• Backyard beekeeping is increasing in popularity on Long Island

    despite problems with bees elsewhere in the country.

  • It's unclear whether Long Island vegetation needs the beekeepers

    to thrive or whether native pollination would suffice.

    But for the crops and farmers, it's a different story.

More than a Beehive

Behind the rise in beekeeping

Patricia Doutney walked down the hill into her backyard, pulling behind her a blue wagon filled with wooden boxes, a smoker and a mesh box containing thousands of bees. It was one of the first warm days in early April, and she was preparing to install a new hive in her backyard.


Wearing a veil to protect her face but using her bare hands, Doutney dumped the bees from their box into the drawer-like wooden boxes she had placed on a wooden stand.  She worked quickly, placing the lid on top, humming softly to keep the bees calm.


Doutney, a Patchogue resident with two hives in her backyard, picked up beekeeping four years ago. “I had no idea when I got into it how fascinated I would be,” Doutney said. “I’m in awe all the time.”


She can sit for hours in front of the hive, watching her bees and learning how 30,000 small insects work together to produce honey.


Backyard beekeeping, or hobbyist beekeeping, is increasing in popularity on Long Island – ironically, beekeepers say, because of problems with bees elsewhere in the country. In recent years, Colony Collapse Disorder has been blamed for sudden honeybee losses. The disorder happens when worker bees unexpectedly disappear from the hive, leaving the queen and newly hatched bees to die.


Media coverage began in 2006 when reports of the disorder rose drastically in North America. The problem hasn’t abated. The disorder causes serious problems for the United States agricultural industry, as honeybees are responsible for pollinating one-third of the country’s crops.

Chris Disclafani users a smoker to calm the bees before doing work on the beehive. Disclafani picked up beekeeping about a year ago with his friend, Cliff Ohrnberger. Together, the two manage this beehive in Amityville, N.Y. Photo by Deanna Del Ciello

Chris Disclafani users a smoker to calm the bees before doing work on the beehive. Disclafani picked up beekeeping about a year ago with his friend, Cliff Ohrnberger. Together, the two manage this beehive in Amityville, N.Y. Photo by Deanna Del Ciello

The media coverage “raised people’s interest in bees and beekeeping,” George Schramm, president of the Long Island Beekeeping Club and a hobbyist beekeeper from Lake Ronkonkoma, said. “A lot of them have stepped forward and have decided to become beekeepers.”


Many new beekeepers cite the environmental benefits of keeping bees, such as increased biodiversity and agricultural benefits, for their motivation to pick up the hobby. While the hobbyist beekeepers say they feel they are helping their local area, it’s hard to know what kind of impact they’re having. It’s unclear whether Long Island vegetation needs the beekeepers to thrive or whether native pollination would suffice.


But for farmers on eastern Long Island, hobbyist beekeepers are essential. Their crop yields would diminish without the hobbyists’ imported European honeybees supplementing the pollination that native bees provide. (All beekeepers on Long Island are considered to be hobbyists by the National Honey Board, which defines commercial beekeeping as operations with 300 or more hives.)

“We’re responsible for partially taking them

out of the ecosystem so we should try

to help to keep them in there.”

Cliff Ohrnberger, hobbyist beekeeper

A Growing Hobby

The rise of hobbyist beekeeping

Beekeeping involves a great amount of learning about bees and how to care for them. One source of information is a local beekeeping club. The Long Island Beekeeping Club, the only beekeeping club for Nassau and Suffolk counties, formed in 1949 and currently meets monthly in Smithtown. It has 200 members, up from 30 in 2007, according to Conni Still, the club’s member secretary and newsletter editor.


“Since about five years ago, it’s been growing and growing,” said Still, who keeps hives in her Bayport backyard. “We get new members practically every meeting.”  The hobby has grown despite beekeeping being illegal in certain areas of Long Island.



Doutney has been involved with the club since she began beekeeping in 2010. She picked up the hobby as part of her interest in farming. Before honeybees, she had chickens, but she got rid of them, she said, because of the mess they caused. Doutney said part of her interest in beekeeping stems from being environmentally conscious.


