Life and Work of Bees

Minding Our Bees’ Wax

How well do you know your pollinating neighbors?

GEORGIA IS SAID to be home to 500 varieties of bees, many of which reside in Decatur. These flying foragers play a critical role in the ecosystem and rely in part on the support of their human neighbors to protect them. Several intown businesses are making it easier to join the effort.

“I never knew what honey really tasted like.”

The most recognizable by-product of bees comes from the honey bee (Apis mellifera). The honey harvested can come in as many flavors and colors as there are seasons and colonies. Atlanta’s Little Bee Project shares distinct local tastes in its bottled, raw honey. The company is unique in that it takes a micro-local approach to honey production by keeping the harvest from each apiary (collection of beehives) separate from the other.

Master Beekeeper and founder Steve Esau explained that honey can be affected by environmental conditions such as weather and soil along with the availability of surrounding crops and nectar sources for the honey bee to work. These variables will affect the color, undertones and taste. “That final product, the honey that comes off the hives, is a little different every year,” he said, even though the hives didn’t move.

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Not only is the honey local, Little Bee Project’s method of processing retains the raw state and natural elements, such as pollen. As such, it’s considered a live ingredient. It differs from the honey available on grocery store shelves, which has been processed to maintain a long shelf life in the liquid form. Co-owner Michael Ferguson said after tasting raw, local honey, “Folks almost always come back and say, ‘I never knew what honey really tasted like.’”

Inspired by the bins used to sort wine, Little Bee Project assigns a number to its honey that refers to the street address of its apiary. Ferguson explained that Number 7455 had a crop of buckwheat nearby, resulting in a dark, almost bitter-sweet taste that goes great in coffee. Number 1025 from East Atlanta Village “tastes like the air smells in my neighborhood after a spring rainstorm,” he explained, referring to the fragile blossom of the tulip poplar trees the bees source as nectar.

Esau began Little Bee Project as a hobby in 2011, crediting his rural Kansas roots and an interest in the small, diversified farming approach that “takes care of the land.” He’s one of only 46 to earn the Master Beekeeper accreditation from The University of Georgia. Esau says that there is both a physical and a knowledge element to his work. It is part art and science.

“This time of year when the bees are happy and flying, the sights, senses, sounds and connection to nature” are the driving forces behind Esau’s work. He described the pride in connecting with others and sharing something he produced, almost like planting a seed. Esau said he enjoys honey tastings and “seeing the way people react when they taste something so pure and so true from the backyard.”

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The story behind the liquid gold

Honey bees live in colonies that “act as a super organism,” according to Esau. The wax acts as the liver and filters toxins. The queen serves as the reproductive system. As bees emerge from their cells, they transition through a division of labor performing different tasks as they finally develop their flight muscles enabling them to venture out of the hive as foragers, bringing back what the hive needs for resources to survive.

Humans are not the only threat to the honey bee. Other insects like Varroa mites and small hive beetles can impact the colony. Esau acts as a steward, opening the hive regularly to evaluate what human intervention might be helpful to the colony. In Atlanta, the surplus nectar flow begins in early April, and typically extends for six to eight weeks.

The western honey bee is not native to the United States. Esau explains that it was brought by Western European settlers who also brought their European fruit and vegetable plants, which the honey bees evolved over the years to pollinate effectively.

While native bees are best at pollinating native plants such as blueberries and squash, honey bees are sometimes brought in as additional pollinators because they can be moved and managed as an agricultural resource. Honey bees account for pollinating about 25% of the food on our plates.

The power of the pollinator

While honey gets much of the human-bee love, most native bee populations in the United States don’t actually produce it. The work of bees in pollination is a superpower that can go underrecognized.

“We’ve got all this narrative about honey bees, but Western culture hasn’t been on this continent but a couple hundred years.” Pandra Williams, co-owner of Beech Hollow Farms, explained. “So we don’t have the same kind of connection with the pollinators here.”

Despite the cultural connection to honey, other bees and pollinators are integral to our food source. Williams said, “We like strawberries, we like chocolate, we like coffee. All of that is the result of pollination.”

Beech Hollow is one effort that benefits these and other pollinators. Among its 120 acres of native plants, local bees are sure to find more than one sweet spot to exchange some pollen. The farm is a haven of 235 different species of Georgia’s own, all in beautifully layered landscapes that have evolved perfectly over centuries to match our native pollinators.

Owned and operated by Pandra and Mike Williams for the past 20 years, the farm offers native plants and green space consultation. In addition to the Lexington farm, Beech Hollow stocks a nursery in Scottdale where its vast inventory of native trees, shrubs, perennials, grasses, etc. are accessible to intown Decatur area and metro Atlanta residents.

Creating sustainable habitats isn’t just for public green spaces and farms, your yard serves as an important opportunity to support migratory birds and pollinators. Beech Hollow helps its customers, from beginners to avid gardeners, incorporate native plants. Their expertise can guide customers to select the right plant for the right conditions.

The concept for this unique plant nursery sprung out of one of Atlanta’s popular climbing spots, Boat Rock. Involved in the climbing scene in the early 2000s, Mike and Pandra noticed that land hosting native plants was being handed over for development, taking the plants down with it. The two worked to save plants from development sites, but the process begged a larger question: “Why aren’t these plants growing everywhere?”

A few decades and more than 100 acres later, Beech Hollow not only hosts native species and their pollinators but is working to help restore ecosystems in the Piedmont area as a whole. For Georgia bees, this makes our southern scapes into prime real estate.

Find more info about native plants at beechhollowfarms.com.

Find more info about local honey bees at littlebeeproject.com.

COVER

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FUN FACTS ABOUT BEES

  • A single honey bee cannot survive on its own, it needs the support of the colony.
  • The sting of most native bees can’t break your skin.
  • Each honey bee colony is made of 60,000 bees on average, with usually one queen.
  • Each honey bee produces, on its own, about 1/12 a teaspoon of honey, which an average Atlanta harvest is 60-100 pounds per hive.
  • Many different species are “specialists” and work especially well for very specific plants. This is one reason why native plants are so crucial for keeping around native bees.
  • During warmer months, honey bees live around 40 days, but using the heat from muscles in their wings, they can survive for up to five months in the winter.
  • Honey bees typically die when they sting thick skin animals (like on humans), and use stinging as a last resort defense mechanism of the colony.
  • Less than 5% of all bees are responsible for making any honey. Only one native US species produces a very small amount of honey – the bumblebee.
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