July 01, 2013

The Russian Bees Will Save Us

The Russian Bees Will Save Us
The Moscow Honey Market

Each September, honey makers from around Russia gather in the capitol’s picturesque Kolomenskoye Park, high above the banks of the Moscow River, for the annual Yarmarka Myoda (Honey Market). About sixty 100-square-foot popup tents are lined up in neat rows, each featuring the output of a single farm family or cooperative, advertising honey from Udmurtia, the Urals, the Caucasus and the furthest corners of Siberia. Huge five-gallon buckets of golden goodness crowd each tent, leaving the sellers just a few feet to move back and forth, extolling their bees’ output.

It is a cool fall day and the colors on the trees are just starting to turn, but even the most stunning fall foliage could not compare to the rich palette of colors of the honey on offer, from the champagne yellow of honey made from acacia, to the deep brown from coriander, to the black gold of buckwheat honey.

“I want something for my stomach,” a buyer says. “I sometimes have digestion problems, and my wife gives me some kind of honey for it.”

“You want to try the echinacea honey,” an enthusiastic seller from Altai offers.

We have purposefully gravitated to the Altai booths. This distant region in Siberia is purportedly home to the finest, purest honey in all of Russia, created by hardy bees in the mountains high above Lake Baikal.

“How about something special for my son, he’s an athlete,” the buyer continues, after tasting and then ordering up a kilo of the echinacea.

“For him you want wild honey — it has special proteins, but we are all sold out.” She steers him toward her marvelously fragrant Angelica honey. He balks, looking for something darker still, finally taking a kilo of buckwheat.

The three-week Yarmarka Myoda was begun less than a decade ago by then Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, an avid apiarist. Yet it is not an event just for foodies or those serious about their honey; average Muscovites come here to stock up on their honey supplies for the winter, dropping 600-700 rubles per kilo (just under $10 a pound) for the surety of buying their treasured honey direct from the producer. It’s an important consideration: bees concentrate into their honey all of the best (and worst, including of course pesticides and pollution) natural ingredients from the nectar of the plants they visit.

Yet this market is also not for the faint of heart. Every seller insists that you try six or eight of their different varieties, each powerfully unique and wonderfully sweet in its own way. After a dozen tastings, each apian creation blends into the next, inducing a heady glycemic rush to accompany the complex and overlapping bouquet of flavors.

Some honeys are as bitter and pungent as tree bark, others as light and fresh as a summer breeze; some are tight and grainy, others are wide, silky and luscious. And, this being Russia, each honey pot is festooned with claims about the miraculous hidden powers of the nectar within, from fixing headaches (buckwheat), curing colds (linden) and bettering the blood (“Tsar’s Silk”), to enhancing virility or increasing stamina (red root).

Our blood sugar soaring, we head for the exit, toting 10 kilos of some of Russia’s finest honey (including the amazing “Tsar’s Silk”), plus a tiny capsule of freeze-dried royal jelly, the magical substance responsible for transforming ordinary worker bees into larger, fertile queens.

The wide variety of flavors on offer in Moscow is a validation of the keynote speech a month previous at another beekeeper assemblage on the other side of the world: the Eastern Apiary Society, in Burlington, Vermont. Packaging and marketing, said Rowan Jacobsen, author of Fruitless Fall, is all that keeps honey from becoming the world’s next wine. No other foodstuff, he asserted, offers a comparable diversity of flavors and textures, such a rich and deep expression of “terroir” — that mysterious embodiment of place and environment that drives wine lovers to distraction.

You think there is a big difference between a Pinot Noir and a Cabernet? Try comparing buckwheat and linden honeys.

Yet this is not a story about honey, at least not directly. It is a story about a different aspect of beekeeping, one that surprisingly few Americans know anything about. Which is strange, since such a huge portion of our food supply depends on it.

By one estimate, 40 percent of our food supply depends on insects for pollination, that is for their propagation and growth. This includes well over 100 vital foods — all of the fruit and nuts, and many of the vegetables — that we eat. And the undisputed leader in pollination is the domesticated honeybee. In fact, it is not overstating it to say that, without the honeybee there would be no orange, apple, almond or pepper crop as we know it, to say nothing of broccoli, squash or blueberry.

And the bees are dying.

