Hive Minds: How bees are inspiring food purveyors, artists, and policy wonks

Honeybees on Aster flowers // Photo courtesy Ames Farm

A honey bee on Aster flowers // Photo courtesy Ames Farm

Rawest Form of Honey Making a Comb-Back

From peanut butter toast for breakfast to a hot toddy for breakf… a nightcap, a drizzle of honey makes everything better. And while local honey farmers have built a cottage industry around that spoonful of sugar, one farm is harvesting something a little less refined.

Ames Farms is an eight-acre honey farm on the northwest corner of Oak Lake, just outside of Watertown, Minnesota. They are best known for their single-source honey, but this year’s harvest came with an added bonus. “We have had an amazing year for honeycomb,” says Sarah Mogilevsky, general manager of Ames Farms, “which does not always happen.”

Raw honeycomb is exactly what it sounds like: waxy, porous comb cut right from the hive, dripping with unprocessed honey. While it may be new to some consumers, it’s actually a bit of a throwback. Before modern extraction processes became streamlined, apiarists would pull, cut, and package raw honeycomb to sell. Ames Farms is reaching back to that time and bringing it into present-day spotlight.

A beekeeper checks a frame for honey at Ames Farm // Photo courtesy Ames Farm

A beekeeper checks a frame for honey at Ames Farm, near Watertown, Minnesota // Photo courtesy Ames Farm

So how exactly do you consume raw honeycomb? You just eat it, man.

“My favorite,”Mogilevsky says, “is to eat the honeycomb until all that is left is the wax, and [then] chew it like gum.” She adds that it’s great on ice cream—which sounds about as delightful as it gets.

Turns out, plenty of other people—and craft food, beer, and spirit establishments—think so, too. Ames Farms’ raw honeycomb has appeared all over the Twin Cities. It currently stars on cheese plates at Surly Beer Hall and Restaurant Alma in Minneapolis, as well as on the lunch and dinner menus of Prairie Kitchen & Bar at the Hyatt Regency Minneapolis.

Beyond commercial establishments, Ames Farms also makes regular appearances at the Minneapolis and Mill City Farmers’ Markets, plus a swarm of coops, grocery stores, and shops in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and around the country.

Local Beekeepers Giving Pollinators a Big Leg Up

Chiara Bolton checks a frame of one of The Solar Honey Company's boxes at a Connexus Energy solar array // Photo by Matthew Gorrie

Chiara Bolton checks a frame of one of The Solar Honey Company’s boxes at a Connexus Energy solar array // Photo by Matthew Gorrie

Solar energy is widely considered to be the gold standard of renewable energy. Unfortunately, many of these solar farms take away valuable real estate from pollinators.

Instead of the grass that would naturally grow there, “cheap turf or gravel is placed under the panels,” says Chiara and Travis Bolton, professional beekeepers and owners of Bolton Bees and the Solar Honey Company.

In an effort to change that, the Boltons are working to convince big solar developers to ditch the turf and gravel and plant a mix of deep-rooted native plants and flowers instead—aka, the ideal climate for bees, butterflies, birds, and other pollinators—a practice which has been done for years in places like the U.K. and Germany.

Most solar developers, it turns out, don’t need much convincing. In addition to being a better use of the land and enriching the soil, the natural approach also requires much less maintenance. And the benefit to bees is immense. “One acre of pollinator-friendly habitat is equivalent to 600 6-by-12-foot gardens,” Chiara says. “And these solar farms are usually 30 to 40 acres.”

While this may seem like a no-brainer, at a recent renewable energy conference in Santa Clara, California, the Boltons, St. Paul–based Fresh Energy, and staff from The Ray, were the only ones promoting the idea. The Boltons, Fresh Energy, and several pollinator advocacy groups have since been in talks with developers across the country to gain more traction in better integrating the complementary fields of pollinator-friendly habitat and solar energy.

Some of the trademarked SolarHoney products the Solar Honey Company offers // Photo by Matthew Gorrie

Some of the trademarked SolarHoney products made by the Solar Honey Company // Photo by Matthew Gorrie

To try the Bolton’s trademarked SolarHoney—and support their mission—you can buy their products from their website or swing by Corazon (Minneapolis and St. Paul locations) or the Seasoned Specialty Food Market in St. Paul.

Also keep an eye out for 56 Brewing’s limited-release Solarama Crush IPA. The 6.1 percent ABV IPA features a bouquet of Zeus, Citra, Loral, and Enigma hops along with some specialty grains and a hefty helping of SolarHoney—over half an ounce per pint. While they ran out quickly after its debut on May 18, a limited number of Crowlers may still be available at select Whole Foods and liquor store locations around town, including Surdyk’s. 56 Brewing is already planning another run of the beer for next spring.

Turning a Buzz into a Tune

Rae Howell holds a microphone close to a beehive, recording the sounds the bees make as they swarm around the hive // Photo courtesy Rae Howell

Rae Howell holds a microphone close to a beehive, recording the sounds the bees make as they swarm around the hive // Photo courtesy Rae Howell

 Most people don’t associate the sound of buzzing bees with positive or calming emotions. But Australian musician and composer Rae Howell hears things differently, going so far as to feature Minnesota’s finest pollinators in her latest project.

In 2014, Rae was working on a couple solo albums in Minnesota when she became enchanted with the sound of bees buzzing around her recording engineer’s backyard. She turned this fascination into action and reached out to the University of Minnesota’s Bee Research Lab to help her capture the sound and identify the frequency of bees’ wings. The result was an experimental orchestra project called “Bee-Sharp.”

During field research, Rae and the researchers discovered that the bees buzzed at a frequency almost equivalent to the note of C (or B sharp…get it?). Rae used this discovery to create an entire musical experience: a 20-minute orchestration featuring stringed instruments mimicking the sound of bees, plus an accompanying mini-documentary and illustrated series of graphic scores.

In addition to collaborating with the University of Minnesota and performing at the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board’s Pollinator Party last summer, Rae chose Minneapolis’ own Laurels String Quartet to workshop, record, and debut “Bee-Sharp.”

“I heard a couple of creative friends in Minnesota had worked with them before,” Rae explains when asked how she got connected with the quartet. “And they seemed like a great fit—curious and keen to be involved.”

The documentary short premiered at the MSP Film Festival in Minneapolis in April, and was screened June 1 at the Duluth Superior Film Festival. It will be shown again on August 11 at the Square Lake Film & Music Festival.

Correction: Boltons Bees was not the only attendee at the Santa Clara conference discussing building pollinator habitat in solar gardens. Fresh Energy and The Ray also spoke on the topic.