On a bright, breezy April Sunday, beekeeper Robin Blackley has discovered an invader amid her beehives.
"There's a wasp," says Blackley, 62, of Southampton. It's been making a nest in her apiary, or bee yard, and needs to be terminated.
Blackley, who has been a beekeeper for 25 years, crouches down and uses her bare fingers to pick up the critter by its wings. "Wasps are carnivorous and will kill and eat honey bees," she says.
She steps on the wasp, then returns to her day's task, transferring a 3-pound package of new honey bees to one of the rows of hives she keeps on this East End organic farm.
As Blackley works, bees circle around her head and land on the arms of her blue workshirt. Like others in her trade, Blackley wears a protective bee helmet and a veil. However, she doesn't wear gloves. Working barehanded "gives me a better feel for what I'm doing," she says. "I work with apis mellifera, which is basically the honey bee."
Unlike the similarly colored yellow jackets, which are a kind of wasp, honey bees "are not aggressive unless disturbed." Nevertheless, exercising caution, Blackley pumps a bellows connected to a stainless-steel smoker. The sweet-smelling smoke from smoldering pine needles and dried leaves distracts the bees from attacking the intruder.
What her bees pollinate
You may not have observed Blackley toiling in the farm fields on the East End, but if you've purchased produce or honey from a farm stand, you've probably seen the result of her work. Her bees pollinate apple orchards, pumpkin and strawberry patches and organic vegetable fields on about 10 farms from Jamesport to Amagansett.
Products gleaned from her hives are sold through her website, eastendapiaries.com, at farm stands or personally by Blackley in farmers markets throughout the South Fork.
She says it's not a lucrative career, nor without other challenges. Freezing winters, parasites, pesticides and something called Colony Collapse Disorder threaten her bees and consequently her livelihood as a beekeeper.
Blackley's work year begins in March, when she checks the hives to make sure there's enough bee food (bees eat honey and pollen, or a special sugar water she makes). It's a full-time job from April or May, depending on the weather (bees don't fly unless air temperature is above 50 degrees), through late autumn.
East End farmers appreciate her efforts. "There are very few people that are willing to take the time and energy that is required in beekeeping," says Amy Halsey, a member of the East End farming family that owns The Milk Pail, a fresh market on the Bridgehampton-Water Mill border. Blackley's bees pollinate the apple, pumpkin and peach crops at The Milk Pail's Bridgehampton orchard. "Without bees, we don't have most of what we eat," says Halsey, who has a degree in horticulture from SUNY Cobleskill. Sold in glass containers, Blackley's raw honey flies off the shelves at the market, says Halsey.
Blackley didn't grow up dreaming of life as a beekeeper. Quite the opposite. "I was always afraid of bees," she says. As a young girl, she'd been stung by a hornet; she didn't know the difference between bees and the more aggressive stinging insects.
She wanted to become an artist after graduating from Walt Whitman High School in Huntington Station. So, Blackley studied lost-wax casting at Arizona State University in Tempe, and eventually worked in commercial foundries in Manhattan.
"My transformation came about when I had left Manhattan to open up a restaurant on the Outer Banks of North Carolina," she says. The plan didn't pan out, so an unemployed Blackley went to live with her parents in Southampton, where she'd spent summers as a girl.
She planted a garden and began to notice the bees that visited to pollinate the vegetables and melons. "My only thought was I better not make a move because I don't want to get stung, and then I realized that they could care less about me," she says. "The only thing in their little bee brain was to gather the nectar and the pollen from these flowers and head straight back to the hive."
Cured of bee phobia, she began to learn from other beekeepers, take courses and eventually joined the Long Island Beekeepers Club. In 1987, she formed East End Apiaries, her beekeeping business in Southampton. Early on, she took occasional breaks to raise her two sons, who are now grown. Matthew, 31, is an organic beer brewer in Portland, Oregon, and Adam, 26, is a sail maker at North Sails near Lake Tahoe, Nevada.
Honey's her end of the deal
Blackley, who is separated from her husband, says she has about 40 hives, or colonies, though her income isn't generated from the all-important pollination process. Blackley doesn't charge pollination fees to farmers; that's a free service she provides in exchange for keeping the bees on their property. Her income is derived from selling honey and honey products.
The honey won't be extracted for the once-a-year harvest until sometime this month. "When I first started keeping bees, you would get a tremendous honey flow; now the honey flow has tapered off," she says. Each hive produces about 180 pounds of honey.
Colonies regularly die out and have to be replaced with new bees, she says. One colony died of starvation last winter when the bees stopped eating to cluster around their queen to keep her warm -- providing a core that can reach 92 degrees. "It was so cold that they couldn't break cluster," Blackley says.
Others succumb to a phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder, which affects bees throughout the United States. "Your hives will look fine and you'll come back two weeks later and there are no bees," she explains.
With warmer weather, Blackley is back, making a home for a new queen bee she's obtained from a breeder. She works efficiently and barely reacts when she's stung by a bee. Using a corkscrew, she pulls the stopper from the small box that holds the new queen, the bee upon which the whole enterprise rests.
As the queen releases pheromones, a chemical substance that makes the bees react instinctively, they fan their wings. Each worker -- all females, Blackley notes -- will produce one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey in its brief, six-week life (queen bees can live for years). However, only one queen bee lays the eggs that can swell the population of the hive up to 60,000 bees by summer.
"That's all it takes," Blackley says, "just the right woman."
HONEY FOR SALE
Here are some places where honey harvested on Long Island is sold.
Thursdays -- Montauk Farmers Market 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., Montauk Village Green, through Oct. 9
Fridays -- The East Hampton Farmers Market 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., parking lot of Nick and Toni's, 136 N. Main St., East Hampton, through Aug. 29
Saturdays -- Westhampton Beach parking lot near Westhampton Historical Society, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., through Nov. 22
Sundays -- Southampton Farmers Market, east side of the old Parrish Art Museum, Jobs Lane, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., through Oct. 12
The Long Island Beekeepers Club, at longislandbeekeepers.org, also has a list of local beekeepers who sell honey.