Spring has sprung. In honor of the season, this week I’ll be featuring recipes using honey and, to kick things off, below you’ll find a recipe for honey roasted tomatoes. This recipe wouldn’t be possible without bees and we’re verging on a world where that scenario is becoming increasingly likely. I’ve interviewed a couple Philadelphia-area beekeepers to find out why it’s happening, why it matters to all of us and what each of us can do to help.
If Only They Could All Be Like Warren Graham
Tucked between the strip malls and McMansions of Chester County, Pennsylvania is a little slice of rural life. Here you will find Warren Graham. The Graham family has been living and working on this land for generations. Graham was raised on a small, nearby farm before it was acquired by the state and incorporated into Ridley Creek Park. It was there that his father, Warren Graham Sr., became the best-known beekeeper in Pennsylvania.
“He retired young and he started keeping bees,” says Graham Jr. “He got very interested, as people do, and became the biggest beekeeper in Pennsylvania. He was tending bees on the day he died.”
Graham, 70, is lanky, still-boyish and possessing a Zen-like calm. He speaks the way he walks; in a gentle, loping manner. Sitting beneath a canopy of ancient oaks, he often punctuates his thoughts with a wave of his massive hands that have been blackened by bee-soothing smoke. Living in a cottage on 25 rustic acres with his wife, Cecile, he continues his father’s legacy with a passion – albeit on a smaller scale.
“I have about 30 full colonies and I have a lot of other little colonies. I work with a number of farmers around here and I could work with five more if I had the bees. But it takes a lot of work to place them out there and to make sure that they are doing well.”
With roughly 200,000 bees in his care, Graham is not in the same league as commercial beekeepers that often have twenty-times as many. He is, however, well regarded in his field for his avoidance of what he calls “artificial practices”. Practices – such as forcing the bees to pollinate crops foreign to them, feeding them unnatural diets, and heavy pesticide use – scientists are viewing with concern.
Beekeeping worldwide is in a state of crisis. Every year since 2006, in the United States alone, approximately a third of the honey bee population disappears.
No one is sure as to why, though; there have been a myriad of theories. Everything from heavenly rapture to cell phones has been blamed for their vanishing. Scientists consider the phenomenon unique enough to be given a name – Colony Collapse Disorder. Beekeepers affected by CCD often tell the same story: their hives were healthy and productive one week and by the next, all but a few of the bees were gone. Left behind were neither bodies nor a smoking gun pointing toward the culprit. The most shocking aspect of their stories is the suddenness with which the catastrophe occurred. However, there are those in the beekeeping community who aren’t so surprised and believe this was a long time in the making.
Prior to the attention paid to Colony Collapse Disorder, I had an idyllic vision of what it meant to beekeeper. I thought they were all Warren Grahams; small-scale farmers who make a living from the honey they produce. The reality for much of the industry is vastly different. For many beekeepers, the only means of survival is to engage in the practice of migratory beekeeping. This entails packing their colonies into refrigerated trucks and crisscrossing the country looking for farms to pollinate.
In and of itself, migratory beekeeping isn’t a problem. Bees are natural pollinators and there are farms across the country in need of their services. However, what happens when the bees are asked to gather nectar from flora that is unnatural to them? Take the California almond crop for example. It is the largest almond crop in the world and one of the most profitable overall for the United States. It is entirely reliant on bees for pollination – and they hate it. The pollen lacks the complete protein they need to stay healthy. As a result, almond growers prevent so much as a dandelion from growing around their trees and bees will do their bidding as a matter of survival.
“If it’s a windy, rainy or cold day, the bees can’t fly into the trees,” says Darren Sausser. Sausser, a Smyrna beekeeper who retails honey and bee products, continues, saying, “They would normally supplement their diets with small wildflowers, but they’re not there. [The almond growers] want them all in the trees so they don’t give them a menu.”
The result is bees that have been weakened by a long interstate journey, further weakened by an incomplete diet and vulnerable to what entomologists believe to be central to Colony Collapse Disorder – the Varroa mite.
Canary in the Coal Mine
Most keepers manage mite levels with the use of pesticides. This gives them a false sense of security and the mites quickly adapt. The bees, however, become stressed under the weight of the pesticide. It ends up in their wax, bodies and ultimately, in their honey. Entomologists now believe this to be part of the problem.
Drs. Diana Cox-Foster and Xiaolong Yang, entomologists at Penn State University, recently hypothesized that the mites, in conjunction with the pesticides used to kill them, weaken the bees to the point where they are vulnerable to an opportunistic disease, namely the Deformed Wing Virus. In short, the bees know they are dying and, as a result, build up their honey supply. This gives the illusion of a healthy hive. As the mites and disease ravage their bodies, the bees continue to gather nectar from the field. In doing so, they double their weight and because of the compromised state of their wings, they are simply not making it back to the hive – not gathered in the rapture or befuddled by cell phones.
Warren Graham wasn’t the least bit surprised by this theory.
“To me it makes sense empirically,” he says. “The biggest beekeepers in the country are the ones who have been famously hurt. They are also the ones using pesticides on their mites. Beekeepers who have suppressed their Varroa mite levels effectively and sustainably are fine.”
Sustainable mite control involves the insertion of a trapdoor coated with powdered sugar in the hive’s bottom. Mites crawl down for a sweet reward, but can’t re-enter the hive. Graham admits that while it is the most effective and least harmful method, it is time consuming. Commercial beekeepers find it easier to simply douse the hives with pesticides, upping the strength whenever the mites adapt.
If anything, Colony Collapse Disorder has served as a canary in the coal mine to the beekeeping industry, as well as consumers. Even if it was proven that the Varroa mite wasn’t the main culprit in CCD, the blame could be placed on a host of questionable industry practices. In addition to migratory beekeeping, bees are also stressed by the use of corn syrup and pollen substitute in their diets.
