The Buzz on Rhode Island Honey

Where to find it around South County, what to do with it, and why bees are so important to almost everything we eat

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It’s a hot and sunny summer Saturday morning and the Coastal Growers Market held at Casey Farm in Saunderstown is a treat for the senses. The aromas of manure and farm animals permeate the air. A red-faced eight-year-old with a fistful of wildflowers props himself on an old stone wall and lifts his head to catch a tiny ocean breeze wafting from the east. Yardstick-tall kids squeal with delight at the possibility of coming nose-to-snout with piglets. Canvas pop-up tents form a perimeter ripe with shopping opportunities: a red-haired teenager examines the ingredients on a bottle of lotion from Herbalicious Skincare; a coastal grandmother chooses flowers from Robin Hollow Farm; a man in a Yankees shirt tells another in a Red Sox hat that Pat’s Pastured eggs have “the most amazing yellow-orange yolks you’ve eva, eva seen!” A stone’s throw down, the Casey Farm tent offers its own amazing yellow-orange-hued product: heavy jars of thick, golden honey, straight from its own apiary, or collection of beehives.

This 300 acres of land has been farmed since the mid 1700s, and you can bet that honey bees have played a role in shoring up Casey Farm all along, making it a prolific source for fruits, vegetables, herbs, flowers, eggs, maple syrup, and more. But it’s the honey that might be its most precious crop, because the process involved in making it sustains everything that lives and grows here. Then, of course, there’s the sublime taste of it.

As a sweetener for tea or cocktails, a condiment for ricotta toast or chicken and waffles, and an ingredient in your lip balm or facial soap, honey has never been more popular, thanks in part to the sustainable food movement and consumers who love it. Chefs and baristas love it, too, and local establishments from Main Street Coffee in East Greenwich to The Salted Slate in Providence maintain their own hives and use the honey in their recipes. Over the course of a couple of hours here at Casey Farm, at least a dozen pounds will be taken home, according to farm manager Lindie Markovich, who has overseen this coastal ecosystem for nearly a decade.

To simplify things: “Honey is essentially bee vomit,” says Jim Murphy, resident beekeeper and director of sustainability at Rhode Island College. Murphy cares for four hives containing up to 60,000 honey bees in a garden on the Providence campus. Here, the bees collect nectar from vegetables such as cucumbers and tomatoes and herbs such as mint and basil, as well as the clover that grows on acres of grass on the RIC campus. They store the nectar in a sort of auxiliary stomach and then regurgitate it into the hive, using it for their own nutrition. To collect honey, he explains, some of the honey is extracted from the comb using a spinner and then filtered into jars.

There are four queen bees in residence at RIC – queens Latifa, Beatrice, Donovan, and one still needing a name. “The kids get a kick out of their names and make suggestions for the fourth,” says Murphy, talking about the educational program he runs for grade schoolers who visit to learn about bees. But bees aren’t just for fun and games. “Honey bees pollinate 80 percent of all pollinated food,” says Murphy. “Or, to put it another way, one out of every three bites of food you take has been pollinated by a honey bee.” 

Honey contains mostly sugar, as well as a mix of amino acids, vitamins, minerals, iron, zinc, and antioxidants. While its potential in recipes seems endless, the uses for honey in other applications is even moreso. Honey has been around for more than 8,000 years, and can be used to treat asthma, sore throats, fatigue, dizziness, hepatitis, constipation, eczema, ulcers, diabetes, skin infections and wounds, as well as cardiovascular, neurological, and gastrointestinal diseases. It can be more helpful to those with pollen allergies than a double-dose of over-the-counter allergy meds.

Whitney McGinnes can relate to that. An amateur beekeeper on Block Island since middle school, she has long suffered from seasonal allergies. When her father decided to start keeping bees on their property, she grew aware of the calming effect honey can have on allergies and began taking it to alleviate her symptoms. She now assists beekeeper Tracy Finn, an islander who maintains about 20 hives. Together, they maintain an observation hive, where K-8 educators can bring students to learn more about the many benefits of beekeeping and honey. Just being around the hives, McGinnes began to notice, helped alleviate her allergies. “Beekeeping is like therapy for me,” she explains.

