Sweet sting of success

honey3

honey3What do you get when you take an environmental steward with a love of both botany and entomology, and mix in a sophisticated and sensitive palate and some mad plumbing skills?

Jeff Mello, the brains and brawn behind Aquidneck Honey.

In the social hierarchy of the beehive, the queen may be the central figure, but while her role of lying about producing eggs may be “the toughest job in the world,” it’s not worth much when it’s time to collect pollen and manufacture honey.

So it would be more apt to say that Mello is the ultimate drone — and when you learn that Aquidneck Honey is bottled from honey produced in 1,568 individual hives throughout Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New York, and Connecticut, you realize what an apt description that is. Mello spends a lot of time on the road, checking in on his charges.

The story of Aquidneck Honey began about 22 years ago, when Mello put two beehives in his yard, to give the whole beekeeping thing a shot. “I’m Portuguese — we grow everything ourselves,” he says.

One unseasonably warm February day, Mello opened the lid of one of his hives. “They just boiled out. It was so amazing. And I was hooked.”

honey15“Organic” is not a label you can slap on honey, if for no other reason than the fact that you can’t guarantee the flight path of a bee. But you can control it fairly well. For one, bees won’t wander far if they have a reliable food source close at hand. And Mello takes great care to situate his bees on property that has been carefully screened — places where pesticides and other contaminants are not present. It guarantees that Aquidneck Honey’s products are all pure, raw, and pesticide-free.

Pesticides are not only undesirable in human food. Mello “credits” pesticides with the elevated levels of bee mortality seen in recent years. That, and the bad bee husbandry practiced by certain keepers, many of whom transport hives from orange groves in Florida to almond groves in California with the change of seasons — for a handsome fee paid by the orchard owners who need the bees to pollinate their crops.

“The ones that don’t die in transit, eat nothing but one, two crops,” Mello said. “That’s not healthy, and it makes them weak and vulnerable. Common sense — we eat a varied diet, and so should bees.” But money talks, and pollination fees paid to beekeepers can add up. A keeper who has as many hives as Mello could bring in somewhere in the high-six figure range, annually. Mello has never taken money for placing his bees on a property, and he never will.

The other cost-cutting measure common in the industry? Feeding bees sugar water. “My bees eat nothing but their own honey. When I harvest, I always leave a hive-full of honey. It’s about $500 worth of honey, in each hive,” he adds. “I could get the same amount of food with a $25 bag of sugar, but that’s not real nutrition.”

honey5Tara Holmes, who along with her husband Christopher Williams, works with Mello, added, “I was at a farmer’s market and I told another beekeeper that Jeff does not feed his bees, and he basically said he didn’t believe me; that I wasn’t telling the truth.” Tara does not think she was able to convince the man otherwise, but she knows the truth. She began working with Mello after first becoming a devoted customer. In the packaging facility this day are at least two other volunteers — honey aficionados who believe in Mello’s labor of love and offer their time to help fulfill orders.

“Jeff has such a practiced palate — he can tell where the bees have been collecting pollen based on the taste of the honey alone,” says Tara. “Detecting hints of spearmint, buckwheat, and even chardonnay from local grapevines.”

Aquidneck honey produces one product with a very unmistakable bouquet, but it’s not from pollen. Aquidneck makes a hot honey, which is created with an infusion of roasted ghost peppers. Mello grows the peppers organically and hydroponically with an osmosis filtration system that he built from scratch.

honey6Ghost peppers, native to the Near East, are the fourth hottest pepper known to man, with a Scoville rating (measure of heat) of roughly 1,000,000 units. Compare that to the weak jalapeño, with a paltry 5,000 Scoville units to its name. No surprise that the U.S. military has supposedly conducted research to weaponize the ghost pepper.

Mello learned the hard way. “I did not respect the pepper,” he says. He now wars a full face mask and elbow-length gloves when he handles them.

Which makes it all the more amazing that Aquidneck’s hot honey is perfectly delicious, with a slow heat that spreads gently, stays mild, and recedes as politely as it approached.

“The honey’s sweetness breaks down the capsaicin in the peppers,” Mello said. “You couldn’t get the heat output people expect from a Jalapeño.”

Mello is expanding into confections, making small-batch handmade chocolates filled with honey, and packing gift bags for the holidays. Aquidneck Honey products are available at local farmer’s markets, independent grocery stores, and online at aquidneckhoney.info. Or you can just stop by their headquarters on Oliphant Road in Middletown (though it’s best to call first to make sure someone’s there 401/862-2171.)

Mello is clearly delighted to be doing what he’s doing, and doing it right. Picking up a ghost pepper seedling, he reveals the roots, embedded in a rich matrix the texture of a brownie. “Tell me that isn’t beautiful,” he says. “I absolutely love this. This is the greatest thing.”

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