Words by Christine Dionese; photos by Alex and Anni Gruttadaro
We all have a cause or two, and West Coast Editor Christine Dionese’s current cause is bee survival. As a professional who works directly with plant-based foods and medicines, Dionese’s profession would come to a screeching halt without bees. From her perspective, though, this is both an ethnobotanical and epigenetic issue. Dionese often looks at the environmental variables that affect honey bee survival and the role we play in managing those variables.
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The honey bee is in trouble.
While researchers & scientists offer mixed data, we know that the world’s largest class of insecticides, neonicotinoids - along with Nosema ceranae, a microbial fungus - are two (controllable) environmental variables largely responsible for what is referred to as colony collapse disorder.
Currently, more than 150 U.S. crops depend on pollinators with a USDA estimated worth of more than $10 billion per year. Since colony collapse syndrome first hit over ten years ago, home beekeepers have popped up hives to do their socially conscious part in maintaining bee survival.
I depend on these little creatures to pollinate the ‘farmacopia’ of medicinal foods and plants I suggest to my patients and consume for personal wellness. Without them, I’d be out of a job.
ROCHESTER BEEKEEPING AT HOME
This spring was my first visit to Rochester’s Makers Gallery and Cafe. Perhaps because I was staring at the dwarf lemon tree in the gallery for so long, Alex Gruttadaro - one of the studio’s owners - walked over to see what I was up to. I introduced myself to Alex, told him how surprised I was to see fruit on his little tree, and immediately we began chatting about how the bees loved my citrus blooms back in San Diego. Back there, though, they’re suffering because of the drought, the demand luxury crops like almonds imposes on them, and pesticide exposure.
Alex laughed as he opened the window and told me he had intentionally walked over to encourage the bees through to pollinate.
He then shared that his dad, Mike Gruttadaro, has been keeping honey bees recreationally for the past 10 years. For several years now, Alex has joined his father out at the family’s Penfield home to tend to their friendly hives.
Soon after I arrived in Rochester from San Diego last week, I got a call from Alex. “We’re going to split open one of our hives this weekend, want to come out to watch?” So last Sunday, I headed out to Penfield to chat about (and get a closer-than-expected look at) the peaceful art of beekeeping.
As I approached the shaded area where Mike and Alex keep their hives, I felt momentarily anxious as thousands upon thousands of bees buzzed around us, but Alex’s wife, Anni, assured me I was protected from head-to-toe in my sweet bee garb.
When Mike started keeping bees over 10 years ago, he probably didn’t consider how far ahead of the beekeeping fad he was. Alex and his father pointed out queen bee cells, where eggs had been laid, and the honey the bees had produced as they scouted the hives for the queen.
Long live the queen? Not so much. As they searched for their queen bee, Alex and Mike pointed out that the bee your high-productivity hive relies on is a young queen. Her purpose is to lay thousands of eggs and boost worker and drone bee morale in the hive by delivering a chemical scent. Yes, the other bees attend to her every need during this time, but once optimized egg-laying is accomplished, beekeepers replace their aging queens to keep the hive efficiently operating.
Not exactly a romantic story, but one of necessity.
Apple farmers and almond producers are under scrutiny for the role they play in affecting bee epigenetics, but Mike won’t spray his yards with pesticides for aesthetics, especially because he understands how optimizing his bee culture depends on a chemical-free landscape.
If we’re not lazy, we’re at an epigenetic advantage. I’m not suggesting that everyone turn to home-based beekeeping as the fix-all to bee survival, but I want to raise awareness of everyone’s essential environmental role.
Alex and Mike get it.
Thank you to the Gruttadaros for inviting me to watch your beehives on a family Sunday and for sending me home with a special jar of honey!