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Helping Brooklyn's Red Stingers Get Off the Juice

Red honey bees
Bees that buzz around a maraschino cherry factory are producing discolored "honey," which is really cured sugar syrup.
             
Turns out bees like sweet corn syrup just as much as we do, and they're getting their fix at a local maraschino cherry factory. Time for an intervention.

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.”

Outside Dell's Maraschino CherriesSeveral 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.”

Inside Dell's Maraschino CherriesCoté 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)

For now, the bees have returned to their original hue and honey production is more or less suspended for 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 of which were affected. And the bees seem to have been just as active pollinating the farm’s crops this season, a role that is just as important as making honey. “The crops didn’t suffer at all so far--we had a great year,” she said. Still, she’s relieved to hear that Dell’s is on the case since there’s only so much a beekeeper can do to control her colonies.

For now, the bees have returned to their original hue and honey production is more or less suspended for 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 of which were affected. And the bees seem to have been just as active pollinating the farm’s crops this season, a role that is just as important as making honey. “The crops didn’t suffer at all so far--we had a great year,” she said. Still, she’s relieved to hear that Dell’s is on the case since there’s only so much a beekeeper can do to control her colonies.

image of Sarah Schmidt
Sarah Schmidt has written about solar power for the New York Sun, vegetables for Plenty, and old houses for This Old House, as well as a number of other topics for the New York Times, New York magazine, Budget Living, and Cookie. She is an editor at ... READ MORE >
Bees are getting in there and grabbing enough to discolor a whole hive full of comb and the health department doesn't think this is an issue? What other creatures that we call pests are also in there? Flies, gnats, fruit flies or maybe even some mice/rats? BTW - HFCS isn't considered an artificial sweetener. It actually has calories, that's what the bees are after.
There's no concern with food quality. From everything I've seen and heard, Dell's runs a very sound and safe operation. The bins of cherries are covered in shrink wrap during the time they are being transported. The bees visit because a few spilled drops on the sidewalk are all it takes to attract one forager bee who then bring her hive-mates along. When we met with Arthur Mondella today, he showed us the most recent third-party audit reports from Cook and Thurber. The company received top marks for food safety and quality as well as regulatory compliance. Speaking from an informal, non-expert perspective, I feel that Mr. Mondella has taken a very proactive and positive approach to working on this issue. He did not hesitate in opening his factory doors to us so that we could learn about the production process and figure out a solution.
Hi Vivian You say that "from everything you have seen and heard" Dell's runs a ship-shape cherry factory, but this article implies that you visited today, at the beginning of December, quite possibly for the first time. I haven't been down Dikeman St. today, but in 40 to 50 degree weather I would imagine the facility is more or less closed to the outdoors and insects, given that it is almost winter, are at a minimum. Let me assure you that this is not the case in the summer, when the doors of the warehouse or facility there are typically wide-open, the stench of syrup, cherries and preservative reaches to both ends of the block, and the sidewalk is often stained red by rivulets of spilled syrup running into the gutter. I thought it was notable that Mondella wouldn't talk to the New York Times, and refused to speak to this reporter as well. As a nearby (non-beekeeping) resident I can tell you that there is frequently quite a lot more than "a few spilled drops on the sidewalk" for any bees and anything else to feast on.
Cant be good for bees to be ingesting artificial dyes......
I am impressed by the integrity of the company. Dell's maraschino cherries ftw.
Here is my question (since I am not averse to food coloring): What is the FLAVOR of the honey? Think about it. Oh my yum!
The bees do gather the syrup from the outside of the factory, but, it is not processed into honey. There is no red honey. That has been reported incorrectly. The bees carry the substance back to their hives, but it cannot be called honey, since it is not.
I suppose that would depend on your definition of honey. One of my friends had affected hives. I helped him extract. We pulled blood-red honey out of capped frames. It was clearly what the bees were storing as food for the winter. One interesting effect was that there was a color pattern left in the extractor once the frames had been spun. I speculate that this indicates a different density or viscosity in the most affected honey vs. any un- affected honey the bees stored in the same frames. When I tasted the red honey, it tasted mostly like honey, with an artificial cherry aftertaste. Of course, different hives may have collected different amounts of cherry syrup to mix with nectar, but these hives are within walking distance of the Dell plant.
It seems that the red dye gets into the honey supers and contaminates what would otherwise have been perfectly good honey. The bees do not discriminate where they store the red syrup and they store it in the same comb/ cells that they store nectar in. There is no way to separate this out when extracting honey from the honeycomb. Placing sugar syrup on the roof of the factory is just another honey contaminant. As rightly mentioned above, honey is mostly made of flower nectar, not sugar syrup. I don't think beekeepers want their bees bringing home sugar syrup. Also, will this syrup be in bee friendly feeders or in barrels that bees will drown in by the hundreds? One easy way would be for the factory to appropriately dispose of the syrup or the water used to wash it away without it 'getting' on the sidewalk and into the storm drains. And for them to secure the food, at the very least, so that insects cannot get into it. These could just as easily have been flies. Any sort of flying insect in a food factory is pretty alarming. What is the city (DOH) saying about this?