Life is still plenty sweet for Flowery Branch resident Bob Bradbury — sweet as honey, some might say.
At 90, Bradbury is quite possibly the oldest apiarist in Hall County and Northeast Georgia, as he’s yet to encounter another who has him beat in loops around the sun.
He and his wife Bev, 86, have been in the bee business since 1976.
It all started in Bloomfield, New Jersey. An avid organic gardener, Bob found a kindred spirit in a fellow elder in the church he was pastoring at the time.
“One or the other of us, we don’t remember which one, said, ‘It’d be kind of fun to have a couple of beehives, wouldn’t it, for pollination?’” Bob recounted.
“We heard about a woman whose father had been a beekeeper; he had died and she wanted to get rid of (the hives). So we loaded them up and we didn’t know what we were doing, got stung all over the yin-yang. We had a borrowed pickup truck and garden gloves, but we did know enough to go after dusk so the vast majority would be back in the hives.”
In 1977, the Bradburys and their bees planted roots in western Pennsylvania, where they lived for 20 years before retiring in North Georgia.
Today, they’re still gardening, and remain experts on composting and clean eating.
The Bradburys’ backyard sprawls with about 200 varieties of flowers, 21 kinds of fruit, 40 kinds of vegetables and about 15 different herbs, all of which lend a hand in the bees’ pollination process.
“When people eat our honey, they’re getting protection from several hundred sources of nectar,” Bob said.
The Bradburys eat an organic, sugar-free diet, canning and freezing their own homegrown produce and making their own spaghetti sauce, ketchup, et cetera.
“We eat well and healthy,” Bev said. “People can’t believe we’re as old as we are. Part of it, I think, is our relationship with God — we’re very close to him — and part of it is the food we eat. We’ve been doing this for many, many years. Ever since we’ve been married, we’ve been doing an organic garden.”
Married for 64 years, Bob and Bev have been in the bee business for well over half their life together.
“We’re partners,” Bev said. “Partners in the business, partners in the faith.”
For the Bradburys, purveying honey is more than a livelihood; it’s a ministry.
When farmers market season is in full swing, their outreach touches downtown Flowery Branch on Thursdays, the Gainesville square on Fridays and Suwanee Town Center on Saturday mornings.
“We know every week when we go to these markets that we’re going to be meeting bruised and broken people,” Bob said. “A lot of them are fearful and have all kinds of needs — some unemployed, some who have cancer, all kinds of issues. So we pray on the way down, ‘Lord, lead us to somebody that needs encouragement today.’ We share Christ with people, we pray with them right there at the market, and people really appreciate that.”
They also donate some of their honey profits to missions efforts spearheaded by their church, Chestnut Mountain Presybyterian.
“We don’t believe that God wants you to just sit and do nothing. There’s many Scriptures in the Bible that we lean to,” Bev said, borrowing from Psalm 92:14: “In old age they will still bear fruit.”
Taking the passage at face value, the Bradburys said they aim to continue sharing their harvest with others for as long as they’re able.
“We plan to do that till the Lord takes us home,” Bob said. “The other thing that’s deep and heavy in our mind is we want to finish strong. However the Lord can use us, we want to be faithful.”
Bob and Bev have five children, 18 grandchildren, 14 great-grandchildren.
“If you live long enough, they will come,” Bob quipped.
As for the bees, Bob said “they kind of get into your system. They give you so much benefit, in terms of pollinating and the honey.”
According to Bob, a strong hive contains 50,000 to 70,000 bees. Bob has 28 hives.
During their lifetime, each of these worker bees — all of them female, a fact Bev in particular likes to point out — will make about a twelfth of a teaspoon of honey.
With more than 300 flavors of honey in the United States, the Bradburys specialize in a simple seven: wildflower, orange blossom, gallberry, sourwood, tupelo, lavender-infused and, for those who like a little heat, habanero-infused.
“It takes about four seconds for it to say, ‘Hi, I’m here,’” Bob said. “It has some real kick to it.”
The wildflower variety, available with comb or without, is best for folks who deal with allergies, according to Bob. Wildflower also serves as the base for their lavender-infused variety, made with lavender blossoms imported from Provence, France.
For folks with diabetes, sourwood honey — made from the nectar of sourwood tree blossoms found in North Georgia and other parts of the Appalachian Mountains — is an ideal low-sugar option, as it doesn’t contain dextrose.
As apiarists for nearly half a century, Bob and Bev have picked up a lesson or two along the way — some of which were a breeze, while others required a little more faith and perseverance.
“There’s an old statement: Keep on keeping on,” Bob said. “You don’t give up. Invariably, just like a garden, some years you’ll do beautifully — we're having a pretty heavy tomato crop, but something else isn’t doing well.”
“Or sometimes it’s a really good honey crop (and) sometimes it’s bad,” Bev chimed in. “Sometimes you lose a lot of bees.”
According to Bob, in their business, the weather is often a deciding factor in the nature of things.
Last year’s sourwood honey crop was particularly “pitiful,” he said, due to excessive rainfall last June, which is prime time for honey production.
“If you get a lot of rain, where are the bees? They’re all home having tea and crumpets instead of going out and collecting their pollen and nectar,” Bob said. “This year (was) just the opposite. It was a hot, sultry June, and that’s just good honey-making weather. You take the bad with the good. Murphy’s Law is alive and kicking.
“That’s life,” he added. “It’s not always up on the mountaintop; there are valleys. And you need both in life to grow.”
Aside from the Gainesville, Flowery Branch and Suwanee farmers markets, honey lovers can find the Bradburys’ products at Ace Hardware in Oakwood, Citizens Pharmacy in Flowery Branch and Living Well Farmers Market storefront in Suwanee.
While the business does have a website, customers aren’t able to make virtual purchases just yet.
The Bradburys also sell their products from their home year-round. Customers can reach them at 770-965-9529 to get the address and arrange their visit. Payments can be made with cash, card or check.