Keepers of the Hive
By Antonia Krenza & Laney Roberts
Temperatures have been steadily rising as we march toward the sultry highs of summer. In many backyards around Charleston there has been another increase, one in decibels …
It is the hum of activity after cold weather dormancy. It is the sound of industry and the promise of blooms and plentitude to come. It is the sound of healthy, productive hives.
You'd be surprised at just how many honeybee keepers there are locally, within the state of South Carolina, nationally and worldwide. These individuals, hobbyists and professionals alike share a secret - the honeybee is nature's indispensable and most prolific botanical "sex therapist"! Certainly birds, bats, other insects and even shifting winds play a part in the pollination of the world's food crops and wildflowers, but nothing can match the focused efficiency of the honeybee.
And then, there is the by-product of their industry - honey. Pollination with perks! The honey is another one of the secrets that beekeepers share. Depending upon the nectars from which the hive is feeding, the resultant honey can possess great complexity of flavor - wildflower, tupelo, black sage, sourwood and so much more. Add to flavor the many health benefits of honey and you have one of nature's super foods. The key to acquiring these lovingly harvested honeys with their curative powers is simple. Buy Local.
Though it is an honor to live intimately with the honeybee, hoarding their secrets is the last thing that beekeepers want to do. They are well aware that the buzz of bees, to the uninformed ear, often evokes a sense of trepidation which quickly devolves to a "swat and run" reaction. What the beekeeper also knows is that the sound and fury of wings is the music of productivity. The language of the bee is in its wings and the beekeepers are a channel through which the voice of the hive can be heard. Over the years, the rugged individualism of beekeepers has evolved into associations. Originally formed as a way to share information and support, these groups have evolved into advocates for the honeybee, educating the public about their importance to the health of our world.
The Charleston Area Beekeepers Association (CABA) is a club whose members are predominately backyard/hobby beekeepers from the tri-county and surrounding coastal area. The organization works to promote bees and healthy beekeeping practices here in the Lowcountry. In addition to its monthly meetings at the Citadel, CABA offers beginner beekeeping courses, mentoring programs and makes educational presentations for any groups such as garden clubs, schools and farmers.
Each member has a role. One member manages the hives at Cypress and Magnolia Gardens and Middleton Plantation. Another has hives at Jenkins Orphanage and is teaching those children about bees. Special education teachers at Wando High School are maintaining hives as part of the curriculum. One particular student at Ashley Hall interned with the USDA to broaden her knowledge of bees and recently traveled to California to intern with a commercial beekeeper pollinating almond groves. She currently manages her own hives and has created a blog www.becomingqueenbee.com . The commitment of these educators and the passions of these young beekeepers are the hope of perpetuity for a tradition that has lost ground in the urban sprawl of world societies.
The omission of names is not one of disrespect. It is one of revelation. These dedicated individuals are like an extension of the hive. They are worker bees foraging beyond the matriarchal colony of the hive and changing the way the world looks at the honeybee. Local beekeepers are creating their own buzz. Charleston has established itself as a food and beverage mecca whose guiding philosophy is local sustainability. What harvest is more local or sustainable than that of Lowcountry hives? That awareness is appearing on menus all over the city.
Last year Tristan created a honey inspired hors d'oeuvres tasting for a reception following Slow Food Charleston's screening of the film "Vanishing of the Bees". The Old Village Post House currently features a cocktail called the Barn Raiser which incorporates local honey, King of Pops recently collaborated with Savannah Bee Company using Charleston honey for one of their handcrafted popsicles. Word is, the wife of a local restaurateur (Magnolia, Cypress, and Blossom) maintains hives for the exclusive use in these restaurants. The retail presence of Savannah Bee Company, with its tasting room on lower King, is proof that local and handcrafted honeys are gaining new recognition for their culinary and medicinal properties.
But what about the honeybee? CABA is well aware that the bee comes first, not the honey. In order to celebrate the hive itself, the association collaborated with Cinebarre to host the 1st Annual Charleston Honey and Bee Expo. It was a day of fun and gustatory revelation with honey tastings and over 30 beekeepers interacting to share information about bees and beekeeping. Local businesses such as Whole Foods, Savannah Bee Company and Royall ACE Hardware contributed to the event. Activities for kids and a dog-friendly atmosphere made the day a feel good event for all involved.
One of the highlights of the expo was the screening of the film "Queen of the Sun: What are the Bees Telling Us?" This was the Charleston premier of a documentary Roger Ebert called "one of the most beautiful nature films I've ever seen." The inspiring movie explores beekeeping worldwide, the common bonds these keepers of the hive share and addresses the concern over decreases in bee populations and what that means for to all of us.
Truth is, the attribution of Albert Einstein's quote, "If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live.", has been disputed as often as it has been cited. Einstein was a physicist not an entomologist, after all. The bigger truth is in the implication of the quote. If honeybees are responsible for 80% of the pollination worldwide, how would their disappearance affect our ability to feed the ever-growing population? The honeybee has been in existence at least for as many years as primitive man has recorded. This longevity does not make them impervious to modern society with its destruction of native habitats, the stresses of commercialized beekeeping with its rigorous pollination demands or agribusinesses' rampant botanical manipulation through genetic modification and systemic pesticides.
Bees are decreasing in numbers greater than can be explained by natural predators and disease. How can we turn the tide? Create natural habitats - plant wildflowers and create water sources for bees. Support local honey producers at farmers markets. Advocate at your favorite restaurants and retail stores to utilize and offer locally crafted honey. Write your congressman to curtail the use of systemic pesticides here in the United States.
Pay attention! The honeybees have more to tell us than we imagine. The health and well-being of the bees have been referred to as a thermometer of the health of the world. The world is our hive and we are its keepers. We would do well to heed the model of the honeybee - that of fierce devotion and tireless industry all for a common goal. Perhaps, if we did, our hive would be a better place to live.
Photography by Stacy Howell