More Than Honey: Beekeeping on the Cape

Jul 23, 2015

If you’ve been to a farmer’s market recently, you’ve probably seen more honey for sale than usual. That’s because beekeepers are harvesting this year’s crop right now.

The way bees make honey is a little complicated, but Julie Lipkin - a Director at the Barnstable County Beekeepers Association - describes it in much simpler terms.

“Honey, which you may not know, is bee vomit! It sounds disgusting but it’s nectar regurgitated.”

Because honey is directly tied to nectar, the taste depends on what plants the bees visit. For keepers with a larger operation like Claire Desilets - she’s the Secretary at Beekeepers Association - this means the taste of honey can be really different from hive to hive.

“I have one apiary where it’s in nine acres of holly and it’s a completely different honey than it is from the honey that I take off the bogs, it’s just so floral, it’s just completely different, very light, but very very very floral honey.”

But honey is just a small part of what we get from bees. Bees make a substance called propolis, used in various homeopathic remedies. And beeswax isn’t used just for candles, keepers on the Cape are using it to make products that fill the cosmetics aisle.

“A lot of lip balms and a lot of facial things, hand creams, and even floor waxes and of course honey is a great moisturizer, it’s hygroscopic and hermetic, it absorbs moisture so it works beautifully in creams,” she said.

But what’s really essential about bees is the work they do for the rest of the environment.

“Honey is really a by product, which most people don’t think about. They think of honey’s honey. But pollination has a dollar value of something like 15 or more billion dollars annually to agriculture across the country...I mean, it’s that critical,” Desilets said.

The Cornell Chronicle reports the annual value of bees combined with other wild pollinators as high even as 29 billion dollars.

“If we didn’t have bees we’d be in real trouble. There’s actually a province in China where they have lost their bees and their solution has been to hire people to hand pollinate all the plants so that their ecosystem can survive,” said Julie Lipkin.

That’s the Sichuan Province in China that she’s talking about. Bees have received a lot of press lately because of everything we stand to lose if they disappear. In the mid-2000s something called CCD or Colony Collapse Disorder was popping up, bees would just abandon their hives - even in the middle of honey making. To experts, CCD seemed to be a combination of many factors, and no one knew quite what was going on.

“Often there was still honey and stuff going on in the hive but just no bees, they could not explain that. They’ve been trying to explain it ever since. There’s all sorts of scourges that they can get. They can get foulbrood, chalkbrood, there’s just a whole bunch of things that want to cut them down,” she said.

The Cape didn’t suffer from CCD as much as some places... but with all the media attention there’s now widespread public awareness and lots of people want to become beekeepers, and they’re enjoying it for all sorts of reasons:

“It’s very calming. I sometimes put my chair just down by the hive and just sit and watch them carrying in their pollen,” Lipkin said.

Here in Barnstable County the Beekeeper’s Association is filling up their beekeeping school roster every year. Honey production on the Cape is thriving with new beekeepers producing up to 50 pounds their first season.

For more on beekeeping on the Cape, check out