Inside the Hives at Brush Creek Honey Farm

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Beekeeping in Tennessee

When I was just 7 years old, a vicious wasp stung my hand, and I decided then and there that any insect with a buzz and a stinger should be avoided at all costs.

So you can imagine my initial reaction to a reporting assignment that called for me to suit up as a beekeeper wannabe and face the foes of my childhood. Yes, my reaction wasn’t pretty.

But, hey, I like having a job. And I’m a pretty intrepid reporter. So I decided to embark on my own personal “Fear Factor” episode. It isn’t long before I’m pulling into the gravel drive of Brush Creek Honey Farm in Lawrenceburg, just off the Natchez Trace.

Greeting me is Randall Staggs, one of more than 1,000 beekeepers now harvesting honey in Tennessee. Staggs heads up the family business and – with the help of his wife, Cathey, daughter Amber, son-in-law Junior, and sons Brad and Devin – oversees 183 acres chock full of honeybee colonies.

Also in the welcoming party: Kit McConnell, a Staggs family friend and fellow beekeeper who will be joining us on our honey hunt.

“Kit and I met over a hive of bees,” Randall Staggs says. “I’ve met more friends over a hive of bees than anywhere else.”

Time to Suit Up

We climb into Randall’s pickup truck and bump along through the fields to find some hives that are good and full of honey. Brush Creek Honey Farm harvests the honey from its hives twice every summer. Honey removal begins in May and usually runs into late September.

 

I ask Randall how many times he’s been stung by a bee. “I usually get stung at least once every time I go out to the hives,” he says matter-of-factly. “Once I got stung 14 times. But I ain’t never been afraid of bees – a darn chigger bite hurts me worse than a bee sting.”

We slow in front of a row of honeybee colonies, which are enclosed in white wooden boxes stacked about 3 feet tall. My hands begin to tremble and my stomach flips and flops as I realize the moment of truth is about to arrive. Randall hands me a full-body white cotton suit. I zip it up and top it off with a net-like bee veil and gloves that go all the way up to my elbows.

Then I gulp. I know this suit is all that lies between me and thousands of avenging bees.

Just to be sure the little critters won’t be able to plunge their stingers into my arms and legs, I ask Randall if he’s positive that I’m airtight. He promises that I am.

Afraid? Who, Me?

I recall an earlier phone conversation with Amber Staggs; she’d told me that bees are more likely to be aggressive if you’re afraid of them.

“Bees can smell fear,” she told me. “When you’re afraid, your body releases chemicals that give off a distinctive scent.”

I feign a fearless manner. After all, I’m a few thousand times bigger than a little old bee.

 

I cautiously follow the beekeepers as we approach the hives, housed in waist-high stacked white wooden boxes, or “supers,” that contain 10 honeycomb frames each. The wooden rectangular frames are about 2 feet long by 1 foot wide and are covered on both sides with hundreds of capped stores of honey.

Kit hands me a metal smoker and shows me how to pump smoke from smoldering dried pine needles into the colonies. The smoke is used to harmlessly force the bees out of the hive.

As I pump away, the bees begin to swarm around us, creating an ominous humming noise. I breathe deeply and stay surprisingly calm as Randall and Kit begin prying open the hives and looking at the frames, heavy with honey and covered with bees.

One colony can contain more than 70,000 bees at a time; it’s obvious these have at least that many.

Randall points to his sleeve, where several tiny stingers are embedded.

“See how the stinger keeps on pumping even after the bee flies away,” he says, unbothered by the fact that half a dozen bees have just tried to punish him for disrupting their work order and collecting the fruit of their labor.

I quickly check my own suit for stingers, but so far, I’ve been lucky.

Brush Creek Honey Farm

A Healthy Respect

After removing the heaviest supers – the ones with the most honey – Randall lines them up on the grass and hands me a contraption similar to a leaf blower. Feeling mighty powerful, I blow any remaining bees off their honey before we load the supers into the truck.

With 43 years of beekeeping under his belt, Randall certainly knows the ins and outs of the business. His grandfather started teaching him tricks of the trade when he was just 9 years old – on the same farm where he lives and works today.

A beekeeper acquires a keen sense of respect for bees, and it’s easy to see why – they’re extremely diligent creatures and surprisingly gentle.

“If humans worked like bees do, it would be unimaginable what we could accomplish,” Randall says. “All the bees know what their job is, and they do it.”

They only sting when threatened, and they die in the process, because stinging causes their organs to be pulled from their bodies.

A Teaspoon a Day

Back at the house, we take a well-deserved break, and Cathey Staggs serves us a snack. Honey, naturally – with toast and sweet tea.

“Raw, unpasteurized honey like this is best for you because it has lots of enzymes and antioxidants,” Randall says, as I bite into a piece of toast dripping with honey. “Store-bought honey is pasteurized, and that process takes out a lot of the nutrients.”

Apparently, it also dulls the flavor. The raw honey tastes pure, sweet and delicious – a product straight from heaven.

“I read that if you eat a teaspoon of raw honey every day, you can live to be over 100,” Randall says.

Heavenly Rewards

Next, we head for the “honey house” to process our bounty. The procedure involves loading the frames into a machine that releases the honey from the honeycomb by scraping off the beeswax. The uncapped frames are then loaded into a machine that extracts the honey by spinning, much like the spin cycle on a washing machine.

After all the honey is extracted, it’s strained twice to remove wax particles, then bottled up. To my delight, several of the bottles find their way into my truck.

Sticky-fingered and satisfied, I wave goodbye to the Staggs family and make my way down the driveway. I swat at a fly that flies in my window and then pause, wondering if it is, in fact, a honeybee.

Shame on me. Those little critters don’t deserve a swat – they deserve a round of applause.

Brush Creek Honey Farm

A Taste of Honey

As a general rule, the lighter the honey is in color, the milder the flavor.

Clover is the No. 1 source of nectar in Tennessee, followed by the tulip poplar tree. Clover honey is usually light in color, while tulip poplar honey is dark and tastes much like sorghum.

Sourwood honey is also popular in Tennessee. Its supply is often limited, however, because it is only produced in areas of high elevation such as the Cumberland Plateau.

Many Tennessee beekeepers classify their honey as wildflower honey, because it is derived from a combination of nectars.

Soybean and cotton plants supply a large amount of nectar in West Tennessee. Other nectar sources throughout the state include black locust trees and various asters.

Hankering for Something Sweet?

For more information about Tennessee honey, visit Pick Tennessee Products.

To learn more about Brush Creek Honey Farm in Lawrenceburg, call (931) 766-5286, or visit their website.

2 Comments

  1. jack sells

    June 7, 2014 at 10:14 am

    Type of Honey you have available? clover ? sourwood? price per pound?

    • Rachel Bertone

      June 9, 2014 at 3:18 pm

      Hi Jack,

      To learn more about Brush Creek Honey Farm and their products, please contact them directly at (931) 762-1277 or email them at amber@brushcreekhoneyfarm.com. Hope this helps!

      Rachel
      editor, Tennessee Home and Farm

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