Photo by Ruta Smith

Apiculture, or beekeeping, plays an important role in the Lowcountry’s rich agricultural industry for its help in natural growth and production for local farms. Bees are easier to transport than other pollinators, such as butterflies or moths, allowing beekeepers to move hives and colonies to areas in need of pollination. “Honey bees are the most important of the pollinators because they are very efficient pollinators and they’re also manageable,” said Ben Powell, program coordinator for Clemson’s apiculture and pollinator at the College of Agriculture, Forestry and Life Sciences.

Apis Mercantile founders Liam Becker (left) and John Berdux (middle) started beekeeping as a hobby while attending College of Charleston | Photo by Ruta Smith

Rebecca Bills of R and R Acres, an apiary and homestead in Berkeley County, uses the ease of transporting bees to support not only her farm, but other farms in the area as well. “Having the bees definitely helps,” she said. “We’ve put some of our bees at some local farms in the area …  just so that they could have better crops this year.”

John Berdux, co-founder of James Island-based honey company Apis Mercantile, added, “The pollination that they naturally do is responsible for a lot of the food that we ultimately end up consuming.”

Before starting Apis Mercantile, Berdux and founding partner Liam Becker kept bees in their backyard in college before graduating from the College of Charleston in 2014. Now, they work with local and regional beekeepers to help the local bee population and agricultural economy. 

Apiculture and agriculture

“If we’re going to be selling honey, we got to do right by the bees,” Berdux said.

Honey bees and local apiaries play an important role in regional agriculture and economy, he added. “Working with local producers and providers, not only are we reducing food miles but we’re also keeping money in the local economy, which we think is important.”

Powell agrees: “The most important thing is, by supporting local beekeepers by buying their products, you’re supporting local agriculture and ag-enterprises. We have a number of beekeepers in South Carolina that produce honey locally that is as good or better than any honey you can get anywhere else.”

At the Charleston Community Bee Gardens, located near the Clemson Coastal Research and Education Center on Savannah Highway, Powell said, “The center is focused on fruit and vegetable crop production and research, as well as home gardening.” The community bee garden was eventually added to not only research the effect of bee colonies in local agriculture, but a place for people who can’t keep bees at home due to a Homeowner’s Association or live downtown. 

Local beekeeper and bar manager at 39 Rue de Jean Michael Moore keeps hives around the city in various locations as part of a project with bar manager Elias Wolfe of Mount Pleasant’s Red Drum. The pair maintains apiaries on the rooftop of local businesses and at commercial locations, “that are kind of out of the way from everybody,” Moore said. The goal, he added, is to increase the pollination on the peninsula and Charleston area.

And for restaurants, like Harold’s Cabin, with a rooftop beehive from Moore and Wolfe, they receive a free amount of honey, with options to buy more honey at a wholesale price. Harold’s Cabin has housed several bee colonies to help pollinate the vegetables in the rooftop garden.

“We need more bees in our world,” said Harold’s Cabin co-owner John Schumacher, “especially in urban areas. [Michael] has had five or six bee-hives spread around town and we were big proponents of local produce. We’ve always had rooftop gardens and it was just a natural fit. Whatever the bees produce, you know, there’s nothing like having something that’s produced on your own property that you’re able to use and utilize. It’s just a win-win scenario for everyone involved here.”

Honey in cuisine

While bees help pollinate other crops and foods, they produce a food product themselves: honey, which has many culinary uses including as a sweetener in coffee or tea, an ingredient in baked goods or as condiments on sweet and savory dishes.

Photo by Ruta Smith

Honey is produced from the nectar foraging bees consumed (or collected) from pollinating flowers. Inside the stomach, a salivary enzyme breaks down the natural sugars of the nectar. Once the bee returns to the hive, the nectar is then regurgitated and digested by another bee to undergo another enzymatic breakdown. The process of regurgitation and ingestion is repeated several times before being stored in honey comb and covered in beeswax, later to be used for food in the winter. 

“Honey is a complex array of sugars,” Powell said. “It’s a better sweetener than just regular old table sugar, which is really just one kind of sugar. I put it in my coffee every morning.”

According to Berdux and Becker, honey is also very much like wine. A honey’s color and flavor depends on the time of year, geography and type of nectar-producing flower, said Becker.

Berdux added, “There’s a term in the wine industry ‘terroir,’ that refers to the soil. The minerality of the soil really does have an impact on the flavor of the grapes, and that’s why you know, regions in which wine is grown, you can get really different flavors from those different places. And that’s certainly true with honey in that regard.”

Orange blossom honey, for example, has an orange hue with a citrus and acidic flavor on the backend, while the Van Morrison-favored Tupelo honey has an amber color with a buttery and floral flavor. 

Wildflower honey, the most common honey, possesses different flavors, textures, scents and colors, depending on the region. Wildflower honey is classified as a polyfloral honey, meaning the nectar used to make the honey come from a variety of sources.

Apis sells tupelo, wildflower and orange blossom honey varietals in addition to flavor-infused honeys like hot, fermented garlic or bourbon barrel-aged. 

Downtown restaurant and bar Harold’s Cabin mixes honey from its own rooftop beehive in cocktails and baked goods.

North of Charleston at R and R Acres, Bills uses the honey and honey by-products from her hives. Bills offers honeys infused with lavender, cinnamon and cocoa, creamed honeys, scorpion pepper-infused hot honey and more from the bees on the property. 

Health & honey

Honey provides a myriad of health benefits. According to Powell, honey is a “very healthy product. It is produced naturally without any significant damage to the landscape.”

When honey comes into contact with moisture, Powell said, it forms a thin layer of hydrogen peroxide that can be used to treat wounds and creates a sterile environment. That reaction also soothes sore throats, heals diabetic wounds, improves digestive issues and reduces seasonal allergies. The idea, Berdux said, is that you’re consuming the natural pollen that’s affecting your allergies. 

Bills said, “When my kids and I go out in the field, and we’re doing stuff and we get stung, or get a small cut, we just put honey on it. Like I’m not going inside just to take care of this. We know better. It’s fine.” 

Honey is used to treat sea turtle wounds at the South Carolina Aquarium and some hospitals carry “medihoney,” a sterile honey used to create a “natural healing environment” because of that natural chemical reaction, according to Bills.

Beekeeping at home

Bills, Becker, Berdux and Moore all agreed on one thing — beekeeping is about trial and error, so don’t be discouraged if you’re looking to pick up beekeeping as a hobby.

“We’ve had failures, we’ve had success with high yields and low yields. It just depends on the seasons and the weather,” Moore said. “But it’s still  just very comforting.”

There are also many resources to get you started, including the Charleston Area Beekeeping Association (CABA). CABA is a local community that brings together novice and veteran beekeepers. The association provides resources and connects beekeepers in the region to learn and share information.

Bills herself also offers apiary education at R and R Acres. “You need to be patient and just look at them to see if you can figure out what they’re trying to do,” Bills said. “The joke I tell people often is, ‘it’s 100,000 women in one box. You’re not going to tell them what to do.’”

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