“As a hobby beekeeper … I can kind of decide the kinds of things that I want to learn about beekeeping,” Doutney said. “I don’t pay as much attention to the science of it … as much as I just enjoy watching the bees and looking in the hive and taking just sort of whatever it gives me. As a hobbyist, there’s way less pressure and more enjoyment to it.”


Like Doutney, Steve Halliday became a beekeeper for the enjoyment. “I think everyone should be doing this,” Halliday, a backyard beekeeper from Babylon, said. “It’s fun. I think it’s a positive thing for the environment and it’s a positive thing for us to do.


“And it’s, you know, you get honey at the end of the year,” Halliday added. “Everybody likes honey.”



Doutney and other beekeepers said their hives are benefitting not only their backyards but also their neighbors’ because bees can fly up to three miles from the hive to forage for pollen.


James Hoffmann, director of the Ecosystems and Human Impact major in the Department of Sustainability Studies at Stony Brook University, said hobbyist beekeepers are benefitting their local area, but to what extent is unclear.


“Bees play a very important role,” Hoffmann, who holds a doctorate in botany, said. “On basic first principles, if you put out a colony, you’re going to be benefitting the area in which bees forage.”


Hoffmann said bees add to “ecosystem services,” a term that describes the byproducts of an ecosystem, such as biodiversity, climate stability, air and water purification, and pollination.


“The bees will certainly be helping to sustain the ecosystem services by allowing for the wild plants to carry out their life cycle,” he said.


Bees help to increase biodiversity because of the wide range of crops they pollinate. They help local gardens grow and produce better quality fruits and vegetables by pollinating individual plants.


However, it is hard to tell just how big that impact is, Hoffmann said. It is possible that an area would be the same, with or without backyard beekeepers. “It would seem to me that it’s going to have an impact, but the magnitude of the impact, I don’t know.”


No one appears to have studied the role hobbyist beekeepers play in local ecosystems.


Beekeepers might not be necessary for suburban backyards. But for the agricultural side of Long Island, bees are essential.

“If you put out a colony, you’re going to be

benefitting the area in which bees forage.”

James Hoffmann, director of Ecosystems and Human Impact major at Stony Brook University

An Agricultural Obligation

The local farms' need for hobbyist beekeepers

Farming on Long Island is no small endeavor. The island’s agricultural production totaled $258.7 million in 2007, with Suffolk County accounting for 94 percent of that total, according to a 2007 census by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. (Data from the 2012 census will be released in May.) The top crops on the island include melons, pumpkins, fruits, tree nuts and berries – all of which are pollinated by honeybees.


Grapes, another major crop on Long Island’s East End, where there are more than 50 wine producers, are self-pollinating and don’t need bees.


Elsewhere in the country, commercial beekeepers move their hives by truck each year to pollinate crops on the big farms used for mass food production. But because Long Island farms are small, there is no need for large-scale commercial pollination.


“The little pollination that is needed on the island, hobbyists fill,” Ray Lackey, a master beekeeper from Bohemia, said.


Bee Pollination Infographic


For the Milk Pail, a farm in Water Mill, honeybees are a necessity. Without the hobbyist beekeepers, the Milk Pail would not survive.


“Apples and pumpkins are our main sources of income,” Jennifer Halsey-Dupree, who runs the farm, said. The Milk Pail has been using honeybees for approximately 40 years, since John Halsey, Jennifer’s father, started an apple orchard on the farm. The Halseys have been farming on the South Fork for 13 generations.


“I think we really need pollination,” John Halsey said. “I think we’ve seen a difference in our crop when we’ve had a rainy, cold bloom and the bees couldn’t work as actively.”


That’s what’s happening in 2014, Halsey said. The Milk Pail is getting a later-than-usual start because of the unusually cold winter.


