Humans have gathered honey, the sweet gift from the bees, for millennia. Aside from its deliciousness, ancient cultures treasured honey for its antibacterial properties, and even its effective use as an embalming fluid.
Beekeepers across the world construct hives for honey bees and pour their time and energy into ensuring their bee colonies are protected, placed within a few miles of plenty of flowering plants from which to collect nectar, and, when the honey is ample, extract it from the hives.
Zane Cantrell, president of the Rutherford County Beekeepers Association and Vice President of the Middle Tennessee District of the Tennessee Beekeepers Association, keeps approximately 20 hives in three locations near Murfreesboro.
“I only put 7 or 8 hives at each apiary,” Cantrell said.
From these he collects 100–150 gallons of honey each year.
“I’m not a big-time honey producer,” said Cantrell, who considers himself more of a hobbyist.
But he said he does collect some wonderful honey twice per year, usually in early May “when there is high nectar flow” and again in the fall.
“We don’t pull honey until it’s capped,” Cantrell said, meaning that bees have filled each tiny chamber in a particular frame within the hive, and then covered the entire frame with beeswax, another useful substance bees produce.
The beekeeper can then remove the frame from the hive, scrape the beeswax from the frame and then place the frame in a honey extractor, a machine that spins rapidly, slinging the honey out of the frame and down towards a spout, where it can be deposited into buckets.
Cantrell and his wife strain the honey three times prior to jarring it; after straining, it’s ready to eat.
Honey can take on a different taste based on the type of plants from which the bees collect pollen and nectar.
One of the locations where Cantrell keeps his beehives sits behind the home of Nat and Maxine Henderson, on Lebanon Road near the VA complex.
“Cotton grows around here,” Cantrell said of one of the primary crops the bees from that apiary visit, pollinate and collect from.
Bees will fly about five miles from their hive, he said. So they have many options of different flowering plants to choose from.
But honey bees pollinate in a very focused way, said Cantrell, who grew up on a farm in DeKalb County, and retired from the Murfreesboro City School system in 2004.
“The honey bee is the best pollinator of all of the pollinators. A honey bee will work one plant until the nectar is gone,” he said. “Bumble bees jump around.”
While wasps are also important pollinators, you don’t see anyone collecting sweet honey from a wasp’s nest.
The fall honey from the Henderson location will have a blend of goldenrod, ragweed and farm crops.
Spring honey from that area contains clover, tulip poplar, locust and sugar maple nectar.
While Cantrell just sells the limited honey from his hives to his circle of friends and doesn’t have plans to grow his honey operation as a business, he has an enormous amount of respect and appreciation for the bees and their work.
Moving pollen from one flower to another is a necessary part of fruit production.
Settlers in the American colonies in the 1600s struggling with poor crop production had to go back to England to bring back honey bees. Cantrell said he knows the 50,000–75,000 bees hived at the location on Lebanon Road help the crop production in the area and help keep the circle of life and the food chain vibrant.
“It’s a hobby to me; I never break even,” Cantrell said. “It’s not just about honey production to me. It’s about making this world a little better than I found it . . . I can’t do much about the world, but I can do something about this neighborhood.”
The role of the beekeeper increases in importance as small hive beetles and other pests are devastating wild beehives across the country at an increasing rate.
“You hardly hear of any feral bees any more,” said Cantrell.
It can often be intimidating for a novice to venture into this complex honey production cycle, risking bee stings and financial loss, but another area beekeeper, Mike Reynolds, enjoys educating newcomers into the world of beekeeping.
He said he understands opening a honey production facility at the commercial level would require a significant investment, although folks wanting to get into beekeeping as a hobby do not need to be intimidated and they can start small. A single “nuc” (or nucleus) box loaded with five frames and bees sells for $165, he said.
Reynolds said that he too recognizes that bees are amazing animals, and he enjoys observing them communicating with one another.
“The bees do a waggle dance to tell the other bees where the flower patch is,” he said.
Reynolds, who keeps about 30 hives near Rockvale, quit his $35-an-hour factory job to keep bees (and to train German shepherds), realizing they make much more than honey.
“You can sell everything,” Reynolds said.
The royal jelly, pollen, propolis, comb and wax are all valuable products.
“The bees put out a glue called propolis,” Reynolds said. “They seal the hive with this; you have to break the seal with a tool.”
This gluing together of the hive makes it more structurally sound, and reduces the chance for bacteria and other insects to enter the bee kingdom.
“Farmers will pay for you to bring your bees to their crops” to help pollinate, Reynolds added.
For those who shop at the Murfreesboro Saturday Market or the Nashville Flea Market, Charles Hamilton makes his honey and pollen available there.
He keeps bees in Warren County and sells their products alongside his wife’s cakes, breads and cookies at their Molly’s Sweet Shop booth.
For more information about the Rutherford County Beekeepers Association or on having a hive removed, contact Zane Cantrell at (615) 210-9991. Mike Reynolds said he enjoys helping aspiring beekeepers learn more about bees and honey; contact him at (931) 626-2668. Find honey from Hamilton’s bees at the Murfreesboro Saturday Market each Saturday morning on the Murfreesboro Square, or visit mollyssweetshop.vpweb.com to order pollen and honey.
Interested in learning more about beekeeping? The Rutherford County Beekeepers Association meets the first Monday of each month at 7 p.m. at Lane Agri-Park, 315 John Rice Blvd. (but will take September off, due to the Labor Day holiday).