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Feat Honeybees

by Kathryn Boughton

It came to her naturally and she is determined to keep it that way. Jan Johnson is following in the footsteps of her father and grandfather as a third-generation beekeeper and is working to keep her product as pure as it was in the days of her predecessors.

Johnson operates Berkshire Wildflower Honey as part of Mill River Farm, a diversified organic farm located at 282 Brewer Hill Road, Mill River MA “When I moved to Great Barrington and everyone was talking about bee colony collapse and the need for bees, it really resonated with me. I thought it would be a fun hobby and would be good for the environment. I’ve been beekeeping for eight years now.”

She is a connoisseur of honey. “We sell three honeys: all from wildflowers, but one where we add cinnamon and a whipped honey version that is finely crystallized. We also have beeswax skin care products and beeswax candles—all made right here in the kitchen.”

She noted, for instance, that clover produces a “light, amber colored” honey with a mild, floral flavor. “The longer the blossom is in formation, the more minerals the honey contains. You find all the minerals you find in a vitamin pill in honey, except in teeny-tiny amounts.”

She does not filter her honey so all the nutrients remain.

Johnson has spent eight years learning about her tiny charges and helping others to understand them, too. She studied at Cornell’s Dyce Laboratory for Honeybee Studies, becoming certified as a Master Beekeeper.

She describes her classes at Cornell as being “fabulous,” opening a window into the science surrounding colony collapse, a mysterious event that causes bees to become disoriented and abandon their hives. The phenomenon threatens agriculture because bees are needed to pollinate crops.

“There are a number of problems plaguing honeybees,” she said. “When my father and grandfather were keeping bees, you got your bees installed, took out the honey and next year, the bees were still there.” But now, because of the bee-killing Varroa mite, hives are under constant attack. Commercial beekeepers medicate their hives to eliminate the mites, often affecting the bees as well as the parasites. And that is not their only exposure to synthetic toxins.

Honeybees range up to five mile in search of pollen, foraging on plants on neighboring properties that have been treated with herbicides and pesticides, and bringing these pollutants back to the hive.

“We don’t medicate,” she said flatly. “We’re an organic farm and organic means not using synthetic chemicals, pesticides or herbicides. But our bees are out in the neighborhood and they come back disoriented. The root of the problem seems to be the commercial urge to take shortcuts. History has taught us pay for that.”

“These pesticides have been out-right banned in many countries where they are seeing a reduction in colony collapse,” she said. “But our government has allowed compromises, letting chemicals be sprayed on plants and around bees. Their feeling is that if the bees don’t die in a short time, it is all right. But the chemicals can build up in the wax and have a toxic effect over a couple of generations.”

She said there is “ample evidence” that this is a serious problem, but that major companies such as Monsanto promote synthetic substances.

Cornell, on the other hand, has found that beeswax contains all kinds of chemicals, most introduced by the beekeepers themselves. “Medicating has gotten out of control,” she said, referring to a pad impregnated with a miticide that releases vapors into the hive. “It kills the mites, but it also warns that it can kill some bees. You’re supposed to wear gloves, put something over your nose, and wash your clothes after. I don’t want poisonous vapors near my honey.”

Johnson said this maker her honey more expensive than supermarket varieties, because her un-medicated bees die off from mites. “Our honey is artisanal, handmade, but it also costs more because I replace so many colonies. Eventually, they will build up a resistance to the mites.”

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