The Secret Life of Bees

Beekeeper Mary Woltz works with her bees on the grounds of Marders Nursery last month. Michael Heller photos

For Mary Woltz, it was love at first sting.

The year was 2002, and she was standing next to Gunther Hauk in the garden at the Pfeiffer Center, a research and training facility in biodynamic agriculture in Chestnut Ridge, New York. He was a pioneer in alternative apiculture and honeybee expert and, at the time, she was his assistant.

Without a veil or protective gear, he showed her how the bees could become her friends, her co-workers, and her mentors.

And then he told her that they were dying.

“When I saw his beautiful relationship with the bees and he shared how much trouble the bees were in, that really awakened something inside of me that, I don’t know, I felt like I had found what I had been looking for all those years: something I could sink my teeth into and a cause that I was eager to champion and spend the rest of my life pursuing,” she said, in almost a singular breath, before launching into the syndrome that is Colony Collapse Disorder.

Mary Woltz and her bees.

The bee crisis began in the late 1980s, when varroa and tracheal mites were inadvertently introduced to the United States. The parasites had already taken their toll on Europe in the 1970s and, today, it is the varroa mite that continues to plague the bee population. They suck the bees’ blood and transmit a variety of viruses that eventually kill bees that are crucial to the colony’s survival through the winter.

While awareness of the honeybee and her plight has grown, it does not come close to acknowledging the “devastating consequences” of Colony Collapse Disorder if it continues at this rate — which ranges from 50 to 80 percent annual losses, Woltz said.

“The bees are involved in one in every three bites of food we eat,” she said. “The bees are not responsible for pollinating the grasses, so wheat, corn, rice, we’d still have those. But all the things that provide our vitamins and minerals — the fruits, the vegetables — that’s what would be affected. And tangentially, since bees can pollinate alfalfa and clover, which feed our cattle stock, it’s a direct or indirect relationship that the bees have to one in three bites of food we eat. That’s serious.”

To help ramp up bee populations, some think the best approach is starting up colonies of their own, though Woltz — owner of Bees’ Needs artisanal honey company in Sag Harbor — urges they exercise caution.

“People think, ‘Oh, beekeeper, that’s cute. How hard could that be? The bees are doing all the work,’” she said with a laugh. “They would be wrong. Only get a hive if you know what you’re getting into. Take lessons and learn as much as you can about them. I know what it feels like to be overwhelmed — believe me, I’ve done it. Always remember it’s their world that we’re entering. They’ve been doing it a long time. If you want to help, know how to help, or at least have a sense of it.”

On any given day, Woltz is extracting, bottling, labeling, delivering and selling her own honey, which has won the Good Food Award for three years running. She regularly checks on her colonies, which are split up among 13 different locations across the East End. They can stretch six to eight boxes high, some of them weighing as much as 40 pounds, housing hundreds of thousands of bees.

But unless she’s working with a particularly cranky colony, she doesn’t wear any protective gear — much like Gunther Hauk.

“They are my friends, they are my co-workers. I don’t wear a Hazmat suit to visit my friends, why would I do that for the bees, really?” she mused. “And the other aspect is, by leaving myself vulnerable to them, I have a better way of feeling their vulnerability. It’s a sacred moment when I am able to just pop the top off this thriving colony of 100,000-plus beings. I enter their world.

“A slip of my hive tool and I squash them,” she continued. “They’re at my mercy, if you will. By being at their mercy – so I will suffer the consequences of my errors – makes me more careful. It reminds me of the sacredness of my relationship by not being protected.”

At one time, Woltz cared for 100 hives. As of last year, she is down to 48 — marking her first real loss.

She is still devastated.

“I’m in the process of getting over it,” she said. “I can’t say I have a favorite bee yard any more I can say I have a favorite hive, but one yard that had just been so wonderful and amazing — my yard at Marders Nursery — I lost all but one of my 12 colonies there. I still drive up, I have eight colonies there now, but I drive up and I just cry because these hives I’ve worked with for years are suddenly gone. But you have to move on.

“I have to remind myself the whole reason I became a beekeeper was to try to help them,” she said. “So if it gets tough and I quit, what does that say?”

As she prepares herself for winter — physically, mentally and otherwise — she finds she can now relate to and empathize with fellow beekeepers and the psychological trauma they often experience every spring.

For that, she knows it was important for her to experience, and only heightened her resolve.

“I just love them. I love my bees. I have such deep respect for their relationship with one another, how they work together to achieve staggering things. A pound of honey represents 50,000 flight miles. That’s twice around the earth just to collect the nectar that goes into that honey,” she said. “I often say, the bees taught me everything. They taught me how to work with them and I worry about the world we’ve created that is increasingly hostile to their well-being.

“We brought trouble to them, and it is our responsibility to help them face it.”

For more information about Mary Woltz and Bees’ Needs, visit

Goldenrod is a favorite of the bees, located in the field near the hives as beekeeper Mary Woltz works with her bees on the grounds of Marders Nursery.

Know Your Honey, And What It Can Do For You

There are a shocking number of crooks in the honey business, according to Mary Woltz of Bees’ Needs in Sag Harbor, so pay attention to ingredient lists — and be wary of any “infused” labels.

“I do as little as possible to interfere with a product that my honeybees have made that is perfect,” she said. “I can do nothing to enhance the honey; I can only damage it. It’s a huge responsibility that I take very seriously.”

As long as it’s raw, honey comes packed with a wide range of health benefits.

1) Honey can counter pollen allergies.

Raw honey contains pollen, collected by local bees from the very flowers that cause you to suffer. When you consume that honey, you’re also ingesting the same offending pollen, which may make you less sensitive to this pollen over time.

Think of it as a tasty allergy shot.

2) Honey is a natural energy source.

Comprised of approximately 80 percent sugar, 18 percent water and 2 percent minerals, vitamins, pollen and protein, it’s not surprising that honey has been called “the perfect running fuel.” It was actually used in ancient Greece by runners in the Olympic Games.

3) Honey is an antioxidant powerhouse.

Studies have shown that a daily dose of honey can boost your immune system by raising antioxidant levels. It contains polyphenols, which have been shown to reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease.

4) Honey can help with dandruff.

Apply a diluted solution of honey and water to the scalp, leave it on for a few hours and studies have shown it can significantly help with dandruff and scalp itch, thanks to its antifungal, anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties.

Some people have even reported that skin lesions completely heal after just a couple weeks of this remedy, while others say they saw an improvement in counteracting hair loss.

5) Honey can kick start your libido.

Honey is a natural aphrodisiac, helping men produce more testosterone and women with their estrogen levels. The Vikings subscribed to this philosophy, believing that honey and fertility were linked, as did the Greeks and Chinese.