The road on Sunday was marked with only a simple sign — a white sheet of paper taped to a tree and stamped with the letter B. The B was for bees and the sign was to direct those interested in the insect to a meeting of beekeepers and bee enthusiasts.
Like the bee that travels in swarms, the bee enthusiast is most in his element when surrounded by like-minded company.
Last weekend, a group of them gathered in the common house at Island Cohousing in West Tisbury. They clutched mugs of tea sweetened with amber honey culled from hives in Edgartown, West Tisbury and Chilmark. Graham crackers, freshly baked bread and empty spoons waited to be dipped in honey. Within minutes, the sweet smell of it permeated the room.
Plants need to be pollinated — not just flowers, but cucumbers, squash and blueberries too. Asparagus depends on pollination as do chives and melons. Birds help carry pollen from plant to plant and so does the wind. But the honeybee is thought to be the most effective pollinator. On an Island committed to eating locally, to gardening and to farming, the bee is an essential element of the food chain.
Susan Murphy, the former Chilmark postmistress and a blueberry grower, rents hives from Neil Flynn of Katama Apiary and places them near her bushes. “The difference when I don’t rent a hive is a big difference,” she said this week. “There is a bigger yield when you get bees in the field.”
Jim Athearn, owner of Morning Glory Farm, agreed. “The bees are important to increasing the number of cucumbers, squash, pumpkins and blueberries,” he said. Each year, beekeepers, both professional and amateur, ask Mr. Athearn whether he would mind some hives on his property. He readily agrees. “Beekeeping is an intensive business, that’s why I haven’t taken it up,” he said.
Although the Vineyard has a few professional apiarists, the Sunday meeting was for amateur collectors. Experienced home beekeepers traded tips and tactics and showed off their hives and suits to a few first-timers interested in getting started.
With the afternoon sun warming the room, the discussion ranged from hives and suits to mites and honey. Whatever the topic, there was sure to be contention — wood hives versus plastic, cotton suits or polyester blend, how much is too much honey to rob from the bees? “If you talk to three different people, you will get three different answers,” said Fred Thornbrugh. “The one thing I can tell you about bees is there is no one reason why anything happens.”
Mr. Thornbrugh is the president of the apiary group. “I went into my hives once with another beekeeper and was stung over 100 times,” he said triumphantly before the meeting. “The group voted the president is the person who’s been stung more than anyone else.”
Sheila Muldaur of Chilmark began keeping bees as a young mother nearly 30 years ago. After her children left home, the bees stayed. “I just love it,” she said.
Scott Young, a builder, also purchased his first bees when his children were young. “They’re really cool. They are actually just really really cool,” he said of them as he twirled a spoon in a small pot of their honey, light gold and gathered last July. Next to it was a second pot, deeper and richer in color. The difference in shade and taste was due to timing, Mr. Young said. He harvested the darker honey in late August, after the goldenrod had bloomed. “You could keep bees for 25 years and still learn something new,” he said.
European settlers brought the honeybee with them to North America. The climate in New England is a challenge to bees, which thrive in sunny, dry temperatures. Even so, Vineyarders have kept them for years. Stories about beekeeping in the Gazette archives date as far back as 1929.
In the late 1980s, a tiny Asian mite began infesting American hives. The mites struck the northeast in the fall of 1996. Since then, beekeepers Islandwide have had to devote more time and energy to their hives. “Twenty years ago, people didn’t have to do anything to their hives. They just went outside once a year and collected the honey,” apiarist Tim Colon said on Sunday. Mr. Colon, a woodworker, has kept bees for the past 15 years. He sells his honey from the farm stand at North Tabor Farm and from a little red wagon on Franklin street in Vineyard Haven. “I like to try to give something back to the farmers,” he said.
More recently, colony collapse disorder, a disease which leaves a colony without its worker bees, has threatened the American bee population. Last winter, it destroyed 23 per cent of the nation’s hives. Bees on the Vineyard have not yet been affected and Mr. Colon thinks the threat has actually attracted new beekeepers on Island. “People began to realize how important bees are,” he said.
“We eat a lot of honey,” said Dee Dunn on Sunday. Her husband, Jim Feiner, quickly corrected her. “I have an addiction,” he said. Mr. Feiner buys five-gallon jugs of honey from a New England beekeeper. This year, the crop ran low and he is down to his last jug. This was the first meeting for the couple, who plant a large garden each year and try to eat only meat raised locally. They have read up on beekeeping and hope to buy their first hives soon.
As the meeting ended, beekeepers new and old gathered around the counter of the common house. Author A.A Milne could easily have been describing this group, rather than his honey-loving bear called Pooh, when he wrote: “Although eating honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn’t know what it was called.”