Honeybees are spreading sweetness across the Lower Ninth Ward, thanks to one resident some might call a “bee whisperer.”
With 21 hives placed in lots throughout the neighborhood, entrepreneur David Young is not only helping to pollinate seeds of fruits and vegetables, but supporting hives that produce delicious honey.
Twice a year Young gathers, strains and packages the product for a profit, in hopes it will support his main goal: to grow fresh food through the nonprofit Capstone farms to give away to families living in what he calls a “food desert.”
An Indiana transplant, Young soon realized there was a bee shortage when he began farming in the Lower Nine five years ago. In the first year, he saw only six bees in his garden. So, he decided to get a hive to pollinate his own vegetable gardens and “it’s grown from there.”
“One in five foods are pollinated by bees,” he explained. Strawberries, cantaloupe, tomatoes, peaches, kumquats, turnips, broccoli and beets are just a few examples of fruits and vegetables grown in his gardens that need pollination. Pollinating sweetens and ripens fruit.
Some of Capstone’s hives were purchased locally and some through mail order. Still, others were found behind drywall in houses or other buildings.
“Abandoned houses are a great place for bees to hang out,” Young said.
People often call Capstone when they find a hive. Like a bee whisperer, Young suits up to cut out the hive, smoke the bees to calm them and draw the remaining bees into a new hive before transporting them in his truck back to the Lower Nine. The process could take all day long.
“If you can find the queen, they’ll follow,” he said.
Young has a waiting list of those who want the local honey. The next harvest should be at the end of June. Depending on the size of the harvest, he often sells out within 24 hours.
“Everybody wants raw honey,” for health reasons, he said. Pasteurizing honey sterilizes the pollen and kills its enzymes.
One person on the list for the honey is Ninth Ward resident Warrenetta Banks. She had read that local honey is supposed to be good for allergies and sinus problems.
“So, I took a teaspoon every morning and didn’t get sick all winter like I usually do,” Banks said.
Each hive has a minimum of 10,000 bees upwards to 80,000 bees. Foraging honeybees typically roam within three miles of the hive to collect nectar and pollen.
“Each harvest of honey has its own unique flavor and color that is influenced by the local pollen they harvest from that region at that time — kind of like fine wine,” Young said.
“Bees love Chinese tallow,” Young said of the willowy trees that grow throughout the ward. Goldenrod growing in the vacant lots in the fall makes a more robust flavored honey, he said.
Young had no intention of becoming a New Orleanian when he visited the city several times to help the community rebuild houses. A former police chief in a small Indiana town, he believes God called him to “do something different.” When he retired from the force, he relocated.
He bought his first vacant lot through a bank foreclosure and leased others from Habitat for Humanity and the nonprofit LowerNine.org. After planting 30 fruit trees through a grant from Propeller’s “Pitch NOLA” campaign, he now has three orchards with more than 50 fruit trees and banana plants.
The mission of the nonprofit he started, Capstone, is to grow food to provide at no cost to people who need it. He hopes the honey business can subsidize the food programs.
Some hives didn’t survive last year’s cold weather.
“Bees are just making a comeback,” now, he said.