She is creeping purposefully about the back yard, with her full-coverage body suit, hooded veil and vintage leather gloves. Is this a Stephen King moment? Are more of them coming?
There is, thankfully, no havoc to be wreaked here. This unusually clad woman is beekeeper Melissa Cartwright and she is tending one of her hives. “I have been stung enough on my face to be really cautious. I wear the full bee suit with the veil. I go to thrift stores and buy vintage leather gloves, because they are nice and thin.” These fine-leathered, antique gloves are thin enough that she can feel the bees without squishing them. “They can sting through the leather, but it’s not as bad. It’s an extra layer of protection.”
A bit of stinging here and there is part of the job, but “I get stung less and less as I get more experienced.” Cartwright’s painfully painstaking work is appreciated by customers who feast on her Mellifera Bees honey. “I create naturally-flavoured, infused honey. We take local, unpasteurized honey and we add organic ingredients.”
The three main Mellifera Bees flavours are: vanilla bean, lemon and cardamom. The cardamom-infused honey has been flavoured with cardamom, black pepper, cinnamon and orange rind. The long, smoky vanilla bean sits regally in an elegant Mellifera Bees jar. And the lemon-infused honey is perfect with all the black tea that Cartwright loves to drink.
How does she come up with her flavours? “I start looking around my kitchen for ideas. Citrus…a lot of people put lemon into tea. That could also be interesting on top of yogurt, or in a dressing.”
Cartwright will also introduce special flavours during the year. “In summer, I do one with lavender. I also do a Thai chili honey created with cooking and glazes in mind. Last winter, I did a ginger honey. The year before, I did a savory herb honey with sage, bay leaf, black pepper and thyme.”
Cartwright infuses her honey in small runs. Some ingredients are potent and make themselves known quickly. Other infusions take months. “I tried fennel last year, but it took quite awhile for it to impart into the honey. So much so that the fennel was no longer in season.”
Not all of her honey experiments have been successful. “I tried horseradish. It tasted really odd. Kumquat had too much moisture in it, so that didn’t work.”
Cartwright brews her infusions in big pots that she keeps in a shared commercial kitchen space near Science World. “I have all my equipment there, all my jars and labels.” Despite her ever-growing business, she does most of the work herself, with her loved ones pitching in at peak times. “I get a lot of help from my sweetheart, my family and my friends. I also had a few friends who helped me figure out what the look and branding would be like. We definitely wanted it to look elegant and have a bit of an edge to it.”
Despite the fact that her first name, Melissa, means ‘honey bee’ in Greek, Cartwright didn’t always plan to be a beekeeping entrepreneur. She studied textiles at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design and shoe design at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology.
Cartwright started off designing costumes for theatre and opera in Montreal. Then, in 2007, she went to work in design and development for Vancouver’s famed shoe designer, John Fluevog. “I’m so thankful for that experience. I got to learn a lot.”
It was while she was working at Fluevog, that Cartwright first came into the idea of bees. “I was on Galiano Island for a rainy Westcoast weekend. I went into the bookshop and picked up a book about bees. I was just so fascinated with how they organize themselves and what went on in a hive.”
That Galiano book led to more books, a course on beekeeping and the decision to get one colony as a hobby. Soon, Cartwright had decided to move into it full-time and to manage multiple hives. Friends would let her keep colonies in their backyards in exchange for honey.
She quickly learned how particular bees are about the size of their hives. If the hive is too big, they will fill it up with beeswax. If it is too small, the bees will fill the space up with propolis, also known as ‘bee glue.’ “Propolis is something they collect from resins and the saps of trees, so it’s very high in antibacterial properties. A lot of people use it for throat sprays and more medicinal purposes.”
Cartwright uses standard Langstroth beehive boxes. “It depends on the time of year, but there could be fifty thousand bees in there.” As Mellifera Bees has grown in size, Cartwright has had to spend less time tending to the bees herself and more time on inventing her infusion brews. “I support other organic, local beekeepers and use their honey as well.”
Cartwright is thrilled to be in retail spaces across the city, like Walrus on Cambie, Much & Little on Main, Beaucoup Bakery on Fir, Bel Café in the Rosewood Hotel Georgia and Whole Foods. “Right now, we’re only in Canada. My goal is to eventually be at Dean & Deluca in the US.”
With global concerns about bee populations, it is an interesting time for Cartwright to be working in the field. “The current thinking is that the problem is the result of a bunch of things. There are a particular class of pesticides that people are really focusing on – neonicotinoids.” Cartwright also cites the heavy commercialization of some beekeeping, where tens of thousands of hives are being trucked across the country. The bees are stressed and being artificially limited in the number of plants that they pollinate.
Through all of her work, it is important for Cartwright to know that she is sourcing ethical ingredients and treating the bees well. “As a beekeeper, you have to make sure that you leave enough honey for the bees to make it through the season.”
Over time, Cartwright has learned how to handle the bees more safely, but what have they taught her? “Bees taught me to slow down and be calm. I think I’m a naturally tense person, but you have to be slow and thoughtful when you work with bees. Otherwise, they’ll sting you and it will turn into a mess. You have to take a breath and be mindful of what you are doing.”
Written by Elizabeth Newton
Photos courtesy of Mellifera Bees.
Lavender Honey – Tracey Kusiewicz
Remaining Honey Shots – Tolar Armit
Melissa – Matt Guterres