The Buzz About Bees

Mary Woltz's bees. (Daniel Gonzalez photo).
Mary Woltz’s bees. (Daniel Gonzalez photo).

By Annette Hinkle

This winter has been hard on everyone. But for Mary Woltz, the challenges have gone far beyond simply shoveling and making sure there’s enough firewood on hand.

That’s because Ms. Woltz is a beekeeper — a job that doesn’t end just because the pollination season has.

“I go out and check on the hives every couple weeks all through the winter,” explains Ms. Woltz, who currently has hives at Quail Hill Farm, Marder’s Nursery, Country Gardens and The Green Thumb in Water Mill. “Some of them were almost completely buried by the first storm – just the top of the hive was showing.”

“The snow insulates the hives, but if it turns to ice it suffocates the bees,” she adds. “They’re eating honey and they release carbon dioxide, so the entrance to the hive has to be clear to circulate air.”

“Every night I meditate on them,” she adds.

Because they’re cold blooded, bees can’t hibernate, explains Ms. Woltz, but they do go into a torpor state in winter. Honey sustains them through winter and the bees shake their wing muscles to generate heat, keeping the internal temperature of the hive at 55 degrees. Like penguins, the bees rotate position so those on the edges of the hive at some point move into the warm center.

“The queen starts laying again when the temperature in the hive goes to 95 degrees, regardless of the temperature outside,” says Ms. Woltz.

Mary Woltz, owner of Bees’ Needs apiary, clearly loves her girls, as she calls them — and for good reason. From their orienteering skills and their ability to communicate with one another to surviving the kind of winter we’ve just had, bees are amazing creatures that never cease to amaze.

They are also incredibly productive and on Thursday, March 19, Ms. Woltz will be at the John Jermain Memorial Library in Sag Harbor to talk about bees — including the many useful products they gather and make — from beeswax and honey to propolis and pollen.

“The primary function farmers are concerned with are pollination services,” explains Ms. Woltz. “But they also perform services on other levels.”

Among those services is the distribution of formic acid, which is vital for breaking down organic matter and revitalizing soil. It’s just one of many tasks taken on by worker bees — all of which are female. Busy as a bee may be a cliché, but it also happens to be the truth.

Consider this: a queen can lay 1,500 eggs a day in the height of the season. With an average of 50,000 bees per hive, Ms. Woltz notes bees live highly productive, but extremely short, lives. The average lifespan of a worker bee in the summer is just six weeks.

“For the first half of their life, they’re raising or feeding the young, feeding the queen, building wax combs, guarding entrances, fanning to keep the hive cool, cleaning it and carrying out dead bees,” explains Ms. Woltz. “They have a 500 mile lifespan and their wings literally start shredding from work. One of their last tasks is collecting water, which is very dangerous, so the older ones do it. The second three weeks is spent foraging for water, nectar, pollen and propolis – which is like a resin.”

Propolis, which is known as bee glue, acts as a sealant and strengthener which reinforces the hive’s structural stability. It’s not something bees can produce, but it’s vital to the health of the colony.

“It’s anti-fungal, anti-viral and anti-bacterial,” she explains. “They get it from evergreens and buds — propolis is what keep buds from rotting in spring when they are moist and warm.”

While historically, there were plenty of native bees to handle pollination needs in this country, in recent decades beekeepers like Ms. Woltz have become increasingly vital in maintaining the health of the bee population.

Blame it on an Asian mite which invaded the United States in the late 1980s, causing half of managed bee colonies and nearly all feral colonies in this country to collapse.

“We’re still recovering from that,” says Ms. Woltz who adds that since 2006, colony collapse has been exacerbated by modern cloning and grafting techniques which have weakened the bees gene pool.

So it makes you wonder, what would happen if there were no bees?

“Our diet would change for sure,” says Ms. Woltz. “We’d only have corn and bread. Most of our vitamin content is from fruits and vegetables. One in three bites of food we eat had a bee involved.”

Then there’s honey, of course, which will be one of the bee products Ms. Woltz will talk about at the library. She is excited by the 2009 book “The Honey Revolution” (by Ron Fessenden and Mike McInnes) which makes the case for it being the perfect food for feeding the brain.

“It’s the gold standard because of the glucose/fructose ratio which is converted to glycogen in the liver which feeds the brain,” explains Ms. Woltz. “They say eating honey before bed helps you sleep through the night. You also dream better and it helps long term memory storage. The repair is all done at night.”

Ironically, while honey is the first thing that comes to mind, so to speak, when most people think about bees, that wasn’t the case for Ms. Woltz.

“Honey was the last thing I got interested in,” she says. “Now I’m finding things to love about honey.”

The bees, of course, were already a given.

“Bees: Gift From the Hive” is from 7 to 8 p.m. on Thursday, March 19, 2015 at the John Jermain Memorial Library, 34 West Water Street, Sag Harbor. Call (631) 725-0049 to preregister.