April 21, 2021
Quentin Stedman has kept bees at Gwenyn Hill since 2018, our second year into transitioning the farm to organic. We knew that as we developed the farm, establishing prairies, orchards, gardens, and pastures, our crops would benefit from an abundance of pollinators. We also knew that Gwenyn Hill Farm would be 430 acres of diverse, organically grown crops, essentially a honeybee’s banquet. But there was so much more we did not know!
We had christened the farm with a Welsh name, Gwenyn Hill, Honeybee Hill in English. With a name like that, what choice did we have? Our first livestock would be honeybees. As much as a flock of sheep or a herd of cattle, except smaller and more complex, bees are considered livestock by none other than the USDA. Not in a position to learn all that was needed to successfully raise thousands of tiny “livestock,” I needed a professional: Quentin Stedman. Quentin had been keeping bees in the neighborhood for several years. His honey is raw and natural, and his beekeeping methods can be characterized the same way. A fierce promoter of keeping bees, he loves to educate anyone who expresses an interest. This passionate beekeeper would be a good fit for Gwenyn Hill Farm.
The first hives he placed on the farm were high on the hill overlooking the sheep barn. Bright and white, they were a declaration to anyone who drove into the valley that “Bees Live Here!” It proved to be a decision made with more passion than practicality. Bees need regular tending and the steep slope was impossible to traverse after even the lightest rain. Then there was the icy wind that welcomed the bees on their first day. It felt like January in April, and was a harbinger of more winds to come. We soon learned that this prominent site caught the wind from nearly every direction. By the next spring only 50% of the hilltop hives were viable. Quentin moved the surviving hives to more accessible, sheltered locations. Sadly, most are not visible from the road.
Quentin will be keeping 17 hives here this year. The bees at Gwenyn Hill are a success story, but not without challenges. Each winter, hives that appear to be thriving in the fall, fail by spring. Nationwide, the average hive loss year to year is close to 50%. While Quentin’s survival record is above average, he says every loss is painful. Genetics can play a big part in survival and Quentin prefers strains from Minnesota and Washington Island when he has to bring in new bees and queens. He also has a whole bag of creative tricks to protect them from virus carrying mites and marauding hornets and ants. What he can’t protect them from, though, are the poisons we humans put into the environment. Quentin’s bees may have an organic banquet outside their door, but he can’t keep them from leaving the farm to forage. Bees routinely travel over two miles in search of pollen and nectar.
One of the most insidious and pervasive toxins in the environment is a class of insecticides called neonicotinoids. They act as neurotoxins, disrupting an insect’s nervous system. Bees exposed to “neonics” can become disoriented, unable to fly, or can bring the toxin into the hive where it can affect the development of baby bee brains. The EU has banned its use since 2018, but regulations in the US are piecemeal, state by state, and not very restrictive. It can be introduced to a plant through spraying, through application as a seed coating, or by drenching the soil. It moves so easily through a plant that the coating on a seed can result in the chemical being detected in plant pollen weeks later during flower. Even your backyard could be a toxic place for bees since neonics are routinely used in greenhouse plant production. At garden centers, look or ask for “neonicotinoid free” or, better yet, certified organic transplants so you are not unwittingly contributing to the decline of bees. Gwenyn Hill will have some common vegetables and a few flowers for sale in May.
I asked Quentin if he has seen Colony Collapse Disorder, CCD, in his hives. It is the phenomenon of a hive simply disappearing suddenly, without a trace. CCD has gotten a lot of press and scientific study over the past decade, but no definitive single cause has been identified. Quentin can’t say whether his hives suffered CCD or simply declined for other reasons, but he notes that there’s no guarantee in beekeeping and every drop of honey seems like a precious miracle.
Ironically, as beekeeping gets harder, selling honey gets easier. Demand has increased dramatically as honey lends its healthy, natural reputation to everything from breakfast cereal to shampoo. I recently watched an expose on worldwide honey production (Episode 1 of the Netflix series “Rotten”) and was amazed at what a global industry honey has become. Unsurprisingly, with global demand comes global fraud. Honey is valuable, corn and rice sweeteners are cheap. Detecting honey that has been cut with neutral sweeteners is hard. It is easy to see where this is going. A frightening amount of the honey traded around the world is not pure. While it takes a sophisticated chemist to identify adulterated honey, it only takes a mathematician to calculate that there is vastly more honey than there are bees to produce it. As with anything else, know your farmer!
Honey is one of the most popular products sold at the Farmstand at Gwenyn Hill. When something becomes a commodity, it is human nature to search for and appreciate the artisanal. National brand honey lines the shelves of chain grocery stores but Gwenyn Hill honey, light and more delicate at times, darker and robust at others, is a product of this place, with terroir. If you enjoy the subtle differences in seasonal honeys, you might appreciate the work of The American Honey Tasting Society. Their mission is to help cultivate the high art of honey tasting and appreciation.
The more I learn about honey the more mysterious and mystical it seems. I’d like to end with a little prayer for Gwenyn Hill’s bees.
As spring becomes summer,
may the breeze be gentle,
the sun be warm, and the flowers many,
more often than not.
Linda Halley is Gwenyn Hill Farm’s General Manager, and not even qualified to be a novice “sommelier” of honey.