Google “bees on Long Island,” and you’ll find lots of pest-eradication services.
Clearly, bee killing is a thriving business here. Yet, without bees, our supply of many fruits and vegetables would disappear. And for people like Peter Bizzoso, beekeeping, rather than bee killing, is a family tradition dating back to the mid-19th century.
The owner of South Paw Farms in Manorville, Bizzoso has cared for his own bees for more than 55 years. It is, he explained, time-consuming, hard work. Hives need to be placed in a good location, one with ready access to vegetation and water, and away from direct proximity with neighboring homes. Hives to house the bees can be purchased or made from scratch using commercial materials, but the real investment of time and energy is in the beekeeper’s education.
For a novice, or a beginning beekeeper, books and articles are a source of information; an even better resource is a local beekeeper club, where one can work with more experienced members to learn how to establish, and keep, hives that will form an apiary. From there, it is possible to become a master beekeeper.
A master beekeeper has studied bees for a long time, taken courses from the Eastern Agricultural Society, and passed a three-to-four-day examination. Before this more academic approach to beekeeping originated, problems often developed related to the inappropriate placement of hives in residential locations, resulting in conflicting needs of bees and neighbors. In 1972, Dr. Roger Morse developed a beekeeping program at Cornell University, where he trained 17 new instructors, including Peter Bizzoso, who could then take what they had learned about best practices back into their communities.
Bee hives also are established communities with well-defined categories of members. The queen rules the hive; her distinct pheromones allow other bees to identify her.
As many as 700 male drones and anywhere from 35,000 to 55,000 female worker bees populate it. These worker bees are tasked with grooming and feeding the queen, whose production of 1,000 or more eggs each day helps keep the hive active. And an active hive produces honey, the bees’ food source.
Only honeybees (apis) make honey in quantities large enough to allow collecting.
Bumblebees (bombus) make only a small amount, roughly a teaspoon, sufficient to feed their young. Honeybees fly on to flowers seeking nectar. As they do so, they pick up pollen on their bodies and transfer it to other plants as they continue the process of gathering what will become honey once they return to the hive. There, nectar is placed in six-sided cells, from which other bees take it and add an enzyme that turns it into honey, which is then stored in cells. Once each cell is filled, it’s sealed with a thin layer of wax produced in a gland in the bee’s abdomen and will keep indefinitely if untouched.
Many people mistake vespers—hornets, wasps, yellowjackets—for honeybees, but they differ in significant ways. Vespers do not produce honey or wax, and eat papier-maché products from houses and other structures. Yellowjackets nest in the ground or in the soffits of a house. And they can be aggressive.
Bees, on the other hand, are not; unless threatened, as when someone waves their arms at them, they will not attack. Once a bee has stung, it dies. Those that rush to defend a hive have sacrificed for the preservation of the rest.
Clearly, bee survival is a communal process. Honey produced over many months is food to sustain the hive through the winter. Removing it requires an experienced keeper. Taking too much will leave them without sufficient food to survive and they will starve, curling up in the base of empty cells, seeking nourishment that is no longer there.
Since they don’t hibernate, they meet the challenge of keeping warm when temperatures fall below 55 degrees by “balling up,” or clustering together in the hive’s center, the outside bees’ movement creating warmth for those closest to the center while they consume honey. When they tire, the outer bees migrate into the center to rest, eat, and warm themselves while others warm the ball.
And, like bees, humans like to be warm and fed. Bizzoso is adamant about our need to better appreciate the connection between bees and our tables.
“People don’t realize how important bees are,” he said. “They’ll tell you their food came out of a can, with no idea how it got there.”
So, how can we do a better job of nurturing our relationship with bees? Bees will forage up to 5 miles seeking nectar. Adding flowering specimens like bee balm, cat mint, clover and sunflowers to your yard will attract and help sustain them. Planting flowering trees—especially fruit-bearing trees like apple, cherry, pear and plum—creating a vegetable garden, and setting up a bird bath with water are all good solutions, too.
But don’t undo all those good efforts by using pesticides and weed killers, compounds that contain neonics. Neonicotinoids are chemicals used to treat lawns and golf courses for insects like grubs, and to kill fleas and ticks.
These chemicals kill indiscriminately, wiping out not only pests but also pollinators like butterflies and bees, as well as wildlife like birds, deer and fish. Once in the soil, they remain active for years, entering the water supply through rainfall and irrigation systems in lawns and farm fields. The soil becomes depleted of helpful bacteria and insects that improve crop health and increase production, exactly the opposite of what was intended.
That well-fertilized, weed-free lawn may look attractive, but it’s a food desert for pollinators. And without their presence in our farms and gardens, our own food supply will be threatened.
So, this year, as we gather to celebrate the harvest season and anticipate the growing season to come, let’s give thanks for the many fruits of their labor, and hope for the continued presence of bees.