It’s not a practice one normally associates with a world-class art museum, but tucked away in a quiet corner of the expansive meadow surrounding the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill sit four beehives.
The honey produced in those hives takes on the flavor profiles of the pollen and nectar collected by the resident bees from the farms, fields and grasslands that lie within a roughly 5-square-mile area surrounding the museum — from nearby orchards and the grape vines at Duck Walk Vineyards to the tupelo trees growing alongside the Long Island Rail Road tracks.
And now, the honey that those bees have worked so hard to make all summer long has been jarred and labeled and is ready to come home for the holidays. The Parrish Art Museum is offering an 8-ounce jar of its site-produced honey to those who purchase a $110 family level membership for themselves or as a gift. Currently, the museum has 10 cases of
honey on-hand — that’s 120 jars in total.
Call it a sweet incentive for supporting the Parrish.
When asked about the honeybee project in a recent phone interview, Chris Siefert, the museum’s interim director, said, “Last year, we sold the honey through the gift shop and sold out. This year, we’re launching an end-of-year annual appeal and offering it as something special for membership.
“I hope we’re generating a lot of buzz,” he added.
The Parrish bees are fortunate in that they have quite an array of food sources well within their flight zone. In addition to the museum’s own 14-acres of wildflowers, grasslands and woodlands, from their home base in the quiet northwest corner of the property they’re also able to roam to a number of choice neighboring spots for what they’re after.
“The bees go on quite a journey and are not limited to the acreage around them. They’re helping to pollinate Pumpkintown across the street and, to the west of us, the vineyard,” Siefert said. “We know they’re flying north to the tupelo trees along the railroad tracks, and you can taste the tupelo in the honey — and all of our meadow flowers they’re helping to pollinate.”
The bees come to the museum’s property courtesy of Tony Piazza, owner of the Southampton-based landscaping firm Piazza Horticultural and a long-time member of the Parrish’s Landscape Pleasures committee. A lot of the design work that Piazza does through his company is environmentally focused, and he often encourages his clients to install honeybees on their property after their garden is complete in order to support the ecosystem.
“We’re trying to help with colony collapse disorder, which is caused by a mite,” explained Piazza in a recent phone interview, referring to a common — and growing — problem in beehives throughout the country. “There are also a lot of chemical issues. The girls don’t know if the orchard was sprayed with something.
“Our company is completely toxic-free. Once people find out about the problems, they want to do what they can do to help,” he added.
Piazza, who is also involved with Edwina von Gal’s Perfect Earth Project, which promotes toxin-free lawns and landscapes, first ventured into beekeeping about six years ago in order to practice what he was preaching to his clients.
“I loved it,” he said. “There’s some intuition involved. The more you’re connected to your natural surroundings, the better you’ll be at beekeeping.”
The idea for establishing beehives at the Parrish came after Piazza moved from Water Mill, where he kept hives on his property, to a home in Southampton Village where he has a much smaller lot and closer neighbors.
“I was without bees for a year,” Piazza said.
But during a conversation with then-Parrish director Terrie Sultan, she suggested that Piazza bring some hives to the museum and in 2019, and he did just that.
“I jumped at the opportunity,” Piazza recalled. “It has everything bees need — an orchard across the street, the meadow and all the native plants — the bees love them. Then there are the tupelos, there are so many of them around the Parrish. They bloom early when the bees really need pollen.”
The scent of the tupelo flower is so strong and it blooms so early in spring, in fact, that Piazza finds it to be an irresistible draw for the bees and he describes the resulting tupelo honey flavor “as having a kind of a deep richness to it that is not as floral as some honey.”
As his experience keeping bees has grown, Piazza has come to truly appreciate the cooperative way in which bee colonies work together toward a shared result.
“I’m super impressed by the efficiency of the community. There’s zero waste and zero tolerance for anything that’s not contributing to the colony — even the drones,” he said. “If the numbers get too high, they’ll dismiss them. That efficiency and focus on a common goal is something I keep in mind a lot in daily life.”
And make no mistake. An individual bee may be tiny in the scheme of things, but throughout the course of its short life — about 21 days — it will literally work its wings off.
“It’s the nectar of the flower they’re after and bees will travel miles to forage,” Piazza said. “It takes quite a bit to fill up each honeycomb cell, and they can have hundreds of different types of pollen in them.”
Summer is primetime for the nectar flow as well as honey production, and that’s when Piazza is able to harvest it for human use. In spring and late fall, honey production becomes minimal and he leaves what is there for the bees, which need it to survive.
“You learn the principles of bee life, and get in tune with the weather. We have cold springs, and when the flowers aren’t blooming early enough, you have to help them out — you may have to do a little extra feeding in late fall or winter.
“They eat sugar, but the interesting thing is, I haven’t had to feed the Parrish bees,” said Piazza, who added that he can tell by picking up the supers — that is, the frames that hold the combs and the honey — if they’re too light going into the winter to sustain the bees through the cold months.
“I leave a lot of honey. I could’ve probably taken a third more,” Piazza said. “It’s a great spot. The hives are so productive. We’ve gotten 260 pounds of honey — for four hives, that’s a lot.”
Honey, it turns out, is a product that will never go bad as long as the water content is low enough and Piazza notes that honey discovered in Egyptian tombs was still edible. He explains that honey is harvested by piecing the wax cap of honeycomb cells. The comb is then placed in a centrifugal spinner to draw the honey out. The combs are then replaced in the hives and reused by the bees for several years. The wax caps are used to make candles, lip balm or other products, though Piazza hasn’t yet gotten to that point in his own beekeeping efforts.
Though the Parrish hives have been incredibly productive in the short time they have occupied space in the field, it hasn’t all gone as planned.
“I’ve had losses. Two of the hives at the Parrish died last summer from the parasitic Varroa mite which attaches to adult bees and lays eggs in the comb,” Piazza said. “They weaken the bees to the point where a lot of them die, and if they go unchecked, they can weaken a colony and it can collapse.”
When that happens, the bees must be replaced with a nuc, which is short for nuclear, a starter-package of sorts that includes a young queen and a cluster of 5,000 to 10,000 bees that build out to 50,000 or 60,000 bees. In an effort to head-off future problems, Piazza checks regularly for the presence of mites by slipping a board under the open hives where dead mites will collect.
“When you pull it out you can see the dead mites and count the number. If you have more than three per square inch, you have to treat it with a natural acid, like one used to control ants. It’s lethal to mites but not bees. When I have to do that, I call a master beekeeper in.”
With winter setting in, Piazza is preparing to battle another enemy — mice, which love settling into beehives when they are warm and full of food. He has guards that fit on the hives to keep them out.
In the natural cycle of the season, as the weather gets colder, the population of the hive will shrink to 5,000 bees. Their off-season job as attendants is to surround the queen and keep her warm by fluttering their wings and shaking to create energy and maintain a constant temperature of 92 degrees in the hive.
It’s an amazing process and the more he learns about caring for bees, the more Piazza understands how to relate to them on a much more intuitive level.
“You can irritate the hive if you’re too quick with your motion,” Piazza said. “When working with the bees, your breathing slows down and you become so hyper-focused on what you’re doing, they sense it.
“Bees are not aggressive, but they are protective,” he added, “and that’s when you really want to be careful and talk nice.”
To learn more about the Parrish Art Museum’s honey for memberships program, visit parrishart.org or call 631-283-2118. The museum is at 279 Montauk Highway in Water Mill.