All winter, trucks rattled through our state carrying strange cargo: live bees. Each truck carried as many as 450 hives—and millions of bees. It’s a yearly migration for some of the world’s most prominent honey farms.
Our honeybees may be hidden, tucked away in fields and farms, but there’s a reason they are Mississippi’s official insect. Formed in 1873, the original Mississippi Beekeepers Association was the first agricultural association in the state, and Stover Apiaries opened in Lowndes County in 1909, and for most of this century the largest beekeeping operation in the world.
About 20,000 colonies are devoted to honey production in Mississippi. The Dakotas and Montana, the three highest-producing states, have almost a million colonies combined. But Mississippi still plays a big part in the national scene.
Many northern beekeepers, including Richard Adee (whose South Dakota apiary is the nation’s largest), bring bees to Mississippi to winter. “He’ll bring them into Woodville and basically fatten’em up,” says Jeffrey Harris, an extension and research apiculturist with Mississippi State University. Because plants start blooming here as early as January, hives grow strong in Mississippi. Beekeepers “split” their hives—pulling out combs that contain fresh eggs or larvae, along with special nurse bees that will tend to the broods—to create a new hive. By the time beekeepers head north again in the spring, their numbers have typically tripled or more—a necessary reinforcement given the stressful life of the modern, commercial bee.
Here in Mississippi, though, a smaller scale of honey production still thrives. For the past few years, Harris says, Mississippi has led the nation in yield per hive, averaging about a hundred pounds. Now that it is spring, the bees and their keepers are emerging for another year. Attracted by the life-giving magic of honey, by the intricate intelligence displayed in a hive at work, or by a simple conviction that making honey by hand helps keep our world in balance, our local beekeepers preserve an ancient, complex art—and make great honey, too!
For many, bees are scary. “But it’s important to understand that they’re our friends,” says Melanie Dale of Beelicious Honey. Without pollination, we couldn’t have the food we have.
To spread that word, she and her husband Keith teach classes to novices and give presentations in local schools. “Do not be afraid of bees,” she says. Certainly, her three kids are not. Her family discovered beekeeping on the advice of a pediatrician friend, who suggested local honey might help battle allergies. In 2002, when the family moved back to Mississippi, they began to make their own. Their talents—Melanie has a background in marketing, Keith in finance—helped the business explode. “We never really anticipated this would happen,” she says. “We don’t live on a farm. It’s not something we thought we could do on our own. I really think this was God’s plan for our family.”
Now they maintain over 300 beehives around Hattiesburg, including on her grandparents’ farmstead in Lumberton. They wholesale products, including wildflower and varietal honeys, candles, wax, and body lotions, across the United States. The kids help throughout the process, learning both about the business and the mysterious allure of bees.
Beelicious Honey | Hattiesburg | 601.447.4658 | beelicioushoney.com
“When I started, I envisioned selling hundreds of jars of honey to gourmet grocery stores across New York,” says McKay McFadden. “Now, the honey doesn”t have much to do with why I do it.”
Instead, beekeeping connects her to the natural environment. “It’s so wondrous—the things you learn about the bees and the way they work together,” she says. “If someone in your family knows it, it’s like a magic they talk about.”
Her mother, who once had hundreds of hives across Memphis, possesses what McFadden calls \”a serene knowledge of the natural world.â€ A few years ago, McFadden was living in New York City and worried she’d never inherit that knowledge. So she bought a hive and put it on the roof of a nearby yoga studio. But despite the view of Manhattan, she says it was a “logistical hassle.”
McFadden and her bees are back in the South now—she’s in her final semester in graduate school at Ole Miss. While her two hives have yet to produce honey, she remains optimistic, and posts updates of the bees’ progress on her blog. Wherever she heads next, she’ll still have new hives. “I learn about the world from the bees,” she says.
Oxford | hihathoney.com
Most years, Jim Pennington manages to fill 70 or 80 55-gallon barrels with honey. Last year, he hit 120. “I finally matched my dad,” he says.
Those are big shoes to fill. His father started making honey 50 years ago when, in 1964, he ordered his first hive out of a Sears-Roebuck catalog. He kept beekeeping until 1999, when his health forced him to scale back operations. “But everyone had been begging us to start back up,” says Jim.
Jim began working alongside his father and took over the business in 2009. Since many of the bee boxes, as well as the facility where Jim extracts and bottles the honey remain in his parents’ backyard, his father still spends time with his hives, and most of the neighbors have no idea they are living near bees.
Jim says he spent 10 weeks straight extracting honey last year on top of his full-time job as an engineer. But the work is important: pollination keeps the world in sync. More importantly, it keeps customers happy. “As Dad always says,” Jim adds, “people want honey on their biscuits.”
Pearl | 601.260.2992 | mississippihoney.com
Kenneth Thompson has always been interested in bees. “But, boy, three kids come along,” he says, “and between the cows and the family, I just didn’t have time for the bees.”
Thompson was a full-time cattle and poultry farmer but planned to return to the bees once he retired. “Or semi-retired,” he says. “I guess that’s what you’d call me.” He still works nearly every day with his son Johnny, who has taken over the day-to-day operations of the family ranch.
Seven years ago, a neighbor called about a swarm in his yard—and Kenneth got his bees. From that colony, the Thompsons have expanded to nearly 400 hives, which account for an ever-growing portion of the farm’s profit.
Like any good cattle farmer, he takes pride in the health of his herds. “All the stress, and then all the chemicals,” he says, “It’s just more than bees can take nowadays.” At his ranch in the Neshoba County hills, there are no pesticides. “I do my best to make it as good as it can be, as far as chemicals,” he says. “It’s just the way the bees gave it to me.”
Philadelphia | 601.656.1908 | broke-t-honey.com
Blue Lake Honey Farm
Stanley Holland began beekeeping eight years ago when the family garden was underperforming. “We thought if we got a hive of bees, it might help our garden,” he says. Standing atop a 10-foot ladder in the back of his pick-up truck, wielding a 15-foot pole, he captures a swarm at the top of a tree. When he drops it in front of a bee box, the swarm pauses for a moment—until the queen enters. “They follow her in like an army of soldiers. I love the sight of that.”
“We kind of got hooked on it,” he says. “We went to the extreme.” Over the years, he has added hives—finding them, among other places, in desk drawers, water-meter boxes, and stereo speakers—and now has 120, which together produce about 750 gallons of honey a year. The hives are scattered across farms in the Delta, including a vegetable garden at Parchman State Penitentiary.
Honey-making can be hard labor, but Holland still works a full-time job as an auto-parts salesman. “Beekeeping is more of a hobby,” he says. “It”s something you’ve got to love to do.”
Drew | 662.745.6525 | email@example.com