On the Trail of Tupelo Honey, Liquid Gold From the Swamps

Frederick Merriam Jr., 48, is one of those beekeepers who can read the swamp so closely he knows exactly how to produce great Georgia tupelo without having to send it to a lab. He tested his honey when he first started, he said, and it registered as 86 percent pure. But he doesn’t bother anymore.

“It’s easy to fake some honeys, but tupelo you can’t mistake,” he said.

He and his wife, Jackie, own West Meadow Apiary in Tunbridge, Vt. They have nine children, ranging in age from 3 to 18, who live a nomadic, home-schooled life. For six months, the family stays in a southeastern Georgia house near the tupelo trees, surrounded by multicolored hives. The children help out with the business. By June, the family has moved north to Vermont, then returns in November.

The bees move, too. After Mr. Merriam finished the Southern honey season this month, he transported the hives by tractor-trailer to Maine to help pollinate the wild blueberry crop.

Mr. Merriam used to make carriages and sleighs in Vermont, a trade he learned from his grandfather and father, who was an Olympic medalist in equestrian combined driving. He once rebuilt a sleigh for the singer Bryan Adams. Martha Stewart loved his sleigh bells.

Before that, he studied to be a chef at Johnson & Wales University. Mr. Merriam had already started to keep bees when the recession took hold in 2008. He decided to go all in on bees, building up his hives, growing bees for sale and using them to pollinate crops and make honey.

He sells his tupelo only wholesale, except for some the family bottles up for its store in Vermont. “We never have enough,” he said. “It’s sold before we produce it.”

To get the honey, he places hives in 18 secret spots near the Altamaha River. Landowners he has befriended let him park them free, happy for a few jars of honey in return. He processed only about 16,000 pounds of honey this year. The swamps were drier than normal, he said, and the hurricane had hit parts of Georgia tupelo territory, too.

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