In January’s Gazette, we focused on a couple of area businesses that sell a variety of bee-related products. This month, we talked to individual beekeepers who track the day-to-day health and viability of their hives, and market their honey in Crozet.
If beehives are like families, then Tolstoy’s words might apply to them: happy hives resemble one another, but unhappy hives are unhappy in their own way. According to Sam Addison and William Johnson of Crozet Honey Farm, a happy hive is gentle, hardy and disease-resistant.
Gentle bees? “Every hive has a personality,” Johnson said. “You can tell how well the hive is doing sometimes by just listening to the hum.” A gentle, well-fed hive in early summer will scarcely bother with the careful beekeeper who opens it up. In this situation, the two men might forego parts of their covering. “It’s always good to have the hat and veil, though,” Addison said. They’ve learned to ignore a couple of stings on arms and legs, but protecting their eyes and ears is important. Johnson said his father, a veteran beekeeper, was stung so many times that he developed an allergy and had to be airlifted to the hospital after a sting.
It didn’t stop him for long. The senior Johnson waited a couple of years and started up again, Johnson said. The son inherited the same fascination with bees. A veteran of the Army’s Judge Advocate General Corps, Johnson has worked all over the world, keeping hives whenever the length of his stay would allow, until his final assignment at the JAG School in Charlottesville brought him to Crozet. Retired now from JAG but still working full time as an attorney, he’s as committed as ever. “It can become an obsession,” he said.
Addison, who works at U.Va. Hospital as an ECMO technician, also harbored a long-time fascination with bees. The two men met through their respective children. As it happened, a swarm of bees landed in his yard and he knew he could call Johnson. “I had no equipment and no knowledge,” Addison said, “I needed a mentor.”
Working together, the two men have built their business up from one hive for Addison and six for Johnson to a total of 40 hives in different locations in and around Crozet. They still accommodate feral bees and also create their own queens to populate their hives.
Their hives produced about 800 pounds of honey, and they’re sold out for now, until July or so.
Each hive’s honey has a different taste: the bees near Mint Springs gather from tulip poplars and locusts; those buzzing around Yancey Mills mostly bring clover bloom pollen back to the hive. That’s not to say Crozet Honey Farms plans locations to produce a certain type of honey based on the available flora. That might be possible in places with huge groves of citrus, or acres of buckwheat or stands of Tupelo trees. In Central Virginia, the bees will work a little harder, ranging for miles and gathering a variety of pollen. They caution against buying foreign honey, as it’s often adulterated and has not a trace of the local pollen that might have protective qualities for those with seasonal allergies.
Addison likes to put honey on his peanut butter sandwiches, or spread it on toast. Johnson, who likes to spoon honey into his tea, said he found a connection to home as well as a little burst of energy while studying in school, by taking a fingertip of honey from a jar sent by his parents.
More important to them than the taste of their honey is the health of their hives. They find locations away from insecticides and use wholistic methods to help their bees thrive. That’s not to say there aren’t pitfalls for the best of beekeepers. Bees can be predatory, evicting whole hives of neighboring bees, or mites can weaken a large population. Locally, there’s a little bit of scarcity between the blooms in spring and early summer and the goldenrod in the fall, Johnson said—all factors that can make hives unhappy in their unique ways.
Even so, the men never fail to find it fulfilling. There’s a simple reward for their considerable effort: “People just love honey,” Johnson said.