What we do
I'm often asked "what makes Smokey Creek Bee Farm so different?" I'm not sure I can outline all the quirks that makes us so different, but here's 13 things we think you should know about what we do that makes us stand out.
1. Local Bees - Local Honey
When we say our hives produce local honey, we mean it. Commercial beekeepers ship their hives all over the country (to almonds in California, blueberries in Maine, oranges in Florida, apples in New York, and clover in North Dakota). All this moving adds stress on the bees, and produces honey that no one really knows where it came from. The connection between the beekeeper, the bees, and the honey is often lost. Our hives are located right here in the Piedmont region of NC (most of our honey is produced in zip code 27406, although some is produced in 27317 and 27298), with the exception of a few hives that take a summer vacation to the mountains of NC (zip code 28743) for some delicious Sourwood honey. By doing it this way, we can tell you where the honey came from and the connection between the beekeeper, the bees, and the honey they produced is maintained the same way it was when your grandparents bought honey.
2. Natural Honey Flavor
Just about everyone is familiar with the typical grocery store honey: Clover Honey. Everyone's familiar with its taste too. In reality, honey varies considerably in taste, color, and moisture content, depending on the time of year, the weather, and the flowers in bloom. So why is all grocery store honey the same in flavor and color? Because they blend it. Gigantic fields of clover in the midwest produce large volumes of honey. When the barrels of honey are brought to the packager, they blend it with honey from different locations to get a consistent color and flavor. Why? Because it sells better. Instead, when you go to a farmers market and get a fresh apple and a fresh orange, the flavor of one apple will taste slightly different than the next one. That's nature! The same holds true with honey. Our honey isn't blended to provide any particular taste, color, or consistency. And our honey will change from year to year (and sometimes month to month), so when we harvest our honey and bottle it, you'll see variations in the color and flavor of the honey. Our wildflower honey is still predominantly tulip poplar and blackberry honey, but sometimes you get a little more clover mixed in, or a little more black locus mixed in, which may make it a little lighter, darker, or sweeter. With each bottle, you get to taste the natural terrior of the area!
3. Honey Locations (or "Yards") Chosen With Care
Commercial beekeepers will pack hives, sometimes hundreds of them, in small holding yards. These holding yards often have high exposure to pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides. They become a breeding ground for pests and diseases, all which leave the hives and the bees a little sicker than they were when they got there. Our hives are strategically placed in yards that are selected with care. We avoid locations that have high chemical usage (about a third of our hives are located on an organic farm), such as residential areas and commercial farms. The partnership we have with the owners of these lands is strong, and they take care of their lands as much as we take care of our hives. We also limit the number of hives on each location, to maintain a naturally, more healthy balance between the bees and nature.
4. Beekeeping Using Organic Practices
We can't say our honey is certified organic. To be called certified organic (and use the organic label on products) the USDA requires an application, inspection, and fee. The fee varies, but for small operations typically runs around $1,500, plus yearly re-certifications. That ends up being quite a bit of added costs that are passed on to the customers. Instead, we operate using organic practices. We only use organic acids to treat our bees from diseases and viruses they get in order to keep them healthy, and never use any chemicals or additives in our honey or products we sell.
5. We Promote Healthy Bees
In addition to our organic practices, we have management procedures in place that maintain and promote healthy bees. You'll sometimes see labels or advertisements from other beekeepers that say they are "treatment free." While a noble goal, what this often involves is allowing hives and bees to die when they become sick and diseased, because they don't treat for anything. If you saw your beloved pet dog infested with fleas and ticks, and was clearly suffering, would you turn to them and say "well, looks like you need to work it out" or would you say the same thing to your daughter or son? We don't like to use treatments on our bees, but by limiting the amount we treat and timing it just right we know doing so will make them healthier, and will reduce their suffering. Which is what we're all about.
6. Our Honey Isn't Filtered
Grocery store honey is often high pressure filtered. This filtration process removes small pollen grains that end up in the finished product, and reduces the chances that your honey will crystallize, thereby increasing its shelf life. But what you miss out on when you eat filtered honey are all those pollen grains, enzymes and additives the bees put into the honey to make it a natural product. We strain our honey to remove large chunks of wax and propolis, but we don't filter our honey. Instead we leave all the pollen grains, enzymes and other additives (plus probably a little bit of beeswax and propolis) in the honey. If that's how the bees eat it, that's how we should eat it too. This may result in some "floaters" in the top of the jar (although we do our best to avoid this) or some crystallized honey, but we believe it ends up being a better product in the end.
7. Our Honey Is Slow Settled
The extraction process (removing honey from the wax comb) is a busy process. You have to spin the frames very fast to get the honey to "fling" out. This process often causes other things naturally found in hives and consumed by bees (beeswax and propolis, which is a antimicrobial plant resin mixture made by the bees, along with a few bee wings) to be added to the honey. Commercial beekeepers filter their honey to remove these items. We don't. We use a strainer to remove the larger items, and then we let the honey sit, often for weeks or months on end, in settling tanks. In the process, the vast majority of debris floats to the top where we can remove it. The settling process takes longer, but we believe the end product is cleaner, and you don't lose any of those delicious qualities along the way!
