ST. PAULS — David Garrett’s work environment is hostile.
He has to wear a bulky suit to protect him from his thousands of employees, who try to sting him at every turn. They are anxious to repeat the lessen they once taught him by burrowing through a tiny gap in the fabric and leaving a ring of welts in his neck.
The work can be painful and the pay is lousy, but to Garrett, the rewards are sweet.
As Garrett says, beekeeping “gets in your blood” — literally.
“We knew we were hooked when David had his phone on vibrate, and when it rang he thought a bee was in his pocket,” said Stephen Clegg, Garrett’s next-door neighbor and fellow hobbyist. They added established St. Pauls beekeeper J.K. Fisher’s number to their speed dial, bought two hives, and a how-to book.
Together, the two make up Sawmill Bee Farm, a business named after the trade they once used to supplement their income while working at Burlington Mills. The bee business sustains itself, but it’s not one that will pay the bills.
“If you’re trying to do it to get rich, you’re in it for the wrong reasons,” Clegg said.
Garrett and Clegg once cut logs for large-scale homes and wood cabins, but they now use the mill to fabricate houses for the pollen-collectors that have increased the yield of their gardens and created a product that the two are becoming known for.
They’ve also become known for their unorthodox collection methods. Unlike most beekeepers, they don’t use a smoker — a device that is designed to calm bees — or a vacuum to extract a swarm from a tree or beneath a trampoline. Their tools are a 5-gallon bucket and, well, maybe a stick they happen to see lying around.
“I remember standing in the bucket of a backhoe and David driving backwards, and I holding a 5-gallon bucket,” Clegg says as he recalls a swarm they once captured.
But when it comes to the product, they are serious. They don’t use pesticides when blooms are present. They also take care to bother the bees as little as possible, and let them continue their work.
“There are no ingredients listed on this jar because there is only one, and that’s right there on the label,” Clegg said. “If it has an ingredients list, it’s not real honey.”
The two sell it as-is, poured directly into jars with no pasteurization, a process Garrett says will remove “everything that’s good for you.”
The honey their bees produce is “graded” into light and dark — light being more sweet and more visually appealing to customers who are used to seeing a similar hue in the bear-shaped bottles that populate store shelves.
Because the color depends on what happens to be blooming at the time, a taste of honey is a taste of the season. Every bee farmer sells a different concoction, and it differs widely — much like opinions.
“Get a dozen beekeepers in a room and you’ll get 13 different opinions,” Clegg said jokingly.
One thing the two can agree on is that the lack of new interest in the profession is troubling. Many members of the Robeson County Beekeepers Association, of which they are a member, are aging, and they worry that the enthusiasm of keeping bees will not be passed on to a new generation.
“If you don’t get young people involved, then what’s going to happen?” Garrett said.
They try to make this happen my mentoring young folks interested in the business, and showing their work to schools.
“No one believes what they can do, at such a fast pace,” Clegg said.
That includes cleaning the honey off of anything and everything the two happen to leave in the bee’s sights — even from containers on the back of Garrett’s truck.
“They want to take it back home with them,” he said with a grin.