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Wednesday, Apr 25, 2018
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How one St. Petersburg woman crafts honey from the hives of local bees

BRADENTON

The first thing I notice about the house on Manatee Avenue, aside from Muffin, the fluffy yellow Labrador mix that comes down to the curb to greet me, are the bees. They’re everywhere.

I’m here to meet Danielle "Danie" La Casse, 33, part-time beekeeper and owner of Brick Street Honey, a small St. Petersburg-based business she started in early 2017. La Casse is making honey straight from these local bees, tending their hives and extracting the sweet by-product to bottle and sell to Tampa Bay marketgoers.

She meets her mentor, David Blinn, or "Mr. Blinn" as she calls him, here at his Bradenton home every week. Sometimes, the two meet as early as 6 a.m. before going out to nearby beehives. This morning, I’m glad they’ve agreed to 9:30.

As I arrive, two full-body beekeeping suits wave at me from the bed of a red truck, and La Casse hops down. Soon, Blinn is taking me on a tour of his backyard. It is dwarfed by two large vegetable gardens: Mammoth cabbages, carrots that "still have about another week" and a blackberry bush that "grows like a weed" are among his crops, as well as potatoes, collards, strawberries, mustard greens and radishes. Down by the water there’s a mango tree, and all around the yard honeybees hum and flit.

Blinn’s garage door is open, revealing a large, drumlike centrifuge used to extract honey stationed in the middle of the floor. In the garden, beneath a bush that yields lemons the size of fists, is a tree log, home to a hive of bees that Blinn rescued from a tree-trimming company. He lifts a tarpaulin flap to show me the frames he built into the wood himself. La Casse tells me he has been "hammering bee boxes since he was 4." Now, the retired chemist is in his 70s.

She has always been interested in bees, but before Blinn she had never met anyone who invited her to "come on down and get stung."

Back at the truck, La Casse’s friend Quinn Freeborg hands me a suit.

"Hope you don’t mind duct tape," she says cheerily, "because we’re going to have to tape you in."

• • •

La Casse studied environmental science and biology at Eckerd College, but her fascination with bees comes from working on farms her whole life: on her godparents’ organic farm in the Bahamas, in her parents’ home garden, at farms she volunteered at throughout her childhood. Being homeschooled, she was given the freedom to explore lots of things she wouldn’t have otherwise, and she was always drawn to bees.

She’s also drawn to art. A minor she studied in college, La Casse says that she has never been good at painting, sewing or any of the other crafts that she associates with art. But she does love food and she does love cooking, even considering culinary school at one point.

It was her love of science and art that helped birth Brick Street Honey.

With no relation to Brick Street Farms, also in St. Petersburg, her honey business is still small. Currently, it falls under cottage food law, which means she’s able to produce honey out of her home and Blinn’s before selling it at independent markets. This year, she is planning to apply for a commercial license so that she will be able to sell her honey in local stores, coffee shops, restaurants, breweries and bars.

Also on her mind this year: Blinn’s plans to retire from beekeeping. He wants to pass the torch — or, for a beekeeping pun, the fumigator — on to her. Like a grandfather passing on the family business, he has already slowly started stepping back, selling less of his own honey and, like today, letting La Casse spend more time at the hives on her own.

The process of making honey seems relatively straightforward the way La Casse explains it.

It starts with the hives. When the frames of the hives are full of honey and the bees have covered them with a protective layer of wax, she pulls them. Then she takes the frames and places them in a centrifuge, like the one in Blinn’s garage, and spins them with a hand crank. The wax falls off, and she runs the honey through a filter, or several, to catch any leftover particles. Then she bottles it and brings it to market.

La Casse sells a spring batch and a fall batch (called "pulls"), a batch enriched with royal jelly and extra pollen, and a spicy batch, with red pepper flakes and apple cider vinegar. It’s really good in bourbon, she says.

She tends to the hives in Bradenton but she also has hives in Terra Ceia. She once had hives at her house in St. Petersburg, but temporarily had to move them out due to home renovations. Soon, she says, they’ll be back. She’ll also soon be tending to hives on the roof of the Partridge Animal Hospital, where she works as a veterinary nurse.

Bees don’t like to fly low, so up on the roof they won’t bother anyone.

• • •

La Casse is holding a match book-sized wood box, pointing through a wire mesh top at a large bee with a yellow dot on its back.

"She’s so awesome," La Casse says.

She’s a queen, flown in from a breeder in Hawaii, that La Casse is attempting to introduce to a currently queenless colony. That, and changing beetle traps, is her main task at the Geraldson Community Farm today.

She and Freeborg have pulled off the top of the hive. They’ve fumed the bees to calm them down, but they’re still angry — maybe it’s the cooler temperature, or the occasionally overcast sky. Swarming, their indignant buzzing is like the distant hum of an IndyCar race. And they’re everywhere, pelting my suit and menacing me from the mesh hood in front of my face.

They don’t like the weather, La Casse says. Plus, they’re still recovering from Hurricane Irma.

La Casse lost about 10 percent of her hives after the storm, and that number keeps rising. Because of the intense wind and rain, the bees stayed inside the box hives for a long time, preventing them from foraging. And there wasn’t much foraging they could do; the blossoms were knocked off all the trees.

It’ll take at least a season to recoup, La Casse says.

Honeybee populations across the country are in decline. Between 2015 and 2016, beekeepers lost 44 percent of their colonies, according to the Bee Informed Partnership, which works with the Apiary Inspectors of America and the United States Department of Agriculture. It’s bad news for crop production, as the USDA estimates that bees pollinate about 75 percent of the produce that we eat.

Humans aren’t going to go flower to flower hand-pollinating plants when the bees die off, La Casse points out. So she focuses on raising them.

With Freeborg, she lowers the box with the egg-bearing queen into the middle of the hive at a 45-degree angle. One end of the box is coated in sugar, which the bees in the box will nibble through from one end while the bees in the hive work on the other. It’ll take about three to four days to break through the wood, but that’s enough time for the hive to accept her as their queen.

If they don’t, they’ll kill her.

Queens cost $25 apiece, so it can be frustrating when that happens, La Casse says, but it’s the intricacy and specificity of that relationship that fascinates her. Every bee has a distinct purpose, from the worker bee to the drone to the queen, and every bee is important.

Back at Blinn’s house we untape (which I learn was to prevent the bees from flying up our pant legs) and step out of our suits. Blinn checks in about the day’s activities, asking La Casse if she was able to find an elusive queenless hive and double-checking to make sure she changed the beetle traps.

La Casse had taken care of it all.

Contact Carlynn Crosby at [email protected]

     
   
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