When the purple deadnettle blooms in late February, Jay Williams knows the bees are waking up.
Williams has been fascinated with the craft of growing honeybees as pollinators since learning of their plight years ago. He loves making honey, and he delights in the opportunity to inspire people to learn more about the way bees from other parts of the world interact with middle Tennessee’s native species to coax the best harvest out of the growing seasons.
The discovery for him came at a pivotal time in his own life – Williams had earned a film degree from Northwestern University and found great success as a television producer, even hosting his own popular Travel Channel show, Beach Diaries. That was two decades ago, and the trappings of Hollywood had left him unfulfilled, so he became a firefighter out there. But when his sister, who was also working in L.A. as an actor, married a star in the country music sky, Nashville became home.
“My wife showed me an article about the trouble that honeybees were in, and I was hooked,” Williams says. “I love helping people and things; that’s what led me to become a firefighter. There’s not a single day that I don’t learn something from these bees, and I never feel more connected to the Earth and to God than when I’m surrounded by 100,000 venomous insects.”
Firefighters work 48 hours on and 96 hours off, and Williams saw the opportunity to dive in on his new passion. Now as proprietor of Williams Honey Farm and master beekeeper at Southall, he’s made a second career out of protecting and revitalizing bee colonies. Here, that includes about 35 colonies and as many as 3.5 million bees that not only pollinate the plants that produce food for the dinner table, but also supply Southall with plenty of honey.
He also teaches new beekeepers all he’s learned from the experience, and working with native bees and farmers to increase yields by simply encouraging what nature has provided.
Take the mason bee, a native, gentle species with a three-month season of frenzied pollination. A colony of mason bees can increase a traditionally wind-pollinated strawberry patch’s fruit harvest by more than 200 percent, and because they very rarely sting, they’re perfect for children to interact with as well.
Whereas a honeybee colony will travel up to five miles to collect pollen and nectar to bring back to the hive, mason’s bees might only travel 300 feet, but they are highly efficient pollinators that get their spring work done before patiently hibernating in anticipation of the next season. In the Southall orchard, where nearly 1,500 apple trees rely on pollinators to ensure that the blossoms become fruit, the mason bees will make it happen. Then the leafcutter bees will emerge, helping the mason’s bees as spring becomes summer and continuing into the fall before cocooning in October.
The honeybees, on the other hand, are the workhorses of the Southall apiary.
Williams primarily nurtures a mix of two types of honeybees – an Italian and a Russian species. As one might guess, the Italians are more relaxed in temperament, lovers through and through. The Russians are tougher, known as hard workers, and a touch more aggressive in their behavior. Williams works with the bees year-round to create and manage new hives by growing and establishing queen bees.
“I raise the queen from the size of the tip of a pen, and she will grow to twice the size of the rest,” he says. “Bees are social creatures, living in a well-defined hierarchy, and each queen has her own personality. Once I find a queen I really like and take an egg from her, I’ll put it into a healthy hive that has a ton of nutrition but no queen, and the society will naturally raise a new leader.”
Once the queen is in place, Williams will stimulate the hive with heavy feeding, reading the pulse of the hive to time everything right. He says you can feel the hum and know that they’re ready to accept a new queen. Everyone has a role in a bee hive, he says, and they graduate to new jobs with greater responsibility through the season.
After 21 days as an egg, most bees will hatch as a nurse. Eighty percent of the hive is female, and the youngest of them take care of the newer babies as they’re born. Males are simply drones that serve as mates, and then quickly die off. A nurse bee could graduate to become a queen’s assistant, an undertaker (for efficient remove of the aforementioned males), or a guard bee at the door of the hive. After four weeks or so, one can become a forager who goes out and harvests the nectar, fertilizing blooms by spreading the pollen captured on their legs in the process.
“Bees are the hardest-working beings out there, flying until their wings fall off,” Williams explains. “And they’re working so hard not for their own benefit, but for the good of the family. There are so many life lessons to be learned from a bee colony.”
He sees a lot of parallels with Southall, where he’s using the bees not only to pollinate crops and harvest great honey, but to educate guests and help them understand the role that bees play in partnership with the farmers and chefs who are growing and preparing meals. Everyone has a role.
As it relates to the honey, timing is everything for Williams. Traditionally, he harvests only on July 5, as the varietal nectars captured throughout the growing season contribute to a robust flavor profile. He’s also being careful not to rob the hive of much-needed honey to survive.
“That purple deadnettle in February is the morning coffee that gets them moving, and then it’s the American elm,” he says. “The locust bloom around May 1 is the start of the official nectar flow in Tennessee, and the fireworks continue until about July 1 – basswood, clover, everything’s blooming then.”
Southall honey hits the tongue with a slight sweetness, followed by a fruity middle and a super sweet finish thanks to the late basswood nectar. Williams says he could harvest every few weeks – each colony is making 30 to 60 pounds of honey in a season – and capture a well-defined clover flavor, but the risk is that storms or other factors could leave the bees starving for honey to feed on later in the season. The July harvest allows them to wind down while building plenty of stock to get them through the long winter hibernation. Williams is excited to share every aspect of beekeeping with guests at Southall.
“It’s almost unheard of to have a beekeeper experience like we’re offering here, to be able to stay somewhere and get into a beehive, stick your finger in the honey and see and feel what it’s like to have 100,000 bees buzzing around you that are not interested in stinging,” he says. “You relax and speak quietly and they do the same.
“All of this is about a long-term strategy to protect the bees and ensure their future viability. Bees help grow the world’s food, and these experiences allow people to enjoy learning about bees, from the hive to the table, and take that knowledge and a little honey home with them. Everyone has a role.”