Helping Brooklyn's Red Stingers Get Off the Juice
New Yorkers learned from the Times this week about the mystery of the red bees in Red Hook, a Brooklyn neighborhood where urban beekeeping has grown in popularity since the city legalized it in April. The bees, along with their honey, started turning bright red this summer. Red Hook also houses a maraschino cherry factory, where the bees were apparently snacking on vats of bright red corn syrup.
So mystery solved, but the more important solution remained to be found: how to keep the bees off the juice. The factory, Dell’s Maraschino Cherries, was no stranger to bees -- when you’re curing a million and a half maraschino cherries a week, you’re bound to attract some -- but workers noticed an uptick after the city legalized beekeeping.
Factory employees tried shrink-wrapping the storage bins, but to no avail -- the bees refused to buzz off. They were hooked.
When neighborhood beekeepers started noticing the bizarre color change in their hives, they called Andrew Coté, president of the New York City Beekeepers Association, and Vivian Wang, a beekeeper and advocate with the Natural Resources Defense Council. Wang and Coté visited the cherry factory this morning to help owner Arthur Mondella look for solutions.
Wang said there’s one short stretch in the production cycle when bins of cherries are marinating in syrup and need to be transported from one warehouse to another. Mondella stressed to them that the bees haven’t contaminated his product in any way -- it’s still safe to eat -- but the outdoor transport gives the bees a chance to swoop in for a sweet snack. “It doesn’t take much,” Wang said. “Once one forager finds a source like that, they’re back at the hive waggling to let all of their fellow workers know about it.”
Several possible ideas could help keep the bees away from the syrup. Draping the syrup bins in heavy, fabric sheets soaked in vinegar might work, Coté said.The vinegar would help mask the syrup without harming either the bees or the cherries. Other possible strategies might include building wooden and mesh “lockers” on wheels to transport the bins and placing feeders full of sugar syrup on the factory’s roof to distract the bees.
The factory will work to implement Coté’s ideas over the winter -- the perfect time to fortify against bees, because they tend to stay in their hives during cold months. Wang said there are also things that beekeepers can do to provide their hives with more attractive, natural sources of nectar and keep them from hitting the syrup.
Mondella didn’t want to be interviewed for this story, but Wang said he is eager to consider the needs of Brooklyn’s emerging bee population. “I know a lot of factory owners would have just called an exterminator,” she said, “but what we’re doing now could be a great case study for handling things the right way.”
Coté said he wishes more business owners and residents would enlist local beekeepers instead of pest control to deal with bee nuisances. “This can be a win for both sides,” he said.
For now, the bees have returned to their original hue, and honey production has mostly stopped for the winter, says Cerise Mayo, who keeps three hives in Red Hook and another three on Governor’s Island for the Added Value community farm. All six had bees that turned red, but it didn't seem to stop them from pollinating the farm's crops -- a role that is just as important as making honey. “The crops didn’t suffer at all -- we had a great year,” Mayo said. Still, she’s relieved to hear that Dell’s is on the case.
The true test of Dell’s strategies will come when the weather warms up and the bees head back out to forage and start producing honey again. “When you have a dense urban environment like this, you have to be creative and collaborative to make beekeeping work, to make farming work, and to let business work, but I’m optimistic,” Wang said. “This kind of interconnectedness is also one of the things that makes farming and beekeeping in cities so fascinating and so fun.”
Photos: Dell's factory by Harry Zernike (click "More Photos" on top image for more)