Food & DrinkFood Features

Queen’s Orders Honey Brings Beekeeping to the Public

Local apiary offers service so residents can help save the bees

Justin Orders shows off one of his bee hives
Justin Orders shows off one of his bee hives. (Photo by Kandice Jones)

Justin Orders has been into bugs for as long as he can remember. While other kids got into video games or basketball, he was in his backyard, flipping over rocks and seeing what scurried beneath. One day, Orders’ dad found a hornet and showed it to his son. Orders’ immediate reaction was to touch the insect, and sure enough, he got stung.

“Other kids that young would have been traumatized,” Orders says, but the sting spurred his curiosity about backyard creatures we encounter often but rarely understand, particularly honeybees.

“A lot of people are a little bit afraid of insects,” Orders offers. “Whatever that is that’s innate in other people — I don’t have it.”

By the time he reached his late twenties, Orders had funneled his boyhood combination of fearlessness and fascination into bees and beekeeping. He launched Queen’s Orders Honey, LLC, a local apiary, in 2020, and while he sells his local honey at area farmers markets, he says that’s not why he’s in the field.

“I didn’t get into beekeeping for the honey game,” says Orders, now 30 years old. 

Instead, he wanted to help save the honeybees from climate and environmental pressures, while learning more about the fascinating insects and sharing his discoveries with others. To that end, the North Carolina certified beekeeper’s business provides services like swarm removal and events like hive tours, school demos and educational presentations. Most important, Queen’s Orders Honey offers its innovative Hive Host program, allowing residents around Charlotte with no experience to do their part in helping save the bees.

Under the program, a customer can purchase up to three bee hives for their yard. Then in the spring and throughout the summer, Orders comes by to do weekly hive upkeep. During the fall, hive maintenance is done on a biweekly basis.

“I don’t want to be the one that has all the bees,” Orders says. “I want as many people as possible to have them. They’re incredibly important to our agricultural system.”

The problem, as Orders sees it, is that people interested in beekeeping often don’t know where to start, or can’t afford the significant costs of keeping bees. Others like to host hives on their property but can’t handle the backbreaking work that goes into maintaining them.

With the Hive Host program, people can skip the work and still get the benefits of beekeeping — pollinators at work in their yard, a buzzing conversation piece to show off to friends and neighbors and, of course, the honey.

“At the end of the year, no matter how much honey your bees collect, I will bottle and give to you for you to distribute or use however you want — maybe put your own label on it,” Orders says. In addition, customers can also learn to work the hives alongside Orders. He says he’s delighted to mentor others in the trade, just as others mentored him when he started out.

“So long as they get a [protective] suit and have the willingness to come out and watch me whenever I do inspections, we’ll get them warmed up to the process where they can keep bees by themselves,” Orders says.

From bug boy to hive splitter

Growing up in Charlotte, Orders would often try to scare his sister by threatening to put spiders in her bed. 

“I never did that,” he says, “but she definitely believed me.”

Soon, however, Orders elevated his passion beyond teasing siblings. He hoped to attend North Carolina State University in Raleigh to major in entomology, but those plans didn’t work out. Instead, Orders attended the University of North Carolina at Charlotte to study biology.

It wasn’t a good fit. Orders didn’t like the idea of going to school for another four years to ultimately work in a lab writing research papers. Dropping out of college, Orders was at loose ends until he started doing volunteer work at Discovery Place Nature. It was there that he first saw inside a hive, and his mind was blown.

“It rooted [me] in the things that made me happy as a kid,” Orders says.

Justin Orders tends to a bee hive
Justin Orders wears a beekeeping suit while tending to a hive. (Photo by Kandice Jones)

One month later, he bought his first hive. Orders credits the advice and help he received from local beekeepers, in particular the person who sold him the hive, Tommy Helms of Helms Apiary, who is now the president of the Mecklenburg County Beekeepers Association. From the start, Orders was entranced with his new hobby. He also had no idea what he was doing.

“I got stung a lot more in that first year than I have in later years,” Orders says. “Bee people get stung on average every other day. Every job has parts of it that suck.” 

In that first year, Orders made plenty of mistakes, like mixing bees from one hive with another. 

“They’re used to one queen,” he says. “If you mix [a queen] with another hive, they’re going to kill that queen.” He also tried to do quick tasks without wearing any protective equipment, only to be stung for not doing his tasks calmly.

Honeybees die when they sting you, Orders explains. That stinger, however, has a life of its own. Once released from the body of the bee, the stinger digs deeper into your skin, depositing more and more poison from its venom sac. The remedy is to pluck the stinger out as soon as possible. 

“Having it [dig] in there a couple seconds is way better than a whole minute or two,” he says. 

Orders soon learned to divert a stinging swarm with smoke. Smoke masks the pheromones bees release when they sting. 

