conversations are a regular occurrence in the store, as hobbyists and serious keepers from all walks of life swap anecdotes and information. The enthusiasm is palpable, and the friendly banter makes an appropriate soundtrack for the silent seething within the glass-walled observation hive mounted on the wall by the desk.