7 Things You Didn't Know About Beekeeping
Some keepers can even speak "bee."
Did you hear the buzz? Beekeeping is no longer a quirky, pastoral hobby. According to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, there’s been a recent boom of well-intentioned people keeping hives out of concern for the environment, curiosity and COVID-19-induced boredom. (Hey, it’s a lot more unique than another sourdough starter). Currently, experts estimate that there are anywhere from 115,000 to 125,000 beekeepers nationwide.
While apiculture isn’t for everyone — it’s a huge commitment and also raises important questions about destabilizing native natural ecosystems — you should probably thank a bee. And a beekeeper, while you’re at it. Roughly one-third of everything that Americans eat comes from the busy little pollinators. Wondering what it takes to be a bee whisperer? Read on to discover more about this fascinating job and pastime.
Beekeeping is one of the world’s oldest professions. Traces of beeswax detected on Neolithic pottery dating back 8,500 years offer the first evidence of humans collecting honey, but true domesticated beekeeping didn’t start up until Ancient Egyptian times. In fact, honey became so valuable in Egypt it was even used to pay taxes.
Honey’s taste starts with flowers. Not all honey is created equal. Forager bees collect nectar and pollen from whatever flowering plants are located within a one-to-two-mile flying radius. Because of this, some beekeepers place their hives close to specific flower varieties to get the exact flavor they want. “If you bring your bees to canola fields, then their honey will taste like canola,” says Marko Cilic, co-owner and head beekeeper of Burwood Distillery in Calgary, which celebrates Alberta’s agricultural history and heritage as Canada’s honey capital. “If you bring them to blueberry fields, you’ll get honey with blueberry notes.” Since Burwood Distillery’s honey comes from a variety of local wildflowers, it’s considered a prairie mix.
There’s a reason behind the saying “busy as a bee.” Worker bees live just six to eight weeks, yet during their short life a single colony can pollinate 300 million flowers each day and create anywhere from 60 to 100 pounds of honey in a season.
Honey isn’t the only edible product that beekeepers harvest from beehives. Aside from honey, bees produce beeswax, bee bread, royal jelly and propolis. You’re probably familiar with beeswax, but what about these other sticky substances? Popular with athletes, bee bread is a mixture of plant pollen and honey that contains nutrients known to strengthen the immune system. Propolis — a resinous mixture of pollen and beeswax — is prized in the medical community, and is commonly used to treat diabetes, heal wounds and fight infections. Royal jelly isn’t as tasty as it sounds; it’s secreted by worker bees and used for its antibacterial, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Beekeeping presents a great opportunity to get creative in the kitchen. Enterprising beekeepers have been thinking beyond honey and turning their raw product into handcrafted recipes for centuries. In fact, mead — which is made from fermented honey — is the oldest fermented drink. More recently, contemporary beekeepers have experimented with honey butter, honey candy, honey hot sauce and honey-infused spirits. At Burwood Distillery, Cilic’s team produces the award-winning Bee Whisperer whisky, as well as Honey Liqueur (known in Croatia as Medica), made from distilled malt barley, which is then sweetened with bee pollen, propolis and raw cream-style honey.
Bees’ biggest culinary contribution isn’t honey, but crop pollination. According to the FDA, the agricultural benefit of honey bees is estimated to be between 10 and 20 times the total value of honey and beeswax. In fact, pollination from honey bees accounts for about $15 billion in crops each year, including 90 different types of flowering plants such as broccoli, apples, melons, pumpkins, almonds, squash and more.
It’s possible to speak bee. “The best beekeepers are the ones who put passion into the bees,” says Cilic. “They know their language. When you look at them it clicks right away what they’re feeling and telling you.” For example, because bees communicate via physical signs and movement, they might perform what beekeepers call a “waggle dance” when foraging for food. Beyond this type of “conversation,” it’s been scientifically proven that bees are capable of recognizing their caretakers. “My dad is in charge of a few of our hive locations. He could be in short sleeves working with the bees and they won’t sting him. But as soon as I come around, they’re all over me. They’re really smart insects.”