Our friend, the bee

People are breaking out with hives

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Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban has been a teaching anthropologist for decades but lately it has been her devotion to honeybees that has been garnering compliments.

“People I meet [who know about her work with bees] are saying, ‘Thank you for your service,’” she said. “In all my years of teaching, no one has ever said anything like that to me.”

Fluehr-Lobban keeps bees in her Pawtuxet Village backyard and produces enough honey and bees wax to make selling the products worth her while but not enough to rely on as a single source of income. In that respect, she is one of many beekeepers who consider beekeeping a worthwhile and socially responsible pastime. Anyone who knows how important bees are to humans would agree.

The bad news:

The humble honeybee has been prominent in the news for the past few years. The bad news was that commercial beekeepers were reporting a dreadful condition called “colony collapse,” in which whole populations of bees simply disappeared. In February of this year, the Environmental Protection Agency reported that the problem has abated but has not gone away:

“During the winter of 2006-2007, some beekeepers began to report unusually high losses of 30-90 percent of their hives. As many as 50 percent of all affected colonies demonstrated symptoms inconsistent with any known causes of honeybee death: sudden loss of a colony’s worker bee population with very few dead bees found near the colony. The queen and brood (young) remained, and the colonies had relatively abundant honey and pollen reserves. But hives cannot sustain themselves without worker bees and would eventually die. This combination of events resulting in the loss of a bee colony has been called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).”

There have been many theories about the cause of CCD, but researchers who are leading the effort to find out why are now focused on a parasitic mite; a paralyzing virus; an intestinal parasite; pesticides applied to crops or in-hive mite control; and
bee management stress brought about by the increased need to move bee colonies long distances to provide pollination services.

“There are commercial beekeepers who truck millions of bees around the country, from citrus crops in the south to blueberries in Maine,” said Fluehr-Lobban. “Not only is the travel stressful, the bees are exposed to any number of problems they can bring back to the hive. It also affects the local bees because they go to the same food sources as the commercial bees. It is impossible to keep wild bees and commercial bees separately.”

The good news:

Fluehr-Lobban, who is the secretary of the Rhode Island Beekeepers Society, reports that interest in beekeeping has spiked in the last few years, reflecting a trend among urban people to really care about where their food comes from.

Many of those people will be at the Crowne Plaza Hotel at the Crossings from July 27 through July 29 attending the Eastern Apicultural Society’s Summer Conference.

EAS is the largest non-commercial beekeeping organization in the United States and was founded in 1955 for the promotion of bee culture, education of beekeepers, and excellence in bee research. Every summer EAS conducts its Annual Conference consisting of lectures, workshops, vendor displays, short courses for beginning and advanced beekeepers, and annual business meeting in one of its 26 member states or provinces in the eastern U.S. and Canada. More than 400 people are expected to attend the conference, at which speakers will address a variety of topics related to practical, useful, safe and sane information for beekeepers.

Among them will be Marina Marchese, of Connecticut’s Red Bee Apiary. She will speak about “The Business of Honeybee Products” and present her Honey Tasting Laboratory Workshop. The object is to share the art of honey appreciation and Marchese, who has spent the last 12 years traveling around the world tasting and learning about honey and promulgating the tasting and evaluating varietal honeys. Based upon the “Honey Sommelier” chapters of her book, Honeybee Lessons from an Accidental Beekeeper, participants will be encouraged to recognize the many types and styles of nectar sources based upon aroma, color, flavor, taste and pairings. Attendees will learn how location and nectar source determines a honey’s color and flavor.
Marchese came to bees in 1999, with a visit to a friend’s beehive.

“It was a beautiful day in April,” she said, “and I was a bit afraid of the hive at first but I was surprised at how calm the bees were, and that they didn’t attack us. I bravely stuck my finger into the honey and it was the most delicious, delightfully fresh taste I ever had.”

Thereafter, Marchese found herself hooked on the stuff and now has 16 hives and a collection of honeys under her Red Bee Brand, which now sells to chefs, restaurants and cheese and artisan food shops all over the country. Marchese studied honey tasting in Italy.

“In Europe, honey is considered an artisanal product and is treated like wine,” she said. “The philosophy of terrior is as important to honey as it is to wine.”
Terrior is French for earth but in the wine and honey sense, it means that honey, like wine, takes on distinct characteristics determined by the type of nectar gathered by the honeybees, such as clover, dandelions and other plants that are common in a given area.

Marchese has been an apostle for her artisanal honey and launched a collection of between 12 and 14 honeys under her Red Bee Brand and sells her honey to chefs, restaurants and cheese and food shops all over the country. In his book, American Terroir, food writer Rowan Jacobsen devoted a chapter of the book to a visit to her Red Bee Apiary. Marchese also founded the American Honey Tasting Society, to devote the same seriousness to honey that is often reserved for wine tasting.

She doesn’t have to convince Fluehr-Lobban. She is currently selling spring black locust honey, fresh from her hives and the flavor, aroma and complexity of the product is astounding and unlike anything you can find in a supermarket.

More good news:

Membership in the Rhode Island Beekeepers Association is up. As of this spring, 130 people and 91 families have enrolled in the beekeeping schools offered by the association.

According to Marchese, when she joined the Backyard Beekeepers of Connecticut there were around 250 members. As president of the group, she now boasts of 500 members and more coming all the time.

“The backyard beekeepers may play a key role in saving the bees,” said Fluehr-Lobban. “A lot of small colonies is a safer proposition than a very few commercial ones.”

Fluehr-Lobban also reports a great leap of appreciation for bees among the public.

“It used to be that a homeowner would destroy a hive or a swarm on their property. Now, they call us and ask us how to move them,” she said. “They don’t want to kill them anymore.”

The Eastern Apicultural Society (EAS) 2011 Summer Conference is at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, 801 Greenwich Avenue, Warwick. For the conference schedule, visit www.easternapiculture.org/conferences/eas-2011/2011-conference-schedule.html. For more information about beekeeping and beekeeping school, visit www.ribeekeeper.org. 

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