When Monica Warner’s husband, Todd, declared, after reading a book on beekeeping, “We’re getting bees,” her response was, “No, you’re getting bees.”
For the first week, she peered out the back window of their Youngsville home as he tended to the “three-pound package,” a starter set of about 10,000 honey bees.
“He was so excited. I stayed out of the way and just watched,” said Warner, 37. “I thought I was allergic just because I’d gotten stung by a bee and it turned red. That’s a common misperception.”
Curiosity got the better of her. She donned the beekeeping suit Todd, 43, had bought her and visited the hives.
“I was instantly hooked, just seeing them do their thing, communicating, raising babies. I thought, ‘OK, I could conceivably come out and help,’ ” she said, laughing at the memory.
Eight years later, Monica Warner takes care of between 65 and 75 colonies – housing some 5 million bees – while Todd works as project manager at Red Hat, a job that sometimes requires frequent travel.
When she’s not looking after the insects, Warner is using their honey and wax to make a growing list of Carolina Bee Co. home and body products, including candles, bar soap, lip balm, body butter, and, most recently, laundry detergent, which contains her grated soap. The beekeeping operation is Certified Naturally Grown, a national program that follows sustainable practices.
Warner, whose résumé lists stints as blackjack dealer, fitness instructor and massage therapist, transitioned to Carolina Bee full time in 2011, after business started buzzing. Todd Warner maintains their website, online store and social media.
Though the bees started as a hobby, each year the Warners added more, to the point where they outgrew their six-acre property and now keep most of the colonies on farmland in Oxford.
“By 2008, we’d started selling honey, but the supply of honey and wax started to build up. My husband came home with a book about soap-making, so I started to dabble,” Warner said. “I was just thinking about making it for us, but then I thought, if we love it, maybe other people will love it, so I spent the next two years developing recipes. You start off with tested recipes, but you have to know your ingredients. The big thing was figuring out essential oils.”
Later she added lip balm and body butter to the lineup. For any product touching the skin, Warner uses only Carolina Bee wax.
The candles, a more recent addition that might include wax from other beekeepers, introduced another learning curve.
“For most of them I use a mold, but I also do hand-dipped tapers. I can make 15 pairs at a time, but it takes a long time. The trick with all candles is getting the right wick.”
The candles are made with 100 percent beeswax, which is secreted from the underside of worker bees’ abdomens. The bees “cap off” their honeycomb cells with a thin layer of the wax to store the honey.
The couple’s first sales were at outdoor festivals, which they continue to do, including Festival for the Eno on Saturday and Lazy Daze in Cary next month.
“People always ask if our candles melt if it’s hot out. Most stuff is fine except the body butter, so I put testers in a cooler and constantly have to rotate them out,” Warner said.
Carolina Bee products also are found in a growing list of retail stores, including Epona & Oak in downtown Raleigh.
“We’re all bath-and-body freaks and just love Monica’s products,” said Leeann Hynes, who owns the boutique with her two sisters. “Whatever she brings in, we test it, and we get really good feedback from customers. I love that she keeps adding new things. Like, now, she has travel candles and even birthday candles.”
Warner hopes to expand Carolina Bees’ offerings to include furniture polish, shaving soap, and dog and human shampoos. She’s considering hiring an intern to help with the bees but will continue to make and package all the products herself.
Both she and Todd, who are certified as Master Beekeepers, also breed and sell honey bee stock and offer limited pollination services. They stay busy on the bee circuit, teaching beekeeping and speaking with area groups. At the 2009 BugFest in Raleigh, Warner, who stopped wearing a beekeepers suit years ago, volunteered to demonstrate bees’ gentleness by sporting a “bee beard,” allowing her chin and chest to be coated with bees.
“It didn’t sting but felt like teeny pricks, like when your hand goes numb,” she said.
One day the Warners would like to have a larger property, some farm animals, and a storefront where they could sell products and teach classes.
“I’d love to have a place people could come and see us in our element.”
Send suggestions to Didaniel@aol.com.