By Sydney O'Shaughnessy
SUMMER: DEER RIVER, NY
The hot sun burns down on the quiet rural town of Deer River, NY. Rich Wakefield, a local apiary owner, wipes the dirt from his brow, puts his hat back on, and walks toward the barn, his work boots digging into the gravel. A big blue 18-wheeler speeds past, air horn blowing, the trucker’s hand gesturing out the truck window.
Rich bats a bee away and watches the truck head on down into the sprawling cornfields just past the rusting bridge that crosses the town’s waterfall.
Deer River is home to very few people, but those who call it home are proud to live there. A small green street sign and a few rundown houses with chipping paint and well-trimmed lawns are the only things that mark it as a town at all. County Route 26 runs straight through, pushing outsiders to bigger places in the distance.
The town hardly changes, always the same names doing the same jobs, making sure that their little part of the world is taken care of. People are always working. In the winter, people hunker down, salt the roads, and drive slowly. Summer is a luxury for everyone. For everyone except the bees, who work extra hard to meet the needs of hungry people.
THE WINTER BEFORE: DEER RIVER, NY
On the corner near the bridge sits a two-story white house, number 4016, with a bright yellow door that has six windows in it. The gravel driveway crunches under the weight of vehicles and leads right up to the unstained porch falling in front of the door. Sun-bleached grey wood is patched throughout the faded brown planks of the porch. Green string lights frame the entire area.
Hanging on the door are two signs:
Producers of Fine Quality Honey – Comb Honey – Beeswax
Richard and Amy Wakefield
CLOSED FOR THE SEASON
Please visit our self-serve box (to your left)
Re-open August 2016
Near the door sits a wicker broom, a snow shovel, and a slice of wood with the name Wakefield burned into it. Bricks are stacked haphazardly to the right of the door, and above the pile is a dark window. On the other side of the door is another dark window with a neon “Honey” sign, also dark. There is no movement at this house but the wind. Behind the dark windows, honey and shiny aluminum equipment are scattered throughout a large room with wooden floorboards that slope toward the center from years of feet walking across them. In March, there are no people at Wakefield Apiaries and, surprisingly, no bees.
In the town that always works, it is surprising to see a fully operational business that is closed. But the Wakefield Apiaries beekeepers are some 800 miles to the south, in South Carolina, checking on their bees.
A couple of hours south of Deer River, Jill Weidman is sitting in a wooden chair looking out the windows to the snow falling from the gray Ithaca sky. She’s wearing a thick wool sweater and jeans. As she talks, she gestures, describing bee flight as easily as the intricate method of making honey. She talks about everything, from her job as the beekeeper to the bee’s job as the pollinator. Working with honeybees has taught her how to listen to their moods and decode their buzzing. Most of the time they seem fine, happy to be collecting pollen and nectar from flowers in the area.
“They really like basswood trees, clover, coneflower, goldenrod,” Weidman says. “Goldenrod honey is like an end-of-summer honey, and they also actually really like Japanese Knotweed, which is invasive. But the bees tend to like a lot of invasives, which is funny when you think about it.”
Honeybees carry what they collect back to the hive. They store it in the honeycombs, those hexagonal cells inside the hives,” she says. “And they try to keep the hive at a certain temperature for survival – and to dehydrate the water out of the honey.” Honey, it turns out, is not much more than dehydrated nectar.
Weidman uses a low-tech, hand-crank machine to extract the honey. “What we do is scrape the wax caps of. Then we put it all in the honey extractor and hand-crank it, which makes it spin around really fast. We spin out the honey.”
After extraction, the honey is strained and bottled. Weidman does not pasteurize her honey. Honey is considered antibacterial and is sometimes still used on wounds to prevent infection. After bottling, the jars are sterilized and packed to ship.
