Fox Islands Apiaries
Fifteen miles off the coast of Maine, tucked into Penobscot Bay, is a small archipelago of islands. A unique apiary run by Deborah “Jake” Tuminski and Jordan Radley is on these specks of land.
“We named our apiary ‘Fox Islands Apiary’ after the archipelago of islands,” says Tuminski. “They include Vinalhaven and North Haven, along with several smaller islands off the coast of Rockland.”
Tuminski and Radley bought 19 hives from Julie Record, whose husband Doug suddenly passed away in 2018. “Doug was a legendary beekeeper on North Haven Island,” remembers Tuminski. “He’d kept his mite-free hives for many years in a variety of spots on North Haven, and his honey was among the best I’d ever tasted. The local brewery even made a honey ale named Record Ale after him and used his honey in the brew.”
Along with the hives and a “huge amount” of equipment, Tuminski and Radley set up their apiary in November of 2019. “We hoped to leave some of our hives on North Haven and move a few to Vinalhaven, traveling between the islands on the half-mile stretch of ocean called the Fox Islands Thoroughfare,” remembers Tuminski. “But because of COVID-19, North Haven closed down the island to visitors, and we decided we should move all the hives over to Vinalhaven.”
Winters are chilly in Maine, but that didn’t stop Tuminski and Radley from getting things set up. “We spent many cold, windy days in December 2019 moving the 19 hives by 14-foot skiff-loads from island to island,” she recalls. “Four hives a load, all strapped up with the bees closed in. It was snowy and cold. The skiff was iced up, as well as the dock and ramps. We thought we might lose a hive overboard a few times as we tried to lift them from the skiff. It was bouncing with the waves onto the icy float, and the boat and float were shifting and rocking in different directions!”
But never underestimate the determination of beekeepers. “It took quite a bit of maneuvering to lift the 100- to 130-pound hives from skiff to float, float to the ramp, and then to carry them up the ramp and hoist them into a truck bed. But we did it.”
Tuminski and Radley distributed the hives to a variety of locations on the island, starting with four hives in each spot. “Jordan already had four hives at his farm, and I had two at my house,” she said, “so we began our adventure with 25 hives in December 2019. It took around 22 skiff loads to finish up moving over 65 supers in all sizes, feeders, smokers, a huge 25-frame extractor, a wax melting device, lots of wax, and loads of extra equipment new and old, boxes of frames, bottles of all sizes and 800 pounds of honey in white buckets. We crammed everything into Jordan’s shed with barely inches to walk in between all of our new gear.”
The legendary beekeeper’s wife, Julie, worked with her husband over the years, helping extract, make wax products, create creams, and market the products. She was a wealth of knowledge for Tuminski and Radley. “We were well prepared to begin our adventure after her lessons on using the extractor, bottling the honey, preparing creams and wax cloths, and melting down the wax cappings into beautiful golden hunks of pure beeswax,” said Tuminski.
Tuminski and Radley have now had two seasons of keeping Doug Record’s bees. Their one regret is not asking Doug himself questions about many subjects, but they’re figuring things out as they go and have learned much through trial and error. They’ve also had help from the Maine State Apiarist Jennifer Lund, who has visited their hives and given valuable advice.
The growth of Fox Islands Apiaries is a story of gusty optimism and grim determination. “Last summer, we had a season of drought,” relates Tuminski. “The bees were mean, and we had lots of stings. Our honey production was lower than any previous year Doug had recorded, but we still harvested 400 pounds of honey, leaving 90 pounds on each hive with our bees going into winter. We also re-queened several hives and combined hives that were weak to help them survive the winter.”
In Maine, winter dominates beekeeping, and wise beekeepers prepare their livestock as best they can for harsh weather. “Our winter losses were minimal that first winter,” said Tuminski, “but we did realize having fewer locations to tend was probably better than spending our time running around to eight different apiaries on our island. Vinalhaven is only six miles wide and nine miles long, but we were driving from end to end and around and around to get to all our apiaries.”
After some experimentation, Tuminski and Radley settled into their current setup. “We now have two main apiaries with seven hives at each and three other locations with two or three hives each. We also moved most of our hives to the northern part of the island, where the climate is a Zone 6 rather than a Zone 5, as it is on the southern part of the island just nine miles away. The northern end of Vinalhaven is more temperate and protected, and the forage is excellent. In the spring, we have cherry trees, clover, and dandelions. As the season progresses, our bees feast on the wildflowers and apples in old farmland, plus one local farm which has enormous greenhouses with a huge variety of vegetables.”
Alongside learning how to keep bees, Tuminski and Radley are also learning to sell their products. “We market honey, creamed honey, and bee cream at a variety of locations,” says Tuminski. “We sell in local stores, the flea market, gift shops, and farm stores both on the islands as well as the mainland.”
Above all, Tuminski and Radley have a legend to live up to that of Doug Record. “Someday, we hope to have mite-free hives here on Vinalhaven,” says Tuminski. “We’re working towards that by treating our bees and trying to keep them healthy and happy. We feel our honey tastes just as wonderful as the honey Doug produced on North Haven, and we’re convinced island life is good and healthy for the bees as they happily produce delicious honey to share.”
Originally published in the February/March 2022 issue of Backyard Beekeeping and regularly vetted for accuracy.