Since childhood, Mike Keller has loved honey. A chance encounter with a beehive sparked an interest that’s lasted a lifetime and steered him toward a new career.
“I was about 7 years old when I found a beehive in a huge oak tree at our church,” said Keller, 52, a Montgomery County native. “The tree had a large opening at the bottom that allowed me to see combs hanging down covered with honeybees.”
Keller said he and several children watched as a man in a homemade beekeeper’s suit smoked the hives to calm the bees and gently removed the combs.
“He gave us each a piece of honeycomb, which was absolutely del
icious,” Keller said. “It was especially good to me since my favorite hard candy had a liquid honey center. That was the initial spark in me that later became Southern Sweet Bee.”
Keller said after the encounter, he read every book he could find on bees starting from the time he was in elementary school. At 13, he built his first beehive in an industrial arts class in junior high school. A few months later, he joined the Alabama Beekeepers Association. Before long, he had his first job with M.C. Berry & Sons, a commercial honeybee company in Montgomery.
By the time he was 18, Keller had 75 hives. He formed Southern Sweet Bee LLC in 2012 and now has nearly 400 hives.
A few career stops included a stint in the U.S. Army, 15 years at Rheem Water Heater Manufacturing in Montgomery and over 14 years at Hyundai Motor Manufacturing in Montgomery. Eventually, he landed his full-time career at Southern Sweet Bee.
“Until I left Hyundai in March 2018, I was a fair size hobby beekeeper,” Keller said. “Growing my honey business was my retirement plan, but that plan sort of sped up, and I jumped into it full time last year.”
Keller, who is helped by wife Samantha, collects colonies from 18 different locations, but most of the hives are near his home and shop in Hope Hull. Neighbors and nearby landowners often request his hives, seeking more pollination for vegetable crop flowers and pastures.
“They recognize the importance of pollination and the increased production it brings,” he said. “But I’m careful where I put my hives. Bees travel as much as 2 miles from the hive to feed, so you can’t really judge how much food the bees will have just by looking where the hive is. I usually test an area to see how the bees do before moving in several hives.”
September is National Honey Month, which follows the busiest season for Keller, who harvests honey in July. He said he always leaves enough in the hives for the bees to feed on through the winter, helping safeguard their survival.
“Most of my family takes off work the entire week of the Fourth of July to help me harvest honey,” he said. “I couldn’t do it without them.”
It’s a hot, sticky job with sweet rewards. The processing room is a toasty 95-100 degrees — perfect to keep honey flowing freely while it’s being extracted, strained and bottled.
Family members are paid with honey. But there’s still plenty to sell since Keller harvests about 2,800 gallons of honey a year, which is sold in 12- and 24-ounce jars.
Southern Sweet Bee honey is sold at specialty shops and grocery stores across the state. It’s also sold on Amazon, Google Shopping and SouthernSweetBee.com.
The company also sells 16-ounce candles in 13 natural scents, and Keller sells queens and starter hives to new beekeepers.
Look for Southern Sweet Bee LLC on Facebook for photos and videos of Keller’s operation.
Recently, he has been working with local 4-H clubs to introduce a new generation to beekeeping.
“Being able to understand how young I was when I got interested in honeybees inspires me to help young people learn about bees,” Keller said. “You never know when it might light a spark in one of them that lasts a lifetime.”
For honey facts, visit Honey.com.