The Buzz on Jennings Apiaries
article by Mary Napoli | photography by Brad Arender
The buzzing grows louder as Aaron Jennings gently lifts the top off the wooden box. Thousands of yellow and black bees are revealed, each in perpetual motion. As Jennings loosens one of the four window pane like frames that stand vertically within the box, the noise level increases to a low roar. Bees are now landing on his jacket and veil, but he doesn’t seem to notice. He is much more aware of what lies within the frame he holds. Its an amazing example of one of the many wonders of nature—a golden honeycomb made of perfectly symmetrical, octagonal cells filled with amber-colored sweetness. It is the life’s work of the hive and the livelihood of Jennings Apiaries.
Jennings is a thirty-something Ruston native who is part of a generation that values the wisdom of the past when planning the future. He is a modern homesteader that has consciously chosen a more simple lifestyle than most of society practices. Inspired by a less complicated time when people lived sustainably, he lives and works within nature. He is a treatment-free beekeeper, dedicated to chemical-free practices that now dominate his trade. With his fiancé, Lauren Hoffman, he operates Jennings Apiaries, where the couple tend to over fifty hives of bees. Their all natural practices produce pure, pesticide-free honey for consumption and beeswax that is handcrafted into amazing personal care items.
The entrepreneurial young couple are genuinely friendly and admirably hardworking. Tattooed and bearded, Jennings may not appear to be what you would expect from a farmer’s market vendor. However, the Ruston Farmer’s Market is where he met his wife-to-be, Hoffman, who participates on the Farmer’s Market board. Hoffman’s smile is inviting and warm, and she possesses a contagious energy that is endearing. Jennings has a more quiet intensity, with thoughtful blue eyes and an impressively extensive knowledge of his craft. He is a self-taught, self-starter focused on his path.
“I was a massage therapist for ten years,” explains Jennings. “I became interested in making my own lotions to use with my clients, and learned that most called for beeswax…I started reading about the use of pesticides in bee hives, which I thought was odd. I called around to try to find a beekeeper who didn’t use pesticides or antibiotics, and I couldn’t find one. So I decided to get one hive that I could keep pesticide free and use the beeswax. I thought it would be a hobby, but here we are,” he says looking toward the several boxes that contain hives alive with activity.
Jennings approached his venture with his characteristic inquisitiveness, researching and gathering knowledge in every way he could find. He researched alternative methods that produced healthy bees without pesticides and antibiotics, a reality that is far more common than honey-lovers realize.
“Almost all the honey you would buy today from a store has chemicals in it,” Jennings explains. “In the mid-90s, a mite showed up that lives on bees that could leave them open to disease. It wiped out a lot of commercial operations and devastated honey production. People started using low level insecticides to control the mites, but the problem is that these insecticides are lipophilic and become present in the honey and wax.”
Although it would be more labor intensive, Jennings was dedicated to finding a way to produce honey that did not contain the byproducts of antibiotics and insecticides.
“I decided to breed bees that would not need medication. Yes, we loose bees to mites, but the ones that survive are stronger bees, and therefore produce even stronger bees. In the the short term, medication would keep more bees alive, but in the long term, you aren’t doing anything for yourself or the bees. The bees that I have now are more resilient and stronger than the bees I started with four years ago.”
Jennings’ dedication to keeping the hives treatment-free results in honey that is high-quality and completely natural. He explains that the honey from his hives has a slightly different appearance than honey that is mass produced.
“Honey in stores is really clear,” says Jennings. “Naturally, honey is not very clear. Its got pollen in it, and other stuff. We put it through a filtering process, but its minimal. People often cut corners selling honey. Most of the honey you purchase at large stores is mixed with corn syrup. Our honey is premium priced, but it is premium honey.”
Hoffman often assists Jennings in separating the hives to begin pollinating other areas, as well as gathering the honey from the hives. Like Jennings, she enjoys learning from experience and is well informed on beekeeping.
“There is a variance in the taste and color of honey, depending on what the bees have eaten,” Hoffman points out. “This year, we had the opportunity to pollinate a blueberry farm. The honey was berry colored and had a distinct blueberry smell and a tartness to it. It was incredible.”
“Those are called varietal honeys,” interjects Jennings. “Those require more skill and the right conditions, like a large area with some kind of mono-crop. This coming year, we plan on putting as many hives on a blueberry farm, and it will hopefully produce enough to sell.”
In addition to the all natural honey, which is available for purchase in a beautiful decorative 8 ounce glass bottle, or a 12 or 24 ounce size, Jennings Apiaries also offers a collection of all-natural personal care products that contain beeswax from their hives.
“When we were creating these products, it was very important to us that they are all natural, really effective, and that they are good for sensitive skin, for kids, for people with psoriasis, eczema…I’ve had so many clients who have had to deal with those issues, and we wanted anyone to be able to enjoy these products,” says Jennings.
Jennings focuses his talents on the hives and the health and productivity of the colonies, and Hoffman puts her creative talents to use in designing the all-natural beeswax-based products. Currently, they offer a delightful, moisturizing lip balm and a variety of lotions, balms and salves. The Honeybee Lotion is a standout, with a soothing lavender smell and the texture of a smooth, creamy salve. This lotion can be used on the face and body and even to smooth strands of hair.
The Beard Balm that Hoffman crafts has a woodsy, spruce aroma and contains organic oils that are specifically used to soothe and soften hair. She also produces an Outdoor Balm, which is a natural sunscreen that contains zinc oxide as a natural sunblock and rosemary oil and citronella to repel insects. Each product is totally natural, non-toxic, and completely safe for children. Hoffman artfully creates and packages each product by hand.
“After we collect the frames of honey, we hand crush the comb and strain the honey. Once we’ve squeezed all the honey from the comb, what’s left is the beeswax,” Hoffman reveals. “We rinse it, melt and filter it until it’s pure and the dirt and particles are removed. Once I’m ready to make Beard Balm or Honeybee Lotion, I melt the wax completely and then add the other ingredients, such as organic shea butter, organic coconut oil and organic sweet almond. We also use grapeseed oil upon request for those with nut allergies. Once I’ve mixed the wax and oils, I pour them into tins, label and package them.”
“The lotions you buy in a store are pump-able because of chemicals that have been added, like parabens,” says Jennings. “So, our Honeybee Lotion is maybe different from what you are used to, but its got a really nice texture, and what you are putting on your skin is all natural.”
In addition to the honey and personal care products, Jennings Apiaries also offers comb honey seasonally. They collect the most pristine examples of the comb, which are works of art within themselves. Jennings and Hoffman can be found at the remarkably charming Ruston Farmer’s Market, and their honey can be found in recipes at some on Monroe’s most popular restaurants. Although their success is steadily growing, Jennings and Hoffman remain committed to operating the apiary in an all-natural way that supports the ecosystem.
“For us, its all about quality over quantity,” says Jennings earnestly.
Hoffman nods in agreement and interjects, “We want our bees to have quality of life, also. It all filters down. When the bees are treated well, you get a more pure product that we feel good about selling to other people. The all-natural approach is not easy..It’s a conscious effort to keep them healthy, but it’s a lot more rewarding.”
Jennings Apiaries honey and beeswax is Certified Naturally Grown in Ruston, LA. They can be found on Facebook and Instagram. View their website for purchase information at www.jenningsapiaries.com, and learn more by watching their podcast, “Bees and Such.”