Last Thursday, while walking between dozens of commercial beehives along New Hope Church Road in a small field kept by the Busy Bee Apiary, a funny thing happened to Laura Tapp.
She was stung by a bee.
She combed frantically through her thick dark hair trying to get the furious insect to leave her alone.
This may not seem at all funny – or particularly odd, since Tapp has worked at the bee farm for years – but she said it was the first time she had ever been stung by one of her bees.
“I’ve been stung by wasps and other things,” she said. “Never by a honeybee.”
Spring is indeed the busy season for apiaries like the Busy Bee, and for the bees themselves: During the spring, honeybees emerge from their winter slumbers and begin collecting pollen from North Carolina’s blossoms.
And the Busy Bee Apirary, founded in 1998 by Jack Tapp, has been as industrious as ever this month. Laura Tapp, Jack’s daughter-in-law, who works out of the home on New Hope Church that serves as a supply store for beekeepers and a very busy apiary, said most of the hives are in farmer’s fields right now, pollinating North Carolina’s summer crop of melons, strawberries, squashes, peppers, cotton and soybeans.
As she dabbed ointment on her sting, she said the humidity and the threat of rain probably caused the ill temperament of the bee that stung her.
Her husband, Van Tapp, and her father-in-law, Jack, often wear no gloves as they see to their hives at farms around Orange, Chatham and farther counties, she said.
“Tuesday night we had a bear attack,” she said. “The bear flipped about 15 of our hives in Wilson County, and then we had to drive out there and put them back together. My husband got about 50 stings.”‘Admirable and interesting creatures’
Contracting with farmers in the Carolinas to place their hives near fields of crops, Busy Bee and other apiaries takes a crucial hand in the success of North Carolina agriculture; especially in this, the blooming season, when bees are actively producing most of their honey.
Commercial pollination is the Busy Bee Apiary’s No. 1 business, Tapp said. Healthy crops need bees, and if a farmer cannot be shown to have a bee colony pollinating the field, it is difficult or impossible to get crop insurance for certain types of fruits and vegetables.
“If they don’t have bees, you get crooked cucumbers, or melons that aren’t round,” Tapp said in April.
Elsewhere this month, amateur beekeepers and hobbyists are getting ready to harvest honey from hives in their backyards and gardens.
“We’ll be extracting this spring’s here pretty soon, probably in about two weeks,” said Mimi Saffer, who keeps a few hives with her husband, Tom Harbin, on about 30 acres near Highway 902 in the center of Chatham County.
“A sunny day like today is a good day to go into a hive, because they’re all out working,” Saffer said. If it’s rainy or overcast, most of the bees stay put, “and they’re cranky because they can’t work.”
Saffer and her husband wear full bee suits – veils, gloves and coveralls – when they pull the frames out of the hives and put them in a centrifugal extractor that spins to pull the honey off the comb.
The honey makes a great gift for friends and relatives. Saffer reflected upon her past 28 years as a shade-tree beekeeper. Tom gave her their first two hives as a birthday present.
“Apart from being a provider of honey to my friends, which they like very much, bees are very interesting,” Saffer said. “What they do is really complicated, and they’re just admirable and interesting creatures.”
Two years ago, Saffer said their three beehives produced 313 pounds of honey, twice as much as they usually make.
“We give it away as fast as we can, but we still have some from 2009,” she said.
North Carolina bees also make honey in the fall with pollen gathered from flowering asters, Saffer said.
“It tends to be a darker, more bitter honey, which we don’t have much of a taste for, and by then we figure it’s close enough to winter, we leave as much in there for the bees,” she said.A spoonful of honey
At the Carrboro Farmer’s Market, Charles Fleckenstein can often be seen wearing his beekeeper’s hat and selling beeswax soaps, candles and balms from his hives.
He has been making candles for 15 years and makes balms using propolis, the sticky resin protecting the outside of a budding flower, which bees gather.
“It’s a natural, anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-yeast, topical pain reliever,” he said.
A beehive, Fleckenstein said, is the most sterile environment in nature: “Better than any operating room in any hospital.”
“Do you sell any creamed honey?” asked a customer at the farmer’s market, which convenes on Saturdays at Carrboro Town Commons .
“I have two blue ribbons at the State Fair for my creamed honey,” he responded.
Busy Bee Apiaries is banking on its own creamed honey, flavored with chocolate, mint, cinnamon and other natural addatives. Laura Tapp said the honey collected from hives rented to farmers are being marketed to 25 states under the name Vintage Bee, and in this busy season, sending out 3,000 pounds of creamed honey every week.
Drawing on her background in marketing – she earned a degree in communications from Lee University in Cleveland, Tenn. – Laura Tapp helped her husband and father-in-law with rebranding and selling the product. The Piedmont Food and Agricultural Processing Center has helped them step their product into the national market.
“We’re growing,” she said. “We’re sending out a 200-case order on Monday.”
Last month, Sarah Drewett Hollis, a demo clerk at the Weaver Street Market in Carrboro, handed out samples of Vintage Bee’s flavored creamed honey to customers.
“‘Creamed’ refers to the process itself,” Hollis said. “They don’t add any cream to it or anything. It’s a little less unwieldy than regular honey.”Interrogating flavors
Sampling honey is similar to tasting wines: an aficionado will tell you that your mouth must make a small interrogation of the honey’s flavors and fragrances to judge its character: Hold the sample on the middle of your tongue and let the temperature of your mouth melt the honey. If the honey is “creamed,” or thickened, press it up against the roof of your mouth to rate its graininess.
Honeys take the flavor of the blossoms favored by the bees, and several brands take the essence of Orange County. A more practical way to rate honey might be to spread it on your toast or see how it performs when you add it to your coffee.
“Being local, it helps reduce symptoms from allergies,” Hollis said. “Raw honey is better for you than pasteurized honey.”
Keila Leverette, who minds the supply store for Busy Bee Apiary in the New Hope Road home, said honey extraction is “a messy business.”
The store is in the home of Jack Tapp and his wife Bobbie, who started keeping bees in the mid-1980s and started Busy Bee Apiary after Jack retired from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department,.
Keila, who graduates from Orange High School this year and will pursue a college degree in actuarial science, said that in a year working for Busy Bee Apiary, she has never been stung either, though honeybees could be seen flying in and around the store.
“The old saying is true – if you leave them alone, they’ll leave you alone,” she said.