The King of Queens

By Kathleen Willcox / Photography By Stan Horaczek | April 27, 2016
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beekeeping, Partridge Run Farm

A honeybee is intrinsically free-range.

Perhaps because of that, the substance it creates, comprised of the plant and tree nectar it gathers during its perambulating travels, has become a kind of allegory for what’s happening to agriculture. Honey, simple as it seems, depends on a complex web of relationships between insects, plants and animals, and seems to harbor the answers to many riddles we haven’t even learned how to ask yet.

The birds and bees have provided an easy primer for life, sex and the workings of the natural world since time immemorial, but it hasn’t been until recently that the full impact of human activity has been so starkly visible in their most visible product.

“I could talk about honey and bees all day,” Richard Ronconi, the owner and operator of Partridge Run Farm & Apiary says. “The issues large-scale commercial honey-makers have had in recent years reflect a lot of what is happening in farming in general. Up here in Berne, I haven’t had the same issues, but that’s because we’re so far from commercial operations.”

Colony collapse disorder has reduced honeybee colonies 30% to 45% in recent years. It has been linked to several dozen environmental causes, most prominently pesticide usage, loss of habitat and climate change. In fact, the disorder has generated a muscular response to unsustainable agricultural practices and lifestyle habits.

It isn’t just the abhorrent notion of a world deprived of buzzing bees and their honey that has galvanized the public. In America alone, honeybees are responsible for pollinating $15 billion worth of agriculture. In addition to the hardship that consistently reduced bee populations would inflict on anyone who eats, there are increasing concerns about the long-range impact nonorganic farming practices are having on the earth and human health. The idea of consuming a product that bears traces of the farming and gardening methods of everyone within a few miles of a bee’s home makes the simple task of spreading honey on morning toast a strangely complex conundrum. While it’s possible to rinse some of the sprays off conventionally grown produce, honey inherently contains traces of those sprays. 

Most supermarket honey is as runny as water, because it’s heated up and pasteurized, which zaps out all of the medicinal, anti-fungal, antibiotic properties. Mass-market honey is also often sourced from several different far-flung locations, which some say may minimize its allergy-busting and medicinal powers. 

For “real” honey in all of its complexity, and with fewer potential toxins, more people are turning back to their farmers’ market. Richard and Partridge Run Farm & Apiary have become the Capital District’s underground King of Bees, producing unpasteurized, unprocessed seasonal honeys that capture the elusive flavor of flowers. He runs out every year. Richard has also been crowned by insiders, named president of the Catskills Mountain Beekeepers Club. “Real” honey doesn’t necessarily mean “organic,” though.

“It’s almost impossible to produce organic honey,” Richard says. “You can’t control a bee’s flight. They go where they want to go.”

Most bees will stay within a two-mile radius of their hive, he says. Some Western and Southern honey producers create vast tracts of orange groves that are cultivated organically and then park their hives on that land. Technically, the honey is organic. However, the highly controlled setting is artificially manufactured, which seems like the opposite of what honey should be.

Wild, unpredictable, just this side of fierce, yet innocent and achingly sweet. Like Justin before the whole Bieber fever thing happened. 

