For the past year or so, while we've been sitting around the office here, NUVO Contributing Editor David Hoppe has been roaming the state, chatting with people from across the spectrum of the food and agriculture world, joined in his journeys by photographer Kristin Hess. Their travels have been in service of Food for Thought, a program launched in 2010 by Indiana Humanities to help Hoosiers think, read and talk about food.
And now the fruits of their labors have been collected in a new book, Food for Thought: An Indiana Harvest, that's the basis of a wide range of public programming, starting with an interview series at the DuPont Food Pavilion during the Indiana State Fair and continuing into the fall with visits to cities throughout the state. We provide here an apertif from the book in the form of three lightly edited profiles, each of a Hoosier food figure who will take part in a public interview at the pavilion. The book will be available at bookstores and via indianahumanities.org by early August, as well as during all Food for Thought programming.
Wildflower Ridge Honey, Anderson
(Appearing Aug. 8, 4-5 p.m., at the Indiana State Fair's DuPont Food Pavilion)
David Barrickman of Wildflower Ridge Honey in Anderson is a fourth-generation beekeeper. A former president of the Indiana Beekeepers Association, Barrickman made raising honeybees his business after a thirty-seven-year career as an engineer for General Motors. Lately, Barrickman has focused on trying to replenish Indiana’s diminishing honeybee population, which, he says, is stressed due what he calls “a concoction of chemicals that are now in the ground out there.” Barrickman says that about 50 percent of the state’s honeybees were lost in just one year. When we meet at a farmers’ market where he’s selling raw honey and other beehive products, including soaps and bee pollen, Barrickman says, “I’m not interested in producing a lot of honey. I’m more interested in making bees.”
I found out that my grandfather’s father-in-law was a beekeeper. I learned that through a sale bill flyer that I found. When he passed away, they had a farm auction and there were two hives of bees listed in the auction.
My grandfather had bees for as long as I can remember. I was forty-six when he passed away at ninety-six. I really enjoyed being over at the farm and watching him catch swarms and put supers on and off—that’s the top box on the beehive, where you get the honey from.
The one thing I always hated when I was a little kid was when we were out working bees I would get stung, and Grandpa chewed tobacco and he’d always spit on the sting. He said it helped, but I don’t know. He said the tobacco juice would draw the poison out.
I enjoyed the whole biological aspect of the bees, the movement of them. Of course, I’ve gotten to know more about bees in the last fifteen to twenty years than I knew up to then. I really started studying and understanding the bees. In order to make it a business, you have to understand every aspect. If you don’t know what’s going on with your bees and inside your beehive and what seasons are bringing about for you, pretty soon you’re out of business.
These honeybees are my employees. They’re just like dairy cattle in a barn. Those dairy cattle are making milk, and if they’re not, that farmer wants to know why. That beehive is my barn and those bees are working for me. I want to make sure they’re in full production.
In the summertime, when there’s a nectar flow or the bees are working hard, the life expectancy of a worker bee is about forty-five days from the time it’s born until the time it dies. They work themselves to death.
Consequently, you want good, fertile queens. A queen will lay anywhere between 1,500 and 2,000 eggs a day to keep the hive replenished. At the height of the nectar season, you want to have 60,000 to 80,000 bees in that beehive. When you come out in the springtime, that hive has dwindled down to 6,000 to 8,000. You have to build that hive up so it’s ready for the nectar flow when it gets here.
My grandfather kept bees because he loved bees. He had thirty or forty hives around the farm. He never worried about selling honey. He practically gave it away. I used to carry it into work for him and sell it. He wouldn’t even extract it; he just sold the frames, big honeycomb frames. He’d sell the whole thing for two bucks. Back then honey was about fifteen, twenty cents a pound. Today the retail price is six dollars a pound.
Granddad taught me a lot. He taught me patience, mainly. Granddad was a [widower]—Grandma passed away in 1919, during the swine flu epidemic that came through—he never remarried, and he raised his two boys and farmed his whole life. Patience was his virtue. He never got in a hurry, never got in a rush to do anything. He’d always think things out before we tackled something. He was a good teacher.
I went through a couple of phases in beekeeping. For years I wore a full suit and gloves and the veil—the whole thing. I had the bees out there and I worked them, but I didn’t feel I was part of them. About twelve, fifteen years ago, I decided if I’m really going to get to know these bees, I’m just going to have to work them with no gloves. I took the gloves off and I never wear them when I work bees. I get stung quite often. But it slows you down.
Before, when I wore the full gear, I would go in there and pull hives apart and throw this in that direction, pull honey out, and damage a lot of bees. When I quit wearing gloves, it slowed me down. I’m more patient. I’m slower. My observation time is much longer. I can inspect a beehive by just walking up to it and looking at it from the outside. Most people, when they open it up, all they see is bees. But I see bees, I see new nectar flows, I see brood, I see any type of disease I can recognize. Plus, I used to have some arthritic fingers and I don’t have those arthritic fingers anymore. That’s what we call bee venom therapy. A beehive’s God’s medicine cabinet, believe it or not.
Next page: Thom England