Chilmark tends to be on the darker side. Edgartown is rather light, and in springtime, the honey produced in West Tisbury and Vineyard Haven is so light in color it’s almost clear.
“They’re all different, and people really like that — they like the local, local, down to the town,” Tim Colon, owner of Island Bee Company says, standing over one of his hives in the backyard of his Vineyard Haven home. Mr. Colon has 130 hives across the Island in every town except for Aquinnah. “The color all depends on what’s blooming.”
Pussy willows, maples, dandelion, locust, tulip poplars and beetlebung trees are all good nectar producers early in the spring and summer season, Mr. Colon said. He’s looking forward to the honey produced by the bees who feast on milkweed and clethra blooms in the coming weeks.
Mr. Colon is one of a growing number of backyard beekeepers turning to commercial ventures. With the retirement of apiarist Neil Flynn, who owned Katama Apiary, two honey and bee companies have emerged as major providers to the Vineyard’s honey market — Mr. Colon’s Island Bee Company and the Martha’s Vineyard Honey Company.
Mr. Colon has been raising bees and selling honey for 13 years. The next two weeks will be a busy time for him. He usually begins extracting honey around July 4. Bees bring in nectar in the springtime and store it, but the nectar that comes in at that time has a 50 per cent moisture content. Over time, the bees will fan the moisture out of the hive, reducing the moisture content to 16 to 18 per cent.
“If there’s too much water, it’ll ferment,” he said. “You want to have the sugar level higher than the water level.”
Honey is stored in the part of the hive called the super, where wooden frames lined with wax collect the sweet, viscous solution. The night before he collects the honey, Mr. Colon places a special doorway on the super to direct the bees downward, to be with the queen bee and many of the other bees, making it easier to retrieve the frames and bring them back to his shop in Vineyard Haven.
“You go out and get them and take them back, hoping you don’t bring back too many bees because the shop will fill up with them,” he said.
Walking through Mr. Colon’s carpentry shop, the smell of freshly shaven wood lingers. Past the brackets holding a project together and cutting corners around two small boats, you are hit with a wall of sweetness as you approach the honey room. The powerful scent works its way through your nose, down your throat, and into your eyes, which feel like they, too, will turn into honey.
The back room is kept at a temperature of around 90 degrees because it “keeps everything moving better,” Mr. Colon said.
Before he started Island Bee Company, Mr. Colon worked with a cabinet maker who had four or five hives, and something always interested him about beekeeping. Once he acquired his own piece of land, Mr. Colon decided to give it a try. Even though he “failed for quite a long time,” he is committed to his practice and technique.
“We don’t use any chemicals or treatments, and it makes it quite a bit harder [to keep the bees healthy] but I personally feel it makes our honey better and taste better,” he said.
He takes an electric hot knife and cuts the wax cappings off of the frames, which end up in a bucket. The frames are then placed in the extractor where they spin several times; the honey then drips through a double filter and into a bucket. The five-gallon bucket sits for 24 hours and is then bottled up. Mr. Colon can harvest up to 35 pounds of honey per hive.
“It depends on the strength of the hives and where they’re located,” he said. “It’s amazing how towns vary. Chilmark will be going crazy and Edgartown can be dried up.”
Mr. Colon has a group of hives at Morning Glory Farm in Edgartown, and bees are especially busy when melons or pumpkins—two sources of nectar—are in season.
Mr. Colon said it would be easy for him to have 500 hives, but one of the biggest concerns on the Island is the presence of too many hives.
“I try to keep to my number and keep my bees somewhat spread out and not too many in one location,” he said. “There’s only so much nectar that can go around, you can’t all of the sudden plant more. One of the things about having a bee farm as opposed to any other farm, you can’t just till up more land and plant more nectar.”
While he doesn’t plan to expand in hives, Mr. Colon is slowly expanding in product. This year he’s selling bee pollen. Soon he hopes to have enough beeswax to make his own wax sheets for the frames.
For now, the honey the bees produce pays for itself, and Saturday mornings at the West Tisbury Farmers’ Market usually sell out.
“When you taste real honey that is spun out a few days before you get it, it’s completely different and it’s really good,” he said.
James Kozak and Monica Miller are new faces to the honey field. They’ve been selling their Martha’s Vineyard Honey Company products commercially since this spring.
“We came like a bit of a bolt of lightning out of a clear blue sky,” Mr. Kozak said at his stand at the Oak Bluffs Open Market on Sunday. “We’ve been quietly building hives and infrastructure for a few years.”
Mr. Kozak has 100 hives across the Island, and the main producing hives are in Vineyard Haven and West Tisbury.
“We kept building the numbers and never extracted any hives for the first year and a half because we were trying to build up numbers in the colonies,” he said. “We kept adding more and more honey supers. It was complete beginner’s luck when we came to extract in the spring. They were bursting with honey.”
“Our biggest battle is just keeping up and staying out in the field and giving them what they need,” Mr. Kozak continued. “I can’t manage them, I just have to give them what they need. They tell me what they’re begging for.”
Mr. Kozak loved honey as a child and for years apprenticed with friends who had hives. He purchased beekeeping equipment from a yard sale in Katama 10 years later, and a few years ago he decided to order several hives from Georgia. One hive turned to four and now to 100.
Ms. Miller, an herbalist, said she and Mr. Kozak are working on different feeding mixtures rather than the traditional sugar. Ms. Miller also takes the leftover beeswax and makes natural cosmetics, adding her own touch of Vineyard herbs and fruits to the concoctions. The couple is starting a small lavender farm, and has been adding some of the oil distilled from the lavender into their honey.
Mr. Kozak is especially proud of their market booth — all of the materials were recycled, including a repaired tent from an old farmers’ market, boards from Beetlebung Farm’s old stand, lumber left over from construction jobs and a copper sign made from an old roofing job.
“It’s been a nice dream, and we’re finally getting there,” he said.
A representive from the state Department of Agricultural Resources will be on-Island July 23 and July 24 to conduct pullorum testing for poultry livestock to be entered into this year’s Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Fair. All poultry, including chickens, domesticated ducks, geese and turkeys, must be tested in order to be entered into the fair. Poultry must be 16 weeks old to be tested. Entrants should call Alex MacDonald at 617-872-9961 or e-mail email@example.com by July 18 to arrange a time for him to visit your farm.
This column is meant to reflect all aspects of agriculture and farm life on the Vineyard. Remy Tumin may be contacted at 508-627-4311, extension 120, or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.