Ryan “Mac” McDonald and Bobby Thanepohn were pretty chill for a couple of fellows sitting near thousands and thousands of stinging insects.
It was early October. Rain was making quiet threats overhead and a breeze was picking up. On a hillside overlooking a little mountain road near Dahlonega, the pair of beekeepers surveyed their apiary — the name given to a collection of beehives, and which is quite unlike an aviary, where birds are kept — lazing in tailgating chairs parked next to a couple of pickups and waiting for this interview, unconcerned about the honey bees wafting to and fro.
But they wouldn’t be concerned, would they, as a couple of experienced beekeepers who run what is now the award-winning honey company Bobbee MacBees — not to mention they’re military veterans who have seen worse than the business-end of a bug.
Three years of fine-tuning their company paid off this year, as they left the Georgia Beekeepers Association annual conference this September with a first place for their amber honey, creamed honey (which isn’t what you think it is) and their beeswax block (which is exactly what you think it is).
The awards are the latest accolades for the business, which has focused on staying small-scale — almost underground, outside of a skinny website and an Instagram account — and making some of the best honey products in North Georgia.
McDonald a custom home builder and Thanepohn a software designer, they have together turned their backyard hobbies into a busy business run almost entirely out of the Canton Farmers Market in Cherokee County, though McDonald lives in Cumming and Thanepohn in Ball Ground.
The pair have hives in a few places around North Georgia, including their Dahlonega site.
In early October, they explained their craft while waiting to inspect their apiary. The site had no address and amounted to a few wooden boxes that would be unassuming were they not surrounded by electrical fence and venom.
It was placed there for its proximity to Etowah Meadery and the sourwood flowers that allow bees to produce the popular variety of North Georgia honey.
Varietals are a tricky project for beekeepers. Certain locations and setups encourage bees to go for a certain kind of pollen and nectar, and if 50 percent-plus-one of their honey comes from a specific source, it becomes a varietal and often carries a premium.
So, with their Dahlonega location, does Bobbee MacBees sell sourwood honey?
“‘No’ is the short answer,” said McDonald, chuckling.
Bees are funny critters — just as you might prefer a plate of fettuccine Alfredo to a steak dinner (if you have terrible tastes) they have their own preferences among flowers, McDonald explained.
“Bees fly up to 3 miles away seeking out nectar, Thanepohn said. “A 3-mile radius means a 6-mile diameter circle.” Or 28 square miles.
“It’s hard for anybody to control 28 square miles of anything,” Thanepohn added.
And so the bees of Bobbee MacBees visit sourwoods, yes, but they also spend time at blackberry bushes and among the clover and dandelions of the Dahlonega hills.
“Local honey is just wildflower honey,” McDonald said. “It’s kind of a catch-all.”
But what makes Bobbee MacBees honey special, and the honey of other small-scale local beekeepers, is the purity of the products, the local pollen that ends up in the honey and the attention to detail.
“Mac and I call the honey that’s in the bear ‘runny honey.’ It doesn’t compare at all — all of our honey is raw and unfiltered,” Thanepohn said. “The honey that you buy at the store has been, for all intents and purposes, pasteurized and filtered. It’s also been put together by a processor that makes blends of honey.
“At large honey processors, there’s someone who’s akin to a sommelier. They take this much clover honey and that much of that honey and that much of that honey, and they blend it together until you get that uniform golden color.”
McDonald added about heating honey: “You’ve removed a lot of what makes local honey great — all the pollen varieties that are in there, and that’s where a lot of the realized health benefits are.”
Nowhere are the differences between well-prepared local honey and store-bought clearer than with creamed honey.
Creamed honey sounds like ambrosia — some decadent mix of honey and heavy cream — but is just simple honey.
It’s about the crystals. If you’ve ever forgotten about a jar or bottle of honey in your kitchen only to find it a year or so in the back of your pantry clouded and grainy, you’ve found crystallized honey.
It was also totally fine to eat, as honey doesn’t spoil, so don’t throw it out next time.
What you saw was a natural process that occurs with almost all honey over time. Creamed honey gets a jump on that process — with a twist.
Creamed honey is created by seeding conventional, liquid honey with powder-fine crystals. Over three to four weeks and a fair bit of hand-mixing, those crystals prompt the rest of the honey to take their shape.
It might not sound like much, but the end result is the best thing you’ve probably never had.
