Many of us know that there is a big difference between the “honey” you find at a supermarket — which has been pasteurized, filtered to remove pollen, and mixed with high fructose corn syrup and other additives — and the pure honey produced by bees alone. But what you may not realize is how much work goes into getting the natural sweetener on the shelf, both by the bees and those that tend to them. As beekeepers throughout the Hudson Valley prepare for this year’s honey season (roughly April through September), we take a look at what factors affect honeybee health and how these hive-minded creatures make their sweet stuff.
Honeybees spend the spring, summer, and early fall foraging for pollen, which they use primarily to feed their young; and nectar, the sugary liquid that adult honeybees survive on. A foraging honeybee collects and ingests the nectar, mixes it with an enzyme called invertase, and regurgitates the mixture into an empty bit of honeycomb. Other bees in the hive then fan it with their wings to evaporate most of the water, creating raw honey.
The first thing to keep in mind regarding honey production, said Reagan Upshaw, who keeps bees in his backyard in Beacon, “is that bees make honey for themselves. It’s what they live on in the winter, [and] they can starve if they don’t make enough.” Responsible beekeepers harvest only the surplus honey that the bees make but do not need for the winter. In the Hudson Valley, a single hive, which can have more than 80,000 bees, needs about 70 pounds of honey to survive the winter.
When flowers are blooming and nectar is plentiful, a single colony can easily make more than 100 pounds of honey. However, July and August often bring what is known as a nectar dearth, a lack of nectar and pollen caused by heat and dryness in the height of summer. As Upshaw explains, “The nectar that comes up out of the flower is basically the surplus. If it’s a dry time, that nectar is going to be something the plant can’t afford to make. So when you have a severe drought as we had last summer, the plants aren’t producing nectar, which means that bees aren’t producing honey.” Last summer’s nectar dearth was particularly intense, leaving many honeybees in dire straits.
Since honeybee health depends so directly on nearby foraging options, location is widely considered the most important factor in honey production. Jorik Phillips of the Hudson Valley Bee Supply store in Kingston tends to hundreds of colonies in more than a dozen locations throughout the region, and he interacts with beekeepers from all over New York and neighboring states. “I get this kind of 30,000-foot view” of beekeeping in the area, he said. Although some beekeepers were not able to harvest any honey at all last year, Phillips had several good harvests and said the “general feel was one of exuberance” from his customers. The drought definitely had an impact, but Phillips emphasized that experienced beekeepers with well-placed hives were able to contend with the unideal conditions.
Rob Spaccarelli, the master beekeeper of the Hudson Valley Swarm beekeeping club, has been keeping bees for more than 35 years, and he was one of these successful apiarists. “Even with the drought I had a good honey crop — just as good as I did in the past, if not better,” he said. This is due in part to Spaccarelli’s property, which he has made a botanical paradise full of fruit trees, from figs, apples, and pears to pawpaws; chestnut trees and raspberry bushes, wildflowers and dahlias, bergamot, and more. He has plants that flower at different times, providing reliable pollen and nectar sources for his bees throughout the entire foraging season. In spring and fall, he also keeps a constant flow of bee tea, a mixture of sugar, water, and herbs like thyme, available for his bees so they never need to break into their honey stores before winter.
Ideal honeybee hive location boils down to the availability of nectar near the hives — which means dried-up fields, frequently-mown lawns, and heavily wooded areas can all be difficult places for colonies to thrive.
For some bees, this means traveling far in search of honey and possibly returning empty-handed. These bees still need to replenish their energy, so they will eat the nectar they had previously stored, depleting resources meant for the future. “So by the time August-September comes…there’s nothing in the hives,” Spaccarelli said. “Not only is there no honey for me to take, but it’s borderline that these bees are not going to survive the winter.” This is where feeding bee tea can mean the difference between life and death for a colony.
Somewhat counterintuitively, a mild winter can sometimes be more dangerous for a colony than a very cold one. Bees huddle together inside their hives during cold months, staying warm and conserving energy; but this winter, Spaccarelli noticed his bees flying around more than usual. The problem is that the honeybees sprang into action and started using up their energy when they felt the unseasonable warmth, but the nearby plants were not producing any nectar. Without additional food from Spaccarelli, the bees could easily have depleted their winter honey stores and starved before any nectar became available to keep them going.
The amount of specialized knowledge required to grow and maintain a healthy honeybee hive creates a steep learning curve for new beekeepers, but it also facilitates deeper connections between people, the land they live on, and even their neighbors. No matter the weather, everyone can play a part in supporting honeybee health this year by avoiding chemical pesticides and allowing plants commonly eschewed as weeds to grow on their property. As Upshaw put it, “Once you start keeping bees, you start thinking like a bee,” appreciating all types of plants, noticing which ones are in bloom, and taking stock of different bee behaviors.
And although honey is the main product of keeping bees, several beekeepers insisted, “It’s not all about the honey.” Spaccarelli put it simply: “I keep bees to keep bees. Every way they work amazes me.” Phillips, who started his beekeeping journey as a brewer and now collects thousands of pounds of honey a year, said, “I’d rather be out tending bees than sitting at my desk.”