The Buzz is in the Air

Apple blossoms, white and pale pink against blue skies, soak up the May sunshine on Lewis and Dorothy Cullman’s five-acre Darien estate. In October their seven trees will produce fruit that is crisp perfection.

 “Each flower must be pollinated six times for optimal shape, texture and flavor,” says Norm Cote, a retired Norwalk firefighter, now a beekeeper who maintains hives for the Cullmans as well as for Martha Stewart and other clients throughout Fairfield County and upper New York State. If at-home apiaries join wine cellars and home theaters as the next must-have accoutrement for today’s suburban lifestyle, the new buzz will actually be environmentally correct.

“These tiny insects pollinate 80 percent of the food we eat,” Norm says, pointing to a flutter of wings and a flash of yellow hovering over a nearby blossom. “There’s one of my girls now,” he adds, noting that, contrary to public perception, the Apis melifera (a.k.a. the western honeybee) is by nature a gentle creature. Around for 40 million years, their configuration unchanged over the centuries, honeybees were revered as deities by ancient civilizations.

The female bee is a minifactory within the larger factory of the hive; she’s a collection of glands, each with a specific purpose. Each hive is presided over by a queen bee who rules through the power of her pheromones, a unique scent that secures the allegiance of her thousands of subjects. A honeybee lives for just six weeks, moving from one job to the next in a genetically programmed progression.

“She is an architect, a builder of geometrically precise hexagonal honeycombs connected by tiny bridges and girders,” says Wilton’s Ed Weiss, at age eighty-seven widely regarded as the godfather to generations of Fairfield County beekeepers. A native of Brooklyn who moved to Fairfield County in 1966, Ed discovered a passion for honeybees that led him to a second career running a beekeeping supply company and producing Wilton Gold, the only brand of honey used for gourmet food preparation by Hayday Market, a homegrown chain that once had stores in Westport, Ridgefield and Riverside.

Soon Ed was teaching apiculture at the New Canaan Nature Center, serving as merit badge counselor on beekeeping for the Boy Scouts and lecturing at local garden clubs. In 1993, with his wife, Anita, he started the Backyard Beekeepers Association (BYBA), now 200 members strong; his book The Queen and I, reprinted for the third time in 2001, is considered the beekeeping bible for beginners.

Martha Stewart was a student of Ed’s back when she was a Westport caterer. Several years later when asked to set up beehives at her Turkey Hill home, Ed arrived to find camera crews ready to film the event for a video later shown on the lifestyle guru’s television show. “She put our beginner’s kit into her magazine and we ended up filling orders from all over the United States,” he says. It was Ed who connected Norm Cote with Martha, who was looking for the right person to maintain her hives. “Beekeepers help beekeepers,” Ed says. “Norm’s a good man and very knowledgeable; he’s taught beekeeping all over the world.”

Just back from a Monday run to deliver Wilton Gold to Schoolhouse Nutrition in Darien, one of several local organic markets that sell his honey, Ed is invigorated by a conversation with a new employee curious about honeybees. She certainly asked the right guy. “These tiny insects provide for themselves and then produce an overflow that lets us enjoy something as exquisitely delicious as honey, for centuries man’s only sweetener,” he says, adding that the bees are also artisans able to produce products like beeswax as well as propolis (a sticky, multipurpose substance made from tree resin) and royal jelly, which have been shown to be beneficial to people’s health.

Norm points out that eating local honey may help relieve seasonal allergies because bees use pollen from plants in the area. Small amounts of pollen end up in the honey. Both pollen and honey are rich sources of vitamins, minerals, amino acids and antioxidants. “Honey is also highly regarded as an antibacterial and antifungal agent,” Norm says. “It’s used to disinfect wounds, scrapes and burns.”

Ed explains that each female bee is also a dietician/nurse (mixing food and feeding it to the young), a heating expert (maintaining a temperature within the cluster of ninety degrees in the dead of winter), an air-conditioning expert (evaporating water to cool the hive), a navigator (calculating longitude and latitude to direct foragers to the best sources of nectar and pollen) and a policewoman who operates an early-alert warning system. When necessary, worker bees assemble a wall of defense to protect the hive. They communicate through a combination of circle dances, body waggling and scent.

Male bees, called drones, exist only to mate with the queen, after which their bodies literally explode, their barbed sex organ remaining inside the queen. In a single mating flight, the queen will copulate with ten or more drones, storing millions of sperm in her body, enough to fertilize 200,000 eggs per year over the next three years. “In one day,” Norm says, “a queen can lay her weight in eggs: one per minute, day and night for a total of 1,500 eggs over a twenty-four-hour period.”

