Dressed in matching khaki-colored Dickies work clothes, a blue trucker’s hat, and grey Velcro athletic shoes, Virl Dowdy, 77, leads me through a dark, un-air conditioned room. Opening the back door of his house on this bracingly hot day in central Phoenix, we step out into an oasis teeming with life. It won’t make the cover of “Home and Garden” magazine, but Dowdy’s rumpled, cinderblock-walled backyard palpably hums with abundance.
Against the far wall a lush garden of tomato and elephant-eared squash plants creeps out of its boundaries. A thick, 10-year-old grape vine springs from the shade of a citrus tree and up into the branches of a neighboring ash tree. A fountain gurgles audibly from the shadiest corner of the patio.
And everywhere bees float lazily by. They are not dense enough to cause alarm, but every direction you look you catch a bee on its way somewhere. They’re emanating from a sort of bee grotto in a corner of the yard: a mishmash of white-painted bee boxes, frames, and drums crowded in the shade of an orange tree. From one or two horizontal slits in the boxes bees coalesce on their way in an out.
Dowdy has kept bees in the Valley for over 40 years, and bottles honey right here in his small suburban backyard. The few hives that add life to his verdant backyard are merely for breeding queen bees: his main honey crop comes from 50 hives foraging his land along the Gila River in Buckeye. To see Dowdy’s tiny honey operation is to learn what honey harvesting is all about on its most basic level.
Beekeeping has always been a part-time vocation. His main gig throughout life was operating heavy equipment during some of the headiest times of Phoenix’s growth. Dowdy worked for legendary developer Del Webb for 15 years, and helped upgrade the Salt River dams in the 70s.
“Bell Road got paved since I was here,” Dowdy says.
His beekeeping career in Arizona began when a foreman on a construction site in Chandler asked if anyone wanted to take home a couple of beehives that had taken up residence at the jobsite. Dowdy had previous exposure to bees that gave him the wherewithal to wrangle the unwanted hives.
As a boy in rural Eastern Oregon, Dowdy and his grandfather harvested wild beehives from cottonwood trees. In the dead of winter, when the bees were least active, they would split a slab off the tree and collect the honeycomb in a washtub.
“We didn’t have no suits or no protective clothing, but we didn’t do this until winter time. We used the wintertime as our protection,” he says
Being careful to leave enough honey for the bees to survive the rest of the winter, they would replace the slab and wrap a wire around it to keep it in place so they could come back the next year. Back at home Dowdy and his grandfather would ball up the honeycomb and squeeze it out by hand. The balls would then get melted down for candles. The wild honey was a welcome boon.
“Peanut butter and honey is a good snack when you got 13 kids in the family,” Dowdy says.
Dowdy’s backyard operation today is a bit more sophisticated, yet still very simple. Frames of ripe honeycomb are brought up from Buckeye in the back of his pick-up truck. In a small white shed a specialized machine shaves the caps off the honeycomb and collects whatever drips off. Once uncapped, a crude centrifuge spins the honeycomb in a tub to extract the rest of the honey through centrifugal force. Finally, the honey goes into a small bottling tank. Dowdy points to a black mesh screen on top of the tank, like a screen door’s screen, explaining that this is the finest filtration the honey gets.
Dowdy pulls up a stool to the bottling tank and sits down to give me a fresh pour of the latest honey crop. The honey dropping out of the spout is a light greenish tint. This early crop, Dowdy says, is gathered from salt cedar, which, interestingly, is an invasive species that has sprung up along rivers and streams throughout the American West. It has a mild, slightly salty flavor.
This is the whole honey: the raw, unheated, unprocessed honey that is increasingly prized by natural food lovers and those interested in natural remedies. You can see little specks floating in the sweet medium. It contains everything: the pollen, the live enzymes, bits of beeswax, and propolis, a resin collected by bees and used to seal spaces around the hive.
After a few moments he hands me my prize: an unlabeled plastic bottle of cloudy light colored honey. When he sells this he’ll put his name and phone number on the bottle, as required by law. This is a true backyard operation: the honey in the bottle has only made a small 10 foot circuit around the white shed from the time honeycomb was brought in to the time it was bottled.