The Mystery of the Red Bees of Red Hook
By SUSAN DOMINUS
Cerise Mayo expected better of her bees. She had raised them right, given them all the best opportunities — acres of urban farmland strewn with fruits and vegetables, a bounty of natural nectar and pollen. Blinded by devotion, she assumed they shared her values: a fidelity to the land, to food sources free of high-fructose corn syrup and artificial food coloring.
And then this. Her bees, the ones she had been raising in Red Hook, Brooklyn, and on Governors Island since May, started coming home to their hives looking suspicious. Of course, it was the foragers — the adventurers, the wild waggle dancers, the social networkers incessantly buzzing about their business — who were showing up with mysterious stripes of color. Where there should have been a touch of gentle amber showing through the membrane of their honey stomachs was instead a garish bright red. The honeycombs, too, were an alarming shade of Robitussin.
“I thought maybe it was coming from some kind of weird tree, maybe a sumac,” said Ms. Mayo, who tends seven hives for Added Value, an education nonprofit in Red Hook. “We were at a loss.”
An acquaintance, only joking, suggested the unthinkable: Maybe the bees were hitting the juice — maraschino cherry juice, that sweet, sticky stuff sloshing around vats at Dell’s Maraschino Cherries Company over on Dikeman Street in Red Hook.
“I didn’t want to believe it,” said Ms. Mayo, a soft-spoken young woman who has long been active in the slow-food movement. She found it particularly hard to believe that the bees would travel all the way from Governors Island to gorge themselves on junk food. “Why would they go to the cherry factory,” she said, “when there’s a lot for them to forage right there on the farm?”
It seems natural, by now, for humans to prefer the unnatural, as if we ourselves had been genetically modified to choose artificially flavored strawberry candy over strawberries, or crunchy orange “cheese” puffs over a piece of actual cheese. But when bees make the same choice, it feels like a betrayal to our sense of how nature should work. Shouldn’t they know better? Or, perhaps, not know enough to know better?
A fellow beekeeper sent samples of the red substance that the bees were producing to an apiculturalist who works for New York State, and that expert, acting as a kind offorensic foodie, found the samples riddled with Red Dye No. 40, the same dye used in the maraschino cherry juice.
No one knows for sure where the bees might have consumed the dye, but neighbors of the Dell’s factory, Ms. Mayo said, reported that bees in unusually high numbers were gathering nearby.
And she learned that Arthur Mondella, the owner of the factory, had hired Andrew Coté, the leader of the New York City Beekeepers Association, to help find a solution.
Mr. Mondella did not return phone calls seeking comment, but in an interview, Mr. Coté said that the bees were as great a nuisance to the factory as Red Dye No. 40 was to the beekeepers. (No, Ms. Mayo was not alone: David Selig, another Red Hook beekeeper, also had bees showing red.)
“Bees will forage from any sweet liquid in their flight path for up to three miles,” Mr. Coté said. While he has not yet visited the factory, he said that the bees might be drinking from its runoff, and that solving the problem “could be as easy as putting up some screens, or providing a closer source of sweet nectar.”
Could the tastiest nectar, even close by the hives, compete with the charms of a liquid so abundant, so vibrant and so cloyingly sweet? Perhaps the conundrum raises another disturbing question: If the bees cannot resist those three qualities, what hope do the rest of us have?
A story of the perils of urban farming, this is also a story of the careful two-step of gentrification. Red Hook embodies so much of Brooklyn culture — an infatuation with the borough’s old ways, just so long as those do not actually impinge on the modish design and values.
The maraschino cherries that emerge from the Dell’s factory have probably graced thousands of retro-chic cocktails and sundaes in Red Hook itself, or at least in Williamsburg. Finding some solution to the maraschino juice bee crisis — to all urban clashes of culture — is part of the project of New York, a wildly creative endeavor in and of itself.
All summer long, friends of Ms. Mayo were forever pointing out the funny coincidence that her first name means “cherry” in French; as a slow-food advocate with the last name Mayo, she was already accustomed to such observations.
Mr. Selig, who owns the restaurant chain Rice and raises the bees as a hobby, was disappointed that an entire season that should have been devoted to honey yielded instead a red concoction that tasted metallic and then overly sweet.
He and Ms. Mayo also fear that the bees’ feasting on the stuff could have unforeseeable health effects on the hives.
But Mr. Selig said there was something extraordinary, too, about those corn-syrup-happy bees that came flying back this summer.
“When the sun is a bit down, they glow red in the evenings,” he said. “They were slightly fluorescent. And it was beautiful.”