The Bees Knees

“It’s intoxicating,” Justin Hill says as he leans over an open bee box and inhales deeply while 40 or so bees buzz around his head and his constant companion, Jake the hound dog, bounces around behind him, chasing cloud shadows across the grass. The perfume of still-curing honey, a slightly more floral fragrance than harvested honey, fills Hill’s nose and pulls a smile across his sun-flushed face. “It’s like nothing else.”

The 33-year-old beekeeper and owner of Eastaboga Bee Company in Eastaboga, Alabama, says he got into bees to “keep from getting a real job.” But a few hours spent with him on a scorching July day reveal that he has a real job, a real job that’s real hard work. Fifteen-hour days are common. “Lifting the heavy lids off these hive boxes is my workout. I call it ‘farm fit,’” he said. Hazards and challenges like stings – which happen often – and loss of bees to disease or weather make the work fraught with risk. “But that’s like all farming,” Hill says, no trace of frustration or worry in his raspy voice as he outlined the different issues that can – and have – affected his business.

And that’s because his toil is a labor of love. “I’ve had people ask me what I like about it, and I don’t just like it, I love it, all of it,” he says. “I love being in the fresh air, and I love the solitude and independence of it. It’s relaxing to me. And on the flipside, I love interacting with people who want my honey at the markets where I sell it. I love getting to know the chefs who use it, too.” But he’s happiest being outside, tending to his bees, who he calls his business partners. He founded Eastaboga Bee Co. on his great grandfather’s farm in 2012. Some of his white, pale yellow and sky blue beehive boxes are stacked near his small, porch-fronted house on the property. Many more are out in the pastures where his family’s cattle still roam and graze, and others are scattered across the surrounding Calhoun, St. Clair and Talladega counties.

Hill is now the fourth generation of his kin to utilize the land. “It all began as a hobby,” he says, “but then I realized I could make a living.” When he started, he caught a swarm of wild bees and then ordered some others. They actually arrived via the mailman. He learned by reading books and consulting other beekeepers, a community of folks who are generous with their accumulated wisdom. But mostly he learned by doing. “There was a lot of trial and error. I made some mistakes, and I still do,” he says.

Today, his apiary operation includes hundreds of millions of busy bees who produce multiple tons of liquid gold annually. Among some beginning beekeepers, there’s the misconception that the trade is as cut and dry as getting some bees, putting them in hive boxes and months later, collecting honey. It’s not that simple.

My job as a bee keeper is to do whatever is needed to make my bees’ lives as easy a possible so they can concentrate on doing what they do.

That means he sometimes supplements their food sources, just as any other animal farmer does. The severe drought that struck Alabama in the summer of 2016 forced his bees to go after their own winter stores of honey early. As a result, he had no honey to harvest in the fall and the bees had no remaining food source to live on. Justin had to “feed” the bees so they would make it to the next spring when plants bloom and flower nectar is plentiful. When he does augment their diet, it is only with food, natural vitamins and water. “There’re no antibiotics or anything,” he says. He also routinely inspects for pests than can invade hives and kill or run-off the bees, checks the health of the queen and the progress of her egg laying, divides bee colonies when necessary and repairs and builds new frames when needed.

His efforts are paying off. “Look at them,” he says, holding up a frame rippling with crawling bees on its edges, the sunlight setting honey-filled hexagons near its center aglow. “They’re all fat and pretty.”

He is grinning again, and you can see it plainly since he is without the beekeeper’s usual headwear of choice, a veiled helmet. While he has all the requisite safety gear, the gloves, jacket, helmet and all, he sometimes goes about his tasks barehanded and barefaced. A sting here and there happens but no longer really bothers him. He does use one of bee-keeping’s oldest tools, the smoker, to lessen the chance of multiple stings. Before popping the top on a hive box, he gathers handfuls of dried pine straw and stuffs it in what looks like a metal teapot. He lights the straw, closes the lid, and by squeezing the smoker’s air-bellow handle, pushes thick, resin-scented billows of white smoke out the nozzle, directing it at the hive. “The smoke makes the bees think their home is on fire, so they retreat to the interior of the hive and are now far less worried about me,” he says.

Five years into beekeeping, and Hill knows his bees well. He’s got several different honeybee species, Russians, Italians, blends of both and others. Some breeds are more aggressive, and in his experience, they tend to make more honey, so he’s done some cross breeding, putting high-producing gentle bees with more aggressive ones to achieve the best of both worlds. “They are just like people though,” he says. “Different ones have different personalities.”

He can read those personalities – and their moods – too. “I can tell when they are getting irritated or agitated,” he says. “Their buzz changes when they are ill. It goes from that low drone to a higher-pitched whir and gets real loud. They’re saying, ‘I’m about to sting your butt!’”

Bees’ ability to deliver a venom-packed prick puts real fear in the heart of some people, but honeybees only sting as a defense mechanism, and the pros of having them around far outweigh this one con. Bees are a crucial cog in the wheel that turns our natural world; tiny workhorses who play a huge role in the health of ecosystems across our country. Just by going about their own business and doing – collecting pollen to feed their offspring – they help pollinate crops, the same crops that form the backbone of our food system.

That’s why articles in recent years claiming a “bee-pocolypse” flew out of newsrooms. A slew of confusing, conflicting reports about bee populations have been flying out of newsrooms. Some headlines warned of steep declines in honeybee numbers. Then, last year, a differing version of the message came about. Others in the bee community said “Calm down, everything is fine.” While the jury still seems to be out on the true state of honeybees in America, one thing is clear, there are real concerns and pressures facing both wild and “commercial” bees.

