Beekeeper: North Fork bees had trouble producing honey for the winter

BETH YOUNG PHOTO | Laura Klahre tending the bees she keeps in her backyard in Southold.

Vegetables of all kinds suffered this year during a growing season marred by long rainy periods, but many unseen workers in North Fork fields were hurt so badly by this year’s rains that they will have trouble surviving the winter.

Southold beekeeper Laura Klahre’s honeybees have produced less honey this year than at any time since she began beekeeping in 1997. Bees spend the winter eating the honey in their hives, she said, so it’s crucial that beekeepers leave 75 pounds of honey in each hive every fall to keep the bees alive until they can leave their hives and find pollen in the spring.

“It was a very difficult year this year. Honestly, it was the worst year ever,” Ms. Klahre told members of the Long Island North Shore Heritage Area during their annual meeting Wednesday night at the Hotel Indigo in Riverhead.

Ms. Klahre, who incorporated her business, “Blossom Meadow,” in 2009, has 85 hives at six bee yards all over the North Fork.

This year’s trouble began when locust and linden trees, bees’ favorite spring pollen source, were blooming in early spring. Weeks of wet weather kept the bees in their hives and washed pollen from the blossoms, she said. At the time there was still hope for the fall crop of honey. But then another wet period coincided with the fall’s goldenrod and aster blooms, and Ms. Klahre knew her business was in trouble.

“I was able to collect 200 pounds of honey this year from 85 hives,” she said. “That’s nothing. It doesn’t break even by far.”

Ms. Klahre said she understands the nature of going into business with Mother Nature, a temperamental partner at best. She said she can accept that she’ll sell less honey this year, but what really worries her is whether her bees will make it through the winter.

“Eighty percent of the hives don’t have enough honey for the winter,” she said. “I had to go through all 85 hives and make a decision on whether they have enough food sources to overwinter. Twenty percent of them have enough, but they only have enough now because I put all the honey into the strongest hives. I’ll be overwintering 30 or less hives.”

To Wednesday’s meeting Ms. Klahre brought a hive that she and a carpenter friend had taken out of a Victorian house on Main Bayview Road in Southold this summer. After carefully removing all the honeycombs from the walls of the house and putting them in a special observation box to show at educational events, she developed a particular attachment to these bees, who have been accompanying her on educational lectures throughout the North Fork.

But with very little honey now left in their hive, she’s been feeding them sugar water for several days in hopes of keeping them alive as long as possible. She doubts they’ll make it through this month. Her talk Wednesday night seemed almost like a eulogy for the bees.

“I feel so sad that these bees are probably not going to live,” she said. “I get so attached to them, even though I should just treat them like livestock.”

Ms. Klahre said she believes wild bees may be in similar shape going into the winter, though there’s little data available on the health of wild bee populations.

“Because the honeybees are not doing good this year, I don’t think the native bees are as healthy as the year prior,” she said. “2010 was a wonderful year for bees. They flew all the time and were able to collect tons of pollen.”

Unlike the much-publicized nationwide problem of honeybee colony collapse disorder, which first came to light in 2006 and whose cause has still not been identified, Ms. Klahre sees this year’s bee troubles as part of the cycle of the natural world.

“That’s normal. In any population, that’s normal,” she said. “There were a lot of foxes this year, but then in a couple of years they’ll start looking mangy, and then you won’t see them for a while.”

She said that it is becoming more difficult to keep bees on Long Island, in part because of the pesticides widely used on farm fields here.

“I have had hives that have been near conventional farms. Those bees did not do well. In order to farm in a sustainable way, we need to have natural areas so bees can live there,” she said. “Now people are beginning to go back to the older ways, leaving natural areas on their farm fields so the native bees can do the pollination.”

But those native bees are going to need a lot of help. Ms. Klahre said that, of the 775 species of bees known to live east of the Mississippi, about 10 percent haven’t been seen in decades.
“There are 800 bird species in North America,” she said. “If 10 percent of them were missing, people would be freaking out. You’d hear about it everywhere.”

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