Urban Ranchers: Raising Honey in the Mid-South
Behind the chattering fountains and stately amphitheater, through the buzzing woods and beyond the dinosaur sculptures, lies one of the secrets of the Memphis Botanic Garden. Away from the more heavily trafficked paths, bird song mixes with distant traffic noises in gentle harmony. This little-known spot is a staging area for large events as well as the home of a dozen-plus hives and more than half a million honeybees who pollinate the garden’s nearly 100 acres.
Tidy stacks of filing-drawer-sized white boxes sit atop a black barrier cloth that inhibits weed growth and heats up nicely under a summer sun. From twenty feet away, I can see that the hives are active, bees flying in and out of the small openings on the fronts of the boxes. My tour guides to this as-yet unexplored queendom are two men, Willie Adams and George Waldirp, who describe themselves as “urban ranchers”: farmers who raise a honey crop within city limits. As the proprietors of G & W Honey, George and Willie promised to introduce me to one of the most fascinating and useful insects ever to cross my path.
Tending the Colony
When I visited the hives at the botanic garden, Willie and George were doing a weekly maintenance visit. George donned a bee suit, an outfit akin to a mechanic’s coveralls. The suit once had been white but was now a pleasant shade of toasted marshmallow. Then came the veil, a hard, safari-shaped hat with netting falling from it and a drawstring at the bottom. They handed me an extra veil, saying that if the bees became agitated, they would go for my face first. Startled, I took an involuntary step backward. But after a few minutes, I crept toward the hive again, the beekeepers’ relaxed yet careful manner putting me at ease.
“Bees don’t want to hurt anyone. They die if they sting you,” Willie assured me.
When properly outfitted, the men looked for signs of trouble, noting whether there were bees flying in and out of all hive entrances. George and Willie also looked for piles of dead bees, a brood that had been pulled out of the hive, or signs of intruders. Then they checked the boxes and trays for soundness.
Next, a smoker (a hand-held metal can with bellows attached) was pointed at the hive. The bellows sounded like the gentle panting of a dog. That hiss of air, along with the aroma of the burning leaves inside the can, soothed even me, though I was not the smoker’s intended object. After removing the lid of a honey super — the top box — George puffed smoke from the spout directly onto the bees.
“If there is a forest fire, the bees fill their bellies with honey in case they need to abandon this colony and begin a new one,” George explained. “The honey makes them more docile. Actually, they’re a little drunk.”
“So puffing smoke at them is like feeding my children a snack when they get ornery?” I asked.
“Exactly like that,” the men confirmed. I scribbled notes furiously, mentally adding “jar of honey” to the packing list for an upcoming road trip with my three young children.
With the lid off, the beekeepers immediately noticed small hive beetles. These pests, if they become too numerous, can destroy a colony from the inside out. The bees can control them to some extent; several bees working together can pull apart the beetles to kill them. The beekeepers assist these efforts by gently smashing beetles with the flat edge of a crowbar and a paint scraper.
As they worked, George and Willie noted which hives seemed most effective at keeping the intruders’ numbers low. They will actively breed from those colonies, with the hopes that this will yield bees that are increasingly beetle-resistant. G & W Honey operations do not include any pesticides or artificial treatments. This way, they strengthen the bees’ own resistance to diseases and parasites.
After the beetles were dispatched, Willie and George located each colony’s queen amid hundreds of workers. She has a unique set of under-wings and a slightly longer, more narrow body than her fellows. Since the bees’ activity seemed normal, the men replaced the trays and lids on the supers.
They did not pull honey when I visited, though they planned to do so in the next few weeks. Most of that work is done in the spring, summer and early fall, when blossoms and nectar are profuse. Pulling honey involves spraying a fume board with a smell that bees don’t like, then bringing full, or “capped,” trays into the work area. Wax caps are removed with a hot knife, and then the trays are run through a centrifuge to remove the honey.
Making Liquid Gold
Honeybees are exceptionally well organized and sometimes ruthless. Each hive has one queen who is the hormonal and reproductive center of the hive. Her pheromones keep the group together. The hive is organized like a brain, in camps. Distinct camps communicate with each other and even “vote” in order to decide a course of action for the whole group.
