The Local Ingredient: Island Bee Co. hits the sweet spot

The local ingredient — Michael Cummo

Spring is a busy time at the Island Bee Co. — for both the bees and the beekeeper.

After initial checks on the winter survival of his bees, Vineyard Haven beekeeper Tim Colon has his work cut out for him: replenishing the queen bees, preparing the hives for the explosion of summer growth, and relocating bee boxes from the Vineyard Haven home base to 10 locations around the Island. The bees, in turn, mate, rebuild the hives, and produce the bees that will visit about 2 million plants for each pound of honey produced.

This season, Mr. Colon expects to maintain about 75 to 80 bee boxes of varying sizes. The majority are what he calls “full boxes,” each with roughly 40,000 to 50,000 bees producing between 150 pounds to 160 pounds of honey. About 100 pounds of that stays in the hive for bees to survive the winter after the season ends. By fall, Mr. Colon hopes to collect somewhere between 2,500 and 3,000 (his record) pounds of raw honey — though beekeeping, like farming, has many variables.

Based on experience, he says, “Thirty-three percent are great boxes, 33 percent mediocre, and 33 percent suck.”

Mr. Colon started with just a couple of bee boxes to experiment with, an interest spurred by a colleague in the building trades who kept bees. His interest grew, and expanded to the rest of the family. His son Felix, now 13, started selling honey at the end of the street.

The family queen bee, Trisha Sirakovsky, sells most of the honey with 8-year-old daughter Esme at the West Tisbury Farmers Market each Wednesday and Saturday. She also extends the product by making beeswax candles, and a popular lightly scented beeswax moisturizer bar. She remembers the start, about the time of their honeymoon in 1999. “I’m going to get my own hive,” she recalls Mr. Colon saying. “The next thing we knew, we had 100.”

Still, Mr. Colon refers to it as a side business alongside carpentry and boat building, his other trades vying for space in his “workshop” near the house. At one end of the workshop, the piles of bee boxes he builds himself all but obscure the “Tim Colon Builder” sign on the wall.

The largest piece of equipment inside the honey room is an extractor that spins and releases honey from a dozen or so racks at a time, after they are carefully removed from the hives. There are stacks of buckets storing the honey, as well as two machines designed to warm the honey so it pours into the jars easily.

“It’s very fresh, so little is done between the hives and the jar,” Ms. Sirakovsky says. “It literally goes from the hives to the extractor to the jar to the farmers market.”

As the jars line up at the market, it’s easy to see the different shades of the honey depending on the location and predominant plants in each area. The hues have become a trademark of the company, and allow customers to buy their honey from Chilmark, West Tisbury, or Edgartown. Mr. Colon places hives all around the Island, at local farms happy to share their open spaces. Bees, Mr. Colon says, like to forage in areas of 2 to 3 square miles, the less developed — with more nectar sources — the better.

Early spring honey, sourced from locust trees, is the lightest. “We have a lot of locust trees” on the Island, notes Ms. Sirakovsky. A floral, darker honey, comes from clethra (pepperbush). “Every time I open a jar of clethra, I think of Ice House Pond,” Ms. Sirakovsky says. “After that, we get the Japanese knotweed bloom; it’s visibly darker. I love those dark, deep tastes too.” The business does multiple harvestings, mostly because it’s a family operation (Mr. Colon’s parents also help out), where the members handle all aspects themselves. Because of this, they capture seasonal blooms and time the extractions. “When clethra is done, we try to get it before the knotweed blooms,” Ms. Sirakovsky says. “I think that’s the reason our honeys taste so unique; we’re extracting constantly.”

“We don’t use chemicals, I think that’s a huge thing,” she adds. “I think that comes through in the clean, single-source taste.”

Most larger commercial bee operations remove honey just once in a season, and label it with the catchall “wildflower” honey. Commercial honey is also typically pasteurized, which removes beneficial vitamins and enzymes. Many beekeepers use chemicals in the hive to battle the varroa mite. These mites, the bane of beekeepers, get into the hives and prey on larvae and juvenile bees, weakening their immune systems.

Environmental factors, including these mites, contribute to bee loss each year. The Island might be somewhat better, Mr. Colon says, but not exempt. This winter was particularly tough. They lost more than 40 percent of their bees, and will need to work harder to rebuild and catch up if they expect harvests as good as the past few years. A typical year’s loss might be around 30 percent. “If it weren’t for the varroa mite, it would be a lot easier,” Mr. Colon said.

That, and the backbreaking work of lifting and moving the boxes on a regular basis in the summer heat. And handling the honey-laden frames. Not to mention ticks or daily bee stings. Still, Mr. Colon says he loves being his own boss, and the absolute beauty of the spots where bees are kept.

Ms. Sirakovsky says she admires her husband’s passion and ability for beekeeping. “He can read the bees. He can read frames, he can observe it from a distance, and he knows what’s going on,” she says. “It’s really a beautiful scene to watch him working on hives.”

Then, of course, there’s the honey to savor — in teas, baked goods, granola, on cheese, in dressings, and more.

Ms. Sirakovsky loves to drizzle honey warmed from sitting on the table in the sun on Mermaid Farm yogurt. “It hardens slightly on the yogurt,” she says. “I like it better than ice cream.”