In the early years of the Milk Pail apple orchard, the farm partnered with a neighbor who kept bees, but now the farm relies on Robin Blackley of East End Apiaries to pollinate its crops. Blackley became a beekeeper in 1987 and currently has 40 hives on approximately 10 farms throughout the Hamptons.


“If you put bees on a farm,” Blackley said, “you can increase production by almost 20 percent.” She has kept her bees on farms since she began beekeeping and turned her hobby into a business almost immediately. She sells honey, candles and soaps made from the wax in her hives. She also picks up swarms of bees and removes them from houses to give them a proper home on a farm.


While commercial beekeeping is necessary to support industrial agriculture in places such as the Midwest and California’s Central Valley, the agricultural need for European honeybee pollination on Long Island has not been studied.

“We certainly need the bees. I’m not ready

to take a chance on it without them.”

John Halsey, 12th generation farmer

Native Pollination

Supplementing the loss of European honeybees

An environment needs certain characteristics to ensure sufficient pollination from native pollinators, Sarah Kornbluth, a biology Ph.D. candidate at Rutgers University, said.


“When you have a small farm and a rather patchy environment”—a mix of developed and undeveloped land—“then you can actually get a lot of crop pollination from native bees,” Kornbluth said. Her dissertation focuses on how to manage an agricultural area so native bees can thrive.


While Colony Collapse Disorder, according to U.S. Geological Survey, does not affect native bees, they do suffer a decline wherever there is a large population of European honeybees.


Kornbluth explained that European honeybees are efficient  but voracious foragers that take away resources from native bees.


“If everyone had a [honeybee] hive, you’d get to this density where it would have a negative impact on native bees,” she said.


Small farms, like those on Long Island, could get “sufficient pollination as long as there is enough diversity in the environment and not an overuse of pesticides,” Kornbluth said.


As development increases, the diversity of Long Island’s environment disappears. In the past 55 years, Long Island farmland has shrunk by 61.7 percent, or a loss of over 55,000 acres, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“Without any insect pollination, your foods would be

corn, wheat, barley, oats and rice.”

Ray Lackey, master beekeeper

The Need for Bees

A less sweet life without them

Elsewhere in the country, larger farms would not survive with native bees alone, which is why commercial keepers’ honeybees play such a vital role. The honeybees’ rapid disappearance because of Colony Collapse Disorder threatens crops and therefore the food supply.


“Without any insect pollination, your foods would be corn, wheat, barley, oats and rice. No fruits, and normally not any vegetables,” Lackey said.


John Halsey said he lacks the courage to test the Milk Pail and see if it could survive on native pollination.


“We certainly need the bees. I’m not ready to take a chance on it without them,” he said.

“I feel like I’m helping my neighborhood.

I feel like I’m helping bees in general.”

Cliff Ohrnberger, hobbyist beekeeper


How The Backyard Beekeeper came to be


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The Backyard Beekeeper is Deanna Del Ciello‘s senior project for her major as a journalism student at Stony Brook University. Deanna spent three months during the Spring 2014 semester traversing Long Island to chat with beekeepers and experts about why beekeeping has grown in popularity and what that means for the island, its residents and the local agriculture.


The senior capstone project, which all journalism majors must complete for graduation, requires a written piece, a video and a website. Deanna, who concentrated in online journalism during her undergraduate career, was also required to create various data visualizations to supplement the story.

Deanna graduated from Stony Brook University with a degree in journalism and French with concentrations in online media and public policy. There was never another option for Deanna besides becoming a journalist; as a child, she created her own newspaper and radio show. Since coming to Stony Brook, she has fallen in love with video storytelling and plans to become a multimedia journalist.


She joined The Statesman, SBU’s official campus newspaper, as a contributing writer the fall of her freshman year. She spent her senior year as Editor-in-Chief of the organization. Deanna has interned at the Council on Foreign Relations, Scripps Howard Foundation and Times Beacon Record Newspapers. Deanna also enjoys taking photos, reading and knitting. Food is one of her greatest passions and she is currently tackling the art of cooking.


Want to know more? Visit Deanna’s portfolio website.

Photo credit Ezra Margono

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