8. Our Honey Is Slow To Crystallize
Honey is a super saturated liquid. To skip a chemistry lesson (which I may come back to later), liquid honey is always in constant battle with itself, and wants to convert back to a solid. The process of liquid honey turning into a solid is called crystallization. Some honeys crystallize faster than others, and the process can be sped up if a high amount of debris is located in the honey, and slowed down by heating the honey. Commercial operators often filter their honey to remove the debris, and heat the honey to keep it in a liquid state. But the process ends up removing pollen grains and decreasing the natural aromas and flavors found in honey. So we don't do either, and yet our honey can often last for up to a year without crystallizing. This is because the honey we harvest (which isn't planned by us or our bees, it's just based on our location) is comprised mostly of tulip poplar nectar. Honey made from tulip poplar nectar is slow to crystallize. This results in a honey that stays in liquid form longer than some other local honeys, but still avoids the need to high filter or heat the honey.
9. Our Honey "Ages"
If you go to the grocery store and find a bottle of clover honey and you bring it home and put it in your closet and forget about it for six months or a year, that honey will change very little. If you compare it with "fresh" grocery store clover honey, if there wasn't a date on the label I'm not sure you can tell the difference. Believe it or not, the same thing is true of fast food (think about a time that you dropped a french fry in your car, and you found it under the seat a year later. There wasn't any mold on it, and it didn't decompose, right? Why? Because of all the preservatives, chemicals, additives, and mixtures. That's not what I call "food"). Our local honey changes over time, or "ages." Natural local honey will slowly crystallize and darken over time. The flavor will turn slightly richer over time as well. You may notice it in 6-12 months, or it may take a little longer than that to notice the difference, but eventually it will age. We don't suggest keeping honey around that long (as its much better to eat it than watch it), but the changing profile is what makes our honey different.
10. Our Hives Are Art
Most beekeepers paint their hives white, to make them extra visible. While that's fine for some, we prefer a different approach. We paint our hives a mixture of colors (red, blue, green, yellow and white, depending on the year). This results in our hives looking like a beautiful rainbow (well, there's no orange or violet, but it still looks neat). Why do we do this. It's fun! It looks better, and believe it or not its better for the bees. Bees can count (I know, neat!) but can only count up to about 3 consistently. When you have 5 hives right next to each other, and they all look the same, the bees sometimes get confused (was I the second to the right or the third to the right?) and lost. By painting them a constant mix of colors, the bees can easily find their way home (they don't need to remember "second on the right" and instead can just remember "the blue and green hive" or the "red, yellow and blue hive"). The mixture of colors also makes me somewhat happier, but I guess that's just an added perk.
11. Not Dried or Dehydrated
Honey is made by bees by taking nectar, converting the chemical composition (there's that talk of the chemistry lesson again . . . ), and decreasing the moisture content. Moisture content in honey is something beekeepers need to be concerned about. Moisture content too low will cause a very thick honey which is difficult to process, while moisture content too high will cause fermentation (and not the good mead kind). So commercial beekeepers will often remove honey before its ready, when you have a lower moisture content that is easier to process. If the moisture content is too low, they'll use dehydrators to mechanically pull moisture out of the honey. But we don't. We leave the honey on the hives for as long as the bees need to finish it, and then we take it off and process it. If the moisture content ends up being a little on the low side, it just means a little more work for us (such is life, right?) but the honey is still great to eat. If the moisture content for some reason is too low (we've never actually had this problem yet), we just give it back to the bees. I mean, it's theirs anyway, right?
Our honey is processed by one person. Me. The bees make it, I remove it from the hives (and yes, it's often very heavy at that point), I extract it from the comb (or leave it in place with our Chunk Honey), and I bottle it. Often the honey has only touched two containers before it made it into your bottle: after leaving the comb it goes into a bucket, from the bucket it goes into a settling tank, and from the settling tank it goes straight into your jar. No middle men, no bulk processors, no drum tanks, no electric pumps and clarifies often found in large operations. This means our honey is handmade (or should I just call it "bee made"?), with pride, by us and for you!
13. Fair Trade
We often think about fair trade when we think about growers in third world countries, but why can't domestic food be acquired through fair trade too? The cost of the honey goes directly into our beekeeping operation, the bees, and our family. No shareholders or investors. We also take pride in being able to offer our products at the lowest price we can afford, while still covering our costs. We've avoided the temptation to market our honey for $25 a pound like some other people, just because it's "hipster" and we can. We also don't dump our honey to packagers at $3 a pound to quickly get rid of it. We market our products at fair prices: fair to you and fair to us.