The Tattooed Beekeeper, His Wife and the Secret Life of Bees

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Beeing a Chef: Harry’s Pizzeria sous chef Steve Martin gets up close and personal with the new source of his local honey in Little Havana.

There is a secret life of bees, I learned so from Sue Monk Kidd.

“I hadn’t been out to the hives before, so to start off she gave me a lesson in what she called ‘bee yard etiquette’. She reminded me that the world was really one bee yard, and the same rules work fine in both places. Don’t be afraid, as no life-loving bee wants to sting you. Still, don’t be an idiot; wear long sleeves and pants. Don’t swat. Don’t even think about swatting. If you feel angry, whistle. Anger agitates while whistling melts a bee’s temper. Act like you know what you’re doing, even if you don’t. Above all, send the bees love. Every little thing wants to be loved.”

It’s true that these rules apply in life, and for that reason, they have stuck with me all these years. Not until this past Monday evening, however did I think the opportunity for me to apply them to an actual bee yard was in the cards. Yet there Jackie and I were having dinner with Rigoberto De La Portilla aka Rigo, his wife Eliza, and their eight month-old son Liam, who had just delivered six gallons of honey to Harry’s Pizzeria.  Sous chef Steve Martin had read about this entrepreneurial couple in Edible South Florida magazine a month before, made contact, and had now brought them on board to supply both the pizzeria and Michael’s Genuine with local urban-farmed honey.  When they suggested that to supplement this story we should visit them in Flagami (West Miami), check the boxes and really see where the honey we were eating comes from, the answer was obvious.

Monday is chicken night at Harry’s, but as we got to know each other outside, warmed by heaters on a rare cool Miami night, we soon realized it wouldn’t be the Half Poulet Rouge with Salsa Verde and Fennel Slaw that we’d enjoy this week.  Sous chef Steve Martin had mixed the Rigo’s honey with jalapeño as an homage to this beekeeper who first brought some jalapeño-infused honey for the chef to try, and then drizzled it over skewered and grilled yakitori Poulet Rouge chicken wings. And that wasn’t all. Soon plates of citrus and carambola salad lay before us, a decadent mound of goat cheese, shaved celery, walnuts, pine nuts and pistachios and of course, a drizzle of honey. Honey that Rigo explained was so fresh it still had tiny bubbles in the gallon containers that he’d brought it in, bubbles that hadn’t even had time to settle. Contrarily, he explained, if the honey had been crystalized at all, that meant it had been sitting for some time. Good information for those of us who never know what type of honey to buy at the farmers market. His honey is not pasteurized nor filtered, so it goes directly from the hive into a microscreen to filter things you might not want to find in your honey bear, like wings and legs, yet ensuring it still has all of the positive enzymes and health benefits, which are seemingly endless once you begin to explore them.

There is of course a syrupy sweet base to the story, as the bees would have it. Rigo and Eliza met more than a decade ago at FIU. She was his Judo instructor and pinned him right then and there, leaving quite the impression, revealed years later when a search for solar panels and Rigo’s tech day job brought them together again after all those years. There were married 11/11/11 and the very next night, under a full moon, he took her to the bee yard to harvest. The rest seemed to be history as Liam giggled and squirmed in my arms, while his mom ate Steve’s next round of off-the-menu goodness — a house linguini agridolce dotted with crispy chicken liver, roasted eggplant and chopped raw chipotle.

It took Eliza many pitches before he relented, but Rigo finally agreed to the branding of The Tattooed Beekeeper, The Tattooed Beekeepers Wife, their gourmet line called Tattooed Honey, and more to come. Yet even with a marketing mind working, Eliza is wholly aware that honey is a finite source. “The bees will only stay around as long as they’re happy,” Rigo explained, and for anyone to be happy they have to have food to eat, and while we think of honey simply a product of bees, it is in fact the product they make for themselves to eat, essentially making them the most sustainable creature I’ve learned of. In order to keep them happy in their hives, Rigo only harvests 40-50% of their honey at a time. With 8 hives consisting of 4 boxes with 40 frames each, that yields about three to four hundres pounds of honey about every four months. “If I took all their honey,” he continued, “they’d be like we can’t stay here anymore, and I’d lose all my hives.”

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Wednesday came, and here were Jackie and I heading west to the urban bee yard. Jackie wondering, worrying if this would be the day she’d find out if she was allergic to bee stings, me reassuring her all you need is love, cliche I know, but as I said, Kidd’s words have resonated with me. The .22 acre backyard farm bursts with greenery. It smells like a lush tropical forest, and as we walked through Rigo’s crops he declared, “I’d like it all to be moringa,” referring to moringa oleifera, and boasting of its nutritional qualities. It became apparent that Rigo is drawn to what’s good, excited by how the product can benefit others, rather than his own pocket, and ultimately thrilled to use every piece of what he’s got, from the salves and gourmet honey produced with the herbs grown on the property, to the supplements they produce serving everything from energy to fertility.

Finally, we suited up. I honestly felt like a jedi-astronaut embarking on a peace mission to make contact with potentially dangerous little beings.  And in reality it was that exciting, and did feel as if we were in space with how slowly Rigo moved around the boxes, handling the bee covered frames as if there was little gravity. “Don’t swat,” I repeated from memory, “don’t even think about swatting.” And so no one was stung. It was a sweet experience, to say the least. The pictures tell the fun part of the tale, so I’ve left that off here, for you to enjoy visually (special thanks to field trip photographer Maria B. Martin). Below is a list of interesting facts that I’ve learned. The only thing lacking is the sound. I wish I could share the reverberation of the bees, the loud cross buzz that fades to a sweet low hum as they respond to the smoke Rigo lassos them into the box with, that will certainly resonate with me for a long time as yet another secret to the life of bees.

FACTS:

– Cinnamon honey is great for energy

– Elderberry infused honey is said to be the original cough syrup

– Heating honey above 158°F (pasteurization) kills the good enzymes.

– They have found honey preserved in an Egyptian tomb that was more than 200 years old and still edible.

– There are 20,000 species of bees.

– Worker bees generally live 1-2 months but the queen lives for years. This is because of the Royal jelly – which can be consumed and is great for memory and fertility.

– Bee sting therapy has been used to cure a variety of health issues. Bee venom is said to help with arthritis, bursitis, tendinitis, and dissolving scar tissue.

– When the bees find a good place for pollen they’ll let the other bees know by performing a waggle dance that can last for miles. “I’d do the dance right now but my wife won’t like it, it’s just for us,” said Rigo.

– Propolis, a.k.a. bee glue, is made by bees to seal cracks and holes around the hive to keep out light, and it is great for skin problems, burns, ulcers, and viral infections.

– To make honey, bees will collect fresh water, then pollen, then dirt for minerals then regurgitate it into the cell of the hive.

– The door has to be duct taped when the bees are trapped, otherwise they’ll work together to open it; bees are incredibly strong when working together.

2 thoughts on “The Tattooed Beekeeper, His Wife and the Secret Life of Bees

  1. Pingback: Now Starring at Harry’s Pizzeria: Local Carambola Shines in Farmer Fizz & Salad |

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