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Posted October 14, 2009 | comments Leave a comment

Nature's sweetener: Honey successfully returns to plantation

By Josette Keelor -- jkeelor@nvdaily.com

MIDDLETOWN -- The bees were sticking to their hives on a recent morning at Belle Grove Plantation in Middletown. The temperature outside was in the 40s, too cold for the bees to venture out, but that did not stop them from doing what little bees are best at: keeping busy.

They won't leave the hive if the air is less than 50 degrees, said Ray Brafford, co-owner of Rodeo Bee Company in Winchester, but they have plenty to occupy themselves with inside the wooden boxes that make up their homes.

"They're building up the hive for winter," Brafford said of the two beehives that sit side by side behind Heritage Orchard. Truly the bees have a lot to rebuild after producing 90 pounds of honey this season.

The reintroduction of beehives to the land at Belle Grove occurred as part of a continued effort to maintain the historic accuracy of the plantation, said Dennis Campbell, maintenance technician at Belle Grove.

Beehives are believed to have been a fixture at the plantation during its heyday, he said.

"It was a self-serving plantation," he said, "and it's worked out really well."

Rodeo Bee Company was able to bottle 35 pounds of the honey to sell for its first harvest, said Brafford's daughter and co-owner, Heather.

"Right now we keep 60 pounds on there," Brafford said. Besides producing honey that humans and animals can eat, bees need the honey to nourish the hive as well.

Usually in the first year of a hive, not much honey is produced, his daughter said, because the bees have to also build up their hive.

"The average hive can give you anywhere between 30 to 100 pounds of honey," Brafford said.

Beekeepers harvest the honey during the summer, he said, but the timing and size of the harvest depends on the weather in a given year.

Most of the honey Americans eat comes from other countries, Brafford said, but he believes local is best.

"Local honey, they say, is good for your allergies," he said, "because it's raw honey."

Raw honey is so prized because it's pure, he says. The honey the bees use for themselves they keep in the lower portion of the hive, along with the eggs the queen bee produces. The honey at the top of the hive is harvested by beekeepers for people to eat.

Honey, too, is the only food that doesn't spoil.

"There's no cookin' it, and it lasts forever," Brafford said.

"They even found some in King Tut's tomb," Heather Brafford said.

The bees at Belle Grove are thriving, but they still face many obstacles in their continued survival.

"The bee numbers are dwindling, unfortunately," she said.

Bee populations around the country are currently in crisis numbers because of disease, pests and Colony Collapse Disorder. For no known reason colonies just die off, she said.

"It is still a major concern because it does affect our food sources," she said.

At such a time of uncertainty, every bee is necessary even though they would all willingly give their lives for the success of the hive.

"It's all for the hive," she said.

The resources available to the beehives at Belle Grove are what will most likely help the hives succeed. The fence surrounding the hives keeps out animals such as cows, which knock over the hives, and bears.

"They're not after the honey," Brafford said. "They're after the pupae of the bees. The honey is like the ketchup."

Netting on the beehives keeps out mice. The orchard and nearby gardens constantly provide ingredients for the production of honey.

"This is ideal," said Brafford, who, with his daughter, has been beekeeping on his free time for two years.

And visitors to Belle Grove appreciate the addition of local honey to the historic house's store.

"It's been a hot item in the shop, which is good," Campbell said.

Every bottle of honey has already sold, all within a month of introducing it. Brafford hopes to have some more available by spring. Potentially the hives can produce two harvests each year, in the spring and fall, he said.

"We'll probably have both, if it's a good year," he said.

The bottles of honey at Belle Grove are priced at $9.50 each, Brafford said, and are made to look like an 1800 replica bottle with a cork. A portion of the proceeds goes to Belle Grove.

"They like the bottle as well as the honey," he said. "It's really taken off because we had 40 bottles, and they're gone."

Introducing the beehives to the grounds at Belle Grove also had an unexpected effect: The trees in the orchard produced apples this year.

"Nobody suspected that at all," Campbell said. "We believe we've gotten apples because of the pollination."

Until this year the heritage apple trees had produced very little fruit, he said. "We never were able to get the apples to come on."

Belle Grove plans to use the apples for tasting during its Living History Days on the weekend of Nov. 6, Campbell said.

For more information about local honey sold at Belle Grove or Living History Days, call 869-2028 or visit the Web at www.bellegrove.org.

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