PECONIC FORAGER: Sweetness of Spring

Honeybees are a miracle. To make one pound of honey, the 50,000 bees in a typical hive will cover 55,000 miles and tap two million flowers. (Their body-mass-towingspan ratio still baffles the logic of aerodynamics.) Their single-minded focus is turning plant nectar into honey and perpetuating the hive. While doing so, bees help pollinate 80 percent of the world’s crops, blessing us with one in three bites we eat. In one of his more profound moments, Albert Einstein predicted that if the honeybee became extinct, humans would shortly follow.

In the United States, despite insults from pesticide use, habitat-gobbling suburbs, and disease that may have killed half of the nation’s four million honeybee hives this past winter, hivebound bees graciously climb out of their winter stupor to manage our floral economy each spring.

There are about 157 registered beekeepers left in Suffolk County, according to John Maloney, a New York State apiary inspector, who lives and keeps bees in Smithtown. As farms disappear, so do the bees, Mr. Maloney said. (Nassau County only counts about 10 beekeepers.) And the area’s dominant crops—potatoes, sweet corn, grapes, and landscaping plants—don’t provide much food for bees. The East End’s beeyards may be tiny compared to those in upstate New York and elsewhere around the nation, but a stubborn and shrinking crew of East End beekeepers patiently waits for warmer days and the first blooms. And honey connoisseurs wait for the light, spring honeys.

NORTH FORK

The first local bees to emerge will be on the North Fork, where the seasons, tempered by bays on both sides, are several weeks ahead of the ocean-cooled South Fork’s climate. As soon as crocus blossoms open at the end of February or March, bees will seek them out. Swamp cabbage, shadbush, snowdrop, pussy willows, red maple, red oak, and dandelion will follow.

“The first thing they go after is not for us,” said Rich Blohm, who keeps 50 hives in Huntington and sells 4,000 to 6,000 pounds of honey every year. “It’s for them.” The bees are replenishing their stores of honey from winter, the queen begins to lay eggs (as many as 2,000 each day), and the newborn larvae need to be fed, Mr. Blohm explained. “They are bringing food in as fast as they are using it.”

Hives don’t build up a surplus of honey until the middle of May. “For me over here it’s the linden trees [basswood] and the black locust that produce the first flow,” said Mr. Blohm, president of the Long Island Beekeepers Club, which has about 100 members. “It’s usually lighter. My customers tell me it’s delicious. It has nothing to do with me.” (East End honey is lighter in general than elsewhere in New York State, because of the absence of clover and goldenrod which yield darker, more pungent blends.)

For others, keeping bees is less about the honey than the need to move around pollen. “The more hives, the better it is for all crops,” said Clark McCombe of Briermere Farms in Riverhead, which keeps 30 hives on his 100 acres of fruit trees and berry bushes. “If blueberries are not pollinated, the fruit are not formed well.” The same goes for peaches, apples, plums, and strawberries. Between May and July, Mr. McCombe engages in a constant dance, shuttling hives from one blossoming crop to the next.

After the first honey harvest in May, production slows through July and August, even though farm fields are most vibrant. In fact, East End bees depend largely on wild forage. The honey flow begins again with the extended fall blooms of goldenrod and asters, and hives are employed to ensure a large and uniform pumpkin crop on both Forks. (In Following the Bloom, Doug Whynott calls the nation’s large commercial beekeepers “the last real cowboys,” who move their herds from the blueberry fields of Maine to the peach groves of Georgia to the nut farms of California. California almond growers alone import more than one million hives each year to pollinate their $800-million-a-year crop.)

SHELTER ISLAND

“They come out to defecate,” said Alfred Kilb, Sr., who has been keeping bees on Shelter Island since he retired in 1981. “They won’t defecate in the hive. So they make a cleansing flight. And that’s when, if your wife has sheets on the line, you better watch out. It makes beautiful golden spots.”

Dirty sheets aside, Mr. Kilb relishes the first spring honey. When the weather improves, Mr. Kilb hosts groups of children from the Shelter Island School for bee lectures, and he is ready with a seemingly endless store of engaging honey facts, figures, and legends.

