The sound of the angry bees was almost deafening. Despite the ominous cacophony of the buzz, Mike Finnern calmly pulled a tray full of bees and a capped honeycomb from the active hive.
“As long as you’ve got the right protective gear, you’ll be fine,” he said, turning the tray to look for the queen bee—his face inches away from the busy bees.
Beekeeping is a hobby Finnern, a retired dentist, picked them up about six years ago.
Today, he has about 10 active hives in his backyard in Bartlett, producing a rich, amber-colored honey that has attracted the attention of chefs such as Andrew Armstrong of Bounty on Broad. “It’s the best honey I’ve ever tasted,” says Armstrong, who uses it in a Honey Tree Cake dessert on his restaurant’s menu.
Finnern isn’t alone when it comes to Memphis beekeeping as a hobby.
Eric Caron, president of the Memphis Area Beekeepers Association, said the organization typically has more than 300 current members at any given time.
But the number of beekeepers in the region is even greater.
“My guess is there are over 1,000 active beekeepers in the Memphis area,” he said.
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Do you love bees?
When he thought of taking up beekeeping as a hobby, Finnern said the first thing to think about is, “When you think about bees, do you think about honey first or getting stung first?”
If bee stings are your first thought, he said beekeeping might not be for you.
But if it is honey, it is a hobby that will enrich your life.
“I like to eat honey, but what I really like about beekeeping is the learning process and the camaraderie with other beekeepers,” Finnern said. “You never stop learning.”
Finnern is a wealth of information when it comes to bees. While leading a tour of his hives, he explained everything from the life cycle of a bee to how they work together as a community to how honey could be extracted from the hives.
Did you know that all worker bees are female? Or that the average life cycle of a worker bee is only 35 days, but a queen can live for several years.
Finnern said he still learns something new every day. He is currently trying to breed his own queen bee.
How to start beekeeping
Finnern started with one hive and ordered bees by mail. You can order a box that comes with a queen and about 3 pounds of bees. “They will transport bees across the country,” Finnern said. “But most of them come from here in the south because of the weather here.”
Over the years, he has added hives to his apiary by collecting bees that have built nests in homes and yards in the mid-south. “The Memphis Area Beekeepers Association has a ‘Swarm List,'” he explained. If you have a bee nest on your property, a beekeeper like Finnern will come and remove the bees and bring them home to create a new hive.
Finnern said the Memphis Area Beekeepers Association is an invaluable resource.
The organization not only mentors new beekeepers, but also provides resources for current members to borrow honey extractors during the harvest season, monthly newsletters with timely information on local, state, and national beekeeping issues, as well as a monthly general membership meeting with seasonally appropriate presentations, to keep everyone on the cutting edge. keep abreast of the art, science and practice of beekeeping.
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Words of Advice
Before you jump into beekeeping and order a box of bees, Finnern recommends educating yourself as much as possible. Here are his top five pieces of advice for getting started with beekeeping.
Tip 1: Read. Read. Read
Finnern recommends reading and watching videos about beekeeping to educate yourself to see if this is something you really want to do.
Tip 2: Take a lesson
The Memphis Area Beekeepers Association holds an annual workshop on early-stage beekeeping. The MABA Short Course has been training amateur beekeepers for 57 years. The workshop is usually given at the end of January. Visit memphisbeekeepers.com for more information.
Tip 3: Find a mentor
Finnern recommends that you find someone to work with who has been beekeeping for a while. “Think of it as an exchange,” he said. “You can help them with their hives while they help educate you about yours.”
Tip 4: Join a beekeeping organization
Finnern suggests the Memphis Area Beekeepers Association, which organizes monthly meetings and provides members with resources. “You get so much information when you talk to other beekeepers,” Finnern said, adding that one of the things he likes about the club is the diversity of its membership. “It’s really a cross-section of society.”
Tip 5: Make your own equipment
Keeping bees can be an expensive hobby. To save money, Finnern recommends building as many things as possible. For example, make your own boxes, or if you order one, buy a kit that you can assemble yourself instead of a finished box. Finnern has even built his own extractor hood from bicycle wheels and a food-grade barrel. “I enjoy it as much as the bees do,” Finnern said of making his own hives.
Finnern is also quick to add that harvesting honey is a hot, sticky mess. But as he wanders among his beehives and talks about all things bee-related, you can see that his bees bring more joy to his life than a headache — or stings.
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Jennifer Chandler is the Food & Dining Reporter at The Commercial Appeal. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @cookwjennifer.
Cooking with honey
A spoonful of local honey is a sweet treat on its own, but it’s also wonderful to use in more than just hot tea.
Susan Finnern, Mike’s wife, likes to sprinkle it over banana bread or grilled pineapple slices. Here’s her recipe for honey baked chicken.
Honey Baked Chicken
1 whole chicken (3 lbs.), diced
½ cup butter, melted
½ cup honey
¼ cup prepared yellow mustard
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon curry powder
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Place the chicken pieces in a shallow baking tray, skin side up. Mix the melted butter, honey, mustard, salt and curry powder in a small bowl. Pour the mixture over the chicken.
Bake in a preheated oven for 1¼ hours (75 minutes), basting with pan juices every 15 minutes, until chicken is golden brown and tender and juices run clear.