“2 years ago, if you’d said I’d become a beekeeper, I’d call you bonkers,” Noel Patterson says.
Noel had sold wines for 15 years. He loved the friendships he’d made with restaurateurs and the fun of tasting and talking about wines.
In 2008, his then girlfriend, an organic farmer, built him a bee hive (a wooden box with frames hanging inside) for a birthday present. His reaction? “This is crazy. I live in the middle of downtown Tucson across from the high school football stadium. I have no idea what to do with this thing. But I had to be a good boyfriend, so I learned.”
It helped that his girlfriend had also found him a mentor to teach him the basics and “bail me out of trouble.”
Noel says, “It was 3 years before I figured out what I was doing.” Once he did, he began showing his honey to restaurant contacts. One of them, who had a restaurant in the historic 4th Avenue district, had kumquat and lemon trees in his yard. He tasted Noel’s honey and said, ‘This is fabulous. Let’s put it on the menu.’”
Noel reminded him he only had one hive; the honey would run out in a few weeks.
“He wouldn’t take no for an answer. The next season he said: What do I have to do to get you to sell me?”
It would cost $300 to build a second hive, Noel said, if he built it himself. His client wrote him a check. Word spread. 48 hours later, another restaurant owner called. “I hear you’re selling Peter honey. I want in.” In the next couple of months, 11 more calls.
Before he knew it, Noel had 6 six aviaries (bee yards), about 25 hives, 11 sponsors, and was producing about 550 lbs. a year. He bottled honey for clients and printed their names on the label. He charged restaurants his costs, and continued supporting himself selling wine.
Two years ago, he received a call from Miraval—the luxury spa my daughters-in-law and I visit each year. Miraval was creating a sustainability committee; would Noel advise them? “I figured it was a temporary whim; they didn’t really mean it. But I was wrong. Miraval’s very mindful. I met with them for 2 hours and came away with a plan to put a few hives on their property.”
Months later, Noel became Miravai’s resident beekeeper and began conducting programs. He teaches classes to Miraval guests and escorts students in beekeeper suits to tastings of honey right from the hive. Honey flavor depends on where bees get nectar. Apple tree honey tastes different than strawberry plant honey. “Honey has a sense of place,” Noel says. Honey from a hive in his backyard tastes different than honey from his friend’s yard a mile away.
After taking Noel’s class, I have new respect for honey bees. They enter and leave the hive through a hole in a bottom board and fly up to 3 miles. They bring a drop of nectar back to the hive, put it into a cell and fan it until it’s dry. If the comb is full, bees have a gland in their abdomens that makes wax to start another comb.
How’s your sense of direction? (Mine’s not so hot, though I always manage to find my way to Neiman Marcus.) Bees excel at directions. Scout bees clue hive mates into their latest discovery by performing a “waggle” dance. The dance indicates the direction and distance to a new food source. If a bee dances up or down the honey comb, she shows the angle toward or away from the sun. How much time she waggles tells the distance of the food source. If she buzzes loudly and excitedly, other bees know she’s found a bonanza. (Anyone want to waggle with me?)
Of about 4000 species of bees, honey bees are most susceptible to parasitic mites that spread diseases. Conventional beekeeping is chemically intensive. Noel raises his honey bees organically, which he thinks makes them better able to recover when sick.
The queen bee mates once in her life but lays thousands of eggs every day. She is “the reproductive organ” of the colony. When she starts to fail, the worker bees choose another queen.
Noel now has 74 hives (soon to be 130) in 8 locations around Tucson. Consuming honey, he says, has cleared up his allergies. Though he’s been stung many hundreds of times, it’s a price he’s willing to pay. His advice to honey lovers: Buy local. Look for raw honey. If it crystallizes, eat it in that form. Heating honey, he says, destroys its “nuanced flavors.”
Thanks, Noel, for a fascinating peek into one of nature’s sweetest phenomena.