What’s all the buzz about?

Island Bee Co. has blossomed into a sweet success.

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Shrouded underneath a hood of heavy white canvas and thick mesh netting, Tim Colon of Island Bee Co. grabs his smoker and pumps a cloud into the first hive of the day.

“It’s all trial and error when it comes to bees, especially if you are first starting out,” Colon told The Times as he popped the pine frames out of a lively bee box during a sunny day visit to his family’s apiary. Colon and his wife, Tricia Sirakovsky, created the largest bee operation on the Vineyard, and their vision has steadily grown ever since they started the company in 1999. 

“I was working for a cabinetmaker who was a friend of mine. He had some hives, and that sparked my interest,” Colon explained. Colon was fascinated by beekeeping, and decided to build his own beehives. He and his family enjoyed watching over them — Colon would harvest the honey, and his children would sell it out on the road. But interest in the business kept expanding — people would ask him where they could get more of the delicious Island-made honey. 

Over the past five years, Colon has turned to beekeeping as his primary occupation. He was originally a woodworker, and still does some projects on the side, such as crafting elegant and sturdy hand-fashioned kayaks and other styles of boats for individual buyers. As the honey workload grew, Colon realized he wouldn’t be able to manage the entire bee company on his own, and brought in Sirakovsky to handle some important elements of the business. “I handle the beekeeping and production aspect of the honey and beeswax. I don’t deal with customers directly, I don’t deal with anybody. My wife does all the business-end stuff, and it’s just me and the bees,” Colon said. “Tricia is a great salesperson, and she makes all of our products, apart from the honey, like emollient balms, beeswax candles, and beauty products. She’s very creative.” 

The process of making a quality product and ensuring the bees are happy and healthy (the healthier the bee, the greater the yield) is laborious, and can be complicated. According to Colon, they have one “honey flow” in the spring, which is usually one of the smaller harvests of the year. And living in a coastal area where more mild temperatures prevail, sometimes the honey that’s reaped is diminished. “We’re surrounded by water, so it’s colder in the spring — the bees would actually be warmer off-Island, so they would be further along in their [honey] production,” Colon explained.

Additionally, the trees and flowers on the Vineyard bloom later because of the colder spring, so there is less nectar for bees to eat and gather. Bees are picky creatures, Colon said, and require a very specific environment to really thrive. “They don’t like rain, they don’t like it too cold, they don’t like strong winds,” he said. 

The next honey flow, which usually yields the most honey (and the most money), is around the end of July and beginning of August. In the middle of August, Colon pulls all his honey supers, or frames. He then compresses all his bees into one box, and monitors them to make sure they are healthy. Around this time is when things can potentially go south in a hurry, according to Colon, as it’s this time of year that nasty infestations and diseases can create havoc in the hive. 

Varroa mites are external parasites that latch onto bees and infest a bee colony. They can easily destroy a hive, and Colon says they’re the main threat to any beekeeper’s livelihood. “The Varroa mite is a real problem for anyone working with bees, especially here, because there are so many hobby beekeepers who don’t necessarily pay attention as much to the Varroa mite levels. The mites will travel from hive to hive, all over the place,” Colon said.

Right before the goldenrod blooms, Colon treats his hives to kill any parasites, and prepares for the last harvest of the season. He lets the bees sit, and waits for each box to weigh about 70 to 80 pounds. If certain hives are lagging in production, Colon will supplement their normal natural nectar meal with some heavy sugar syrup. “This year, we are feeding a lot because of this drought, so our August and goldenrod blooms were almost nonexistent,” he said. 

At the end of November and beginning of December, Colon does one more Varroa mite treatment, and then starts the process of wintering his hives. Because some of his apiary properties are exposed to strong northerly winds, Colon moves those hives to locations that have lots of wind protection, and full sun exposure. 

Right now, Colon has around 80 hives. He’s already lost a few because of the drought, which he said has been tough on production. “When there is no nectar, and you have that many bees, it’s really hard for them to make it through,” he said. Additionally, as the Vineyard is built up more and more, the foraging opportunities for hungry honeybees shrink. Bees rely most heavily on trees to collect nectar (not flowers, despite popular belief), and with massive land clearings happening constantly, the bees can find themselves close to starvation. 

“In the past five years, this whole area used to be all woods, back to the very end of the road,” Colon pointed out as he indicated a massive swathe of land behind his property. “That area was all locust trees, which are one of our biggest foraging trees — now they’re all cut down and the land is being developed.”

Currently, Colon is involved in a program called Education about Production and Insemination of Queens (EPIQ) as part of a Penn State Extension project on queen bee rearing and artificial insemination. “There were 200 of us in the New England area who were selected to be a part of this group,” Colon said. For Colon, the opportunity to meet other beekeepers who are highly experienced in advanced apiary techniques, and receive education about new ways of raising queen bees, is invaluable to his business. 

Although there are a number of other beekeepers on the Vineyard, Colon said he believes he is the only person on the Island with such a large number of hives, and stands out as someone who works full-time on producing local honey. “I make a living from this. I pay my health insurance, I pay my son’s tuition; it’s my whole livelihood,” Colon explained. “There is definitely a difference between beekeeping as a hobby, and it being your primary occupation.”

With the knowledge he has gained from the EPIQ program, Colon has been raising his own queen bees, and constantly rearing queen bees from the highest-yielding hives and the best-behaved hives. Essentially, Colon takes bees from stock that is less aggressive, hardier, and more resistant to parasites, and creates new colonies that produce more honey. 

Highlighting some of the products made by Sirakovsky, Colon described moisturizing emollient bars, bee propolis throat spray, candles, skin products, and more. “The bee products are really popular, and that’s a significant part of our business,” Colon said. 

In the face of mass media raising concerns about the natural honeybee population, Colon said that every beekeeper he knows is doing good business, and the price of honey is going up. “There is a fear that honeybees from beekeepers are endangering the native pollinators, and could upset the natural balance,” he said. “But we have tons of native pollinators — a couple hundred different species on Martha’s Vineyard alone. We don’t have too many hives, and we move them around all the time, so there isn’t that much of an impact. We do our work in a conscious and responsible way.”