I ‘ve always been a bit wary of bees. Sure, I view them in the way most of us do, as industrious and necessary creatures that pollinate the local flora, as animals that labor intensively and selflessly for the common good of all: plants, animals, and yes, us humans. They’re a species I absolutely value but when I’m in close proximity to more than a few I start to think swarm and I start to think sting.
So when Kelley Edkins welcomes me to her garden and waves me to sit mere feet from the hive—a traffic jam of apian ingress and egress at its keyhole door—well, I feel a flutter of trepidation. That soon passes. In fact the constant hum of the bees rapidly becomes a calming background note to an idyllic setting. Their to-ing and fro-ing and the pervasive waft of raw honey from the hive becomes a delightful aspect among many other scents, sounds and sights of an idyllic afternoon in the garden of a century-old house on a Sullivan County lane.
This is where Kelley Edkins of Honeybee Herbs makes her home, along with her partner Brian, a thick-bearded and affable musician, computer programmer and angler. He helps her run Honeybee and joins her on foraging missions to find wild herbs, plants and vegetables.
Raised between the Catskills and Staten Island, Edkins makes her living as a gardener, herbalist, medicine-woman and beekeeper in Roscoe, NY. Gardening is her primary occupation and she works closely with her clients to coax from their land not just produce and herbs, but aesthetic pleasure.
“I started building gardens in 1999,” she explains. “I became a master gardener and ended up concentrating on sustainable permaculture designs.” Before it was widely understood, she followed a strictly non-invasive approach to horticulture. Her trained eye can now survey the terrain and assess where the presence of groundwater will help a garden, or its lack, conversely, hamper it. Her bare feet further assist, telling her what she needs to know about the nature of the soil, determining dry areas and those that are saturated from gravity-fed water run-off.
I began to specialize in gardens because the honey bees were disappearing. I felt the need to chose plants specifically for honeybees and my clients gave me that creative freedom.
As for tools, compost and worms are her primary ones; they’re far more efficient at preparing a good base than digging through top-soil and adding fertilizer. The end result: gardens that function like natural, fertile meadows.
Edkins’s grandmother was also a gardener, and although the gene skipped a generation, she recalls an affinity for the soil from her youth. The attraction led to formal study which in turn developed into a business once Edkins moved to the country to raise her son after a separation. She acquired her knowledge of herbs from an herbalist with whom she’s been studying for 20 years. Her work with bees began as a mission of salvation.
“I began to specialize in gardens because the honey bees were disappearing,” Edkins explains. “I felt the need to chose plants specifically for honeybees and my clients gave me that creative freedom.” In her own garden, she and Brian maintain a symbiotic relationship with the bees; the heirloom herbs feed the honeybees, the bees provide pollination services. While Edkins prepares and sells herbs and tisanes made from plants she grows, she will only occasionally harvest and sell honey and wax from the bees, and only then if there is a surfeit after the winter has passed. She prefers not to see the bees as milch-cows but as co-workers and almost friends.
Edkins’s approach to sustainability and natural symbiosis, once viewed as somewhat wacky, is now understood to be a horticulture method that’s both viable and valuable. Her at-one-with-nature attitude is infectious. As I said goodbye at the end of my visit I went over to study the hives, with my face only a few inches from the “doorway” where the drones enter and leave, something I would have been loath to do just an hour earlier. But by that point, after bidding adieu to both Kelley and Brian, I felt I couldn’t leave without acknowledging the rest of her team too.