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    Photos by Chris Witzke

    It’s a sunny Sunday afternoon in La Grange when I visit Amber Dale Cann and her husband Adam LaDow at their home, which includes three kids, four dogs and 80,000 honeybees. The couple equips me with a hooded veil and long white gloves. I resemble a Star Wars Stormtrooper as I mind-over-matter myself closer to the hive — a waist-high, triple-tiered white box at the back of the one-acre yard.

    A cluster of buzzing bees surrounds the hive’s entrance. Cann removes the top of the hive, revealing 10 wooden frames that the bees have filled with combs and honey. LaDow puffs smoke onto the bees from a small metal can with a bellows attached. This makes the bees think their hive is on fire, so they prepare to evacuate by gorging on their honey stores, which sedates them. “It’s like after Thanksgiving dinner,” Cann says. “They’re a little more docile than usual.” Using a flat metal tool, LaDow pries apart the frames and lifts one from the box. This is something they’ll do every few weeks to make sure the hive appears healthy.

    “That’s beautiful. That’s a completely full frame of honey,” Cann says.

    The frame is covered in bees and, though none are headed in the same direction, they all seem to move as though they’re one organism, like minnows or gnats. They’re efficient. The muted buzzing intensifies, grows louder, higher-pitched. More pissed.

    “Calm down, girls,” LaDow says.

    “Back up,” Cann tells us. “These are more feisty than usual.” 

    “Whenever we get near their honey, they get really defensive,” LaDow says.

    Cann says the bees’ behavior is attributable to their Russian genes. Russians and Italians are the two most common honeybee types kept in this part of the world. The Italians are known for being more docile, the Russians for being more resilient through the winter. “It’s like a whole hive full of Putins,” Cann says. Not at all like the Honey Nut Cheerios bee gleefully adding honey to the bowl, as if to say, “Here, humans, have some of the honey that my sisters and I spent our entire lives making.”

    Some honeybee basics: There are 20,000 bee species; seven or eight of those are honeybees. A hive can start out as a nuc, or nucleus colony — a package of about 10,000 bees you can buy online from one of several local keepers. Each hive has a queen whose job is to lay eggs. The rest of the bees are female workers — who go out and collect nectar and pollen and make combs and honey — and male drones, who fertilize the queen’s eggs and are otherwise pretty useless. A worker bee can live about a month; a queen bee can live two years or more. The queen can lay 2,000 eggs a day. After a few seasons, 10,000 bees can become 80,000. Honeybees aren’t the only pollinators, but they are responsible for almost a third of our food, so we’re pretty reliant on these tireless workers. 

    Cann will tell you all this and more about bees. She’s a fourth-generation apiarist who grew up in Grayson County, where her dad still keeps bees. She’s also the president of the Kentuckiana Beekeepers Association, a role she plays when she’s not teaching pharmacy at Sullivan University. Cann estimates that there are about 1,000 beekeepers in the Louisville area. The Kentuckiana Beekeepers Association has about 100 members that range from dabbling novices with a hive or two to folks tending more than 200 hives. State apiarist Tammy Horn says the average age of a beekeeper is 62. But she says that beekeeping, which humans have practiced for at least a few thousand years, seems to be making up for a generational gap. When she first got the job a few years ago, there were only three entries in the youth division bee categories at the state fair. Last year there were 30 or 40. Horn says that anytime there’s an economic downturn, people try to become more self-reliant and grow their own food, which is why she thinks beekeeping has become more popular recently.

    For some of the Louisville beekeepers I talk to, beekeeping is more of a hobby to promote pollinator health. You may have seen the alarming honeybee death rates in the news over the past eight or nine years. Beekeepers were noticing that most of the worker bees would mysteriously abandon a hive, a phenomenon named colony collapse disorder that has been attributed to everything from pesticides to cell phone signals to, as with industrial farms, a homogenous diet of only corn or only almonds, for example. Horn says that colony collapse disorder doesn’t seem to be as much of a threat in Kentucky and that she hasn’t seen a case in her three years on the job.

     


    Chris Rodahaffer

    Musician Chris Rodahaffer watched a documentary about colony collapse disorder and continued to learn about and show interest in bees, so his wife got him a hive kit for Christmas a couple years ago. He now keeps a hive at his house in St. Matthews.  

    Bristol Bar & Grille general manager Pete Peters hadn’t given bees much thought until last year, when Ginger Davidson, a local food producer, suggested he put some hives on the roof of the Bardstown Road location. His only concern was to make sure the bees wouldn’t bother customers on the ground patio, which they haven’t. Being on the roof, they might go across the alley to some flowering shrubs between houses or fly over to Cherokee Park — honeybees can travel a mile or two away from the hive — to get in on some of that pollinator action. 

