There are millions of honeybees living on Nantucket today, and their collective hum can be heard around the hives that dot backyards and farms across the island. For some, the buzz of a single bee is grounds for retreat. Yet, for beekeepers like Ted Anderson, Jim Gross, Christin Hermansdofer, David Berry, and Dylan Wallace, the buzz of a honeybee is a sweet sound of success.
Honeybees are truly fascinating creatures with a complex and self- sustaining colony structure. The queen is at the top. She lays all the eggs and is supported by thousands of devoted female worker bees. The rest of the bees are male drones, whose sole purpose is to find and mate with virgin queens. And after their “glory moment,” as David Berry puts it, these male drones die. David has thirty hives placed in different locations around Nantucket. Each of them contains fifty to sixty thousand honeybees and yields about sixty pounds of honey a year. “Honeybees are gluttonous for honey,” says David. “Fortunately for us, they make and collect a lot more than they need to sustain themselves.”
Eighteen-year veteran beekeeper, Jim Gross, is an award-winning honey maker, a mentor, and a veritable fount of knowledge when it comes to apiculture. He is also the guy most people call when stumbling upon a swarm of bees that looks like something out of a horror movie. Just recently, Jim was enlisted to remove a colony of about forty thousand feral bees from beneath the floor of the Department of Public Works facility building. Sawing into the plywood and removing a section of floorboard, Jim discovered several large honeycombs along with the swarm of aggravated bees. While he examined the combs, his assistant carefully vacuumed up the bees, storing them in a container with a screen lid. “This year has been very swarmy,” Jim says as he reaches barehanded into the crawl space to retrieve another comb. Controlling these swarms can be an issue for beekeepers, especially those who become neglectful and let the swarms cast off. Sooner or later, Jim will be around with his smoker, hood, and in his shirtsleeves to relocate the swarm. Not surprisingly, Jim is also the go-to-guy for those looking for bees to start their own hives.
There are many standard practices in hobbyist beekeeping, such as beginning with two hives to compare performance. But there are also some individual choices to be made, including what kind of bees and hives to use. David, for example, prefers using heartier Russian bees as opposed to the gentler, more common Italian ones. For his seven hives, Dylan Wallace has opted for the top-bar style in which the bees build their own comb. “Top-bar frames are lower maintenance, can be made with recycled materials, and cost less than the traditional plastic frames,” Dylan explains.
As with any type of farming, beekeeping comes with its own toils. The schedule can be demanding, since you’re beholden to nature. However, the overall time commitment is surprisingly minimal. David estimates that he spends about an hour per hive a couple of times a month. Then there is conquering the fear of being stung. After a while, many beekeepers end up tending their hives with little more than a hat, a veil and a smoker.
But not Christine Hermansdofer — you’ll never catch her outside a full bee suit when tending to her hives. That being said, she might also be the bravest beekeeper of all. Three years ago, Christine was tending to her six hives when a bee got caught in her hair and then stung her on the top of her head. Stings come with the territory, of course, so she brushed it off and went about finishing her business. Minutes later, Christine felt her body drop from beneath her. Her world went black. Lying on the ground, blind, with bees swarming around her, she thought, I’m going to die out here. “I called out for help, but it sounded like a whisper in my head,” she remembers. “So I yelled louder.” Thankfully, her husband Bruce heard her calls and rushed to her aid. An ambulance arrived soon after, and she was taken to the hospital. After so many stings over a decade of beekeeping, Christine had developed an allergy to honeybees. Today, Christine continues to maintain her six hives, and may even acquire five more from Ted Anderson, who plans on retiring from beekeeping this year.
Helping her cause, along with that of all other local beekeepers, is the island itself. “It’s a pretty healthy environment for the bees here,” Christine says. “And the way things are going with all of the little organic farms popping up on Nantucket, it’s going to get even better.” Dylan, who is also an organic farmer and sustainable landscaper, adds that, “with so much protected land, we also have great pollen sources on Nantucket that will never be wiped out.” Moreover, David Berry explains that there are very few animals on Nantucket that are a threat to beehives. “There are no bears, no raccoons or skunks. Nantucket is also a wonderful place where wildflowers are incredibly prolific,” he says. “Additionally, there are so many cultivated gardens that are producing flowers from which the bees can gather nectar and pollen. It’s like a supplement to the natural flowers that are available. And the honey on Nantucket is really terrific.”
Unfortunately, the buzz around honeybees in general is not so sweet. Although more people are engaged in backyard beekeeping, bee populations continue to decline in the United States. Recent studies show that a relatively new class of neurotoxin pesticides, known as neonicotinoids, is one possible explanation for colony collapse disorder (CCD), the mysterious death of bees en masse in America.
Another factor that may be contributing to colony collapse is the farming monoculture in large agricultural areas where huge swaths of singular crops require commercial pollinating operations to travel from region to region with millions of bees to pollinate the crops. Rather than being exposed to many different flowers, these commercial bees only ingest pollen from one kind of plant at a time. “It creates a dietary imbalance,” says Jim. Furthermore, the conditions associated with commercial pollination can cause bees to become stressed or weak, and to develop illnesses and spread mites and apiary viruses to other bees.
The clincher is that honeybees are absolutely essential to agriculture. Food experts like Carlo Petrini, founder of the Slow Food movement, claim that without them we would have no agriculture at all. Best-selling food and culture author, Michael Pollan, has reported that we depend on honeybees to pollinate forty percent of the food we consume. Petrini and Pollan are not alone: Many apiary, science,health and government experts are also concerned about the implications of the world’s faltering bee populations on our environment and food chain.
The good news is that bees are thriving on Nantucket. Colony collapse disorder is not a problem on the island, and, as Dylan attests, “Other than the hives that are brought in to pollinate cranberry bogs, we don’t have any industrial bees here.” Jim, Christine, David and Dylan are dedicated to organic, sustainable apiculture and, as small-scale beekeepers, they are confident in their abilities to take care of their bees without relying on chemicals.
With their eco-friendly practices, these intrepid keepers of the hive are making a significant contribution to nature in a time of need. And, in turn, the bees they’re raising are helping to take care of Nantucket by pollinating our flowering plants and crops, and providing us with the sweetest gift of all — delicious, local honey.