Since the 1990s, North American bees have been under assault from tracheal and varroa mites that migrated to US shores from Asia. These mites infest and weaken the bees, clogging their respiratory passages and sucking their blood.

There are insecticides that can keep the mites at bay (sort of), but they are costly, have side effects (including killing bees), can get into the food supply, and lose their effectiveness over time, as the hardier pests survive the chemical onslaught, selecting for resistance to the poison. As if this were not enough, since 2006, entire hives of bees began disappearing in what came to be called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).

Which brings us back to Russia.

By way of Louisiana.

Nearly two decades ago, Thomas Rinderer, of the US Agricultural Research Service (ARS), in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, led a team of USDA researchers through the wilds of Russia’s Primorye Region. They were searching for bees that had developed natural resistance to tracheal and varroa mites.

Apis mellifera, the super-productive domesticated honeybee that is responsible for the health of the $15 billion American fruit and nut industry (to say nothing of providing our honey), was first domesticated some 150 years ago in Italy. From there it spread around the world, adapting wonderfully to North America, Europe and Russia.

Rinderer wondered if modern Russian strains of bees, which had been breeding in Far Eastern Russia in such close proximity to Asia (the mites’ home turf, where they infest, but do not harm, the smaller Asian honey bee, Apis cerana), might, over the last century and a half, have developed resistance to the destructive mites.

In 1997, Rinderer and his team, in collaboration with Victor Kuznetsov of the Russian Academy of Sciences, brought back 100 fertile queen bees from Russia and set about breeding them at a quarantined facility on Grande Terre Island off the Louisiana coast. For three years, Rinderer and his team interbred the lines to develop hardy, resistant strains.

By 2000, the bees were strong and had a clean bill of health, and ARS scientists began their testing. They soon found that the bees were indeed much better at deterring mite infestations than were North American lines. Specifically, entomologist Jose Villa discovered that the Russian bees fend off tracheal mites by virtue of being fastidious and agile groomers, capable of using their middle pair of legs to brush mites away — something the Italian strains of bees had never learned. But it was more than that. The Russian bees are also proactive in destroying mites. When they detect them in a pupa cell, they open the wax-covered cell and toss the bee embryo out of the hive with the mites. In tests, varroa mite reproduction on Russian bees was two to three times lower than US domestic breeds.

As if that is not good news enough, there was an added bonus. Villa and his fellow ARS entomologist Lilia De Guzman have also shown that the Russian bees are better at surviving cold winters — a time when breeders typically see large die offs. Apparently Russian bees are more frugal with their winter food stores (the honey they produce during summer months). In fact, back in 2000, one Mississippi beekeeper (one of the first to introduce Russian queens to his hives) reported losing 1300 of his 1500 Italian colonies over the winter, but only two of his Russian-bred colonies.

The Russian breed also is a good producer: some hives have averaged 130-150 pounds of honey per year, versus a normal national average of between 50 and 100 pounds.

Russian Bees
Russian bees kept by a beekeeper in North Carolina (thinkbees.com).
The queen is the dark brown, larger bee near the center.

Beginning in 2000, Russian queens began to be released into the American market and began helping apiarists fight the onslaught of mites with lower concentrations of chemical pesticides. But maintaining mite resistance means keeping the breeding lines as purely Russian as possible. As one breeder (Revis Russian Apiaries in Marion, NC) puts it, “The Russians are the ultimate survivor stock.”

And the Russian bees — which are more tan and black, versus the yellow and black of familiar Italian bees — are not without their complications. First of all, they do not rapidly build up large hives in the spring, preferring a more conservative growth pattern — waiting to build up until supplies of pollen are plentiful, or slowing production when pollen supplies drop off. Unlike the prolific and fecund Italian bees, which breed with abandon, the Russian bees are rather conservative and don’t overbreed large populations that will just die off over winter. Second, they have a heightened propensity to swarm (split the hive) in the spring, something beekeepers like to avoid, so that they don’t lose half a hive to the wild.

Yet it turns out that both of these traits, which are troublesome for commercial- or industrial-scale beekeeping, are in fact conducive to controlling mites in the hive and to making the bees a more sustainable, resilient operation. As Jacobsen writes in Fruitless Fall:

“It is tempting to call these dark Russian bees as fatalistic as their human namesakes. Living in an unforgiving environment with a troubled history, they seem to have a sense that bad things can happen in life, so you’d better be ready. Winters will be rough, queens will die, sickness and invaders will come, food won’t always be available. So don’t put all your eggs in one basket, don’t live beyond your means, and keep a few princesses on reserve, just in case.”