Eric Johnson of Darien, formerly on the board of BYBA, is quick to identify Ed Weiss as Fairfield County’s “Bee Master.” A second-generation beekeeper, Johnson learned from his dad, who kept bees to use their venom to treat severe arthritis. “A regimen of stings on his shoulder and hands really helped,” Eric says. His wife, Sandy, a pharmacist who works at Darien’s Grieb’s Pharmacy, notes that apitherapy isn’t talked about much in her professional arena. “People come in for the standard drugs, sometimes herbal remedies,” she says. “Most don’t know about the medical properties of bee-related products.”

Anecdotal evidence related to apitherapy confirms reduced symptoms in diseases such as arthritis, shingles, sciatica, Lyme disease and multiple sclerosis. Veteran beekeepers are quick to make it clear that the benefits of bee-venom therapy come at a high price: A honeybee dies in the act of stinging. “These are valiant creatures,” Norm says, “willing to sacrifice themselves in defense of the hive.”

Eighty thousand bees currently inhabit four hives in the Johnson backyard. “Bees always fly straight up when they leave the hive,” Eric says, “so ours don’t present any danger.” Sandy’s vegetable garden occupies a corner of the property; Eric set up beehives in part to support his wife’s passion.

“My mother always grew her own vegetables,” Sandy says, “and after we got married, I really got into it.” The mushrooms and peppers simmering on the stove are all homegrown and garden fresh, as is the lettuce for tonight’s dinner salad. Honey, always on the table, is from their own hives.

While beekeeping is her husband’s job, when it comes to harvesting the honey in September, Sandy is a willing assistant. Eric begins by removing the honey from the hive. “It’s a little tricky to get the bees out of the box you’re taking,” he says. “I put in a one-way door and over the course of a day, they crawl out and can’t get back in.”

Sandy has become expert with the small electric knife used to uncap the wax tops, protecting the honey that goes into a big barrel containing a centrifuge that spins it, sending it down to the bottom. The honey then drains through a strainer into a bucket. “It’s become sort of a neighborhood event,” says Eric, “because there are no bees involved. Just honey, and everybody loves honey.” This year the couple’s baby daughter, Brooke, may get her first taste from the family hives. Pediatric guidelines suggest waiting until age one to avoid triggering an allergic reaction.

Walking through the Cullman gardens — a cross between English and Japanese influences with perennials, including day lilies, foxgloves, hollyhocks, moon flowers and black-eyed Susans — Norm points out that, although the beehives were brought in to ensure pollination of the apple trees, all the plantings on the estate benefit, flowering with bigger and better blooms. With parasitic varroa and tracheal mites the new reality, hives are rarely able to survive in the wild. Now more than ever, Norm believes the backyard beekeeper has an important role to play. “My client list grows every year,” he says, “which I think is hopeful.”

New Haven–based etymologist Larry Connor, Ph.D., expert in commercial crop pollination and owner of Wicwas Press, a bee-book publishing company, would agree. “As an individual, a beekeeper and also as a scientist, I say that maybe it’s time for more of us to keep bees and grow our own produce.” Acknowledging that areas that once supported honeybees have been swallowed up by Wal-Marts and megamansions, he prefers to think positive, noting that beekeeping is doing great these days in downtown Detroit. “Factories have been bulldozed,” he says, “and the empty lots are filling up with wildflowers, great for foraging bees.”

 

Dr. Connor emphasizes the importance of reacting in a measured way to recent alarming headlines about honeybees in newspapers around the country. A mystery ailment called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is currently being reported. Apparently healthy hives transported by commercial beekeepers to pollinate crops are arriving either empty or filled with dead bees. Such crises are not new, he points out. Honeybees have weathered many threats to their survival over millennia. “The difference today,” he says, “is we have 24/7 media coverage, which can distort reality by taking a problem out of context.”

Still, honeybees — seasonally transported by commercial beekeepers to wherever they’re needed — are big business these days. They pollinate more than $14 billion worth of fruit, vegetable and nut crops annually in the United States. California’s almond crop alone, the largest in the world, is spread over 580,000 acres; it requires more than a million colonies a year. Maine’s blueberry growers need 65,000 colonies of honeybees every season. The list goes on.

While not personally involved in the research underway to respond to CCD, Connor predicts the cause will ultimately be stress related. For pollination purposes colonies typically get moved from Florida to California to Maine, Pennsylvania and New York and then back to Florida again, all in the space of twelve months. “While they do benefit from human management,” he says, “the actual moving of a beehive is not a biologically happy event for the honeybees.” They’re exposed to new conditions, which include disease, parasites, environmental pollutants and pesticides. Still, honeybees are a highly adaptive species with an impressive track record of survival.

