Local beekeepers are buzzing with excitement after winning first place in the country with their honey.
Hometown Honey, a local family-run beekeeping business in Kennesaw, took home the blue ribbon for their light amber honey at the 2016 National American Beekeepers Federation conference in Jacksonville.
“I just would have been happy with third place,” said founder Brian Higgins. “It was pretty wild.”
Higgins started beekeeping back in 1997 as a hobby because he wanted to grow better fruits and vegetables.
“I needed the bees to do the pollination,” he said, and they started with three hives in their back yard.
His wife, Kim, said when he first approached her about raising bees, “I thought the man was crazy. I called my insurance company to make sure he wasn’t upping my life insurance since I was allergic to bees.”
That next spring though, she said her mind was changed because “we had more tomatoes than we knew what to do with. That’s what amazed me because I didn’t know anything about honey bees. To me, the only good bee was a dead bee. Now, there can be 10,000 bees and I’ll walk right through them.”
After surviving a near fatal motorcycle accident in ’97, Brian Higgins’s hobby turned into a full-fledged family business and today, those three hives have turned into 11 bee yards across Cobb, Cherokee, Paulding and Bartow counties.
After 19 years, Kim Higgins called the business “a blessing.”
Their son, Branden Moore, who was seven at the time of the accident, took care of the bees while his dad was in the hospital and won the Junior Beekeeper of the Year from the Georgia State Beekeeper’s Association in 1998.
Brian Higgins said working on the business allowed them to “focus and diversify.”
“We weren’t just doing honey. We wanted to do candles and other products like lip balms,” he said. “We were just trying to do a lot of different things.”
A SWEET SUCCESS
Today, Hometown Honey produces two kinds of honey, candles and lip balm that sell in 70 stores and six different farmers markets including markets in Marietta, Kennesaw and Lost Mountain.
Their hives are kept on local farmers’ land and Brian Higgins and his seven employees care for the bees and harvest the honey and beeswax.
“Nothing is wasted,” Brian Higgins said. “If we break a jar of honey, it goes outside and the bees clean it up.”
Higgins said he meets many of the farmers who host his hives at local farmers market and festivals.
“I don’t approach them. They come to me,” he said.
Hometown Honey has also started teaming up with other local business to produce specialty products.
“We gave Emily’s Kitchen in Decatur a gallon of our honey and we wanted to do a toffee. It’s a honey pecan toffee … it’s absolutely fabulous,” said Higgins.
They have also partnered to produce soaps and a ginger infused honey with Verdant Kitchens in Savannah that was featured on Oprah’s magazine as one of her top 25 gifts.
In Marietta, the Strand Theater uses Hometown Honey in some of their specialty cocktails.
CARING FOR THE BEES, HARVESTING HONEY
With all of their different products, harvesting honey and caring for the bees is a full-time job. Brian Higgins and his team build all of their own boxes and do their best to make it out to each bee yard three to four times each week.
“Bees are like cattle or chickens or horses — you have to work them,” he said, explaining that about every 13 days, new queens would typically take half of the bees from the hive to find a new home.
“Once they run out of space in a tree, they get hot, stuffy and crowded and it’s time to split and half of them have to go. It’s the same thing with a bee hive, it’s just like a tree.”
Higgins said his team will go out before that process happens to remove honey boxes that are full and replace them with two new ones, “like adding a room onto your house.”
The bees collect pollen to feed their young and nectar to create honey, the only food source for adult bees. Another group of bees flap their wings to dry the nectar that becomes honey. Once complete, the bees seal the honey with wax “like a Tupperware bowl,” said Kim Higgins.
Different flowers produce different kinds of honey, and Higgins said there are 860 kinds of honey produced in the United States with 12 produced in Georgia.
Hometown Honey harvests the bees’ work using machines that spin the combs “like bicycle wheels,” said Brian Higgins, and throws honey to the sides of the barrel so it can run to the bottom to be collected.
After being screened to filter out pieces of wax, the honey is put into jars and the wax is used to create candles and other products.
BENEFITS OF HONEY, SETBACKS
Because of the nutrients, vitamins and anti-oxidants from the pollen, honey produced by the bees can help many people with allergies, and some with arthritis even sting themselves purposefully because the honey bees’ venom contains anti-inflammatories.
Even Kim Higgins said that despite her allergy, a sting from a honey bee does not require her to be hospitalized because of the different kind of poison in the bee’s stinger.
“To me, that’s rewarding to have someone say, ‘Thank you, my kid was on these over the counter medicines and now they don’t have to take anything anymore,’” she said. “It’s amazing what it does.”
However, despite their success, Brian Higgins explained that spraying pesticides can spread disease to the bees and can pollute water sources nearby.
“Everyone is spraying their lawns, that’s my biggest problem around here,” he said. “The dandelions, the clover, the chickweed — those are all flowers that the bees go to. They spray in the morning or in the afternoon when the bees are out flying and they land on that dandelion and get in the poison and they get sick and die.”
Higgins also lost nearly $60,000 worth of bees just last year when someone stole his hives.
Additionally, some people keep bees in their backyard thinking it will help the population, but because they don’t care for them properly, the bees can migrate to the walls of the home.
“They throw them in the box and they leave them there because they don’t know what they’re doing, and they’re afraid of them, or they just don’t have the time,” Higgins said.
He explained that bees can take residence in the cedar siding of homes and produce about 300 pounds of honey and combs in the walls that can cost between $500 and $2,500 to remove.
Yet through these difficulties, Hometown Honey has remained, and their honey has shipped all over the country and even China.
“It’s nice to have a family business that everybody loves. Everybody loves our product and it’s not like we push it. It sells itself,” Kim said.
Daughter Sandra Wilson, who has worked with the bees since she was nine, said she “loves it” and as a stay-at-home mom, working with the business is like “a vacation.”
Moore, who acts as the manager for the business, said “I see a lot of people and you tell them what you do and they say ‘Oh you’re Hometown Honey? I grew up using Hometown Honey.’”
Higgins and his wife hope to eventually retire and allow their children and seven grandchildren to continue the business.