Bee to Bottle: Beekeeping Practices

For our second installment of the Bee to Bottle blog series, we’re talking about bees. Unlike wine and beer, which begin with humans or machines harvesting grapes and grain, mead begins with millions of these busy insects collecting nectar from flowers to make honey. We discussed the importance of quality forage in our last blog post, but this week, we’ll be taking a much closer look at our relationship with our most critical employees: the millions of honeybees who create our raw material.

Have you noticed the little “Made with honey from bees we know” tagline on our bottles? It’s more than a cute phrase; it’s a founding principle of our meadery. So what does it mean in practice?

Here at Meadiocrity Meadery, we think it’s worthwhile to really know where our honey comes from. That means we don’t buy bulk blended honey. We work a whole lot harder to get raw, unfiltered, unpasteurized, local honey. The only way to do that is to keep our own bees or develop relationships with other local beekeepers, both of which we do. We’ll explore these in greater detail below.

 Our team works to collect local San Diego mountain wildflower honey from our hives. In the foreground is a native California goldenbush,  Isocoma menziesii .

Our team works to collect local San Diego mountain wildflower honey from our hives. In the foreground is a native California goldenbush, Isocoma menziesii.

Keeping Our Own Hives

We started as backyard beekeepers and homebrewers who decided to put our hobbies together to make the most delicious combination possible: mead. Now, as a commercial meadery, we’ve built up a collection of about 50 hives so far, with many more to come. We joke about spending some quality time in the field with our beehives and a baby name book, but being on a first-name basis with 50,000+ bees in each hive (for an estimated total of around 2.5 million bees!) is pretty much impossible. However, we do know our bees.

 Nate, our resident beekeeper, prefers to tend hives without gloves.

Nate, our resident beekeeper, prefers to tend hives without gloves.

We spend time getting familiar with each hive. We like our hives to be friendly, and we’ve found that we can service our friendliest hives without gloves (and without beestings!). If a hive is temperamental, it could be a sign that the bees are stressed, or that they need more quality time with us to start building a solid relationship (see, that even goes for bees too!). Sometimes it could just be an angry hive. Some bees just have terrible personalities. We know how to handle that, too, with techniques like using extra quantities of calming smoke, visiting at times when the bees are resting, replacing an aggressive queen with a more docile one, and other little tricks.

 Hive smokers produce a cool smoke that calms bees to keep them (and us!) safe while we service their hives.

Hive smokers produce a cool smoke that calms bees to keep them (and us!) safe while we service their hives.

It’s not all bee serenades and nectar flows (although we do a lot of that, too). There is an art and a privilege to working with bees that we do not take lightly. With bee-pollinated crops contributing over $15 billion to our national economy each year and the threat of colony collapse disorder always at hand, we do our best to keep our bees healthy. We’ve found that consistent, diverse forage for a well-balanced diet, pesticide-free habitat, and keeping hives in one location as long as they have nectar available (to reduce the stress of moving) can all contribute to our hives’ wellbeing.

We get asked all the time about what is killing the bees and how we can be in the business of beekeeping. To be honest, there are a lot of factors that go into that answer, but we do not experience the same mass hive die-offs that you hear about on the news. We attribute that directly to our high standards in beekeeping, and our dedication to our hives. It’s truly a labor of love.

Beekeeping helps us give back to the community, too. We’ve formed partnerships with local farmers wherein they get critical pollination services for free (this is normally something that many farmers pay to receive, and in turn lowers their profits and drives up the cost of produce for consumers like you and me). Meanwhile, we get a chance to collect varietal honeys to use in specialty meads. We think it’s a pretty great deal for everyone involved. We also offer bee swarm removal services for our local Escondido residents, as we’re always looking to expand our hives and get bees into a safe, productive home (and out of yours!). Contact us if you’d like to learn more about partnering with us, or if you have a swarm that needs to go.

Partnering With Local Beekeepers

 Beekeeper inspecting a honey frame.

Beekeeper inspecting a honey frame.

As we’ve scaled up from our beginnings as homebrew meadmakers to the much larger commercial batches we’re running now, we’ve also scaled up our beehives and honey flow. But we don’t make enough of our own honey yet to satisfy all our production needs, so we’ve partnered up with several local, independent beekeepers to buy honey that meets our high standards. As it turns out, this helps them as much as us!

Many beekeepers in our area do not make their money from selling honey, which may be surprising (it was to us!). They actually earn most of their income from pollination services, which involves moving thousands of hives to designated fields during a particular crop’s blooming period -- California’s almond groves in the Central Valley are a prime example. The hives spend their remaining time in places around the county collecting native and farmed forage. Because the honey itself is a secondary priority, beekeepers often sell it at rock bottom prices to large honey aggregators. From there, it eventually finds its way into the nondescript honey blends you find in little squeeze bottles at the supermarket, mixed in with honey from other hives all over the country -- or even the world. Some aggregators are more ethical than others, but it is not unheard of to find a fair amount of corn syrup in your honey, as we’ll discuss in our next blog post in this series!

 Bees pollinating almond flowers.

Bees pollinating almond flowers.

By forming partnerships with beekeepers, we can ensure that our local honey stays right here, enriching our economy and eliminating the environmental impact of trucking it across the country. Our beekeeper partners get a fair price for their product and aren’t forced to sell out to the big corporations. As meadmakers, we get quality, local honey from hives we’ve visited to make mead with a distinct terroir (stay tuned for a future blog post on this subject) that reflects the forage, climate, and geography of the hives where the honey was produced. It’s a win-win-win for all of us -- you mead-lovers, included!

Final Thoughts

Knowing where your food comes from and how it is grown is important, and we feel that knowing where your honey comes from and how the bees are kept is equally important. We make this a priority. Without bees, our mead wouldn’t be here, so we are very grateful to the bees and the hard work they do in pollinating our food crops and making delicious honey. So grab a glass of mead and cheers to the bees!