It was another young beekeeper who introduced local honey to her employers at Main Street Coffee in East Greenwich. Lexi Cole and her dad also began raising bees on their property in Coventry when she was in middle school. She is pleasantly addicted to the process of beekeeping. There are about 320 different varieties of honey, and as Cole explains, they vary in color, odor, and flavor, depending on what the honey bees are pollinating and when. Cole says that like wine, a very sophisticated palate might detect the presence of blueberries or asparagus in spring, strawberries and tomatoes in summer, squash and apples in the fall, in addition to whatever flowers are in bloom. The color is typically darker in the fall for example, according to Cole’s experience with her own honey. The springtime honey that is for sale now at Casey Farm is light yellow “because of all the flower pollen,” says Lindie Markovich.

Megan Eddy, a manager and bartender at Main Street Coffee, quickly found uses for Cole’s honey. It’s in recipes such as an addictive honey-walnut-cinnamon cream cheese, as well as cocktails. The Bee’s Knees combines gin, fresh lemon juice, and honey shaken over ice and served up neat. The Strawberry Stinger starts by muddling two strawberries with two lemon wedges, then adding vodka, bitters, honey, and a splash of ginger beer shaken and served over ice. The honey imparts a subtle sweetness, says Eddy, and creates a balance among the ingredients. “And people just seem to love that the drinks include our own honey,” she says. “It adds that unique local ingredient to what would otherwise be something generic.”

So what’s the buzz about bees being endangered? While it’s true that some bee populations are on the decline due to pesticides, disease, habitat loss, and climate change, there are, according to Scientific American magazine, more honey bees on Earth now than ever before. But in the business of conventional beekeeping – ever-growing to meet increasing demand for honey – honey bees are specifically bred to increase productivity. This selective breeding can narrow the gene pool and lead to large-scale die-offs. 

As Jeff Mello, the beekeeper at Aquidneck Honey in Tiverton says, “No bees, no food.” It’s what compels Mello, nicknamed “Jeff the Bee Man,” to take to bee rescue. Mello started small-scale beekeeping 30 years ago and now maintains organic, chemical-free apiaries in four states that produce some of the most superior organic honey you can buy. Still, he’ll find out about a hive located in an inconvenient space – say, way up on a telephone pole on a main road in Middletown – and he’ll go to the rescue before the hive can be removed by a guy with a spray tank of pesticides. “We’ll shut down traffic and get up there in a bucket truck,” he says, explaining how he will remove the hive and relocate as many bees as he can. “I really love it,” relays Mello of both rescue and maintaining hives. Even though Mello is among the 1 percent of the population that has an allergic reaction to bee stings, he’ll never stop beekeeping. “It’s just the most amazing thing.”

BEE PART OF THE FUN

Think you might like to start an apiary of your own? Even people wary of insects might find the complex infrastructure of beehives and the docile nature of honey bees a pleasure. Plus, jars of your own honey will make you the hit of holiday gift-giving season! Jeff Mello of Aquidneck Honey and Jim Murphy of Rhode Island College have a few tips for the process.

“Bees can go in just about any yard,” says Murphy. Mello suggests ensuring the area is free from  any lawn care treatments  that involve the use of pesticides. Murphy estimates the cost to a beginner would be about $500. This would include the bees, a beginner hive, a protective suit and gloves, a smoker, and a few small tools. If you wanted to get into honey collection, you’d have to spend a bit more, Murphy says – an uncapping tank, extractor, and bottling tank would run about $2,500. And bee practical about it: the best time to start a hive is in spring.

 

BEE-SOURCES

Rhode Island Beekeepers Association: Education and membership. RIBeekeeper.org

Bee Education at Rhode Island College: For individuals and educators looking to visit the hives and learn about bees, find programs to suit kids from preschool through high school. RIC.edu

 Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management: Requires all apiaries to be registered to control the spread of disease. DEM.RI.gov/Programs/Agriculture/Apiary

Westerly Agway: Find hives and hive kits. WesterlyAgway.com 

Wood’s Beekeeping Supplies and Academy: Sells everything from bees to hives to honey jars. Lincoln, WoodsBees.com

 

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