Bees, Honey, Hives, Beekeeper Suits – Get Them All at Southwest Bee Supply

April 12, 2012

Monica White is filling a jar with raw honey collected from hives near Tucson.

By Teya Vitu

Update: Southwest Bee Supply has closed.

Right now, chances are you won’t find Roy Wilson at his Southwest Bee Supply Co., 844 South 6th Avenue at 19th Street.

He’s got his hands full with bees. That could mean collecting honey from about 100 hives he has set up along the southern fringes of the Tucson metro. Or he could be out responding to swarm calls.

Southwest Bee Supply is Tucson’s only supplier of all the equipment to become a backyard beekeeper, like Wilson himself, except his backyard is the Sonoran Desert from Vail to Green Valley to Three Points to Tucson.

Wilson, of course, suits up when he heads out to a hive. But sometimes he doesn’t bother with the gloves, and he’s been known to forgo the suit altogether.

“I’ve been stung 100 times up and down my arms,” Wilson said with a grin. “It’s just part of the job. We’ve got bees. You just expect to get stung.”

Right now is prime honey harvesting season to supply Southwest Bee’s retail side and also prime time for pesky swarms targeting homes and yards.

“Normally, I’m harvesting from the middle of April to June and one more time in October, if the rain permits,” Wilson said. “Spring’s a big time for swarms, any time between March and the beginning of June. Some days it’s one call and some days its 10 calls. Right now, I get a call every day.”

Wilson said he captures swarms alive and relocates them in the desert. He said most bee removal companies end up killing the swarms. That just doesn’t sit well with Wilson.

Roy Wilson is the bee man at Southwest Bee and daughter Julie helps put honey on the store shelves.

“I like watching bees build a comb and bring in honey,” Wilson said. “A bee isn’t even supposed to be able to fly. I love to see such a magnificent creature do its stuff. As soon as you think you’ve figured them out, they’ll throw something at you.”

Wilson, who used to work in construction and landscaping, started keeping bees in 2006. Wilson inherited Southwest Bee from Jim Hawk, who died in 2007. Hawk had been the most recent owner of Southwest Bee, which has been around for 50 years under various names and owners, and for the last 24 years at 6th Avenue and 19th Street.

Most of the space at Southwest Bee is dedicated to beekeeper supplies: suits, gloves, veils, hats, boxes for the hives, and the foundation frames upon which bees build their honeycombs.

“We sell bees. We sell queens,” Wilson said.

Out in the field, Wilson gets the bees out of a hive and the pulls out the frames and scrapes the honeycomb into an extraction machine, which spins it like a centrifuge. Liquid drops into a bucket. The honey is then run through a sieve to remove big chunks and dead bees.

Wilson fills about 15 to 20 barrels a year with each barrel holding 55 gallons.

The raw honey then ends up in a big tank back at the shop.

That’s where Monica White comes in. Bookkeeping and the retail side falls to White, who’s the one you’ll find with the honey booth Fridays at the Tucson Farmers’ Market at Jesse Owens Park and Saturdays at the Tucson Farmers’ Market at Maynards Kitchen and Market. The honey is also available at Rincon Valley Farmers Market.

White opens a spigot and honey drains into a jar that is then labeled “Pure Sonoran Desert Honey.” A half pint sells for $5 at the farmers market and about $3.50 at the store (where it is sold by weight, which varies). A full pint is $9 at the farmers market and about $6.50 at the store.

“Most people who come to the store bring their own jars,” White said.

Translation: People in the know come with empty jars. Mere shoppers pick a jar of honey off the shelf.

Southwest Bee sells raw honey. Stores sell pasteurized honey, which White says kills most of the natural nutrients.

“Most of the people will tell me how much better they feel,” White said. “They stop taking their allergy meds. Bees are collecting the pollen of the plants that you’re allergic to. When you eat a little bit, it builds up your immune system.”

Southwest Bee primarily harvests mesquite honey. White infuses some of the honey with a variety of items such as vanilla, hot peppers, cinnamon, lemon, almond and rosemary.

“Honey will absorb pretty much any flavor as long as you wait long enough, anywhere from a few weeks to a couple months,” White said. “I grow hot peppers. My neighbor has a lemon tree.”

Southwest Bee also sells bee’s wax.

“A lot of people come in for bee’s wax for making candles, soap and lotion,” White said. “It burns very cleanly and very slowly.”

The store does sell some candles.

“I also make prickly pear jalapeño jelly,” White said.

Southwest Bee’s hours are noon to 6 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, noon to 5 p.m. Friday and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday.