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Bees Also Have Needs in Winter

Thu, 01/26/2023 - 11:12
During the winter, Mary Woltz routinely checks on her “girls,” as she calls her bees, making sure they have enough honey.
Christopher Gangemi

On the top of a hill in Water Mill, overlooking the Wesnofskes’ acres of fields off Cook Lane, Mary Woltz, the beekeeper behind Bees’ Needs, was shepherding a clumsy cold-stunted honeybee back into its hive.

“Yeah, sweetheart, there we go,” she said to the bee as she ferried it back to the hive on her finger.

There are three hives there, each looking like a weathered stack of drawers with no chest, nestled into tall yellow grasses. In each box, nine “frames” hang, full of wax, honey, and between 20,000 and 100,000 bees (numbers vary with the season).

It was 43 degrees and misty, not “bee weather,” but the sun had made an appearance a few minutes earlier.

When the temperature dips, honeybees produce their own warmth. “They jiggle their wing muscles to generate heat. They’re cold blooded,” said Ms. Woltz, in her light North Carolinian accent.

While the bees are mostly hive-bound and slowed by the cold of winter, it’s not a time of rest for a beekeeper.

She put her ear to a stack. “They each have their own tone,” she said of the drone that was audible through the wall. “It’s like they’re meditating in there.” She admitted to sometimes visiting her “girls” just to say hello.

“I miss them, too,” she said. But in the winter, she visits mostly to check on the health of the hives.

“I’ve had so much happen to my bees in past winters.”

For example, once she found an empty frame from which someone had removed the wax and honey. “The bees could have starved if I hadn’t discovered it,” she said.

Ms. Woltz refers to the overwintering colony as “the Big She” and hives, in general, as “her” because females far outnumber males. In fact, the winter colony is all female. Males are kicked out because they have the bad habit of defecating in the hive. Females politely hold it in and wait for a warm day to go outside to do their business.

A few feet from the hives is a water tray; hydrating is another warm day activity for the bees.

She has been tending to the bees’ needs for the last 20 years. In 12 locations spread across the East End she currently maintains about 40 hives. For her first eight years, she had around 100 hives.

Honeybees overwinter in their hives. “Most bees are isolated, are solitary. The honeybee has figured out a way to overwinter as a colony,” she said. “She produces everything she needs to make it through the winter. They produce honey not for us, as most people think, but for themselves. It’s their carbohydrate source.”

The bees eat the honey. Not all beekeepers are as thoughtful as Ms. Woltz however, and instead, take all the bees’ honey and feed them sugar water or high fructose corn syrup, or worse. “They can turn that into honey, but it doesn’t have all the micronutrients and all the things that make honey so special.”

Ms. Woltz bent down to lift each stack slightly, gauging its weight. If it’s heavy enough she knows there’s enough honey inside. A box full of capped honey weighs 40 pounds.

“The most important thing I do in the winter is to treat them for Varroa mites,” she says. Varroa mites are a parasite which, if left untreated, can ultimately lead to the death of a colony. “You have to do it when there’s no brood in there,” she says.

Using a marine battery, she vaporizes oxalic acid and fumigates the hive.

No, she does not mess around.

A summertime bee lives only about six weeks. “Their wings have a lifespan of about 500 miles,” she says. To produce one of her eight-ounce jars of honey a group of bees must fly approximately 25,000 miles, or once around the Earth. The honeybee literally works herself to death.

When Ms. Woltz is not out checking on her “girls,” she is busy building frames in her tiny workshop that’s suffused with the smell of pine and beeswax.

The frame is a simple rectangle, 19 by 6.25 inches, made of pine, with a single wire running through the middle, lengthwise, which holds the foundation. The foundation is a thin, cream-colored, sheet of wax, the canvas on which the bee artist will make her preferred design, the hexagon, with her preferred medium, wax.

Ms. Woltz builds each frame by hand.

“One winter I built 70,” she says, enough to fill nearly eight boxes.

Each spent frame is different. In each hive stack, a few boxes are reserved for egg laying. They’re called the brood boxes. Those frames are darker. “Each bee leaves her cocoon behind as she emerges from the cell. These cocoons attract wax moths, which create a mess,” said Ms. Woltz.

The rest of the frames are solely used to store honey, and they have a lighter color. Some frames are perfectly filled, others show a hole or two in the wax. Another has likely been nibbled by a mouse that somehow evaded a wire guard that is installed on each hive.

In her shop, Ms. Woltz removes the wax from damaged frames. A black plastic bag serves as a window and heaves with wind. Through it, the sound of 1,000 grackles can be heard calling from the Wesnofske fields.

“That’s the advantage of working in a cold room, the wax pops out easily,” she says, dropping cracked and broken wax into a white bucket, which she’ll burn in a buried 50-gallon drum up on the hill. Other beekeepers might use plastic foundations, which are less labor intensive. Not she. “I would never use plastic in the hives,” she said.

Ms. Woltz learned beekeeping from Gunther Hauk, co-founder of the Pfeiffer Center in Chestnut Ridge, N.Y., when she was the garden manager, in 2002 and 2003. When she left, she moved to the East End to work for the Hamptons Honey Company before starting her own. Mr. Hauk went on to begin Spikenard Farm, a nonprofit honeybee sanctuary in Floyd, Va.

“I became enraptured with the honeybees and spent all my energy working with and learning how I could help them,” she said. “I’m a scientist at heart, I think. I have records of every visit I’ve made to my hives for the last 20 years. I have weather reports for the last 20 years,” she says, paging through a worn notebook with beautiful, long-fingered hands so calloused she doesn’t feel stings anymore.

“Working hands,” she says. 

“When I was 5, my grandmother drew numbers on each of my fingers so I could learn to play the piano.”

She holds up a frame that needs repair. “She lives in a medicine chest, honey, pollen, and propolis. She glues everything together with it,” Ms. Woltz said of the propolis, breaking off a rust-colored chunk from a frame. The smell is dense, of concentrated beeswax. “I don’t like being sticky,” she says, before spraying her fingers with water.

But she wears no protection on her hands when handling the bees. When a honeybee stings, it loses its life. “So much more is at stake for them,” she said.

“All this stuff here, this is for the beekeeper, not the bees,” she said of the boxes, frames, and strips of foundation that fill her workshop. “That’s why my company is called Bees’ Needs. It’s about them. I put their needs first.”

“Honeybees aren’t in trouble because they’re easy.”

Ms. Woltz’s honey can be bought at Naturally Good in Montauk, Balsam Farms and Quail Hill Farm in Amagansett, Marders in Bridgehampton, Serene Green in Sag Harbor, and Green Thumb in Watermill.

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