Cave Hill Historic Cemetery in the Highlands is known as the final resting place of prominent citizens from Colonel Harlan Sanders to George Rogers Clark and Muhammad Ali. It is also known as the largest cemetery in Kentucky, with a sprawling, beautiful 296-acre arboretum grounds.
What many people don’t know is a side project that Cave Hill Cemetery staff started in 2017 – beekeeping.
Turns out, the cemetery’s abundance of flowers and plants and its proximity to Beargrass Creek make it an ideal environment for honeybees.
Now Cave Hill Cemetery has about 10 active hives and produces about 900 pounds of honey per season, which runs from April to August. The honey is bottled and sold at the cemetery, with proceeds going to the Cave Hill Heritage Foundation. The honey even won a blue ribbon in the light amber honey category at the Kentucky State Fair last year.
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“The truth is honey is a great product and a huge benefit, and we’re all happy to get it, but it’s about the bees,” said Cave Hill apiarist Roger Martin. “It’s about keeping the bees around because I think they’re the most important insect on Earth.”
Martin, who works as an arborist at Cave Hill and started caring for bees in 2017, said he used to think the average price of honey was high. Now that he knows how much work it is to collect honey, he understands.
“The amount of labor required to maintain and care for bees is much more than you might expect,” he said. “So thank a beekeeper. The profitability isn’t really there, they’re doing it to keep the bee population up.”
He also stressed that not all bees are scary or “should be crushed the moment you see them”.
“If it’s a warm, sunny day, bees will be busy doing what bees are doing,” he said.
Not far from the cemetery’s Baxter Avenue entrance is a forest clearing covered in gravel and lined with logs. A sign warns guests against entering “the bee zone,” where 10 hives are lined up.
On a recent breezy summer Wednesday, Martin went out to check his hives, wearing honey-colored gloves, a mesh-lined hat and a protective jacket. He walked to the third box in the row of beehives and carefully took off the lid to peek inside.
“Ah, look at this, this is a good one,” Martin said, pulling a frame from the basket. “I’m so excited to see this number of bees here!”
Hives are usually made with two or three boxes stacked on top of each other. The lower tank is the deeper “brood tank” where the queen bee lives and produces up to 3,000 eggs per day. Then a queen lockout, a wooden frame with small holes in it, goes on top to prevent the queen from going to the ‘medium supers’, where worker bees make honey. Each “super” has 10 slots for frames, which are slowly loaded with honey.
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The third box was a special match, Martin said, as they were caught in a swarm near the grave of revered boxer Muhammad Ali.
“At Lonnie Ali’s request, we set up and captured a swimming trap near the grave earlier this year,” Martin said. “Look, the box even has a terrible rendition of a boxing glove. I’m really proud of these bees.”
How the hives grew
Cave Hill’s beehive program has grown from about three to ten, said Michael Higgs, manager of the Cave Hill Foundation.
“From where we started keeping hives, we’ve expanded by adding more pollinator gardens, changing what and where we plant, and adding a honey house to the property,” Higgs said. “The program is running exceptionally well and it fits so well with our commitment to advancing our own sustainability practices.”
Cave Hill isn’t the only historic bee-keeping cemetery, either. Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri, and West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania, keep bees.
In New York, Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx makes honey and Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn produces honey called “The Sweet Hereafter.”
The honey program at Cave Hill Cemetery began when Rodolfo Bernal, independent beekeeper and partner of Cave Hill, began caring for the hives at Cave Hill and then encouraged the cemetery staff to develop their own beekeeping team. He has mentored Cave Hill apiarist Roger Martin for the past five years and continues to assist with Cave Hill’s honeybee program.
“I wanted to prove that urban bees produce twice as much honey as land bees,” Bernal said. “In the city, people have a variety of plants and they take care of the plants. So all season long there is more honey in the city than there is honey on the land.”
Bernal said it is beneficial to buy local, raw honey because the pollen that many people are allergic to is present in locally produced honey. Eating the honey on a regular basis means a person is essentially taking “shots” of the allergen in small, manageable doses to build an immunity. But commercially produced honey loses many of its health benefits and flavors when it is filtered, heated to high temperatures and transported long distances.
‘On to the bees’
Cave Hill’s beekeeping team collects honey three or four times a season, Martin said, with the biggest honey yield — more than 400 pounds — coming in July. Once filtered and bottled, Cave Hill honey is sold at the Heritage Foundation office and Cave Hill headquarters in 8-ounce ($10) and 16-ounce ($13) bottles. Some people even buy it as gifts for mourners burying a loved one at Cave Hill Cemetery.
Martin said he would like to expand their honey production, but it is a difficult crop to predict and extremely time consuming to process.
“It’s really, to be completely honest, up to the bees,” Martin said. “I try to repeat my habits from season to season, but sometimes they don’t stop making honey and sometimes it’s a little less. Inevitably, anyone who wants a jar of honey can get one.”
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Features reporter Dahlia Ghabour covers food, dining trends and restaurants in the Louisville area. Send tips on new places or story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org or follow on Twitter @dghabour.