DEER RIVER, NY
The owners of Wakefield Apiaries, Rich and his wife, Amy, are packing to travel south with another truckload of bees. Rich is tall and slender, his face wrinkled with laugh lines. He stands more than six feet tall, and his graying hair shows his age, but he looks no younger, and no older, than the 64 he is. The Wakefields close their business every winter to transport the bees south. Transporting honeybees is unlike trucking any other cargo because of the attention they need to give the little brown and black insects en route.
“We load four hives per pallet and then use the Bobcat to put them on the truck,” he says. Rich pulls his hat down against the biting wind and points to the pallets on the ground near the garage. On each pallet, there are four squares of wood where the beehives will rest on their long journey. The truck can carry about 400 hives at a time, and each winter the Wakefields transport at least that many. But transporting the bees requires more than loading.
“Bees can overheat, especially when there are a lot of bees together at once,” Amy says. “Because the bees are always moving, they generate a lot of heat, but that’s dangerous for the safety of the bees. We don’t want them to overheat. They can’t travel in a closed truck.”
A few steps from the pallets, through a white door into the garage, thick folded tarps are piled on the floor. These tarps, white, dark blue, and purple, are made from a tough woven material. There are small holes in these “bee nets.” After loading the bees onto the truck, Rich and Amy put bee nets over the hives to protect the bees on the road. The holes in the tarps allow heat to escape the hives, and cool air to enter.
“When we are driving, I’m kind of anxious because I don’t want to stop,” Rich says. “I want to get down there as soon as possible so that the bees are all okay. Sometimes it gets too hot, and we need to pull over and spray them down with water.”
Every six hours, about three times a trip, the Wakefields pull into a rest stop to take care of their insect companions. They pull their bright orange medium-duty transport Freightliner truck into a rest area, then spray the entire load down with the first available pressure washer. They angle the spout up at the trailer and spray the bees from all angles. It is important to evenly distribute the water to make sure all of the bees are able to get some. After spraying the bees, the Wakefields pull the truck forward and grab something to drink. Then they are off for another six hours. The goal is to keep all of the bees alive, but on a journey as long as this one, some of them will die.
“We like to keep moving as much as possible,” Amy says. “Putting water on the hives acts as an air conditioner, so we do that when it gets too hot. Most people won’t say this, but we hope for a rainy day when transporting bees.”
Before the couple heads south, Rich Wakefield stands in the middle of the dark room behind the yellow door at number 4016 and scratches his head thinking about the honey-making and bee transportation process.
“What else, what else?” he muses.
The room smells musty and dusty because of the lack of movement in it over the winter months. There are four shiny aluminum circular machines in the middle of the room, and plastic covers the tables during the off-season. Along the ceiling in this room are beeswax slabs. The ceiling lights shine through the beeswax, creating calming soft light. There are bottles of honey scattered about on the counters and cat beds stuffed into the corners.
Rich grabs a honey frame, a foot-long wooden rectangle with honeycomb in the middle, and demonstrates how to place it in the extractor. “The extractor isn’t cleaned yet, but that’s okay because honey is antibacterial, so it’s a safe food. It won’t make anybody sick.”
Rich wipes the side of the extractor. “This is probably strange because I make honey, but I hate being sticky,” he says, rubbing his hands together. “Imagine having sticky hands all the time and then touching everything. We live upstairs, and if I don’t wash my hands all the time, it just becomes a sticky mess,” he laughs.
In the back right of the extracting room, there is a sliding door that leads into another room. This room has an exceptionally tall ceiling and looks like a horse barn with an arched wooden ceiling and wooden floor. Along the walls are an assortment of wooden boxes of different colors.
“These are the honey boxes,” he says. “We call them Supers.”
“Supers” are wooden boxes that can be stacked on top of each other to form what’s called a Langstroth beehive. Langstroth beehives look like short windowless skyscrapers. They are widely used by beekeepers, including the Wakefields, and they can hold a lot of honey.
