Life & Times Locavore: The beautiful business of bees
By Imke Ahlf-Wien
It’s a sunny afternoon in May when I visit Hope Honey Farm’s owner, apiarist Maggie Mills, at her home in the heart of Hyattsville. She helps me put on a protective thick white jacket, which includes a hat and a shielding veil, to visit the beehives in her backyard.
Thousands of honeybees are going about their business here: Some worker bees are flying back and forth to collect nectar and pollen, while others are guarding the hive, caring for the queen and larvae, and producing honey. Male drone bees are also visible in the hive, but their only role is to mate with the queen.
I keep my voice low and avoid any abrupt movements, but these precautions are not necessary. Mills explains that honeybees are docile animals and are not bothered by us. By using a hand-held smoker that puffs cool, fragrant smoke at the entrance of the beehive, she further keeps the bees calm and focused on their hive. Spending an hour watching the workings of bees and listening to their gentle humming is pure magic. For Mills, it has a meditative quality, putting her completely at peace.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey (usgs.gov), about 4,000 bee species live in the U.S., many of them native, including the widely known bumblebee. But the honeybee, which was brought to the U.S. from Europe in the 17th century, is the only bee that produces enough honey for humans to use the surplus for their own consumption — while still leaving enough for the hive to feed their offspring and get through the winter.
Honeybees and beekeepers rely on each other. The beekeeper provides the hive, including several stacked boxes that allow free movement of the bees. Each box can hold about eight to 10 frames: This is where the bees draw their wax combs to make honey, store food and raise their brood. According to Mills, honeybees that build hives in the wild tend not to survive the winter.
In spring, between March and June, honeybees go swarming. Prompted by an increase in population, ample resources and the desire to reproduce, 50 to 60% of worker bees of a colony and their queen leave their hive in search of a new location. The swarm may cluster on the limbs of trees and bushes, but you can occasionally find them on porches, sidewalks and fences, as well. When swarming, bees are actually very docile, Mills said, because they are focused on reproducing, rather than on defending their space.
When people encounter a huge cluster of buzzing bees, they may fear for their safety and wonder if they should spray them or call an exterminator. But this is the moment when, free of charge, experienced beekeepers like Mills will come to the rescue.
When she comes upon a swarm, Mills induces the bees into a portable box by shaking a tree branch or guiding them with a stick. Once the bees have moved into the container, she brings the swarm to her backyard where she can start a new hive, making sure the queen is healthy and able to continue the colony.
Mills estimates that there are about a dozen beekeepers in Hyattsville that occasionally get together for meetings.
Honeybees are important pollinators, and it’s crucial to keep their habitats alive and well. The number of bee colonies in the U.S. has been on a steady decline since 2006 because of pesticides, loss of habitat, climate change and disease, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group. Mills cautioned that pesticides destroy not only their intended target (like mosquitos), but also pose a threat to other insects — including honeybees. If you want to fight mosquitoes, she suggests using a natural product like Mosquito Barrier, which is made from garlic extract and does not harm pollinators.
Local honey represents the true taste of a neighborhood. Since honeybees practice floral fidelity (visiting only one kind of flower while it is in bloom), Hyattsville honey is made up of nectar from black locust, tulip poplar, catalpa and linden trees, as well as a variety of wildflowers, according to Mills. You can easily infuse your own meals with this local flavor: Add honey, instead of sugar, to baked goods, drizzle it on plain yogurt for a simple snack, or make Honey Mustard Dressing (see recipe below).
Mills’ honey-based products, including unprocessed, unfiltered honey, lip balm, soaps, and body butter, are available from her online store, hopehoneyfarm.com, and at Franklins Restaurant, Brewery and General Store (5123 Baltimore Avenue). A smaller selection (and an upcoming collaborative brew) is available at Streetcar 82 Brewing Co. (4824 Rhode Island Avenue) and at Brentwood Arts Exchange (3901 Rhode Island Avenue, Brentwood).
Honey Mustard Dressing (yields about 1 cup)
Making your own dressing doesn’t take more than three minutes and will be tastier and healthier than anything store-bought. Use as dressing for a salad (you can find plenty of local salad greens at the Riverdale Park Farmers Market on Thursdays from 3 to 7 p.m.) or as a dipping sauce for cut vegetables.
- ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
- ¼ cup mustard of your choice (I like Dijon mustard.)
- 3 tablespoons local honey
- 3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
- ½ teaspoon sea salt
- ½ teaspoon black pepper
Add the ingredients to a medium Mason jar, secure the lid and shake until well blended.
Imke Ahlf-Wien, whose name means “little bee” in her native German, is a nutrition educator with a passion for fresh, locally procured foods.