“It’s spreadable, Thanepohn said. “If you want a peanut butter and honey sandwich, creamed honey is the way to go or else the honey is going to run out of your sandwich. It’s easier to keep on biscuits. It’s also great for dipping apples into — or pretzels.”
Here the conversation paused for a few moments as the group’s attention turned inward, wishing for pretzels.
Anyway, amber honey, like wildflower honey, is mostly a catch-all; it’s the result of a wide mix of pollen sources and is what bees are making most of during the spring, summer and fall.
“If it’s extremely dark or light it’s probably a varietal honey,” McDonald said.
In consistency and look, amber honey is as close as you’re going to get to the gooey, molasses-like honey you’re squeezing from the plastic store-bought bottle.
Beeswax block, meanwhile, is judged on its cleanliness, aroma and plasticity. Like honey, beeswax quality and character changes from season to season and year to year.
Beeswax even changes depending on its purpose in the hive; some sections of a comb are set aside for honey, while others are used for brood — raising new drones to sustain the hive.
At peak season, a queen can lay upward of 2,000 eggs each day. Those eggs are planted inside a chamber of the comb and become larvae, and those little worms will pupate by forming a cocoon around themselves inside the chamber to later emerge as bees.
If you’re thinking that sounds a little gross — it is. That’s why Thanepohn and McDonald don’t pull wax from that section of the comb. Instead, they only pull wax from the “honey capping,” Thanepohn said, or the wax bees use to cap chambers that have been filled with honey.
This is the good stuff: clean, fresh and fragrant. It can be used in balms, chapstick, lotions, even beard wax — which the goateed Thanepohn does, in fact, use from time to time.
After a while, it was time to inspect the hives. But before suiting up, McDonald and Thanepohn offered a few tips to fans of honey who might not have time to make it to a farmers market but want to try honey in a new way:
• In general, don’t spend the money on organic honey. “There is literally no place in the United States that can produce organic honey, Thanepohn said. “The bees will fly 3 — they’ll go up to 7 if they have to — but they’ll typically fly 3 miles away from their hive. There aren’t a lot of people who control 28 square miles around their hive. They have no way of knowing if their bees have hit a genetically modified nectar source, one that’s been treated with pesticides or one that’s been treated with herbicides.”
• Store-bought raw honey can indeed be raw honey, but check to see if it’s a local supplier to a national chain. Kroger and Publix carry local providers who supply true raw honey.
• For Thanepohn, who is originally from Illinois, honey is best enjoyed on Greek yogurt with bee pollen and bananas, but is excellent on English muffins. Southerners will appreciate honey over biscuits.
• If you want to expand your palate a bit, try a bit of honey drizzled over fried chicken or — and this can only be an excellent idea — try some honey with fried pork skins. “That’s a handful of tasty goodness right there,” McDonald said.
Climbing out of their folding chairs, McDonald threw on a beekeeping jacket, hood and gloves. He reacts to bee stings and opts to avoid the welts.
Thanepohn, meanwhile, was in a T-shirt and jeans. He draped a mesh shroud over his head and called it good. The girls in the hive — and they are almost exclusively female by the end of summer — are most docile in the afternoon. He also prepped a fogger, a hand-held can-and-bellows that slow-burns wood shavings for smoke that’s used to mellow the bees.
Tools in hand, the pair pried open the hive boxes, lifting racks of comb and bees out for inspection.
Ungloved and unprotected, Thanepohn lifted one rack after another, each thick with bees, out of the hives.
The whole process took only a few minutes — extended to allow for the pictures you’re seeing in this magazine — and not a stinger was felt among the group. Bees swarmed and buzzed, angling to get back into the hives as rain spattered around the hillside.
Even with most of the honey either harvested or stored away for winter inside their combs, the smell from the hives was the rich, warm scent of wax and honey.
The hives were sealed, coats were removed. The electric fence was closed and powered on. It’s used to prevent bears from getting into the hives.
If you’re hoping to get a taste of the honey from those Dahlonega hives, you’re sort of out of luck.
The site is promised to Etowah Meadery, which also uses the hillside to grow pawpaws — a story of their own for another day — and figs.
The honey produced there is going to become Georgia’s first homegrown batch of mead. The beekeepers said the meadery is using the honey to brew session mead — a lightly carbonated beverage with a lower alcohol content more like beer than wine.
As of early October, the Bobbee MacBees batch was due in a few weeks.
If it’s anything like the rest of the honey churned out by the backyard beekeepers, better try to get your hands on it sooner rather than later.