Beyond this room is the loading dock, a small area with a dirt floor opening to two loading docks. Crates and tools line the walls of the room, and a thick, cheesy, mildly disgusting smell fills the air. “Butyric acid,” Rich says. “Safe for humans and bees. We just use it to get the honey off everything.”
After the 18-hour drive (including the water pit stops for the bees), the Wakefields arrive at their property 15 miles west of Myrtle Beach, SC. Rich jumps down from the truck and stretches. After so many hours of nearly straight driving, he feels stiff and exhausted.
This is one of many trips they will make to South Carolina during the winter months. But the Wakefields do not just transport their bees and leave them. They must return to the south to feed and prepare the bees for the upcoming honey season.
“We only take the strong hives down to South Carolina,” Amy says. “We take them down here and make splits to make up for the bee deaths.”
Each hive that is brought to the south has about 30,000 bees living in it. These strong hives are then “split” into two different hives. Moving the hives to the south allows the Wakefields to extend their season. Instead of waiting until winter is over, they are able to split the hives down south to get a jumpstart on the next honey season.
The Wakefields and thousands of other beekeepers also transport their bees all over the United States in order to pollinate orchards. Because there are not enough native bees to meet agricultural demand, hives must be transported thousands of miles for pollination. Nationwide, tractor-trailers transport over one million bee boxes specifically to pollinate crops. Between October and February, billions of bees are transported to California to pollinate almond trees. Many head south to pollinate crops like blueberries and apples. In the summer, the bees travel regionally to pollinate local food crops.
A couple of days into the stay down south, Rich and Amy split the hives and introduce a new queen so that the hive can become fully operational. They buy queen bees because it is quicker than breeding them.
“The queen bees we buy are still in their little wax cocoons,” Amy says. “We buy them when they are still in their queen cell, and we place them into the new hive right before they hatch.”
After the queen hatches, it has to mate. After the new queen stretches her delicate wings for the first time, she flies away from the hive. Mating takes place up in the air above the hive. Finally, the hives are all set for the next season.
The Wakefields will be back in the south in the next couple weeks to feed the bees a pollen patty, which are big bricks of dark brown, almost reddish pollen that is kept in the freezer until the bees need it.
“I always think of the pollen patty as a big vitamin for the bees,” Rich says. “It helps keep them healthy and strong for the next honey season.”
DEER RIVER, NY
Back in New York, the Wakefields park in the garage by the apiary. Rich yawns, stretches. He and Amy made it to northern Pennsylvania yesterday and woke early to finish the drive today. Transporting bees is nothing new to the couple – they just finished their 35th crop of honey the past season. “We are both exhausted, but in a couple of weeks we’re going to do it all again,” Rich says.
Transporting bees is vital to the survival of thousands of bees and essential to meeting national pollination needs. According to the American Beekeeping Association, honeybees contribute more than $14 billion to the value of U.S. food production.
It seems as though everybody needs bees.
While Rich and Amy tend to their bees down south, another beekeeper from upstate New York, Ted Elk, is also managing his hives through the winter. He is the owner of Many Flowers Apiaries in Hammond, NY, a town about 45 miles north of Deer River. Elk is 60 years old with a booming voice and speaks in stories. He is very dedicated to the customers that he serves.
But honeybees weren’t always his livelihood. Twenty years ago, he found himself in Allegany State Park, dissatisfied with his state job because of budget cuts. In the park to hunt with some friends, he ended up in the middle of the hunting shop surrounded by camouflage, boots, guns, ammunition, and other hunting products – and one white wooden box structure that looked very out of place.
“I didn’t know what it was,” Elk noted. “I just knew it looked like it didn’t belong here.”
The white wooden box turned out to be a beehive, and Elk bought into the honeybee business on a whim. “The beehive was on sale for $100,” Elk said. “Being that I am a cheap person, I offered $50 for the thing, and the guy sold it to me immediately. Looking back, I shoulda offered $25 for it since I knew he was just trying to get rid of it.”