In short, Russian bees, while great when it comes to mite resistance, can take some getting used to.

Anicet Desrochers knows all about that. He has been working intimately with Russian bees for over a decade. Speaking with the voluble, enthusiastic manner of one thoroughly in love with his life work, Desrochers has a warm, Quebecois accent. At his farm in the far northern reaches of Quebec (the last beekeeping operation before the Arctic Circle, he insists), he interbreeds Russian bee stocks with lines from Baton Rouge and Minnesota, seeking to craft a hardier, stronger North American bee.

“We have about 1000 hives,” he says. “But we are still a family beekeeping operation. We treat our bees as they should be treated, and we are earning a living from it.”

About half of Desrochers’ income comes from honey by-products (this side is run by his wife, Anne-Virginie Schmidt, from soap to honey mustard to honey and wax, see mielsdanicet.com), and the other half from breeding and selling mite-resistant queen bees. He claims his operation is the largest queen producer in Canada, and that is likely true.

“We started working with five to seven Russian lines back in 2001,” Desrochers explains. “And the Russian bees are good. They are very resistant to disease, but they are difficult to handle. They can be very swarmy. So we are breeding them with VSH [varroa sensitive hygiene] stock from Baton Rouge and Minnesota hygienic stock to create a better bee with a reduced tendency to swarm.

“The Russian bees are very resistant to varroa, and very good for a small beekeeper who has just a few hives [who can thus keep a close eye on changes and split the hive before it swarms], but when you have 1000 or 2000 hives, it is a different story. Not enough work has been done on selection on the wild Russian bees from the Primorsky region to make it suitable for commercial beekeepers.”

It doesn’t help that the last decade has been a very hard one for beekeeping. This year was particularly harsh. “The long and difficult winter, after a hot September and heavy mite infestation led to larger than normal winter die-offs,” Desrochers said. In Manitoba and western Canada, he reports hearing of die-offs at around 50 percent; at his own Miels a’Anicet, even though the operation is in a very isolated area and does not transport bees for commercial pollinations, there was a 35 percent die-off, whereas 15 percent is normal.

“How can we save the bees? How can we help the bees?” Desrochers asks. “As long as the agricultural system is like it is now [relying on monoculture, industrial farming], bees will continue to die. The bees are not able to diversify their garde manger [literally “pantry,” i.e. food diversity], plus you have stress, disease, and climate change, with poor springs and too hot a summer.”

In the end, Desrochers, who admits to generally being an optimist, says that even the Russian bees may not be enough. “With global warming, even the Russian bee may be in a bad situation,” he said. “If it gets too warm too fast, those bees will not survive. But there is no better bees now. We’re just trying to work as fast as we can to save the bees.”

Todd Hardie is also a Russian bee convert. A tall, easy-going man with sandy blond hair and the large, strong hands of a farmer, Hardie has been raising bees and making honey for over 40 years.

“Everything I do and all my beekeeping traces back to Russia and apitherapy,” Hardie says when we first meet. Though he has never been to Russia, he talks wistfully about how average Russians keep bees organically at their dachas, and how they are well informed of honey’s hidden powers.

And there is one more thing.

“Russian bees are going to save us, they are our hope,” Hardie states, going on to explain the unique self-grooming habits of Russian bees, and how using Russian stocks allows beekeepers to work without chemicals and produce organic honey.

From a young age, Hardie dreamed of being a beekeeper, and for decades he tried various ways to make the business work, including transporting bees to the Carolinas for the milder, shorter winters, where the hives can be “split” earlier, to make up for winter losses and start producing faster. He also transported his bees around the East Coast to pollinate commercial crops, like blueberries in Maine, and built a business selling honey coast to coast.

All the while he believed, and followed, truly organic beekeeping — no chemicals, and no “cooking” the honey from the hive, so as not to alter its natural healing properties. “Heated honey is dead honey,” Hardie says.

“We have never heated our honey and called it raw,” he continues, his unequivocal aspersions falling on beekeepers who heat and filter honey so that it is liquid year-round — the sort of corn-syrupy concoction in bear-shaped bottles that has sadly come to define honey in the American marketplace. True raw honey is solid or near solid, depending on the time of year. Heating it, Hardie maintains, destroys its medicinal qualities as surely as does filtering it.

