A Day in the Life of Urban Beekeeper and Honey Producer Joc Rawls of Bridle Path Beeyard

Bridle Path Beeyard's owner and beekeeper, Joc Rawls.
Bridle Path Beeyard's owner and beekeeper, Joc Rawls. Bahar Anooshahr
Bridle Path Beeyard, recently mentioned in a list of the best honey vendors in Arizona, is an urban bee garden and honey vendor owned by veterinarian Joc Rawls.

Rawls developed an interest in beekeeping in high school and kept bees for nearly five years. He paused to start his veterinary career, then resumed in 2015. Now, living in uptown Phoenix, Rawls cares for four main colonies and two smaller nucleus colonies right in his backyard. The result: jarred honey with the label Bridle Path Beeyard.

Much like wine, honey’s characteristics rely on its terroir, the environment it's produced in. The type of flower and pollen bees use impart flavor, fragrance, and color to the honey. That means the honey Rawls’ bees produce is a true taste of central Phoenix.

click to enlarge Rawls inspects the hives every 10 days. - BAHAR ANOOSHAHR
Rawls inspects the hives every 10 days.
Bahar Anooshahr
Rawls' gentle treatment of the bees since the business officially started in 2016 has endeared him even to vegans. Here's how he does it.

Rawls inspects his six hives, or boxes, every 10 days. To do this without harm to himself or the bees, he subdues them with smoke. He uses newspaper or burlap and wood pellets in his bee smoker — a stainless steel canister with a spout and bellows. He suits up, walks to the hives, squeezes the bellows, and puffs smoke around the hive to let the bees know he’s approaching.

“Bees are like us. They have good days and bad days,” Rawls says. “If I open the hives and they are a little testy and the hive has been doing well historically, I’ll just close it back up.”

The smoke does two things. Bees feeling threatened release a pheromone that prepares them to attack the intruder, but the smoke temporarily dampens their sense of smell. The smoke also signals a forest fire, making worker bees consume the honey for energy to flee the hive. Bees with full bellies are less likely to pick a fight.

Now, Rawls can get to work.

On a recent visit, the bees were behaving themselves. Just below the lid, there’s a rectangular mesh frame. He gives little puffs over the mesh and opens it as he gently talks to the bees. “Hey girls, how are we doing today?” He visually examines the bees for Varroa destructor, a parasitic mite that can destroy hives.

click to enlarge Some cells in the frame are already filled with honey. - BAHAR ANOOSHAHR
Some cells in the frame are already filled with honey.
Bahar Anooshahr
Rawls also inspects the health of the hive and the broods, which he refers to as "baby bees." To achieve this, he has to physically break the seals of the propolis (or bee glue) and remove a few frames, though not any propolis. Propolis helps the structure of the hive and seals it from, say, ants. Since this process is disruptive to the bees, he only does it on these visits. Thus, the bees only have to redistribute it rather than remaking it.

When Rawls holds out the frame, some parts look opaque. Those cells are filled with honey and capped with wax.

“Looking at a hive is like looking at a living organism,” Rawls says. “You have to use surgical precision to take frames out and evaluate them without harming the bees in the process.”

Each box has eight frames, compared to 10 in commercial boxes.

Up above, a few worker bees are flying home from gathering nectar. But no drones, the males in the colony, are visible during this inspection. When Rawls is satisfied with the health of the bees and the hive, he closes things back up.

Though these bees typically forage for Phoenix flowers roughly 2 miles from the hive, some have ventured two to three times farther. Rawls says these bees can fly as far as Grand Canyon University to the west, the Heard Museum to the south, Wrigley Mansion to the east, and Central Avenue, between Northern and Dunlap avenues, to the north, They produce about 35 to 64 gallons of honey (400 to 600 pounds) annually.

click to enlarge Ready-to-sell honey from Bridle Path Beeyard. - BRIDLE PATH BEEYARD
Ready-to-sell honey from Bridle Path Beeyard.
Bridle Path Beeyard
“I actually have monitors on my hives to record their weight,” Rawls says. “This permits me to ensure each hive is at least a total weight of 100 pounds or more." That weight ensures the colony is healthy going into late summer, fall, and winter.

So what does this Phoenix terroir produce? Rawls brings out a jar of light amber-colored honey.

A warm butterscotch scent wafts from the liquid upon opening. Removing the dipped tasting stick (wooden, like a coffee stirrer) results in ribbons of the viscous liquid falling back into the jar. It has a buttery taste with some mellow sweetness.

You immediately start thinking of all the recipes you want to use it in. But there's no rush. The flavor can deepen over time, right in your cupboard.

Bridle Path Beeyard honey can be purchased online or by calling 602-622-9300, or can be picked up on-site at 5533 North Central Avenue. Jars can also be found on the community tables at Uptown Farmers' Market and Downtown Phoenix Farmers Market.
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