Elk started reading everything he could get his hands on about honeybees and how to make money from them. He also found three mentors. Each taught him something a little different about the business, from how to make it profitable to the actual art of keeping bees. Rich Wakefield also taught Elk about bees, specifically how to keep them healthy. After learning as much as he could about bees and beekeeping, Elk invested in more bees and hives.
“I borrowed $45,000 from my friends 15 years ago,” Elk said. “Now mind ya, that was a long time ago, that was real money back then. I remember telling my mom that I quit my job and bought bees. She couldn’t believe it.”
His mom, now 92 years old, fully supports his business, but at first she could not understand why he was putting so much money into beekeeping. “When I first told her I just spent 50 grand on bees, she was right beside herself,” Elk laughed. “She looked right at me and said, ‘Why would you spend 45 thousand dollars on BUGS?’ and I had to explain to her what beekeeping was and how much money I could make from it.”
Ever since then, Elk has been keeping bees and transporting them down the Eastern Coast to pollinate orchards. Elk thinks that the transportation of bees is a vital part of managing and maintaining an apiary business.
“Orchard owners will pay $150 to $180 per hive to the beekeepers to have them pollinate,” Elk says. “Usually the bees are brought down south to rest during the winter, but during the last three weeks they can sit in the blueberries down there and make some extra money. All vine crops, apples, nut trees, and other things need pollination,” Elk says.
THE STICKY SITUATION
But there are just not enough pollinators – or bees – to go around. Bees are social insects, so if one “catches a cold” the rest of them will, too.
“All bees have mites,” Elk says. “Imagine a school, if one kid catches a cold, they are all going to get a cold. The mites are the same way.”
Varroa mites feed on the bees and infect them with a virus that ultimately kills them. These invasive mites are able to reproduce only in honeybee colonies, and their presence weakens the hive and leads to large-scale losses in bee populations.
In addition to Varroa mites, Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is contributing to honeybee population decline. CCD causes the majority of worker bees to disappear from the hive, thus causing the collapse of the hive.
“When CCD happens, you get no assistance from anyone,” Elk says. “You can start with 800 hives and get ready to go south and then have 400 hives. It’s devastating, and I’m not going to take 50 percent loss on livestock.”
The decrease in honeybee populations could also be occurring because of all the transportation of honeybees. Some beekeepers and researchers think that bringing so many bees from different locations to the same Californian almond orchard facilitates the spread of disease and viruses. Bees are social insects – they fly around together, touch each other while pollinating, communicate by touching. If one bee has a mite, they all will. If one bee is sick, many others will get sick. Residual pesticides also contribute to the large-scale die-offs of bees.
“GMO crops have a hand in it, too, I do believe,” Elk says. “Pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides play a big part in it!”
Elk is worried about his hives and the hives of his fellow beekeepers. If hives perish because of CCD, disease, or pesticides, they lose their livelihoods. The high demand for pollination is difficult to maintain, and many beekeepers, like Elk and the Wakefields, are feeling the strain to keep up. Buying local bee products is very important, Elk notes.
“If you support the local economy, it supports the beekeeper. Our products are quality. You know where it’s coming from. So go seek out a local beekeeper and buy from them.”
SUMMER: DEER RIVER, NY
Rich Wakefield jumps out of his pickup and checks his hives. He pulls out a honey frame, and the bees jump off and start flying around the hive.
“Deer River is a good place to own an apiary,” Wakefield says. “The honey made here is light in color and taste, and there is nothing quite like it.”
This summer there is a lot of work to be done, of course, but in a town like Deer River, the bees, their keepers, and their drivers do not really mind. They will work until the next winter and the next summer and so on until something changes in the hives, until the bees die out, or until people lose their taste for food.
Sydney is a senior environmental science and journalism double major at Ithaca College. She grew up in a rural town in northern New York where she learned to value the environment. She hopes to use her passion about science to inspire and educate others about the intricacies of the natural world. In her free time, she likes to snowboard, cross-stitch and read.