About five years ago, after more than three decades of struggling to make it as a beekeeper in an increasingly industrialized farmscape (peaking with a mind-boggling 1900 hives), Hardie’s bees were hit by a massive die off. He came to realize that his future was not in pure beekeeping or in transporting hives, but in putting down roots and building a sustainable farming enterprise — employing people and supporting agriculture in the region. He decided to diversify, so that not all his income was dependent upon honey production or the whims of bears.

Three years ago he sold his honey company and settled in the little town of Hardwick, Vermont (pop. 3200), which has become a mecca for slow, sustainable food — so much so that a book has been written about it: Ben Hewitt’s The Town that Food Saved (Rodale). Yet the problem was that Hardwick and the surrounding area had insufficient clover or other pollinating crops to support hives. So Hardie drew on over 30 years of relationships in the honey and beekeeping business to secure reliable sources of honey.

In his diversification drive, he developed an elderberry based cough syrup with honey added (studies have shown that honey is as effective a cold treatment in young children as is commercial cough syrup), a throat spray and wound wash based on honey and purple loosestrife (honey has natural disinfectant properties and has been shown to be one of the most effective treatments for serious burns), then mead, and, finally... vodka.

Hardie’s distillery, in the heart of Vermont’s quiet Northeast Kingdom, is tucked inside an immaculate red warehouse at the end of a dirt road, hidden behind a car dealership and a rather imposing log storage yard. Distiller Ryan Christiansen shows gives us a tour of Hardie’s operation, known as Caledonia Spirits. At the center is a series of vats, stills, copper tubing and distilling columns that are about the size of a small school bus tipped up on its nose. The gleaming stainless steel and copper 550-gallon pot-still takes a 55-gallon barrel of glowing golden honey and, through little more than the careful application of heat, chemistry, gravity and know-how, turns it into 25 gallons of remarkably sweet and succulent vodka (sold under the brand name Barr Hill Vodka).

While the reputed therapeutic effects of honey cannot survive the slow heating of honey (diluted in distilled water) to a boil, the flavor and aromatics of the honey somehow sneak through.

Todd Hardie
Todd Hardie, beekeeper, vodka maker.

“The flavors you taste is everything the yeast didn’t eat,” Christiansen explains in what sounds suspiciously like a Zen koan. It helps that, unlike huge industrial vodka producers, Caledonia does not “extend the heart” of its distilled alcohol by filtering a wider harvest of less pure liquids with charcoal. This is a premium, handcrafted product, with a price to match (over $50 per 0.75-liter bottle).

Caledonia also distills an amazingly fragrant gin (not distilled from honey, but with a light taste of raw honey added) that is garnering rave reviews, and in three years the company will release its first whiskey. Though whether the whiskey will contain honey is yet an open question — only the tastings will tell.

“We come from a long experience of trials and replications,” Hardie said. “Do it, put it in a jar, blind tastings, see what they say, tweak it, take notes, come back in six months, do it again.”

Last year the company’s combined output of gin and vodka was just under 5000 cases (about 30,000 bottles), and Hardie claims his boutique distillery has a capacity three times that (“We work hard, we’re like bees,” he quips). As to inputs, last year the distillery used over 4000 gallons of golden, organic honey, much of it harvested from hives that have been strengthened — perhaps even saved — by Russian bee stock.

So it is that this small craft distillery at the end of a nameless dirt road in Northern Vermont offers a neatly symmetrical conclusion to this story of transnational agricultural collaboration.

North American apiculture, under threat from a pernicious parasite, discovers a solution in its Russian cousin. In something like a genetic Lend-Lease program, Russian bees are imported to the American economy, bolstering our $15 billion pollinated fruit and nut industry, and helping create more honey with fewer chemicals. And with that honey, a small company in a distant corner of the US creates that most Russian of products, vodka.

Perhaps the next time US Ambassador Michael McFaul is having “reset” discussions in Moscow with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, he ought to bring along a bottle of Barr Hill Vodka, then tell the story of how Russian bees are helping save US agriculture.

To paraphrase the old saying, you catch more friends with honey vodka than with vinegar. RL

The End. Or just the beginning?

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