What’s All The Buzz About?
by: Brian Bushard
photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger
Anton Ragozin pulls on a pair of coveralls, gloves and a protective mesh veil as he walks along a trail to the apiary he set up with eight beehives behind a friend’s house in Madaket.
They’re some of the 45 hives he takes care of across the island. Ragozin calls beekeeping both an art and a science, a cautionary hobby that’s both rewarding and occasionally painful. The science comes from the precise honeyextraction regimen he maintains week in and week out, the art from the care and attention it requires, like taking care of a pet.
There’s an allure to beekeeping that slowly develops into an outright obsession, he said.
“When you work with something that can kill you instantly, it changes you,” said Ragozin, who sells the honey and bee pollen at Sustainable Nantucket’s downtown farmers and artisans market Saturday mornings as part of his business, Grey Lady Apiary.
“If a hive of 60,000 bees all come out and decide to start stinging you, they will kill you. No problem. It changes you as a person. I become more calm, more patient. You can’t rush beekeeping.”
Ragozin moved to Nantucket from Russia 12 years ago. When his wife Maria became pregnant with their first son eight years ago, they started looking for healthy and local ingredients to introduce into their diet. Honey fit the bill, but the jars Ragozin was finding were expensive.
What started as an interest in eating local, sustainable food quickly turned into a hobby. Ragozin, a carpenter, could build the hives in his back-yard apiary.
“I started with three hives and people thought I was crazy,” he said. “The next year was seven, then 20, then it got out of control.”
This year, Ragozin is taking care of 45 hives spread across 18 properties on the island, from Madaket to the Middle Moors. Each hive has about 60,000 bees, he said.
Those bees stay within about a mile of their hive, pollinating flowers and grasses in the area. As a result, each hive produces a unique honey with a slightly different taste.
Some are fruitier. Some have more of a floral note. Each week, Ragozin can collect as much as 400 pounds of honey from his hives. Over the past three years, he’s collected over a ton per year.
“I just wanted to try it,” he said. “I’m always looking for different hobbies and this is still my hobby because I have a fulltime job. However, I am one of the biggest beekeepers on the island.”
When he started beekeeping, he went out with nothing more than a shirt, pants and a metal smoker to sedate the bees. Several years later – after being stung a few times and once realizing he had about 100 bees crawling up his shirt – he changed his routine. Now, he’s sealed from head to toe.
Beekeeping is not for the faint of heart, he said. But if a bee does sting, it’s not an issue, either. The stings can be therapeutic, he said. There’s even a form of muscle and joint relief called apiculture, which he uses. The cure for the pain: bee stings.
“It’s very important if you don’t want arthritis,” Ragozin said. “I’m not going to get arthritis when I get older because I get stung on a regular basis. When I got a pain in my elbow, I stung myself and the pain went away the same day. It’s amazing. I started doing all my joints. It’s just tricky to catch a bee and get it to sting me where I want it to sting me and not on my finger.”
Peter Brace started beekeeping five years ago, less as a job and more as a hobby. It wasn’t the honey he was most interested in, but the process of cultivating something entirely local and sustainable. It’s like fishing or foraging berries for a pie, he said.
Now, he’s collecting about 600 pounds of honey a year.
“My dad kept bees for 30 years. I grew up listening to him talk about it and it bored the crap out of me. I just wanted the honey,” Brace said.
He picked up a few boxes and frames for his own hive five years ago, when Sunny Daily, another beekeeper, approached him and asked if he wanted to join a beekeeping group.
“It’s one of those hobbies you get sucked into,” he said. “It’s hard to not do it every single year.”
The spring honey he harvests is light and floral. The flavor comes from what the bees are pollinating, anything from dandelions to wildflowers to lavender. Fall honey is darker, when the bees pollinate the Japanese knotweed, goldenrod and thistle growing around his house.
“It’s like oysters in the head of the harbor,” Brace said. “There are six guys there, one in Coskata Pond, two outside Pocomo Meadow. Each has a different flavor and it’s the same thing with honey.”
Often, Ragozin said, people associate bee-
keeping with honey alone. “Bees equal honey,” he said. But that’s not all he sells.
Each hive he tends in Madaket has about 10 frames inside. A queen bee will lay thousands of eggs in those frames. They’re surrounded by a gelatinous syrup called royal jelly the bees produce. That jelly is also edible, Ragozin said. So is the pollen he collects in a trap at the bottom of each hive. The wax on top can also be collected and made into anything from candles to lip balms.
Sometimes, he takes a syrupy compound called propolis from the hive. Ragozin knows it by another name: Russian penicillin. Other times, he extracts a fermented combination of pollen and honey called bee bread. The result is about 140 times more potent than pollen. It’s like an energy shot, he said.
“One teaspoon is enough for a whole day,” he said. “Coffee gives you a temporary energy boost in the morning, but bee bread keeps you going the whole day. But people think it’s just honey.” On top of the health benefits, beekeeping also provides a unique service to the environment, Ragozin said. The bees pollinate fruiting trees and shrubs, grasses and flowers. “They’re amazing creatures,” he said. “They don’t leave any mess and they make everything bloom.”
The only risk is something called colony collapse. The usual suspect is a microscopic larval pest called the varroa mite, which has devastated apiaries not only on Nantucket but across the country.
When Brace first started beekeeping on his own, he lost three hives to the mite. Now, he uses an organic spray made out of discarded beer hops from breweries to combat it.
Ragozin uses something called a drone frame. The varroa mite attaches itself to the frame. Ragozin removes it and freezes it, keeping the mite from infecting the rest of the bees in the hive. It’s been effective so far, he said.
Not using a spray allows him to market the honey as pesticide-free, something many beekeepers nationwide can’t claim. Now, he ships jars of honey to customers as far away
as Canada and Texas. He sells honey and pollen to restaurants and coffeeshops around the island and at the farmers and artisans market.
The business has grown exponentially over the past eight years, he said. But it’s still only a part-time job. Ragozin has no plans to quit his day job as a carpenter.
“Beekeeping is in harmony with nature. There are more flowers, more fruits. It’s in harmony with people because it brings people health,” he said.
“The stings don’t bother me much. Now, I say ‘thank you’ when I get stung. Sometimes you get stung 16 times in one day. But I like (beekeeping). If you find a hobby that makes you money, you never have to work. That’s what it is for me.” ///
Brian Bushard is a staff writer at The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.