Beekeeping boom on Martha’s Vineyard

Beekeeping boom on Martha’s Vineyard

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The buzz around honeybees is bittersweet on the Vineyard. Opportunities abound for Island beekeepers — whether wannabes, newbies, or seasoned apiarists — and local honey is in demand.

However, the environmental, economic, and political issues surrounding the global crisis of disappearing bees has reached our shores and they’re hard to swallow.

Two weekends ago, while feasting on a honey-inspired scrumptious brunch sponsored by Slow Food Martha’s Vineyard, I began to fill up on beekeeping information. The documentary film “Vanishing of the Bees” stung with more mounting evidence that our food system is not sustainable. If bees are life guarantors of nature, is their catastrophic population crash around the planet nature’s way of saying, “can you hear me now?”

Islanders are listening: nearly 90 of us filled the Chilmark Community Center to eat brunch and engage with a panel of beekeepers after the film. Primed with compelling reasons to keep bees, more than two dozen attendees raised their hands to indicate that they planned to begin beekeeping this spring.

Another dozen existing beekeepers were in attendance, thirsting for knowledge like hungry bees in the spring. The panel did their best to satiate them while sharing useful resources.

Coming this April for the first time is Bee School. Randi Baird, one of the panelists, is spearheading the seminar on behalf of Island Grown Bees, a core program of Initiative Grown Initiative.

Impassioned by the book “The Secret Life of Bees” by Sue Monk Kidd, Ms. Baird began keeping bees four years ago. She was enticed by the opportunity to connect deeply with nature and the cycle of the seasons while helping farmers by providing plant pollinators.

Timing and lost opportunities have been Randi’s biggest challenges and she’s eager to learn from Everett Zurlinden, who will be teaching the 12-hour intensive on April 1st, 2nd and 3rd. All are welcome, although the course will be geared towards beginning beekeepers. Participants will learn about the life cycle and biology of the honey bee, and how to start and maintain a hive.

Tim Colon, another panelist, is one of the Island’s largest commercial beekeepers. An active beekeeper on the Island for ten years, he produces about 500 pounds of honey from 60 hives spread over the Island. His honey is sold at SBS, North Tabor Farm, and Morning Glory Farm.

While willing to help out new beekeepers, Colon is super busy and does not have the time required to look at people’s hives, especially in the spring and summer. He is concerned that beginner beekeepers don’t understand what they are looking at. You may think you have a healthy crop when you have disease transmitters.

“Go to Bee School,” says Colon.

Everett Zurlinden is a gold mine of information. He’s extremely knowledgeable and an excellent teacher.

Although the term Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) has not been used to define problems with local hives, varroatosis has. Colon explained that varroatosis is the disease caused by an external parasitic mite, varroa destructor. The mite attaches to the body of the bee and weakens it. A significant mite infestation will lead to the death of a honey bee colony, usually over the winter.

If you lose a hive, it takes an entire year before you can reestablish it and have a surplus of honey for sale. The greater the number of hives lost, the larger the economic base required to keep replacing the bees for a commercial beekeeper.

The varroa mite is the parasite with the most pronounced economic impact on the bee-keeping industry. The cost of replacing bees has nearly crushed one commercial beekeeper, Neil Flynn, who has been keeping bees on the Island for 19 years. His Katama Honey has been available at Cronig’s and the Tisbury Farmers’ Market. Mr. Flynn’s fascination with bees began at the University of Massachusetts in Stockbridge and at one point he had over 100 hives on the Island.

Challenged by local politics regarding the keeping of bees being in keeping with the lifestyle of some of his neighbors, combined with the increasing problems with the health of bees, has been devastating for Mr. Flynn. Now his business is dwindling.

Will we find Katama Honey at the farmers’ market this summer? Not sure. We do know that we need healthy bees to help our farmers raise the abundance of fruits, vegetables, and flowers that will greet us.

Beekeeping as a hobby may be the surest way to your own supply of local honey. You do not need land, you can do it on your own, and the initial investment is minimal.

To get started, consider attending the next meeting of the Martha’s Vineyard Garden Club, on March 15, at 1 pm, at the Wakeman Center off Lambert’s Cove Road. The topic? Bee Keeping for Dummies. Guests are welcome for a fee of $5. For more information, call 508-693-5334.

IGI’s Bee School, April 1-3, costs $100 and more than two-dozen Islanders have already enrolled. Registration is limited. Go to islandgrown.org to register or find out more, or email Randi Baird at randi@islandgrown.org.

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