Oh, Honey

Oh, Honey

Bees are all the buzz in Asheville
Words by Fred W. Wright Jr.

That buzzing sound you hear as you drive along Highway 25 is Asheville, North Carolina. Most places use signs. Asheville suggests sounds to announce you are in the right place—a place where life among honeybees is all the buzz.

In the distance, as you approach downtown, the hills of the Blue Ridge Mountains stand strong as a backdrop while the town’s Southern charm begins to unfold.

In early spring, the fields are beginning to bloom with clover and dandelions, and the honeybees are at work. They’re making honey, transitioning in later months to wildflowers. It’s a collaboration, for generations, with the beekeepers of Asheville who nurture and sell their honey.

That’s how Asheville came to be known as Bee City USA.

Asheville’s Bee Charmer gift shop makes a business out of promoting not only local honeybees but honey from around the world, creating fusions and honey blends not found elsewhere. Its two downtown boutiques offer a honey bar featuring tastings with 25 to 30 varieties served by a barista.

Visitors can discover carrot flower honey from Italy or Bourbon Barrel Aged Honey, or sample the legendary (and local) sourwood variety. And newly opened in Asheville’s South Slope Brewing District, Wehrloom Honey is a boutique honey shop with a mead (honey wine) bar. The business originated in nearby Robbinsville where the Wehr family harvests honey and makes their own mead, soaps, lip balms, and more.

This is indeed a land of honey. There are many varieties, both local and blended—vanilla, spicy chai, rosemary, blackberry, blueberry, coffee, mint, lavender, and Firecracker Hot. The latter is crafted with locally grown ghost peppers. “It’s extremely hot,” says Jillian Kelly, co-founder with Kim Allen of Asheville Bee Charmer. “Very, very hot. You have to be very, very careful.”

As full-time beekeepers, Jillian and Kim maintain 20 to 30 hives. That’s roughly 50,000 honeybees per hive.

Despite their popularity in Asheville, honeybees have their challenges. Weather is an obvious one. Bee mites that can wipe out a hive is another. And local bears. Yet another challenge is pesticides. “I used to have bees in my backyard,” Jillian notes. “This summer, my neighbors sprayed and bees got into it.”

This is not to say that bees rule Asheville. There are many other activities for visitors who have a taste for the arts and architecture. The city boasts one of the most complete art deco districts in the country, which includes City Hall, Asheville High School, and the Asheville Masonic Temple. Many of Asheville’s buildings survived the decay that accompanied the Great Depression. As a result, there are walking day or night tours and even a guided Segway tour of famous facades from the 1920s.

The Biltmore Estate is a 19th-century architectural gem all its own. The Biltmore is billed as the largest home in the U.S. Certainly, it’s big and grand, offering the opulence that George and Edith Vanderbilt brought to this Appalachian town. There are original works by Rodin, 16th-century tapestries, and a banquet hall with a 70-foot ceiling. Visitors can even take a rooftop and balcony tour of the Biltmore House, standing atop a unique compilation of wealth while viewing its 8,000-acre backyard.

As the season progresses, Asheville stages several sweet events where local vendors sell crafts and beekeepers sell honey. Pandemic permitting, there’s the annual Pollinator Week in June, the annual Sourwood Festival in August (just up the road in Black Mountain), and the Black Jar Honey Tasting Contest. (All of these events will need to be checked for any COVID-19-related changes).

In this community of 90,000 plus, and a gazillion honeybees, there are other historic enclaves of attraction. The arts and crafts thrive as much as the bees with historic Appalachian cultural history.

Asheville has also been known as a haven for microbreweries, many of which jump onto the bee wagon with their concoctions. Devil’s Foot Beverage uses only locally accessed wildflower honey to sweeten all its products, while Hi-Wire Brewing just released its 2020 edition of Estatoe Path Sour Golden.

Ultimately, the honeybee needs to be respected for its hard work. A honeybee, according to science, flaps its wings at a rate of 208 to 277 beats per second. That adds up to 12,480 to 16,820 beats per minute. And that is exhausting just to think about.