Keeping Bees on Long Island

Written by Amy Gernon  |  08. May 2012


Did you think humans were the only highly socialized creatures making a living on Long Island?  Then let me introduce you to Apis mellifera, the honeybee.  
Children learn that flowers need soil, sunlight and water to grow, but most plants also require one more very important piece to the puzzle: pollinators.  Pollinators are animals and insects that carry pollen grains between individual plants, thus playing a major role in plant reproduction and maintaining biological diversity among plant offspring.  Without the honeybee, whose species accounts for 80 percent of all cross-pollination, your backyard flower bed would be a lot less beautiful.
“I’ve noticed that in my own neighborhood the flowering trees have grown substantially in the past five years since I’ve had the bees,” said Wayne Vitale, Vice President of the Long Island Beekeepers Club.  The club was originally founded in 1949 as the Suffolk County Farm Bureau Bee Club, and today hosts a variety of educational programs and beginning beekeeping classes.  There are approximately 200 backyard beekeepers on Long Island, and about half of them are club members.
Vitale manages 25 honeybee colonies at the Spy Coast Bee Farm in Setauket.  Honey bees live in complex eusocial societies where the queen bee reproduces while the workers and drones do not.  Bees live in both natural and artificial hives, in which they produce honeycombs made from a wax secreted by their abdominal glands.
Unlike most beekeepers Vitale reers his own queen bees, which he makes available along with nucleus colonies to other local beekeepers.  “This keeps local Long Island bees on Long Island.” Vitale explains.  The alternative, transporting bees from other parts of the country, enables the rapid spread bee diseases and parasites, such as africanizing behavior, parasitic mites and flies and hive beetles.  (Photo credit: Wayne Vitale, Spy Coast Bee Farm)
Monoculture crops have recently been linked to disorders among honeybee species.  It is theorized that a combination of genetically-modified plant pollen and the supplementation of honey with nutrient-poor corn syrup is disrupting honey bee digestion (the main feature of honey production) and wreaking havoc on honey bee populations in the United States and Europe.  This phenomenon is called colony collapse disorder.
According to the Long Island Beekeepers Association, there are no reports of CCD on Long Island.  Fortunately for honey bees around here, Long Island is not blighted by huge expanses of monoculture crops, as you could expect to see in the midwest.  This gives Long Island bees the advantage of accessing biologically diverse pollen from many plant species to produce richer, healthier honey.  
The most popular byproduct of the bees’ pollinating efforts is the production of sweet, syrupy honey.  Honey is the only insect-created food consumed by man, and it’s so sweet that humans are willing to overlook the fact that it is created through a repetitive regurgitation of nectar collected from local plants and trees by a group of bees, over and over again, until it becomes partially digested and most of the water content is evaporated.  On average, a single hive will collect 66 pounds of pollen each year, and some hives can produce as much as 300 pounds of honey each year.  The honey is used as a food source for the bees all year long.  
Humans have been collecting honey for at least 8,000 years, as evidenced by cave paintings depicting wild honey harvesting in Valencia, Spain.  Ancient egyptians used honey to sweeten their biscuits and other foods.  Honey was also used in ancient China and by Mesoamerican tribes.  In past millennia many other applications, besides sweetening a cup of tea, have been assigned to honey.  
For starters, consuming local honey can prevent reactions to plant allergens.  Honey also serves as a powerful antiseptic and antioxidant.  A popular trend in beauty products is the use of natural beeswax skin care products.  Bee venom therapy is used to treat some cases of arthritis, neuralgia, Multiple Sclerosis, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.  
“Over 30 percent of the food we eat is pollinated by honeybees,” Vitale said.  While backyard beekeeping is not yet commonplace on Long Island, Vitale has definitely noticed an increased awareness of the importance of honeybees.  “I field calls all day long from farms and people once afraid of bees, calling us to come get a swarm and we make a hive out of it,” Vitale said.  
The other benefits of beekeeping? In addition to the rewarding and educational aspects of beekeeping, “I find it extremely relaxing to go into my apiary and work with the girls, and manipulate hives so I can care for them properly,” Vitale told us.  He says his neighbors have thanked him for bringing bees back into the world, but from Vitale’s perspective it’s the bees who are “doing good deeds for mankind.”
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