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Local honey growers seeing a boom

In a few weeks we may begin to savor the 2004 vintage of some of Mother Nature's hardest working animals, the honey bees. "You know honey bees actually work themselves to death. Worker bees (which are always female) live five to six weeks and never sleep," said Larry Thompson, a master beekeeper and co-owner with Jeff Knight, also a master beekeeper, of Old North State Apiaries. Both Thompson and Knight are biologists.

Thompson's family has a history of beekeeping in North Carolina for several generations and Knight, a gardener, became interested in bees to pollinate his gardens. For each, beekeeping started as a hobby, but grew into a business. Both, however, still have day jobs. Currently they operate 55 hives, with almost 3 million bees, many of which are located on the parameters of local farm fields. Each hive produces an average of 40 pounds of honey each year and the average worker bee produces a half-teaspoon in a lifetime. Old North State Apiaries honey won Best of Show at last year's North Carolina State Fair. And yes, both Thompson and Knight have been stung hundreds of times.

Beekeepers have been in North Carolina since the 1600s when the Europeans brought European honey bees, genus Apis Mellifera, with them. Although a native bee was here, most of these have died out. "Back in the 1980s, the wild honey bees were almost killed off by mites. Most of the bees you see now are from a beekeeper. Honey bees are small, almost fuzzy," noted Thompson.

Without the honey bee, American agriculture would be devastated since honey bees provide the pollination for 80 percent of the fruits and vegetables we eat. Honey is flower nectar that bees transform into food stores by adding enzymes and reducing the moisture. Bees produce more honey than the hive can eat, and humans have been harvesting this excess for thousands for years. At Old North State, the hives are emptied once or twice during the spring and summer, but are left to refill in late summer so the bees can survive the winter.

Maintaining the health of the hive is the primary objective of these insect farmers. At least once a year the hive is broken down and checked out frame by frame. Thompson said, "But now Jeff and I can tell by the smell of the hive if the bees are doing well. When it smells like lemons - like Lemon Pledge furniture polish -- the hive is doing good. But a banana smell is not a good sign. In fact, the smell of banana alerts the bees to danger."

In season, there are 50,000 to 75,000 bees in a hive, but the bees reduce their number to 10,000 to 15,000 during the winter. "In winter, things slow down and the bees cluster together inside the hive. They will consume 30 to 40 pounds of honey over the winter. We need to leave enough honey for whatever kind of winter we have and that's an art form. Not too much or too little. But if the bees should run out, we feed them," said Thompson.

Honey comes in over 300 varieties, which are determined by the floral source of the nectar. Honey's color can range from almost clear to dark amber with a flavor ranging from delicate to bold. Honeys may be blended to produce a consistent flavor and color.

In order to collect a specific type of honey, beekeepers place their hives close to the desired nectar source. But even if the hive isn't near the source, beekeepers can tell where the bees have been. Knight said, "Our bees will return to the hive with telltale pollen on them -- orange -- from Tulip trees -- yellow. You can recognize the kind of pollen. We can usually tell exactly where the bees have been."

According to Knight and Thompson there are about 30 or 40 varieties of honey made in the Piedmont region. The most common are blackberry; buttercup; cotton, which is one of the South's leading honeys; sweet clover, which is sweet and mildly flowery; spicy sourwood; tulip poplar, more intense than clover; and wildflower which is a bolder blend of florals. Old State makes creamed honey from cotton honey since the cotton granulates extremely quickly. In addition to selling liquid and cream honeys, Old North State has branched out into honey soaps and lotions.

In addition to eating honey, honey has long served a medicinal use. Knight said, "A lot of European countries are using honey more and more for treating wounds. It helps to speed up the healing, and reduces scarring. Honey is antimicrobiotic and antibacterial with a low PH and it also has a low water value. When you apply honey to your skin and it reacts with the air, it actually forms hydrogen peroxide." The ancient Chinese used honey on smallpox lesions and the ancient Egyptians used honey to treat cataracts, cuts, and burns.

Common wisdom says that consuming locally produced honey helps to alleviate some of the symptoms of pollen allergies. Knight said, "We don't pressure filter our honey, though we do filter out some of the wax. When the bees collect the pollen from local plants, it helps you build up resistance."

Thompson added, "We have a lot of customers who claim to get benefits from our honey. But Jeff and I can't make those claims."

What is local honey? Thompson continued, "I try to tell folks who are looking for local honey that the Piedmont has the same basic physiographic properties as the mountains and the coastal plains. You have pretty much the same trees and flowers within a region. If you live in the Piedmont, stick with your geographical area."

Old North State Apiaries products may be bought at the Matthews Community Farmers' Market, where either Thompson, Knight, or another family member will be on hand to answer questions; at the Green Market in Center City; or online. 704-301-4881 or www.beeguys.com.

Have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? Note: We need events at least 12 days in advance. Fax information to Eaters' Digest: 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136. To contact Tricia via email: tricia.childress@creativeloafing.com

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