Like a Bee to Honey

Robin Blackley of East End Apiaries demonstrated how she cared for her “girls” on a recent visit. Bridget LeRoy

    There are many ways to preserve the flavor of an area — creating ordinances and review boards are some of them — but Robin Blackley chooses a different and tastier way. She preserves the flavor of the East End through honey.
    Ms. Blackley has been the proprietor of East End Apiaries since 1987. She is a real-life beekeeper and that makes her sort of a superhero of the farming world.
    You may recall a “Morning Edition” on National Public Radio in 2006, which reported that “wild bees across the country are in a state of decline. A few may be headed for extinction.” That was according to a report by the National Academy of Sciences. “And since bees help to pollinate many plants, that could cause problems for anybody in the following categories. See if this includes you: gardeners, farmers, people who like to eat.”
    Ms. Blackley’s road to the bees was similar to the bee dance many people have seen in educational films in high school: a lot of wiggling and shifting to find the proper direction.
    She was brought up in Southampton but went to college for lost-wax casting, worked in commercial art foundries casting bronze, and moved to Manhattan, where she was “slinging chili on the Upper West Side,” she said.
    Making a snap decision herself, Ms. Blackley quit her job and moved to the Outer Banks of North Carolina to open a restaurant with a partner who didn’t come through. She returned to her parents’ house in Southampton to regroup, but it was the beginning of summer, and all the jobs were taken.
    To keep herself occupied, she started a 30-by-50-foot garden in the backyard, deciding what to grow based on what she wanted to eat. “I bought some seeds and threw them in.”
    That’s when the bees came buzzing around. And the more curious they became about the garden goodies, the more curious Ms. Blackley became about them.
    Tentatively, she started keeping bees, still not really sure if she was doing it right. Then, after her very first season, her honey took second place at the Empire State Beekeeping Association in Syracuse, and not long after that, she received a call from John Halsey.
    “He wanted me to look at some hives he had,” she said earlier this month at Amy’s Flowers on Mecox Road, part of the farm owned by the Halsey family. The family also markets their wares, notably apples, at the Milk Pail, a stand on Montauk Highway in Water Mill. “There was one colony that wasn’t doing well.”
    “Here I was petrified, dealing with farmers whose family had been farming for hundreds of years,” she said.
    But after looking at the hive, she was able to correctly identify the problem, and that, she said “validated me.”
    How do beekeepers support their business? Many apiarists work on a sort of “bee-for-hire” basis, traveling with their hives to farms in other areas and allowing the bees to pollinate the crops at faraway farms before bringing the hives home.
    “The problem with that,” Ms. Blackley said, “is that you dilute the original flavor we have here on the East End, with its lush, rich soil.” Her own bees hunt for pollen in a two-mile radius of the Halsey farm, which keeps her product pure.
    “If I can help a farmer farm longer, with a more productive yield, that makes me happy,” she said.
    Do you have a swarm of bees that you don’t know what to do with? Ms. Blackley picks up bees and “takes them from where they shouldn’t be to where they should be.” Bees tend to swarm in the spring and early summer. If it’s fall, she said, you’ve probably got yellow jackets.
    Ms. Blackley will be setting up a colony at the East End Community Organic Farm on Long Lane soon. “Beekeeping is very heavy, hard, sweaty work,” she said. “There’s not a lot of glory in it if people are looking at doing this as a hobby. You have to be really committed.”
    East End Apiaries sells the honey generated on the Halsey Farm only at farmers markets, never at supermarkets. Ms. Blackley takes her bee products to the new farmers market at the Amagansett Legion Hall on Wednesdays, Hayground School on Fridays, Westhampton on Saturdays, and Southampton on Sundays. She also offers it online at eastendapiaries.com.
    “There’s such a demand right now” for hives on farms that Ms. Blackley said she is “waiting for bees and equipment.” But in the meantime, she is happy taking care of the “girls” she has.
    Oh, and does she get stung? Of course she does. They’re bees! “They don’t sting unless they have to,” she said. “You get used to it.”