    The intelligence of the honeybees surprised Peters. “I’m standing in front of the hives before I really knew what I was doing,” he says. “There were no bees going in and I turned around and there were all these bees just stopped behind me. I moved and — vroom. That was their route. I was in their way.”

    To make honey, bees collect nectar, expose it to their digestive enzymes and then store it in a comb, where they then fan it with their wings to dry out excess moisture. Cann keeps some honey for herself but gives a lot of it back to the bees — it’s what they live off through the winter when there are no flowering plants. Others I talk to will supplement the bees’ diets with simple syrup or corn syrup.

    After the Bristol’s first honey harvest, which yielded about 40 pounds, chef Austin Wilson incorporated honey into two specials a day for 50 days — country fried chicken caprese with honey balsamic reduction; white chocolate honey pot de crème; a cheese platter with honey fruit preserves; honey chipotle pork chops. Peters sold small jars of honey throughout the holidays. 

    “Our beekeeper retired,” Peters says. “We have a new beekeeper — I’m him. I’m praying that I don’t kill them all.” The bees spend all summer gathering nectar from flower to flower, clover to clover, so Peters says he will attempt to collect the honey later this fall. He’s read things like Beekeeping For Dummies to try to prepare. “I have never gathered honey. I have all the equipment to do it. I’ll just see what the heck happens. I’ll call you up and say, ‘Come on over if you want to see a mess.’” 


    Pregnato at Momma's Mustard, Pickles & BBQ

    The only things in Chad Cooley’s pantry are dog food and jars of honey. The Momma’s Mustard, Pickles & BBQ owner says he’s loved bees since he was a kid and started keeping them a couple years ago at his forested home in Prospect. “They’ve kind of become like pets,” he says. And he loves the honey. “I put it on everything. It’s stupid,” he says. “Literally everything. You name something — it’s better with honey. Biscuits take honey. Honey’s good over eggs. It’s good on cereal, good in your coffee for a sweetener, for lunch.” There’s a dish on the Momma’s menu that uses Cooley’s honey — ice cream, fried pickles and honey. It’s called the Pregnato. When I visit Cooley in early August, he's just bought a honey mead kit. He plans to make a trial batch with store-bought honey rather than test out his skills on his own reserves. “One gallon of honey gets you five gallons of honey wine,” he says as he taps on a large plastic honey mead dispenser. “Sounds cool, doesn’t it?”

    Honey’s culinary wonders don’t even touch the supposed health wonders of all bee products. Just check Rainbow Blossom, where you can find a jar from Hosey Honey from Midway, Kentucky, called the Golden Bullet, containing bees’ four magic products (each with its own WebMD page): propolis (a waxy hive substance with anti-bacterial/anti-viral properties), pollen, royal jelly (a larvae nutrient used to treat everything from liver disease to PMS) and raw honey. The farm claims that “since the dawn of recorded history,” people have been aware of these health benefits. Honey can act as a stress reliever, wound healer, scar reducer, memory enhancer, hormone regulator, allergy reducer and sports performance enhancer. It will basically turn you into an Olympian. This doesn't even get into another wing of apitherapy: using bee venom to treat pain and arthritis.

    For several years Cann kept hives at her house in the Highlands. “I can tell a difference in bees that my dad has in Grayson County and what they produce compared to what I was getting in the Highlands,” she says. “Even in different times of the season — earlier in the season the honey will be more light and floral and then we might go through a summer where there’s not a lot of rain and a different set of flowering plants. Then it’s darker, more viscous.” She and a few others give me samples of their honey, which I try side by side at home one night — Highlands, Prospect and St. Matthews honeys. Like the differences between Maker’s Mark, Knob Creek and Woodford Reserve.

    Cann says she was nervous about how her Highlands neighbors would react to the bees, but that they were curious more than anything. “One called me and said, ‘I want to treat for mosquitoes in my backyard but I don’t want to harm your bees. What can I do?’” she says. “Several started using this garlic oil base — it’s harmful to the larvae of mosquitoes but not bees — so the neighborhood started smelling like a pizzeria every so often.” She and LaDow got married a year ago and recently moved from the Highlands to their current home in La Grange. The Russians were not happy about relocating, and she, LaDow and one of her students who had volunteered to help all got multiple stings that day.

    Occasional stings aside, Cann says bees have enlightened her more than anything. “The more I learn about bees, the more I’m fascinated,” she says. “It’s the only organism I can think of that goes through their entire lives without really harming another organism. Bees have a positive influence on the environment. They don’t eat other animals, they don’t have to kill a plant — in fact, they pollinate plants. I find that very life-affirming.”

     

    This originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazine, click here. To find your very own copy of Louisville Magazine, click here. 

    Mary Chellis Nelson's picture

    About Mary Chellis Nelson

    Mary Chellis Nelson is the managing editor of Louisville Magazine.

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