But that Bear Looks so Happy
In recent years more Americans have become savvy to the idea of organic produce and humanely-raised livestock. Yet, many still purchase their honey in the form of the ubiquitous supermarket squeeze-bear. Often, inside the cheery, plastic form is an amalgam of cheap foreign honey and the byproduct of American migratory beekeeping. It has been blended, filtered, heated and filtered again resulting in little more than sugar syrup. It is the honey equivalent of wine in a box.
“That honey needs to be ultra-filtered in order to remove the adulteration that it has been revealed to have in recent years,” says Warren Graham. “In the process, they take out the little bit of pollen and the little bits of we know not what that makes honey taste good and makes it so healthy.”
Graham’s honey ruined me for all others. It is ethereally delicious; a complex beauty. Whisper-soft on my tongue, the luscious floral notes of the tulip poplars skirting his land teased my palate. The finish was unlike anything I had tasted before or since; buttery, yet clean. Going back to a supermarket variety afterward, all of the slightly stale, off flavors I never noticed before hit me like a slap. It was an insult in a jar. I wasn’t surprised to discover that this “Canadian” honey was, in fact, mostly imported from China and blended with about 5% of actual Canadian honey. A clear deception perpetrated against unsuspecting consumers.
Still, there are those within the industry who don’t take issue with certain questionable practices such artificial diets. Darren Sausser views this as merely giving his bees a helping hand.
“We give them corn syrup first thing in the spring and that triggers the queen to start laying eggs so by the time apples bloom or people want bees for strawberries they are strong enough that it makes it worthwhile.”
However, the high fructose corn syrup fed to bees comes from genetically modified corn that is often adulterated with the pesticide Imidacloprid. This neurotoxin works systemically and eventually permeates the plant’s tissue including the pollen, nectar and kernels. After the 1997 disappearance of 150 million honeybees in France was linked to Imidaclopird, it was subsequently banned. Manufacturer Bayer insists that it is not harmful to honeybees. A 2001 French study indicated the residue on corn crops was significant enough to cause damage.
As for pollen substitute, researchers at the Department of Agriculture’s Bee Research Laboratory are now wondering if Melamine, the chemical responsible for thousands of deaths of cats and dogs, is now harming honeybees. Given that commercial bee feed is protein based, scientists are exploring the idea that Melamine has made its way into this food chain as it has with household pets, and now, humans.
While bees have been the most high profile of pollinators in crisis, they are not the only ones we should be worried about. Though they aren’t as efficient pollinators as bees, butterflies are responsible for cross-pollination. Because butterflies carry pollen over further distances than bees, they help to introduce genetic diversity to flowers, trees and plants. With greater genetic diversity comes a healthier mix of genes and stronger, hardier plant life. Unfortunately, the total population of butterflies has declined by 97% since the 1980s.
While the onus of repairing the damage caused by the irresponsible practices of large scale beekeeping is on the keepers themselves and governments who should enact common-sense regulation of pesticides, each one of us has the power to help. For example, if you have a green thumb and a bit of land, you can plant native wildflowers, milkweed (the only source of food for Monarch butterflies) or plant flowers and trees with a variety of blooming times. Also, try easing up on how much mulch you use. “Most species of bees are solitary, and some 70 percent of them dig a nest in the ground to raise their young—something they can’t do if mulch is in the way.”
But let’s say you can’t even grow a Chia Pet, you can still help the bees and butterflies by becoming an Airbnb host by hanging a bee hotel (a favorite of those aforementioned solitary bees) or installing a butterfly house. Even simply providing clean water in a shallow dish, bowl, or birdbath with half-submerged stones for perches is a tremendous help.
Granary of Last Resort
Sitting with Warren Graham in the wildly overgrown grass of his farm, I tell him how bleak the state of beekeeping appears. He says he hasn’t lost hope.
“There is a wonderful perversity in human nature and maybe in American nature. When it gets tougher, we get more determined,” he says, pausing to look at the bees flying overhead. “And this year because of the publicity and the challenge, believe it or not, a lot of ex-hobbyists and a lot people who maybe had bees when they were kids are getting back into it now. They rise to the occasion and it’s a beautiful story.”
We sit for a long while; not saying anything. Graham watches the bees and I watch him. Despite a lifetime of beekeeping, fascination and wonder still register upon his tanned face. The warm sun that we have been basking in slowly gives way to shade. The oaks rustle in a way that signals a storm blowing in. Graham notices, but leans in, needing to finish his thought.
“We need to think about how we are using the whole world. We still have the best agricultural areas in the world, right here. When you look at what America has to offer the rest of the world it is still food. We’re the granary of last resort.”
Honey Roasted Tomatoes
- 500 g cherry tomatoes 1 pound
- 3 sprigs thyme
- 1 tbsp garlic cloves about 3 cloves; minced
- 2 tablespoons honey
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- kosher salt to taste (tomatoes like salt!)
Preheat the oven to 400°F/205°C. Halve larger tomatoes and leave smaller ones whole. Place tomatoes in the dish. They should fit snugly with little or no space between them.
Crush the garlic with the flat side of a knife and mince. Sprinkle a pinch of salt over the garlic. Again using the flat side of the knife, press the salt into the garlic creating a paste. Mix with honey and olive oil. Spoon this sticky, garlicky mixture over the cherry tomatoes. Rough up your sprigs of thyme and nestle them among the tomatoes. Roast for about 30 minutes, until golden, juicy, and bubbling.
Completely optional: I like to pop the dish under the broiler for about 3 minutes at the end to get a little bit of char on the top of the tomatoes.