“Honey is just about the only food that doesn’t go bad,” he said. “Do you know about King Tut, the boy pharaoh? In 1926 or 1927, when the Englishman dug up the tomb of King Tut, he found small clay pots with honey in them. When he opened the pots, that honey was granulated, but it was perfectly good after 2000 years.”

In these lectures, Mr. Kilb, who sells honey and home-made beeswax candles at his farmstand on Route 114 near the South Ferry, is humble about his own role. “I always try to make the point that I haven’t made any honey,” he said. “The bees make it.”

SOUTH FORK

This interspecies kinship seems common among the East End’s beekeepers. “I just did it for the bees themselves,” said one Sag Harbor beekeeper who, 30 years ago, rescued a hive of bees from a house slated for demolition. “I kind of felt sorry for the old bees,” he said. “They’ve got to live somewhere. Their natural home is a cave or old trees. And all the old trees are gone now.”

He brought the combs home, and, with the aid of an encyclopedia, he and his wife began to learn about beekeeping. Today, he sells his honey at assorted farmstands and gourmet shops, and waits for the first maple and chestnut blossoms to open. “It’s just like having pets or dogs,” he said. “Just to mess around like a hobby or something. I know one thing they sting like hell.”

Other beekeepers respond to the calling more systematically. Mary Woltz, the master beekeeper for the Water Mill-based Hamptons Honey Company, learned about bees at the Pfeiffer Center in Chestnut Ridge, New York, where she trained with biodynamic beekeeping guru Gunther Hauk.

Ms. Woltz, whose bees on the south side of the South Fork will be the Island’s last to begin foraging, was particularly anxious to open the hives this spring. “We’ve had some hard winters,” said Ms. Woltz, who fed the bees honey in the winter months to minimize die-off. “I’m ready to see something blooming. Last year, we had a fabulous locust bloom. The whole island looked like a great, big wedding.”

The Hamptons Honey Company, which markets under the Hamptons Honey and Don Sausser labels, is the largest apiary on Long Island. With nearly 100 hives on both Forks, the company is still several hundred hives smaller than most commercial operations. In an era of factory-farmed bees fed sugar water, raised in pre-molded plastic honeycombs, born from cloned queens, and treated with antibiotics, the company’s biodynamic beekeeping practices include using wooden bee boxes, no plastic honeycombs, and herbal remedies for sick hives. The idea behind this more gentle approach is that the bees are stronger and healthier over the longterm.

Just as modern beekeeping has become sterile and automated, the Hamptons Honey Company hopes to take the industrialization out of honey eating. Most store-bought honey has been heated to 200 degrees Fahrenheit to prevent crystallization during long shelf lives (and so customers can easily squeeze it out of a plastic bear). The heating destroys enzymes and certain nutrients, not to mention what it does to subtle aromas and flavors.

The Hamptons Honey Company product is raw and unfiltered. And instead of the generic blends of honey from various locales and seasons, the company envisions vintages specific to the plant cycles of the East End. Black locust honey. Apple, blueberry, and strawberry blossom honey. Even zucchini blossom honey.

Since bees cover lots of ground, pure varietal honeys are rare. But not for the beekeeper. Ms. Woltz, for instance, is looking forward to the dandelion blooms, an important and consistent early crop. “You can distinctly taste the dandelion in the honey,” she said. “I’ll taste along while I’m tending, and I just put my finger in it to see if I can identify these pollen colors and flavors. The locust is white. The horse chestnut is very red. When you pull a frame out of the hive, you’ll see all the colors of the rainbow.”

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HONEY, DID YOU KNOW? Honey was one of humanity’s first sources of sweetness. Early cave paintings in Europe depict men harvesting honey. So do Egyptian hieroglyphics and ancient Chinese texts.

Bees have four wings and five eyes, and can see ultraviolet colors.

The average American consumes a little over one pound of honey each year—about 96 teaspoons. In the course of her lifetime, a worker bee will produce 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey.

Honey is a powerful antimicrobial and can help sterilize and heal wounds. Allergenists point out that consuming honey made locally may help reduce the body’s sensitivity to nearby pollen.

According to the National Honey Board, “there is a honey for every occasion.” Consider it with strong-flavored cheeses, in yogurt, on cereal or fruit, in tea, and as a substitute for sugar or other sweeteners.

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