Richard may come closer to providing New Yorkers with what honey traditionally has been—mellifluous drops that change subtly in flavor from season to season, spreadable terroir, unsullied by the funk of pollution or spray. His honey is gathered from 30 hives, and the only things that threaten their sanctified purity are bears, skunks and mice. His bees are spread between two clusters of hives—one on his land, close to his herbal garden in Berne and woodland with flowering trees, and the other in Rensselaer, close to fields of summer and autumn flowers. 
“There are no commercial farmers around here,” Richard says, sitting bathed in sunlight in the farmhouse he and his wife, Mary Ann, moved into with their one-year-old son, Matthew, in 1969. A daughter, Amanda, came a few years later. The striking home was built in Georgian style in the 1830s and shelters an enchanting array of elegant antiques, oil paintings, framed family photos, a working wood stove, with hand-painted floor and wall embellishments that Mary Ann pulled off with aplomb, countless thriving houseplants, the scent of freshly baked honey-bread and the ineffable aura of deep familial love and hard work. 
Self-described “back-to-the-landers,” Richard and Mary Ann, previously Spanish and French professors at SUNY New Paltz, moved to the hills and hollers of Berne determined to eke out the physical (and metaphysical) support their growing family required by the sweat of their own brow. 
Their farm, located on a remote, rocky hill, does not harbor stereotypically crop-friendly soil, but it’s the perfect place to grow a honey farm. 
“This was a highly farmed area until the Depression,” Richard says. “But the soil was rocky. Never good. Whatever the land had to offer was depleted by over-farming, and whatever land hadn’t been abandoned already was bought up by the Roosevelt’s Resettlement Administration in the 1930s. Most farmhouses were ripped down. We have one of the last old farmhouses in the area.”
The Ronconis have a prolific herb and vegetable garden, the remnants of homes for goats, chickens, ducks, sheep and pigs. (“We aren’t big meat-eaters so we got rid of all of the animals once the kids went to college.”) Apple trees and a lovely forest edge the bee-yard. The shining jewel is their haven of hives, each constructed from wood and painted a different color (which helps the bees recognize their home, which they usually find by scent) and protected by an electric fence to keep out hungry forest visitors.
Bees always fascinated him, Richard says, recalling a chat he had with a fellow professor and beekeeping hobbyist at a cocktail party in the 1950s, which inspired him to begin his own home beekeeping operation in New Paltz. “I bought everything, including the bees, from a Sears catalog,” Richard recalls. 
When it was time to shift his reigning queens and their crews to Berne, he simply put the whole kit and caboodle in his station wagon and hit the road. Since 1969, Richard has been very slowly increasing his customer base, exclusively through word-of-mouth. His commercial buyers all found him at the farmers’ markets he participates in or through recommendations from friends. 
“When I retired a few years ago, I started ramping up a bit,” Richard says. “But I think 30 hives is my limit. I want to enjoy it, not turn it into a business that takes all of my time—and I’m retired! I want to be able to enjoy my gardening and relax.” 
Last year, Richard’s hives yielded about 1,300 pounds of honey, which he extracted four times and labeled so that his customers could purchase them according to their needs.
“Our late spring and early summer honey is lighter and more floral in flavor,” he explains. “The later summer and early autumn honeys have increasingly deeper hues and richer flavors. Some of my customers prefer certain seasonal honeys for baking or allergies, some just have taste preferences. Most commercial honey producers extract the honey once a year in September, but then it’s a mish-mosh. I prefer to do it several times and enjoy what each season’s honey has to offer.”
Richard’s extraction and bottling is all done in a wooden shed, close to the hives. He does all of the work himself and is always trying to find new ways to ensure the purity of the process and the materials. While Richard’s honey isn’t “officially” organic, in practice it is. “I know everyone who gardens around here and no one sprays,” he says. “So even if the bees are leaving our area—which bees don’t do if everything they need is nearby—they’re not feeding on plants that have been sprayed with pesticide or herbicide.” 
Richard’s honey tastes like indulgence—the summer honey is a rich, multi-layered, complex sweetness that tastes like a peony cooked in salted butter would smell. The autumn honey tastes like the harvest season feels: deep, caramel warmth with undertones of herbal sweetness. 
Almost sinful. 

Magic Bees 


The science of bees is equal parts fascinating and daunting, and even a superficial scan of beekeeping lit makes us wish we’d paid more attention in AP Bio. Here’s a bee-life primer:

Each hive has one queen. When hives become overcrowded, or the queen becomes older and begins to run out of sperm, the colony of bees understands and responds by feeding the fertilized eggs extra royal jelly, which is extremely high in protein. (Future worker bees are initially fed royal jelly, and then switched over to honey and pollen). Once the new queen hatches and mates, the colony will split into two through a swarm.

Queen bees typically mate with about 15 drones on more than one so-called mating flight. Once the mating is completed, queens return to the hive and lay 1,000 to 2,000 eggs a day during the summer. That one mating flight will supply her with enough sperm to last the rest of her life.

When a queen lays an egg, she determines whether the colony needs a worker or drone and then fertilizes the egg accordingly.

Drones are male bees and are produced from unfertilized eggs, which means they only have the DNA of the queen bee.

Workers and queen bees are both female and result from fertilized eggs, so they have the DNA of the queen bee and a male drone.

Eggs are laid one by one in a cell of honeycomb, which is produced from the body of a worker bee. The youngest worker bees are responsible for cleaning the hive and feeding larvae.

Worker bees cooperate through a waggle or bee dance to communicate the presence of food sources to each other.

In the winter in cold climates, honeybees stop flying when the temperature dips below 10 degrees. They crowd around the queen bee and form a cluster, shivering and batting their wings to keep warm. The workers rotate in and out through the cluster, trading warm and cold spots. They consume honey to produce body heat.

In addition to producing honey, bees produce beeswax from glands in their abdomen. The wax is used to form the walls and the caps of the comb. Bees collect pollen, carry it back to the hive and use it as a protein source to raise their brood. Many beekeepers collect pollen as it is frequently consumed as a health supplement. Bees also produce propolis, created from resins and tree saps. Propolis is also consumed as a health supplement and is used in some lotions and cosmetics.

Partridge Run Farm Honey is available at Honest Weight Co-op, Fin the Fishmonger, Short & Stout Tea Co., La Perche and other markets, plus farmers’ markets in Rensselaerville and Voorheesville and fairs. Partridge Run Farm & Apiary is located at 484 Ravine Road, Berne, NY; 518-797-3922. 

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