Fifty-seven years of age and 205 miles separate Eddie Strickland and Lionel Evans, but there’s one tie that binds – love for deliciously smooth, delightfully golden and decidedly “Alabama” honey.
“I love honey because you can put it in almost anything,” said Strickland, 17. “It’s obviously delicious and is a great substitute for sugar.”
September is National Honey Month, a time to celebrate the one-ingredient wonder and bees, which make honey production possible. While gathering nectar to produce honey, bees pollinate an amazing 80 percent of crops, a task essential to the American food system.
“Every third bite in the American diet is pollinated by honeybees,” said Mac Higginbotham, Alabama Farmers Federation Bee & Honey Division director. “Alabama is blessed to have a strong network of beekeepers improving honeybee education throughout the state.”
Strickland and his father, Bruce, began Eddie BeeS Honey in 2012 after months of research. They have 12 hives, which produce about 50 gallons of honey annually.
“I thought beekeeping looked like fun,” said Strickland, a senior at South Montgomery County Academy. “That’s how I get into a lot of stuff.”
Strickland is busy as a bee and serves as Student Government Association and class president, plays football, baseball and basketball and wants to make beeswax candles.
Limestone County’s Evans joined the Federation in 2005. He said he watched his father tend the family hives 60 years ago while growing up in Lamar County. Two decades later he planted a family garden and picked up where his father left off.
“When you’ve got your head in a hive of bees, you can’t think of anything else,” said Evans, 74, a Federation State Bee & Honey Committee member. “I can go off to the hives mad and come back happy.”
The queen honeybee was recently named Alabama’s official agricultural insect. Agriculture has a $70.4 annual economic impact in Alabama, with many crops dependent upon bees for pollination. There are 950 beekeepers tending 16,725 hives in Alabama.
Evans, a retired pipe fitter, tends 48 hives situated anywhere from cemeteries to the front lawn of Lowe’s Home Improvement in Athens. Like his father, he rarely wears a veil when checking his hives, which annually produce 300-400 gallons of honey between early and late summer harvests.
“After I’m stung 10 or 15 times, then I might put on a veil,” said Evans.
Strickland is more cautious.
“For the most part, they don’t bother us, but when they do, they go straight for the face,” said Strickland, who wears a veil any time he’s disturbing the bees.
Evans sold out of honey in January, a month earlier than usual, something he attributes to consumers making a beeline for healthier, more natural food. Both he and Strickland said they don’t have to advertise to attract customers. Word of mouth gets them all the business they can handle.
“People are trying to be more health conscious,” said Evans. “Local honey can help with immune resistance problems and allergies.”
There’s nothing more natural than raw, unfiltered honey, which has just one ingredient.
Evans’ wife Shirley, 72, helps extract honey from the combs and sell Big E. Honey, but that’s as close as she gets.
“I don’t particularly like the taste of honey,” she said with a laugh, noting that she’s also highly allergic to bee stings. In the couple’s 57 years of marriage, she’s been treated three times for anaphylactic shock.
For Evans, Strickland and 115,000 American beekeepers, honey has plenty of golden opportunities. But there are problems.
Beekeepers and specialty crop farmers who grow fruits, vegetables and nursery crops are battling colony collapse disorder (CCD), where adult honeybees suddenly disappear.
“Two of our strongest hives made it through the winter, but when it warmed up in the spring, all the bees disappeared,” Strickland said.
USDA and EPA researchers haven’t found the cause of CCD but believe the disappearances result from many factors, including pesticides, mites, loss of pollinator habitats and migration stress.
Despite the problem, Alabama beekeepers remain positive about their pollinators’ performance, which totaled 432,000 pounds of honey in 2012.
Evans said no two honeys taste alike, with color and taste depending on the flower from which the nectar is gathered. Generally, lighter colored honey from plants like privet, alfalfa and berries is mild. Darker honey from mimosa trees and buckwheat is more robust.
Strickland drizzles honey over Greek yogurt each morning. Evans is more particular.
“I take it as medicine,” said Evans, who claims his concoction of one spoonful honey, two tablespoons apple cider vinegar and ½ teaspoon cinnamon cures all ails.
Evans and Strickland agree the best honey comes straight from the comb.
“This job is finger-licking good,” Evans said.