Backyard honeybees make liquid gold 

The Sweet Life

Larry Haigh's green half-acre sits just off Chuck Dawley Boulevard in Mt. Pleasant's Moss Park neighborhood, where the lot sizes are generous and many of the residents have tried their hand at gardening. Stepping off the screen porch into his backyard, Haigh spots a bluebird resting in the boughs of a pear tree and then takes note of his grapevines, still brown and clutching an arbor frame in the final days of winter. In the middle of the garden sit two humming boxes where industrious honeybees toil away producing the year's first outpouring of liquid gold.

click to enlarge Devorah Slick tends to her backyard bee boxes - JONATHAN BONCEK

Because honey is derived from the pollen that bees pick up, Haigh's hives yield a unique flavor that is subtly influenced by the pollinating plants in the area: savory rosemary from the bush in the yard, tart blackberries from the shrubs down the road, and, of course, pears when the nearby tree offers up its delicate blossoms. Then there are the tea-oil camellias in winter and the holly bushes in spring, which make for a lighter honey — one that earned second place from judges at the 2010 South Carolina State Fair.

As with wine, chefs use the French term terroir to describe the ways in which a honey is unique to a certain part of the world, and professional tasters are trained to meticulously analyze the taste, fragrance, and aftertaste of honey. With Haigh's honey, which tends to become darker and richer come summertime, the most distinguishing characteristic (to the untrained palate) is the aftertaste, which gently tempers the sweetness with a tang and a hint of earth.

Clover honey, the variety most commonly seen in grocery stores, is often pasteurized to slow the process of crystallization while in storage. "It's typically filtered to the point where it's more or less just a sweetener," Haigh says. Inside the house, he keeps several bottles of sought-after honey on top of the refrigerator: light and buttery fireweed from a beekeeping friend in Alaska, floral tupelo from South Carolina's wetlands, and sparkling sourwood from a Clemson entomologist who collected the sort of mountain ambrosia that has won hearty approval from international competition judges in recent years.

Professional beekeepers have long maintained hives by the hundreds across South Carolina, but in recent years, homeowners have taken an interest in the emerging practice of backyard apiculture. Haigh is the founder and president of the Charleston Area Beekeepers Association, which boasts about 80 members, many of whom are keeping bees in an urban or suburban environment.

Small-time South Carolina honey sellers won some vindication on Feb. 10, when the state legislature passed a bill into law that exempted them from certain regulations imposed on larger sellers. Before the change, even families wishing to sell honey at a farmers market were required to harvest and strain it inside a specially designed "honey house" that Haigh had already built for himself in his backyard, painting the walls in food-grade easy-wash paint and installing three separate sinks for cleaning off utensils, washing hands, and scrubbing the floor. Now, sellers can apply to opt out of the requirement if they produce less than 400 gallons a year.

click to enlarge Devorah Slick tends to her backyard bee boxes - JONATHAN BONCEK

Devorah Slick is well below that level and has spent her time studying the politics of bee society. She knows that the queen bee is all-important in her single role of producing larvae, but the queen can be deposed if her subjects become restive. When a queen is not meeting normal standards for brood numbers at Slick's two hives in Cainhoy, she starts to worry.

If the colony becomes too disenchanted with a queen, it will either revolt and kill her or swarm away all at once without her, taking its honey elsewhere and leaving an empty hive. Slick tries to preempt a coup, reaching in to kill the queen and replace her with a monarch from another colony.

click to enlarge Small-batch producers like Larry Haigh can now sell honey without the expense of a honey house - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Small-batch producers like Larry Haigh can now sell honey without the expense of a honey house

Members of the Charleston Area Beekeepers Association order their bees from South Georgia apiaries in shoebox-sized wood-and-metal-grate containers. A mail-order queen comes inside a special sealed compartment that allows the colony to adjust to her smell while eating through a fondant candy plug at one end. The sugary cap takes two to three days to chew through, and then — hopefully — life goes on as normal with a new head of state.

Bee society has fascinated Slick since childhood. No one in her family or group of friends has an interest in the subject, but Slick's first name is Hebrew for "bee." When she lived in Israel in the late 1990s, she sometimes heard her name in public as people swatted at the insects outside: "Lo devorah, lo devorah!"

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Like Haigh, who has only been stung once in his four years of beekeeping, Slick is comfortable in the company of honeybees, but she still takes precautions, donning a full bee suit and mask and always approaching her two bee boxes from the side to avoid the high-traffic entrance. She moves as if underwater, slowing down so as not to startle the worker bees. She carries a tiny bellow-powered smoker with her to keep the bees from swarming. Smoke, she explains, sends a signal that the forest might be on fire, and the bees hunker down in the hive to collect honey in preparation for a possible exodus. The pump whispers breathily, and the bees answer with a white-noise hum.

click to enlarge At Tristan, Chef Nate Whiting serves foie gras torchon with honey brittle, pistachio, and bee pollen
  • At Tristan, Chef Nate Whiting serves foie gras torchon with honey brittle, pistachio, and bee pollen

Up in Cottageville, Diane and Archie Biering have built a life around bees. As the founding owners of Bee City, a 130-hive apiary and animal petting zoo, which is now owned by their son, they have built a reputation bottle by bottle through local sellers and state fairs since they set up their first hive boxes in 1989. Bee City now has distribution deals with Earth Fare in West Ashley, a seller at the Ladson Flea Market, and a Brazilian waxing specialist in North Charleston. With some of the hives bordering swampland on the Edisto River, the Bierings are able to harvest sought-after tupelo honey, including the dark, robust variety that comes from the pollen of the blackgum tupelo in late spring.

Marc Collins, executive chef at downtown restaurant Circa 1886, uses Bee City's pollen to make a vinaigrette for salads at his restaurant. He says the mustard-colored powder lends a creamy richness and an almost musky flavor. He also uses the company's honey to lacquer pork chops. When he's running low on supplies, he makes the 15-minute drive from his home in Summerville to stock up at Bee City. He estimates he goes through two gallons every three months.

"Sue Bee, if you read the label, it's coming from four to 10 different countries depending on how it's put together," Collins says. "I would rather have honey coming from a person who's got a personal vested interest in it."

click to enlarge Foie gras torchon with honey brittle, pistachio, and bee pollen - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Foie gras torchon with honey brittle, pistachio, and bee pollen

Chef Nate Whiting uses South Carolina honey for an all-purpose sweetener in his kitchen at Tristan. He orders it from Bell Honey Company in the Sumter County town of Rembert, S.C., and uses it in braises and to sweeten sauces. He brushes it on biscuits for Sunday brunch, mixes it with vinegar to lend a sweet-and-sour tang when cooking onions, and adds it to Tuscan farro.

"Instead of putting a handful of caster sugar in or regular sugar, it has some depth. It has a nice floral note," Whiting says. He goes through a gallon every two weeks. At $35 to $40 a gallon, he is paying more than he would for honey from a nationwide brand, but the complex local flavor is worth it, he says.

"It's kind of like the way I look at vegetables," Whiting says. "I think the terroir around the area, the stuff that comes from the land, with the vegetables and the honey, it just doesn't travel well."

The Charleston Area Beekeepers Association meets on the second Saturday of each month from 9–11 a.m. at the Citadel in Bond Hall, Room 166. charlestonbees.org


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