by April Lisante
Kathy May is highly allergic to bees. When the Evergreen Avenue retiree landed in the emergency room three years ago with a violent sting, she got tested and made the startling discovery.
So every month now, she goes to the doctor to get a shot of bee venom to boost her immunity to the critters.
She has to, after all. She is one of Chestnut Hill’s most prolific beekeepers.
“’I like being a beekeeper,’ I told the doctor, ‘so what do I do?’” laughed May.
For May, one of about 170 local beekeepers, it is her passion and a joy to watch her bees each day.
Every morning, when the sun kisses their hives in her backyard, the bees emerge and fly for miles to gather nectar, returning only at dusk when the sun dips below the horizon.
In all, there are more than 100,000 Italian honey bees tucked away in May’s bucolic backyard oasis, and this month, they are at the peak of their honey- making duties.
“They are all well-behaved women,” said May of the female gatherers, honey bees called Apis Mellifera in the insect world. “In my opinion, they hang out all day at the Morris Arboretum.”
This month, the bees are busiest, feeding from local trees and flower blossoms before the flora disappear in the heat of the summer. By July 4, May will spend hours every day harvesting the honey they have created, tucked away neatly in hive boxes, where frames of honeycombs are created.
It is a labor of love. May, a board member and public relations aficionado for the Philadelphia Beekeepers Guild, doesn’t sell her honey – she gives it away. Like many local beekeepers, it is a hobby for her, one she fell in love with six years ago after leaving the corporate world of McDonald’s in Chicago and finding a home in Chestnut Hill.
“When I retired here from Chicago, I had a friend who had put hives in my yard in Chicago,” said May. “So when I got here, I thought, ‘Let me try this,’ and I fell in love with honey bees.”
She quickly found a fraternal connection with dozens of locals like her from Glenside to Roxborough, Chestnut Hill to Bala Cynwd, who keep bees year-round in their backyards.
The annual ritual begins in April “on tax day,” May said. Bees who have feasted on up to 60 pounds of leftover honeycombs all winter emerge from the hives when trees and flowers begin to bloom, and travel as far as three to four miles each day to gather nectar. This continues throughout the spring and reaches its peak this month, when, in beekeeper lingo, “The Flow is On!”
May’s yard, a horticulturalist’s dream tucked behind her Evergreen Avenue colonial, isn’t mainly where the bees feast. They travel all day and manage to return home each night.
“I could never plant enough food in this one yard to feed all of my bees,” she said.
The honeycombs that are harvested by July 4 are extracted from the hives on wooden frames, and can be up to two inches thick and weigh up to five pounds each. May carefully uses a knife to peel away the wax outer layer then places the honeycomb frame in a centrifugal spinner, which whips all of the honey into a basin.
How light or dark the honey ends up being is simply a matter of what varieties of blossoms the bees have tasted. For example, a Bucks County variety is dark, whereas bees from Glenside dine on lighter colored blooms. Once jarred, the honey is unlike grocery store honey. It is thick and cloudy, and may even include bits of pollen.
After tasting several of the regional varieties, it is apparent that they do have very subtle differences in sugar content, not necessarily in mouthfeel. The Philadelphia Beekeepers Guild does have a few members who sell their honey, including Phillybased Instar Apiaries, which is sold in Weaver’s Way. The company produces a golden, thick variety perfect for topping a goat cheese or spreading on toast.
“Commercial honey has been pasteurized with heat so it stays in a liquid form,” said May. “Honey doesn’t need to be pasteurized. In its natural, raw state, it has antibacterial qualities and healing properties.”
When this month ends, and the bees rest for a spell, May will look forward to the fall when a “fall flow” of honey will be produced thanks to goldenrod, asters, teal trees and knotweed, a roadside weed bees happen to adore.
“I’m not an entomologist, and I’m not a honey person,” said May “I just think they are truly amazing creatures.”
April Lisante, former food editor at the Philadelphia Daily News, is a resident of Flourtown. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org