It all started with a cup of tea. Peter Henkenjohann’s wife was a huge tea lover, and she wanted her very own honey to put in her brew each day. “Basically, my wife started harassing me,” Henkenjohann says, laughing. “To put a stop to that, I decided to put some beehives in our backyard. I told her, ‘These are your bees. Please stop harassing me.’”
Shortly after the hives went in, the couple found out that the bees would not be the only new addition to the household. “We decided that while she was pregnant, she shouldn’t be getting stung by bees,” Henkenjohann says. “So it kind of backfired on me and I ended up having to take care of the bees after all.”
But the couple’s honey harvest became much more than a tasty addition to a cup of tea. Today, the Albemarle couple sells pure, minimally filtered honey in a variety of flavors, from orange blossom to peppermint, as well as beeswax balms, salves, candles, and more at farmers markets and festivals across the state.
Our State sat down with Henkenjohann to learn more about the couple’s business, NC Bee Exchange, and what he loves most about beekeeping.
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OS: It sounds like you were a reluctant beekeeper at first — how did you get into it?
PH: Once we got bitten by the bee fever, it really didn’t take long for us to decide that we wanted to continue. It really demands that you spend time and work the bees. It takes time to gain the necessary knowledge about beekeeping, and it certainly helps to stick around some other fellow beekeepers. It’s very rewarding. For me, there’s a calming effect to working with the bees — except for when you get stung. But that just comes with the territory, and you still love it.
OS: At what point did you decide to turn your beekeeping hobby into a profession?
PH: About three years ago, we decided to take beekeeping to the next level and go commercial, so to speak, and to raise more bees to do a full honey production and create all the side products. We’re trying to utilize as much from the bees as we can. Most people think that all honey bees do is make honey, and that is certainly the majority of our product line, but we also try to utilize all the beeswax to make candles, balms, and other products.
OS: What do you find most interesting about beekeeping?
PH: The more you get involved in beekeeping, the more you learn. Honey has been the same for thousands of years, from ancient times to today. It’s a very untouched natural food source. Even the different ways bees communicate with their waggle — what we refer to as a waggle dance, where they dance with their little legs — is fascinating. As a beekeeper, you change your interests. I used to look at cars and say, “That’s a nice Porsche; there’s a Ferrari.” These days, I’m looking at trees and I’m saying, “Oh, look, there’s the red maple starting to bloom.” You begin to pay more attention to what’s going on around you. Not just what’s blooming but when it’s blooming.
OS: Can you describe the harvesting process?
PH: In March, we get early nectar flows that help boost the bee colonies. By early April, we typically start to see the main nectar flow start coming in. April through May is when the majority of our honey is produced. We collect all of the honey super boxes off the hive, load them up, bring them back to our warehouse facility, stack them, and then run them through the extractor. The honey has to settle for a while in what we call a clarifying tank before we can start bottling it. So it’s quite a production from the time you take the honey out until you have it in a finished labeled jar.
OS: What’s your favorite part about what you do?
PH: Working freely outdoors with the bees. Ever since I started with the bees, I spend most of my days in the spring and summer outdoors, in secluded parts of the lands where I just hear birds chirping and bees buzzing. When I open a hive and pull out a frame and see the bees running around, I call that my therapy session. That, to me, is like the greatest relief. I think the bees can feel that harmony as well.
NC Bee Exchange
403-B West Main Street
Albemarle, NC 28001