Sweet Sideline Pastor plans honey of a retirement
It's a natural antiseptic and an analgesic. It's good for your complexion. It's better for your system than sugar, and is a natural energy food. Marathon runners eat it before races. Hospitals use it to treat burns.
But what Philip Wilson likes about honey is the creative impulse that lies behind the product.
"The bee goes out and takes something invisible to the human eye and makes it into one of the most desirable foods known to man," he said.
Beekeeping is also a retirement program in waiting for Wilson, the pastor of First Christian Church. For the last 12 years, he has been collecting beekeeping and honey-processing equipment with the goal of stepping up his business, Ozark Wild Mountain Honey, when he retires. Right now, he has 40 hives, which makes him a sideliner in bee circles.
"A sideliner has 12 to 250 hives that generate some income," he said. "He keeps bees for the pleasure of having bees, and with the hopes of making a dollar."
A sideliner falls between a hobbyist, who keeps up a few hives for fun and honey for his own table, and a commercial beekeeper, who may have thousands. Wilson has about 40 hives, some of which he keeps on a 12-acre farm north of town, next to Patrice Gros' organic vegetable farm. Wilson also has a few next to the honey house behind his residence on Shelton Street, off East Van Buren. The honey house is where he extracts the honey, using stainless-steel equipment that heats it, strains it and puts it in jars, all without him touching the product. Commercial processing heats honey to 140 degrees for an hour, he said, which kills the pollen. Wilson heats his to 99 degrees so that it will flow from the comb through the filter.
"You want local honey with the pollen that you breathe," he said.
Wilson also raises queen bees at the farm, which he uses to requeen his hives or start new ones. There is no local source of queens, he said, so he plans to add that to his business plan. The process of grafting involves moving the egg into another cell, and putting the cells in a queen-less colony, where the drones will raise them. You can raise 20 queens in a batch and get a batch every 25 days, Wilson said. Some beekeepers requeen every year. They are also used to start nucs, nucleus hives, as starter hives are called. WIlson has hives scattered all over the county.
"Beekeeping is a way to get into farming without owning property," he said. "I get calls all the time from people asking me to bring hives to their property."
Wilson grew up around bees -- his family had an orchard in Honobia, Okla., where they grew apples and peaches. The family kept bees for pollination, Wilson said, not honey. He attended Midwest Christian College in Oklahoma City, where he got his bachelor's degree in ministries, and Abilene Christian University, where he studied church history and New Testament. He was ordained in 1979 in Crowell, Texas. There is a long connection between beekeeping and clerics, he said -- Rev. L.L. Langstroth of New England patented the moveable frame hive in 1852, an improvement over bee skeps, which are dome-shaped. A Benedictine beekeeper at Buckfast Abbey in England bred a honey-bee cross, called the Buckfast Bee, that was resistant to a parasite that wiped out most of the bee colonies in Britain in the 1910s. One of the attributes of the Buckfast Bee is 'good temper.'
"Bees are docile, and don't want to sting you," Wilson said. "They will warn you before they sting. If you listen to them, you and the bees will be safer."
What else Wilson likes about beekeeping: while bees are the most studied insect in the world, being the most beneficial, there is no such thing as a knowledgeable beekeeper. New beekeepers are always asking questions -- Should I use a queen excluder? When should I put in the supers (honey boxes)?
"It's a cliche, that if you ask 10 beekeepers a question, you'll get 12 answers," he said.
Wilson started keeping hives when he was serving a church in Gig Harbor, Wash. There was a bee tree down the break from his property. When the bees died, Wilson noticed a drop in production of his fruit trees. So he joined the Pierce County Beekeepers Association and became a vertical beekeeper.
What that entailed: setting out hives in low-lying areas in the spring, when the blackberry bushes bloomed, then in the summer, taking them to Mount Ranier and putting them on a lower slope, surrounded by a bear fence. Every five or six weeks, the beekeepers moved their hives higher up the mountain, following the fireweed bloom.
"It was a club activity," he said. "We'd take a lunch and spend the day. At the end of September, we'd move the hives back down into the valley."
Wilson moved to Eureka Springs in 1998. The next spring, John Cross, who knew Wilson was a beekeeper, called and asked if he wanted a swarm of bees that had gotten into a storage shed south of town.
"I went and got them," Wilson said. "I split them into two hives, they swarmed, then I had three. I split those into six, and I was on my way."
Beekeeping and pastoring sometimes conflict, Wilson said -- both have duties that require your attention in a timely manner. And there's the constant fight with varroa mites and tracheal mites, the banes of bees and their keepers. This has been the best year yet for honey production, he said, but his parishioners always take precedence over his bees, and tries to spend only one day a week working with the hives.
"The bees are not my priority right now," he said.
But honing his beekeeping skills is. The latest information arrives every month in the form of "American Bee Journal" and "Bee Culture" magazines, which WIlson drops everything to read. With beekeeping, you are always learning something new.
"Every time you go the bee yard, you ask yourself questions," Wilson said. "It's an art and a science."
The Northwest Arkansas Beekeeping Association offers a beekeeping class at the University of Arkansas, and one in Carroll County if there is enough interest. Wilson sells his honey at Hart's Grocery, Pine Mountain Jamboree, the Razorback Gift Shop, the Eureka Springs Farmers Market and other outlets. He also sells it at Phillips 66 in Holiday Island. Look for the 'Ozark Wild Mountain Honey packaged by Wilson's Apiary' label on the lid.