Solomon and the bees

bee-rtDribble it, drizzle it and slather it on toast, fresh fruit, into smoothies, marinades, coffee: Cayman’s all abuzz about Reagan’s Honey.

The only product made by insects that humans eat, honey is harvested by bee-loving duo Jamaal and Chandra Solomon, who are part of the global phenomenon making backyard beekeeping hip.

Named after their daughter, the Savannah-based couple’s delicately scented honey has only been selling a few short months but is already garnering rave reviews. Packed with antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, honey is one of nature’s wonders.

Forget visions of elderly spouses in Birkenstocks, indulging in a genteel post-retirement hobby. This pair are photogenic thirtysomethings with an active young family and high-powered jobs. Since stumbling upon beekeeping, quite ironically, while on honeymoon a few years ago, they now have seven hives and a small but growing side business.

Each hive is home to one queen (around two and a half times the size of worker bees), thousands of workers and hundreds of large and less active drone bees. Jamaal reckons that each hive houses up to 15,000 bees.

bee-lt“Our first daughter provided the inspiration for the name of our honey,” Jamaal explains. “She’s two and a half now and Vera’s one, so we’re quickly trying to come up with more ideas,” he quips.

Talking about how they started out, Jamaal said, “We went on an excursion to a honey emporium while in Georgia, and were amazed and fascinated by the complexities in the variety of honey and honey bees.”

The sweet impression was a lasting one and it wasn’t long before the Solomons were stung into action to turn their beekeeping dreams into reality.

Armed with heaps of enthusiasm, plenty of research and lofty hopes of breaking into the boutique honey business, they enrolled on an apiculture short-course at the University of Florida’s Bee College in St. Augustine to become certified beekeepers.

In the two years since then they’ve perfected their artisanal craft, selling mainly online via their Facebook and Instagram pages. Tending bees couldn’t be more different from their hectic day jobs in finance and law. And, what started out as a way of producing honey for themselves and for friends is turning into a promising cottage industry.

This year’s February harvest of Reagan’s Honey yielded 20 pounds of honey. Their summer harvest is predicted to yield 50 pounds. And, by next year they think that extra hives, along with their already established mature hives, will produce around 250 pounds of the sweet stuff.

honey

Flight of the bumble bees

A feature at local farmers markets, like wine, chocolate, coffee and cheese, honey has become very trendy, with people eager to sample new and different varieties.

Honey is graded on consistency, color, fragrance and flavor. With thousands of varieties, their profiles depend largely on “terroir” – an interplay of environmental factors, such as land, weather and what agricultural creatures feed on, that influences its flavor.

bee-rt “Reagan’s Honey is 100 percent natural Cayman wildflower,” Chandra says. “Depending on the season, the flavor profile and consistency of the honey will vary.”

Enjoyed for its fluid, syrupy texture, Reagan’s Honey is known for its deep amber hue and sometimes takes on a slight citrusy aftertaste when harvested in spring, as a result of the local citrus and palm blossoms the bees forage on. The honey from the summer harvest can take on a warm, woody aftertaste, due to the prevalence of mangrove blossoms and local shrubs during that season.

solomonChandra notes that their honey bees forage on basil, mint, banana sucker, Jasmine hedge, Spanish needle, coconut and Spanish elm, as well as the profusion of flowers of ornamental plants and bushes in private gardens.

Reagan’s Honey is harvested after the major blooms finish in spring (end of March), summer (end of July) and occasionally in the fall (September – October). Spring in the tropics starts early, as soon as Logwood trees bloom, and is over by the end of March. At the close of the season, honey bees forage less pollen and the brood cycle is not as intense.

Humming with activity

The Solomons regularly inspect their hives to check for pests like ants, noting the health of the colony and looking to see how much honey is being stored. Once the screens in the honey supers in each hive are almost full, the harvest begins in earnest. Looking after each colony is important, Chandra says, as poorly maintained hives can lead to absconding swarms, where a whole colony up and leaves a hive for good.

Once 75 percent of the frames in the honey supers are capped with honey they are cleared, frame-by-frame, in the home-based extraction room. The capping on top of the honey is removed and the raw produce is drawn out of the honeycombs with a hand-cranked manual extractor. The machine’s centrifugal force filters the honey into bottling buckets while getting rid of propolis, a kind of bee glue used by the workers to seal cracks in honeycombs. Filtering then begins.

bee-lt“We only filter the honey once to get rid of natural debris, so as to retain its fully natural health benefits by keeping it in its most pollen-rich organic state,” Chandra explains. “We then let it sit for up to a day before bottling and labeling each batch.”

Honey yields are weather dependent. Good weather encourages plant growth and more flowers which in turn means more nectar. Extreme heat and too much rainfall limits the amount of daylight available for bees to forage and kills many of the plants from which they extract nectar and pollen.

Swarming season in Cayman peaks from March to July. Jamaal and Chandra take advantage of this naturally occurring phenomenon to grow their apiary by capturing wild bees.

“People will often call asking us to help rid them of a swarm in or around their property,” Jamaal says. “We help if we’ve the time, as we’d rather rescue bees than let them be eradicated.

“Beekeeping is never boring as the bees are highly intelligent, super social insects,” he adds. “What started off as a field trip has turned into an all-consuming passion whose rewards we can enjoy and share with everyone.”

And what does Reagan Solomon think of Reagan’s Honey?

“She’s got a sweet tooth, which is just as well as she’s being raised on it as a natural sugar substitute,” says Chandra.