Sweet Tradition

July 6, 2015

Lanny Damerson, left, and Jordin Moore move beehives May 19 in Martinsville. Damerson and Moore help maintain the 500 hives Hunters Honey uses to make their honey.– Isaac Smith
Lanny Damerson, left, and Jordin Moore move beehives May 19 in Martinsville. Damerson and Moore help maintain the 500 hives Hunters Honey uses to make their honey.– Isaac Smith

“Our methods are still the same,” – Tracy Hunter

Walking through the honey house brings back a flood of memories for Tracy Hunter. He recalls just learning to walk and going through his grandfather’s honey house just as he was cutting honeycomb. All it takes is the smell of fresh honey to take him back to that place, teeth stuck with beeswax from the sweet honeycomb his grandfather would give him.

Tracy, owner of Hunter’s Honey Farm in Martinsville, says his business, though bigger in scope, operates much the same way his father and grandfather’s did.

“Our methods are still the same. The way my grandfather showed me to keep bees, the way that my grandfather showed me to process the honey, we are still doing it the same way we did 100 years ago,” Tracy says.

Beekeeping runs deep in his family. Tracy, a third-generation beekeeper (his son recently became the fourth), says the tradition goes back to 1910 when his great-grandfather needed bees for his Booneville orchard. His son, Gilbert Perigo took up the challenge. The tradition has since passed through the generations with Tracy taking the torch when he was just 14.

“My grandfather got me my first hive,” he says. “We caught a swarm in Mooresville, In. and I have been a beekeeper ever since.” Bees have since played a roll in most of his major relationship, even with his wife.

“I have memories of us just as we were dating and she would help me work the bees,” he recalls. He adds that some of his fondest memories with his father are when the two would transport bees late into the evening.

While Tracy is carrying on a family legacy, he also sees his work as a beekeeper to be of significant social importance.

“Today, honey bees are so vital to the pollination of our fruits that we say every third bite of food that we eat is requiring a honey bee to pollinate it,” he says, adding that this is not limited just to produce, but meat as well. Tracy uses the example of cows eating alfalfa, which is pollinated by bees.

There is one way, though, raising bees is different for Tracy than it was for his father or grandfather. Since the mid 1980’s, honeybees have been on the decline in the US due to parasitic mites, viruses that are carried by the mites, beetles, pesticides, and genetically modified plants, particularly Round-Up Ready soybeans.

“I work closely with the farmer” – Tracy Hunter

“We struggle with hive death … every year,” Tracy admits. For years he tried every way possible to fight mites and decided in 2000, in an effort to keep his honey chemical and additive free, using preventative methods with hive construction was his best bet. Chemical pesticide kills are a different matter, though.

A large part of Tracy’s business comes from pollination contracts with farmers. However, in recent years has had to be far more vigilant in where he puts his bees.

“I work closely with the farmer. Before I put any hives on their property, I listen to their practices,” Tracy says. He not only has to be careful of the farm he contracts with but its neighboring farms within 3 miles as well. He says drift from pesticides applied by air made for his biggest hive loss of 100 hives.

“It is heartbreaking,” Tracy says of opening a dead hive.

Honeybees did not arrive here until European settlers brought them. Before this, food grown here was pollinated by the likes of bumblebees, moths, and hummingbirds. As the population grew and agriculture with it, so did the need for bees. At its current scale, Tracy says finding enough native pollinators to pollinate the nation’s food supply would be a stretch. If bees continue to be on the decline, food would still exist, Tracy believes, but just in a very different way. The natural pollinators that were here hundreds of years ago would not be able to keep up with modern agriculture the way honeybees do.

“I believe that we will continue to have food if something were to happen even worse to the honeybees, but it might change a few things,” says Tracy. He says everything from yield to produce aesthetic would change.

One way to combat this, Tracy says, is through education. He gives full tours of his honey operation to the public. This not only highlights the issues with honeybee health, but also helps consumers learn about real, natural honey and for Tracy, a smarter customer is no bad thing. He says keeping one thing in mind when shopping for honey will help ensure customers get a good product.

“I don’t care who you buy your honey from, as long as you know the bee keeper’s face,” Tracy says. He explains this will help the consumer know they are not buying super-filtered imported honey, which has been stripped of its nutritional value and can even be adulterated with corn syrup.

Even with the stresses of bee population decline, hive loss, and the changing food landscape, Tracy and his crew find immense joy in their work. For Tracy, it helps illuminate the magic in the world.

“My favorite time of the year is when we are driving through an apple orchard with a load of bees on and the apple trees are in full bloom, the dew is still on the petals,  the sun is just coming over the horizon, the bees aren’t quite yet awake, and so they are not mobile,” Tracy says with a smile on his face. “It’s just a beautiful, beautiful moment. It’s just like the earth is coming alive.”