Hill has a few thoughts on the issues facing the bees. “Bees are harder to raise now than they were” he says. “I’m not sure why or what the root cause is.” While some are quick to point to the prevalence of pesticides, Hill won’t say that they are the only issue. “Pesticides definitely kill bees, so they play a part, but I think loss of habitat is important too.”

He pointed to large swaths of well-mowed fields and cattle pastures, where there is a lack of nectar sources. “They look nice, like a golf course even, but with nothing blooming, they might as well be a concrete parking lot as far as bees are concerned,” he says.

Hill believes that more natural, sustainable farming practices, would help with the bees. His thoughts are to let some clover grow among grazing land -not too much but just a little – and to use clover as cover crops for some fields. Both are good for the soil and for bees. “Those ways are better for everyone involved,” he says. Habitat fragmentation, where land is broken up by large patches of concrete or asphalt (like actual parking lots) and expanses of roads can hurt honeybees too. But for now, Hill and his bees are humming along, and he takes the concept of sustainability to heart, practicing what he preaches by using every thing his bees produce. He makes lip balm, hand lotion and candles from the beeswax of the empty honeycombs. He makes a rich furniture polish and leather restorer too. But the real prize is the sweet syrup produced by the bees.

Harvesting honey is called “pulling” by folks in the beekeeping business, and Hill pulls several times a year, mostly in the summer from roughly Memorial Day through mid-July and then, conditions permitting, again in early fall. Honey is created when most of the moisture has evaporated from the nectar gathered by the bees and deposited in their comb. When it reaches the right stage,harvesting begins. Hill pries off the tops off of a stack of bee boxes using somemuscle. Bees secrete a substance called propolis around the edges on top. Thishelps seal out water and most pests and keep the hive “safe”.

Next, Hill lays a different top over the boxes. This one has been sprinkled with “honey bandit,” an all-natural solution with a smell that bees hate, and most vacate the hive to escape what to them is pure stench. After the bees exit, Justin loads the boxes into the back of his truck and takes them to his workshop, where the individual frames on which the bees have constructed their comb and stored their honey (usually nine in each box) are taken out and inspected.

“I’m looking to make sure there are no eggs in there; they’d mess up the honey, and I don’t want to destroy any eggs,” he says. And he never takes all the honey. The bees make it for themselves; it’s their food and the food for the next generation.

After inspecting the frames, he runs a yellow rubber roller with small nubs over each frame of honey comb, puncturing the wax “caps” on the individual hexagon storage cells before sliding the frame (along with several others) into the stainless steel cylindrical extractor he calls “Big Bertha.” It spins the frames quickly causing the honey to fling to the side and drip down to the bottom. When the spinning is complete, Hill flips open “Bertha’s” nozzle and catches the honey in large (food-safe) buckets.

And that’s all that happens. There are no other steps in the process. No additives, no heating or cooling. Eastaboga Bee Company honey is always straight from the source and “raw,” meaning it’s unpasteurized. “Raw, local honey is best for a lot of reasons,” Hill says. “It tastes better, you’re supporting your local economy, and not pasteurizing it keeps all of honey’s healthy elements intact.” Healthy things like its antibacterial and antifungal properties as well as its decent-sized doses of antioxidants.

Since Hill sells his honey raw, the next step is bottling, and then it’s ready to go to customers, including some of the South’s top chefs – guys like Birmingham’s Frank Stitt and Chris Hastings and Auburn’s David Bancroft – who lend Eastaboga Bee Co. honey’s complex flavors to everything from salad dressings and sauces to desserts and even cocktails.

Satisfying their exacting standards is one piece of Hill’s motivation. “The work is hard, but these chefs also work hard. They get it,” he says. “It makes me want to give them the best.”

Watching everyday folks relishing his honey is gratifying, too. “I love being in a restaurant where my honey is a prominent ingredient in a dish and seeing someone’s face eating it and obviously enjoying it,” he says. It provides the rest of the fuel he needs for his long days. As a one-man show, he does it all at Eastaboga Bee Company, the beekeeping, the harvesting, the marketing, making his other products, the selling (direct through his website, in some specialty stores, at festivals, and at farmers markets like Pepper Place in Birmingham and others), the book keeping and the deliveries.

Despite such an extensive “to-do” list, Hill swears he wouldn’t have it any other way. “Working in an office or cubicle, that would be like hell for me. It’s not who I am,” he says. “I’d actually keep bees for free, just not this many.” He loves the fringe benefits too. “I can’t get enough honey,” he said. “I’ll eat it on anything, but my favorite is a honey and peanut butter sandwich, fried in a cast-iron skillet. It doesn’t get any better.”

And he finds continual inspiration in his job. “I like the feeling of accomplishment after each harvest,” he says. “I feel like I’ve helped make something, something people want.” The making matters to him, and it matters that he’s doing it on family land, a sentiment evident in the Eastaboga Bee Company logo, an antique tractor with a tree growing right up through its center.

“It was my great grandfather Elvin Hill’s tractor,” Hill says. “He started our family’s farming tradition.” After working in his fields one day, Elvin stopped for the day and headed home for dinner. He died of a sudden heart attack that evening, and his family left his tractor where he’d parked it. They left it there as a testament to his dedication to his land and his commitment to hard work. It has never been moved, and over many decades, the tiny sapling that broke ground under the tractor and began reaching up for sunlight only months after his death, kept growing and pushing and finally tore right through the vehicle’s age- and weather-brittled bones, ensuring the tractor would stay where it was for another 100 years or more.

“When I first started with my bees, I started thinking about that tractor and what it represents,” Hill said. “I figured it was the perfect symbol for what I want Eastaboga Bee Company to represent: a love of land and farming and a devotion to quality and to doing things right. That’s all I want to do.”

www.eastabogabeecompany.com

Written by Jennifer Kornegay / Photography by Matthew Wood