My recent road trip to Union County with writer and organic farmer Jack Rentfro concluded with a visit to Double D Apiary, the beekeeping operation of Shirley DeBusk.
This is the slow season for bees. As DeBusk puts it, "There are periods when they don't need you." In winter, bees reduce the size of the hive, slow egg production, and keep the queen warm. In spring, they'll go in search of food from local plants and flowers. As DeBusk says, "Bees are at the mercy of the plants; plants are at the mercy of the bees. It's a cycle." An afternoon with DeBusk is a seminar on all things related to bees: their importance to our food supply, their efficiency, even their personalities.
DeBusk and her husband George, who died last year, got into beekeeping after they traced decreased production in their garden to the death of a local beekeeper. Following a one-week course at UT and the purchase of two hives, the DeBusks went into the pollination business. Pollination is important. The USDA estimates that a third of our food supply is dependent on pollination by honey bees (which makes the documented depopulation of honey bees in the U.S. and Tennessee especially frightening). The sweet nectar that is a byproduct of pollination is simply a bonus.
Most people are familiar with the division of labor in a hive (queen, female workers, male drones), but the level of specialization is impressive. "Housekeeping comes first," says DeBusk. "They all have duties. They work their way up to laying and gathering." Some bees only function as fans, which may not sound very important, but fanning the hive's air removes moisture and helps turn nectar into honey.
DeBusk says every hive is different. She describes some bees she keeps in Hancock County as "a mean bunch of bees," but she notes they are big producers. She also says bees have different personalities based on nationality: "Russian bees are meaner than Italian ones" she says.
Most of us aren't going to spend enough time around bees to note personality traits, but we can tell the difference in the honey they produce. The most obvious difference is color—a range of shades from very pale to quite dark. The color and flavor depend on the nectar source—clover, sourwood, different berries. DeBusk notes that honey created from the pollination of fruit is usually lighter in color.
It's a good idea to buy your honey close to the hive that produced it, but I have to admit I'm intrigued by the sound of a couple of West Coast honeys I read about, which come from the pollination of crops we don't have in this part of the country: avocado and white sage honey.
DeBusk, who has an impressive ribbon collection from the Tennessee Valley Fair and the Tennessee Beekeepers Association, says it's important to "know your beekeeper." You want a "careful" beekeeper who avoids insecticides as DeBusk does. When you buy from a good local beekeeper, you're getting honey that is raw, antibacterial, and antimicrobial—a pure product with nothing added. Commercially packed honey has to be pasteurized. According to DeBusk, you "might as well go buy corn syrup."
Honey has a history as a dressing for wounds that dates back to Hippocrates. It's a time-honored cure for a sore throat. And it's a popular ingredient in complexion-enhancing lotions. One recipe calls for a combination of honey, blueberries, and yogurt. I'd be tempted to make a double batch to have some to sip while waiting for the potion to work its magic on my skin.
There may be other advantages to be gained from honey. For example, it's said that honey can help alleviate the symptoms of seasonal allergies. The theory is that by ingesting honey made from local pollens, you can boost your immunity to them. I'll be testing this theory come fall with a jar of DeBusk's "autumn" honey. You can buy it and several other varieties from her at the farmers' market at Laurel Church of Christ on Kingston Pike and the one in Oak Ridge at Jackson Square.