Business Food Locally Made

Sean Collinsworth Puts Edge Back in Beekeeping

By Lauren Stepp

Thanks to campaigns aimed at reversing ebbs in pollinator numbers, honey bees have lost their edge. Marketing materials feature adorable drones urging farmers to abandon insecticides or install hive boxes. But these six-legged creatures aren’t warm and fuzzy, and beekeeper Sean Collinsworth knows that firsthand.

“The bee colony is a highly evolved super organism that’s been around since composite flowers,” he says. “What happens in the hive makes Game of Thrones look like a kindergarten nap session. Just consider how the queen mates. She flies through some 10,000 drones (male bees). For insemination, she rips off part of the male’s abdomen, and he falls to the ground, dead.”

Collinsworth launched last winter. But before insectophobics shriek and turn the page, let it be known that his lady aviators aren’t actual killer bees. They might share a small percentage of mitochondrial DNA with scutellata, or the African variety, but most are Italian and Carniolan. (Of course, when they rear their stingers, he can feel the centuries-old aggression.)

The point here is that even Old World bees are hardcore. They communicate nectar sources in complete darkness; divide and conquer to optimize colony survival; and scout to identify possible home sites. Their mysterious efficiency is what first attracted Collinsworth to beekeeping.

“Every time I open a hive, they always amaze me,” he says. “Despite partial progress in understanding this organism, most is still unknown.”

At age 13 or 14, Collinsworth’s eighth-grade chemistry teacher got him interested in bees. He gave his colony away before college, only to revisit the business later in adulthood. His current Lake Toxaway apiary features 40 hives surrounded by 512,000 toxin-free acres of the Pisgah National Forest. He plans on expanding the apiary to accommodate 75 hives by 2018.

“That’s all I can personally handle,” he says. “Depending on the nectar flow, each hive can produce 30 pounds of honey in the spring, or wildflower flow, and up to 80 pounds of sourwood honey during the summer flow.”

Wildflower honey has a rich, bold, mineral taste. It comes on strong and finishes quickly, says Collinsworth. Sourwood honey has a unique floral taste. It has a mild beginning with a very long, caramel ending. It also fares well in whiskey sours, especially after a long day extracting honey and warding off bears. Talk about a benefit of the job.

“Our sourwood almost doesn’t taste like honey,” he says. “It’s more a syrup comparable to Vermont’s maple syrup.”

Location is key to distinguishing his sweet stuff from others on the market. Collinsworth’s bees hunt for nectar unscathed by pesticides such as neonics, an insecticide similar to nicotine. He warns against buzzwords like “free ranging bees,” “non-GMO,” “organic,” “sustainable,” “gluten-free” or “cholesterolfree,” because quality rides on real estate. If the foliage within a bee’s three-mile range is subpar, expect some inferior honey.

“It’s important to produce an authentic product,” he says. “I’m just following what I’ve been taught since an early age. My father grew up in East Tennessee and became CEO of a multinational company. He demanded moral clarity and commitment to the customer.”

He’s obviously looking to sell pure, quality honey. But he’s also promoting a certain brand. Just give his logo a gander. Designed pro bono by American illustrator Paul Kirchner, it portrays a stylized female bee that looks like she flew straight out of a vintage 1940’s pinup. With scutellata ancestry running hot through her veins, she also wields an AK-47. “She could adorn the fuselage of a B-29 bomber flying over Europe during WWII,” says Collinsworth.

She’s locked and loaded, and ready to take back an image misrepresented by nearly 40 years of Cheerios’ soft and feeling Buzz the Bee.

“It’s beautiful, and I appreciate it, but nature is not always kind,” says Collinsworth. “Bees are brutal. There’s nothing warm and fuzzy to them.”

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