Weaving the hot sidewalks of Pepper Place Market in Lakeview mid-morning on a Saturday can be an experience of chaotic frenzy.
A child’s rogue balloon slaps your sweaty cheek.
A half-eaten organic Popsicle sticks to the bottom of your sandal.
Everyone you’ve ever known is suddenly shopping under the blazing Alabama sun, eager to shake your wet hand.
Then, calm as can be, beneath a simple white tent, you find the beekeepers. And their honey.
I met Mark and Jane McKissack, married Blount County beekeepers, one such Saturday morning. Mark talked to me about the different properties of their honey, a product of a 100 plus hives scattered across Alabama’s farmland. As Mark says, “Beekeeping enhances the gardens. And the gardens certainly enhance the beekeeping.”
Mark is right. On June 21, The Times Union of Brunswick, Ga. reported, “The pollination of bees alone accounts for more than $15 billion in added crop value each year, especially for specialty crops such as almonds, other nuts, berries, fruits and vegetables.”
The Sun Journal of New Bern, N.C., appealed to our herbivore sensibilities, reporting, “Your hamburger starts as alfalfa and alfalfa needs honey bees. We would survive without honey bees, but they do us a great service.”
The specialty coffee and tea magazine Fresh Cup reports in its June issue that bees increase a farmer’s revenue stream because bees produce a resin called propolis, which is sold as natural medication for sore throats, colds and minor burns; bee venom is harvestable and used for its anti-inflammatory properties; and “the sheer power of bees increases yield, (coffee) bean strength, and virility of the bean.”
What else? Well, local honey is an ailment for allergies. Urban beekeeping is trendy in New York, Paris and Toronto. And in the past few decades, due to a virus spread by a parasitic mite, bees have been on the decline worldwide.
Back at Pepper Place Market, Mark and I chatted briefly at his table and in a matter of moments my head was — pardon the expression — abuzz with the intricacies of bees and their keepers.
“The big misconception most people have is that the honeybee is a maniacal bee that is out to sting everybody. They’re really quite gentle,” Mark said. He told me an elderly man mysteriously appeared in his hometown church during a Christmas cantata and asked for help with his hives, requesting “a man with a strong back and a weak mind.” This is how Mark found his profession, one that requires an incredible amount of labor and greatly benefits farmers and consumers. That was 25 years ago.
“Really, he was my mentor. Paul Carver taught me what not to do. I’m kind of an out there beekeeper,” Mark said.
Jane got involved with beekeeping in the 1990s, although she says her father had a short-lived career when she was a child. “Mama had to tape him up in a suit,” Jane said. “A bee stung his face and that was it for him.”
Turns out I have beekeeping in my blood, too. My grandmother says her grandfather and uncle both kept bees, which would have been in the early 1900s here in central Alabama. According to a report by the U.S. Agriculture Department, the honeybee as we currently know it arrived stateside in 1622 and landed in Alabama around 1743.
The McKissacks met in 2002 at a Beekeepers Convention in Auburn.
Mark invited me to attend a similar meeting for the Jefferson County Beekeeping Association at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. The meeting is a place for beekeepers and farmers to convene, discuss technique and borrow equipment. But it’s also a place for community.
Over 75 people attended the meeting. A Mr. Mills, a 97-year-old beekeeper, brought handcrafted tools to give away as door prizes. He wore overalls and had the booming voice of a preacher who speaks to large crowds without microphones. I sat beside a retired schoolteacher from Leeds. People wore denim and sunburns. They ate potato chips and swapped sting stories. Everyone wanted to know how many bees I had. Everyone I talked to knew the McKissacks.
David Ellis led the session. Ellis and his wife, Susan, also sell goods at Pepper Place Market — I recommend the creamed cinnamon — and are the legendary McKissack matchmakers.
Ellis instructed attendees on the proper methods of extracting honey, a process called “slinging.” There was talk of supers (the part of the hive that collects the honey), sliding frames (in which the bees fill with honey), breeding queen bees (an act that deserves its own story), scented frames (to remove the bees during collection time) and leaf blowers (to really remove the bees). Whenever questions were answered, Ellis ended by saying, “Give it time. You’ll get the feel for it.”
It was apparent that keeping bees and harvesting honey is laborious, but the process and the product reward keeper efforts and us all.
Mark and Jane travel the state, using mostly McKissack-made equipment, tending to their hives, a job that goes beyond our notion of “full-time.”
“Right now, it’s hard,” Jane said. “It’s 80 to 90 degree temperatures. David Ellis says he suits up in a bee suit? Well, we don’t put all that on. We wear veils. It’s too hot for all that suit business. Sometimes you get stung, sometimes you don’t. It’s the heat that you have to look out for.”
And protecting the bees.
“You haven’t seen anything until you see a hive of bees being robbed out,” Mark said. “This time of year, your average colony has 50 to 60 thousand bees. The good news is Alabama has a closed border to bees which has kept out the mite.”
“If we have a winter this winter like we had last winter, these bees won’t really hibernate,” Jane said. “And they don’t need to be like that. They keep building. If you don’t feed them enough, they starve. If you do, they build. The drones aren’t flying. You just cross your fingers and hope.”
Let’s hope our bees survive.
Pepper Place Market is held every Saturday from 7 a.m.-noon through October. The Jefferson County Beekeepers Association meets on the third Thursday of each month at 6:30 p.m. at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. The Alabama Beekeepers Association will hold its state convention in Montgomery at Taylor Road Baptist Church, October 12 & 13.
Katherine Webb is a Weld Local correspondent. Send your feedback to email@example.com.