When the queen’s pheromone weakens, she leaves the hive with some of the worker bees in a swarm and sets up a new residence. Before she leaves, the queen lays “queen cells,” which are fed royal jelly (a special protein-rich secretion from worker bees’ glands). As virgin queens hatch, they kill their rivals until only one is left. Then the virgin queen flies to a drone (a stingless male bee) congregation area and mates with 3 to15 drones. She then returns to her colony as its new reproductive head. Nectar-gathering, beetle-dispatching, larvae-raising, and honey-making re-commence. As bees age, less useful members are culled from the group.
“There is no retirement plan for a bee,” George said. “If a bee is old and can’t work anymore, the others throw it out in the cold to die.”
Much of the hive’s work is making honey, which they eat throughout the year and store for the winter months. G & W Honey takes advantage of the bees’ prolific production.
“A hive needs about 40 to 60 pounds of honey to last the winter in this climate. The bees might make 260 pounds in a year. We relieve them of the excess as their ‘rent’ for the safe, secure housing we provide,” George said.
The honey from their apiaries is sold to local restaurants and individuals via word of mouth and the gift shop at Shelby Farms. Another product they sell is propolis, or hive glue made from tree sap. This is a yellow, tacky substance that can be used in beauty or health products. Since propolis is anti-sceptic and antibiotic, some people eat it. Willie maintains that the flavor of propolis isn’t so bad when it is hidden in milkshakes. George says that even then, it still tastes horrible.
Propolis was also a key ingredient, along with olive oil and beeswax (which is also sold by G & W Honey), in furniture polish of decades past. However, honey is the most popular product, both for its sweetness and its complexity. George illustrated this complexity with a jar of sage honey he had just bought in Denver. (He drives around with honey in his truck. No kidding.)
“This is different from any honey you get around here,” he promised as he handed me a plastic fork dripping with amber liquid. “Honey flavor and color vary by season and the flowers that the bees are eating. It’s like wine; you could pair different honeys with food courses,” added George.
He wasn’t exaggerating. The first wave of flavor was sweet, of course, but about three seconds later, the middle and end tastes hit herbal and almost savory notes. When my eyes widened in surprise, George and Willie merely nodded.
An Early Start
George and Willie have deep roots in beekeeping. Willie told me he has been doing it for 29 years. When I raised my eyebrows at his relatively youthful appearance, he explained that he started keeping his own hive when he was four years old. Before that, he helped his father and grandfather with their apiaries.
George’s great-grandfather kept bees, and his old equipment in the family shed held allure for a curious boy. He didn’t start his own hive until he met Willie, though. One day George saw Willie’s apiary equipment in his yard and asked about it. Eighteen years later, these men have extensive practical knowledge and a remarkable passion for healthy hives.
“If you give us a chance, we’ll talk about bees,” Willie said.
When they’re not tending hives, both men have additional employment that allows them to pursue their avid interest in apiculture. Willie is also working on a degree in biology from the University of Memphis. Together, George and Willie tend 55 colonies spread over several locations including Shelby Farms, the botanic garden, Willie’s home, George’s home, and Scott’s Nursery in Lakeland. They also manage the observation hive at the Memphis Zoo.
Honey for the Future
The two main challenges to George and Willie’s beekeeping are small hive beetles and pesticides used on lawns. Pesticides sprayed on open flowers (i.e. during daylight hours) kill bees outright or weaken them before they return to the colony and spread the pesticide throughout the hive.
Colony collapse, or when a majority of bees abandon the hive and queen, has not been a problem for G & W Honey. This phenomenon occurs more often in migratory hives — hives that are moved to an agricultural area for a few weeks for the specific purpose of seasonal pollination. Constant movement of their home causes stress and makes bees more susceptible to illness.
Like any people who love what they do, George and Willie dream of expanding their operations, of adding more bees and more hives. They hope to partner with Shelby Farms to create educational programs for high school students and members of the penal community. They want to create YouTube videos about beekeeping. These men also see a keen business opportunity. They point to a steep decline in the number of bees in the U.S. since the late 1950s and the rise of honey prices in recent years. Additional apiculture would also aid agricultural pollination without migratory hives. They envision thousands of hives and billions of bees. Maybe George and Willie are a little drunk on honey. Or maybe they’ve just had a taste of the sweet life.
G &W Honey Farms • 901-826-4647