Marty Hanks quickly but carefully moved among the hives, his head and arms bare inside a cloud of honeybees at the 5-acre farm on Hatch Road, a couple miles west of Carrboro.
The owner of Just Bee Apiary gently plucked off honeybees that landed, releasing them into the hive or the air. He’s been stung many times and joked that it’s good for his arthritis but probably not the remedy for everybody.
It’s hard to stay calm when stung, he said, but that’s the best response. Stingers should be removed by gently nudging from the side, he said. Squeezing or crushing the stinger can inject toxins in the poison sac attached to the top.
That also increases the chance that guard bees will track “alarm” pheromones released in the first sting and attack again, he said. Smoke is traditionally used to mask those pheromones, he said, making the bees think there’s a forest fire and focus themselves on saving the hive and food stores.
“When they do that,” he said, “they’re not pre-occupied with someone coming, messing with the front door.”
Hanks is partnering with the Carolina Inn to produce honey for its Carolina Crossroads Restaurant. The partnership helps bring more sustainably harvested ingredients to the table, said Michelle Voelpel, the inn’s director of marketing and public relations.
Four hives were installed April 27, and the colonies were combined into two hives a few days later. The first honey harvest in July will be used in the Carolina Crossroads kitchen and bar. It also will be bottled for sale in the gift shop.
Bees are “an important catalyst for everything,” Carolina Crossroads executive chef James Clark said. “We’ve got to preserve bees and make sure we have as many hives as possible.”
About 75 percent of the restaurant’s menu uses regionally sourced ingredients, he said. Local honey is another way to define the restaurant and inspire new dishes, he said, from pairing it with fresh bread and butter to incorporating more sweetness into savory items and desserts.
“When you’re buying a great honey that’s just local and distinct to your region,” he said, “it not only tells a good story … but it helps (build) that circle of inspired flavors in that dish.”
Honey syrup will star in three classic cocktails – the Gold Rush, Brown Derby and Bee’s Knees – said Allal Kartaoui, food and beverage director.
“It has more natural sweetness than sugar,” he said. “It makes a drink really pop.”
The United States lost touch with a lot of traditional cooking styles when cane sugar was introduced in the 1950s, Hanks said. Raw honey retains more nutrients than processed honey, which is heated and filtered, a process that reduces crystallization, Hanks said. At about 17 grams of carbohydrates per tablespoon, it’s also easier to digest than cane sugar and also is an antibacterial, used to treat allergies, coughs and burns.
Besides the queen, hives are home to drones, whose sole purpose is to mate with the queen, and workers – unfertile females that tend the hive and comprise about 90 percent of the colony. A queen can lay up to 3,000 eggs a day, according to the American Beekeeping Federation.
Honeybees are among a few insects that make their own heat, Hanks said, keeping the hives near 95 degrees by eating honey and vibrating their rear wings. A frame holds about 3,000 honeybees, with 10 frames in each hive.
Hanks will harvest the honey once a year; a hive can produce 60 to 80 pounds of honey a year, he said. The flavor is influenced by a number of factors, from the plants the honeybees feed on to the farm’s individual climate and soil.
Hanks also has hives at Top of the Hill Distillery in Chapel Hill, Mystery Brewing Co. in Hillsborough, downtown Pittsboro and area farms, each producing a different flavor.
Bee pollination is vital for producing at least a third of the fruits and vegetables we eat, Hanks said. Bees also pollinate other useful crops, including cotton, he said, and most trees, giving them an indirect role in controlling carbon dioxide levels and climate change.
Growing threats from development, parasites and chemicals, however, may be contributing to “colony collapse disorder.”
The Agricultural Research Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, reports 25 percent to 30 percent of honeybees die every year – about twice the expected rate. Losses at that level, if sustained, could become an economic concern, the ARS reports.
The number of U.S. honeybee colonies fell from 7.5 million to 2.3 million in the last 50 years, Hanks said. Beekeepers are trucking hives around the country to pollinate crops, because there aren’t enough honeybees in some places, he said.
The cumulative effect of pesticides and herbicides, such as Roundup, could be even more detrimental, he said.
While one product used properly may not be as harmful to bees, there’s not enough research to show the effect of multiple products used together, Hanks said. Rooting out dandelions, clover and other “weeds” also destroys honeybee food sources, he said.
The public conversation about how important honeybees are isn’t happening fast enough, Hanks said.
“What we’re hoping to do is by showcasing the fact that every town has a unique honey flavor, we can use this kind of cool, funky way of looking at honey as a way to draw more people in,” he said. “That’s my goal, to reach out to restaurants, reach out to little craft shops, reach out to folks like Carolina Inn, different places that have a larger audience that we can tell a new and unique story in.”