Monterey — I received a brief introduction to the myriad intricacies of beekeeping late last month when Michael Marcus and Tasja Keetman took me on a much anticipated tour of their apiary and the surrounding environment – filled with profuse bright flowers to demonstrate the presence of these essential pollinators across the globe. strengthen the world. the landscape. If I had been a little baffled as to why vegans shun honey prior to this visit, it didn’t take long for the big picture to emerge: Over the course of its life, a single honeybee makes a quarter teaspoon of honey; on the other hand, each must consume eight pounds of honey to make one pound of beeswax. Come winter, lacking flowers to collect pollen and nectar, honeybees survive the toughest season of the year on stored honey. In the weeks that followed, I was less and less inclined to reach for the jar of amber sweets lurking in my pantry—a shift that actually came out of sheer reverence.
“[Honey is] a very special gift,” Keetman told The Edge, so precious that she and Marcus only bottle two jars each season; one to keep, the other to give away.
“Without the honey, the bees are doomed,” Marcus said, explaining why his bees’ byproduct — a number that runs into the tens, if not hundreds of thousands — isn’t primarily intended for human consumption.
The humble honeybee (Apis Mellifera, Latin for “bee” and “honey-bearing”), is aptly named for the species that produce honey — food necessary for the bees to survive through the winter. This is especially necessary in the northeast. The social world of honeybees is divided into three castes: workers, drones and queens. In the summer, the life of a female worker bee lasts only six weeks (while a queen can live for several years).
Keetman and Marcus practice biodynamic beekeeping, a sustainable way to keep happy, healthy honeybees. It all started ten years ago when their backyard became overgrown and the couple tried to breathe new life into it; a close friend, who happened to be a beekeeper, offered to pass on his old equipment (which, although unusual, turned out to be a reliable source). After the introduction of the bees, their organic vegetable garden – much of which is harvested for use in their restaurant, Bizen (on Railroad Street in Great Barrington) – took off. This, coupled with a handful of workshops with master beekeeper Gunther Hauk (co-founder, in 1996, of the Pfeiffer Center for Biodynamic Studies in Chestnut Ridge, NY and founder, in 2006, of Spikenard Farm Honeybee Sanctuary in Virginia), and their landscape was literally buzzing with activity.
In every way, the couple strives to maintain anthroposophic connections, which stem from the teachings of Rudolph Steiner who sought natural means to optimize physical and mental health and well-being. Basically, these methods allow beekeepers to keep track of their bees by, for example, indicating the best days to inspect colonies or collect honey (if applicable).
The day of our gathering is a fruit day (as evidenced by the waning crescent moon), and we walk through field after field of flowers – including profuse, tight clusters of small white buckwheat blossoms, pale yellow wild radish and beautiful purple of hairy vetch – filled with the audible drone of honeybees hard at work.
“We feed the bees with flowers,” Marcus says, “and the queen’s health is everything.” Nevertheless, the hive is always preparing for succession. A healthy, fertile queen is capable of almost constantly laying eggs — up to more than 3,000 a day — each deposited directly into the hexagonal cell of the comb. After only three days, the larvae emerge and are fed royal jelly, similar to “mother’s milk”, for two and a half days before introducing honey; during this inaugural phase, a baby bee is visited every three seconds to be fed and cared for (giving new appreciation to the oft-quoted expression, busy as a bee!). As the bees begin to fledge, they carry with them the scent of the queen and the scent of the hive – both of which will eventually lead them home.
The pungent smell of smoke wafts through the already hot and heavy July air as Keetman prepares to check in at the first hive – housed in a Langstroth hive, which, while not entirely bee-focused, makes manipulation easier for beekeepers (due to the stacked technique, not unlike the Top Bar Hive, the oldest beehive design in the world). This is in contrast to the Warré Hive, built to mimic the hollow of a dead tree where wild bees tend to build from top to bottom. Each hive is home to about 10,000 bees, and each has a name – including Ambrosia and Bavaria, the latter representing one of Marcus and Keetman’s original hives, about eight years old.
Since the addition of bees, the surrounding landscape has come alive. A few 20-year-old pear trees that never produced are now heavily laden with fruit; Ditto for raspberry vines, across the entire width of the garden, heavy with berries warm from the sun. Kale, kabocha squash, and countless others — from zucchini to tomatoes — all thrive with little maintenance until they bloom.
“Everyone works together,” Keetman says of the symbiosis she and Marcus cultivate on their land, thanks in large part to the efforts of the bees. Come November, out of sheer necessity, there is a mass expulsion of the male drones; they consume too much and contribute too little to get through the winter. This leaves the female workers and queen to support themselves during nature’s toughest season, “when every microgram of honey counts.” To survive, the bees cluster and rotate—with the queen remaining in the center—all while vibrating to maintain a temperature of 98 degrees in the hive.
“They’re constantly generating ambient heat that will help the entire hive survive,” Marcus says, adding that if they don’t have all the elements to survive — from food to heat — “they will die and the hive will perish — and that happens a lot in the northeast because we have such a cold winter.”
At the end of my tour I was indeed “kissed” by a bee; in light of all my newfound knowledge, I was surprisingly disappointed. When Keetman gently pulled the sting from my cheek, she confirmed that the bee died on the sting. Even as I left, another highly unusual sight popped up—even for those well-versed in honeybees, as evidenced by the mini-swarm of bees visibly congregating in the tree above my parked car. Swarming usually occurs in the spring and early summer — after the queen has laid more after the winter solstice — and happens when a honeybee colony outgrows its home and the worker bees signal it’s time to move; in short, this process causes a single colony to split into two or more separate colonies, ultimately speeding up reproduction.–
“After all the flowers, they completely explode and expand [in number], and that’s their time – when the queen and the hive decide to make virgin queens (a queen bee who hasn’t mated with a drone yet). And then they swarm,” says Keetman.
“The queen is preparing for the succession of her offspring,” says Marcus (pointing to the highly evolved, female-oriented species). “This is a queen with her entourage escaped.”
“This is a small, little swarm,” Keetman explains, “and we’re going to catch her tonight—and give her a nice home…so they can have an easier time.”
“We’re constantly looking for bees,” Marcus says. “This is very unusual to see; you will never see this again.”