Mary Woltz was first introduced to honey bees in 2002. Within a year, she found herself in charge of over one hundred colonies! Luckily, she fell deeply in love with these hardworking ladies—believing that a happy bee is a productive bee. In 2011, she started her own line of honey products as well as the first community supported api-culture program through which she sells shares of honey along with a visit to her thriving hives. It’s hard work, but work that Woltz greatly enjoys. And values: No bees, no food.
What inspired you to become a beekeeper?
I was introduced to honey bees in 2002 while working at the Pfeiffer Center, a research and training center in biodynamic agriculture in Chestnut Ridge, New York. There I worked as assistant to Gunther Hauk, a pioneer in alternative apiculture and author of “Towards Saving the Honey Bees.” Through Gunther I learned of their plight and its most serious consequences to the earth. I also began learning possible remedies through methods of care based on the true and remarkable nature of bees, and dedicated my life to their well-being.
What is most threatening to bee health? Explain a bit about Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).
I prefer to focus on the overall, not the “one most” because there are synergistic pressures, mostly manmade that make the honey bee’s survival a dire situation. Like most stories today of species survival, this one involves scientific research that is difficult to do and even harder to apply in meaningful public policy. However, I am optimistic that the growing scientific evidence is informing public discourse and people appreciate what is diminishing their health and ours.
Most notably, the pressures on honey bees include pesticides, habitat loss, and climate change, but the major threat continues to be the varroa mites, tiny parasitic insects that suck the bees’ blood and vector a variety of viruses. These insects were inadvertently introduced to the US in the late 80s, (and wreaked similar havoc to what had occurred decades earlier in Europe), soon reducing our bee population by half. Slowly, progress was made, to the point that annual losses of 15% became the industry standard. Then in the fall of 2006, beekeepers started losing 50-100% of their colonies to something that became know as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).
CCD has often been called “death by a thousand cuts,” because researchers have determined the aforementioned pressures work synergistically. While the varroa mites remains a primary challenge to bee health, the impact of the new family of pesticides, known as “neonicitinoids,” can make for a final blow because foraging bees carry sub-lethal doses of these chemicals back to the hive where they accumulate until lethal amounts overwhelm the colony. They also have a disorienting effect on foragers who get lost, unable to find their way back to the hive.
Can you talk about bee sociology and how the hive works?
The summer colony is comprised of one queen, who lays all the eggs, tens of thousands of worker bees (all female, and all daughters of the queen, but not necessarily full sisters since the queen mates with multiple drones), and several hundred drones (all males). Contrary to her title, the queen does not rule the hive, it is the workers who direct the inner workings of the hive, deciding when to stay or go (as in a swarm, the means by which the hive replicates itself), what to seek while foraging (nectar, pollen, water or propolis), when to remove the males (usually in late fall when they are no longer required for mating), and when to replace the queen. It is important to see the bee colony as a single super-organism, in which the well-being of the community is of primary importance. To this end, the worker bees sacrifice both their fertility (only the queen lays eggs) and themselves (via their stinger) to protect the hive. (The worker dies when she stings because she cannot retract her stinger from the victim’s skin, so it rips off of her body, leaving her to perish some time later.)
What have bees taught you about nature and the mysteries of the natural world.
So, so many things, but perhaps most important is the significant distinction between the human construct of time and the range of rhythms found in nature. Work with my bees (or girls as I call them), requires a total shift of purpose and energy in order to best avail myself of their needs. To think like a bee and do no harm are my two guiding principles.
What does Bees’ Needs mean?
My company name, Bees’ Needs, reflects my primary philosophy in managing my bees – making sure the bees’ needs are always met first. My honey customers can take solace, knowing they have not deprived the bees of honey needed for their own survival.
Where are your hives and how many?
I have fourteen bee yards, widely distributed on Long Island’s East End, a coastal area that is still agricultural and benefits from extensive protected wetlands and forest. Most of the bee yards are on farms, some in nurseries and gardens.
I managed 100 colonies for seven years, but as the challenges of keeping bees healthy continue to mount, I have reduced my numbers in recent years to between 60 and 80 colonies.
What is the role of bees in pollination and food security.
A honey bee is involved in one in three bites of food we eat, either directly through pollinating the specific fruit or vegetable, or indirectly through pollinating grasses or grains fed to livestock. Their work as pollinators is essential to our diets, both for crop yields but also the particular nutritional value of the fruits, vegetables and seed crops since the majority of both macro and micronutrients come from these crops.
In economic terms, their annual estimated contributions is approximately $19 billion. In practical terms, our modern agriculture is dependent on the honey bee, a creature whose unique abilities, social structure and numbers provide a irreplaceable role in food production and therefore our food security.
Where can we purchase your honey?
Our honey is sold at many farmstands throughout the East End, including Green Thumb in Water Mill, Balsam Farms in Amagansett and Serene Green in Sag Harbor. Many other shops sell it year-round including Marders Garden Store in Bridgehampton, Provisions in Sag Harbor and the Sag Harbor Baking Company, also in Sag Harbor.
We will soon launch our website, beesneeds.com (Hard to imagine after all these years!), and specialty on-line sales are planned for later in the year.
What can individuals do to support beekeepers? Why should people support local beekeepers
Don’t use chemicals, particularly pesticides and herbicides. At least cut way back on their use. (It is important to remember that even organic farmers sometimes employ chemicals that kill insects.)
Herbs are medicinal for bees as well as humans: allow yours to bloom.
Plant bee-friendly plants and convert lawn areas to bee forage.
If your hedge blooms, such as privet, let it do so before cutting it.
Buy honey that is locally produced because you will be supporting the folks who keep the bees in your area.
Support your local land trusts because they protect lands that provide both habitat and forage for the bees.
Learn more about these fascinating beings.
Local bees provide much needed pollination services to local farmers, which is of particular interest to anyone who eats…