That said, Connor has serious concerns over the impact of a new group of artificial, nicotine-based pesticides, which he suggests might turn out to be causing CCD. These synthetic molecules have been shown to disrupt the bee’s memory, wiping it clean and effectively stopping a foraging bee in its tracks. “The proverbial ‘busy bee’ is transformed into ‘a not-so-busy bee,’ sitting there with a glazed-over look,” he says. “A ‘stupified bee’ is a really scary proposition. And it’s not environmentally caused, it’s human induced.” Should the pesticides be the cause, at least the solution is clear — and achievable: Ban the problem pesticides.

Other challenges are much more complex, like those presented by global warming. “It’s not new,” Connor says. “Scientists have been tracking it over the past half-century.” Thanks to An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s Academy Award–winning documentary, there is now more awareness of the need to curb humanmade emissions of greenhouse gases that contribute to the problem.

Regarding unseasonably warm weather confusing instinctive behaviors, however, he is not talking gloom and doom. “It’s the nature of being a honeybee,” Connor says. “I mean, here we are in New England where it’s forty degrees one day and seventeen degrees the next. Is it good for the bees? Probably not, but will they handle it? The strongest ones will.” A case in point? In parts of the Northeast, subzero temperatures have caused what Connor calls “a slaughter” of colonies. “Only two or three of ten will survive,” he says. “I’m not trying to minimize that, but it’s Darwinism, a natural selection for the toughest stock.”

Well-educated beekeepers, according to Connor, are the answer to another much publicized problem: Africanized bees. “The solution lies in controlled breeding of queens in nucleus colonies in the northern states,” he says, adding that although Africanization is real, it is also being blamed for what scientists have always regarded as “hot bees,” the kind that are particularly defensive and hard to work with. “We all want gentle bees, not the kind that darn your socks,” he says. “We need to breed for that trait.”

Beekeeper John Cianciullo, a Westport resident who’s been keeping bees since 1973, pulls up to Ed’s shop to pick up supplies. An upholsterer who uses bee-venom therapy to treat tendonitis in both elbows, he’s pleased to say that the treatment is working. He has upsetting news, however : He lost two hives last weekend. In this case, warm winter weather is the culprit.

“When the thermometer approaches 50 degrees, bees don’t go into cluster,” Ed says. “They’re all over the hive; some even fly out to forage, risking being caught outside by a sudden cold snap.” Active when they should be in a more dormant stage, they use up their winter food supply much too soon. “That happened to me, too.” Ed says. “And guess what? When I gave them extra food, they refused to take it. To me, that means their habitual instincts are being thrown for a loop.”

In John’s case, his surviving bees did take the extra food. “But I lost two hives,” he says, “and it’s not the mites; I’ve got them under control. It breaks my heart, you know?” Ed knows. Over the years, he and John have been through the mill together — battling the now ever-present varroa and tracheal mites, catching swarms, ending up covered with bees, getting stung, all while doing whatever’s necessary to safeguard their honeybees. “I’m not a religious guy,” Ed says, “but when I am working with the bees — my hands in them, holding them, feeling them crawl on me — that is when I feel close to God.”

The Cullman beehives produced 230 pounds of honey last season, but Norm lost three of the four hives to varroa mites. “I don’t know why one hive survived and the others didn’t,” he says, already rethinking his strategy for the next season. “You learn through making mistakes,” he says. “As a beekeeper, you’re always learning, and then you try to pass it along.”

In 2003 Norm traveled to Zimbabwe where he spent three weeks teaching beekeeping to Shona farmers as part of a U.S.AID program. It was an eye-opening experience. “Women traditionally do the farming,” he says, “and one had been angrily blaming a neighbor for killing her bees. I was able to make her understand she was over-harvesting.” The knowledge Norm brings can make a real economic difference. “These people,” he says, “are trying to feed and clothe their families.”

January — when our local honeybees are hibernating — is when Norm heads for a different climate zone to teach. He’s done so informally in Guatemala and Japan and hopes to go to Nicaragua and Mozambique as well. Wherever he travels, Norm always brings his veil and gloves just in case. “You never know when you might run into a fellow beekeeper,” he says. “We share a language.”

BEE-LIEVE IT or NOT

The honey we eat is nectar that bees have repeatedly regurgitated and dehydrated. It is a pure product that needs no refrigeration or further processing.

In one trip, a honeybee, wings beating at 11,000 cycles per minute, will fly at a speed of 15 mph to visit between 50 and 100 flower blossoms.

Bees visit 2 million blossoms to gather four pounds of nectar to produce one pound of honey.

To visit 2 million blossoms, bees must fly 55,000 miles, which is equivalent to flying around the world twice.

The average hive has from 50,000 to 75,000 honeybees. Each one lives for only six weeks and makes only one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey in her lifetime.

It takes eight pounds of honey, the result of 16 million visits to blossoms, for a bee to produce one pound of beeswax.

Each year bees pollinate ninety-five crops worth an estimated $10 billion in the United States alone.

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