“[The] pheromone smells a lot like bananas,” Orders says. “I can smell it through my veil.” 

The pheromone lets other bees know that a person is a threat, and to sting them specifically in the spot where the pheromone has marked them. With enough smoke dispersed near the strike zone, bees can no longer smell the pheromone.

Contrary to popular belief, however, smoke does not calm a hive. Rather, it puts aggressive bees into a panic that the hive is on fire. They become less preoccupied with stinging an inexperienced beekeeper, and more on filling their honey stomachs, a spherical organ in their abdomens that stores food, with honey. 

“They [think] they have to leave because the hive is on fire,” Orders explains. “They fill their stomachs with honey to take to a new location.” 

That said, Orders uses smoke near his body, rather than close to the hive. Too much smoke can damage a bee’s breathing, so he uses it sparingly.

Bees don’t so much as make honey, Orders says, as they forage it. Worker bees extract nectar from flowers, storing it in their honey stomachs. They bring it back to the hive and put it into the comb. Comb is a wax they secrete from their wax glands, which is basically concrete for the hive. 

As nectar grows scarce later in the season, bees become opportunistic foragers. They can get “nectar” from a half-empty soda on the street, or a Snickers bar. Orders says he’s been called to remove a swarm from a trash can. Bees can travel up to two miles for food, and in its lifetime, a worker bee might only extract 1/12 teaspoon of honey.

Despite stormy and cold weather — Hurricane Florence caused flooding throughout the state, and Orders remembers an especially brutal winter snowfall — his hive not only survived, but multiplied. The bees did not die from the cold, and Orders was able to acquire a second hive through splitting the first one.

A lineup of honeybee hives
Honeybee hives (Photo by Kandice Jones)

Splitting, Orders explains, is a way of directing a queen bee’s innate instinct to swarm. Usually, swarming results when the queen decides the hive has grown too crowded. She then lays an egg. As the egg becomes larval and starts to pupate, the worker bees start feeding the pupa a white milky substance they produce called royal jelly. As the pupa eats the  royal jelly she develops into a queen.

“The old queen … will need to get out of there, or else she’s going to have to fight that other queen, [or] the bees will kill the weaker of the queens,” Orders says. When the old queen leaves, some of the bees will leave with her, but instead of letting the bees swarm up into a tree, a beekeeper will divert the queen and worker bees into another hive.

“I’ll take a third to maybe half of the bees with the queen that wants to swarm, and put her into a box, and move it a little way from the [old] hive,” Orders says. “It gives her the presentation that she has swarmed, even though she hasn’t flown anywhere. Now, all the bees are happy. They feel like they’re in a new spot.”

A sweet business

After a year of near catastrophes that almost cost him his hives, Orders decided to get more  education in his chosen field. That winter, he attended bee school held by the local chapter of the Mecklenburg County Beekeepers Association and became a certified beekeeper. Orders praises the 500-plus strong association whose membership ranges from hobbyists with only a few hives to commercial honey producers with thousands of hives. 

The organization carries on a grand tradition of human endeavor. Prehistoric farmers started collecting honey and other bee products 9,000 years ago in what is now Turkey. Honeycombs and swarms of bees can be seen depicted in neolithic cave paintings. 

Orders is so appreciative of what the organization has done for him that he has frequently served as a mentor to his fellow bee school graduates.

Over the course of 2019, Orders turned his two hives into six. One of those hives was populated by a swarm Orders captured from a tree limb. By the end of 2020, he had a total of 12 hives in his backyard apiary in his Charlotte house near the Whitewater Center. The hives yielded 250 pounds of honey. 

That was the first year Orders sold honey. With a speed that surprised him, he sold all his stock to friends and from his doorstep, with no more advertising than a handmade ‘Honey for Sale’ sign in his yard.

Going into the 2021 season, Orders had over 20 hives based on splits and catching other people’s swarms. He then produced 600 pounds of honey, which he was able to sell once again from his doorstep and to friends and family. That year he tested the commercial waters at his first farmers market in University City. 

At that point, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, job security was growing less stable. Orders was employed as a veterinary technician, but he could see the employment market contracting.

“In early 2021, I quit my job as a vet tech … and started my own business, Queen’s Orders Honey, LLC,” Orders says. “I haven’t looked back since.”

In April 2022, Orders moved to his current house in Huntersville, relocating much of his apiary. There are still a few hives remaining at his original Charlotte location.

Orders currently sells honey at the Kannapolis Farmers Market every Thursday and the Huntersville Growers’ Market on Tuesdays. He will be at the South End Farmers Market on July 16 and the Homegrown Tomato Festival on the Central Piedmont Community College campus in Uptown on July 23.   

“The honey sells well, but that’s not all I do,” Orders says. 

He points to other services his company offers, and takes great pleasure in giving presentations, particularly in-person events. He has presented at schools, mainly elementary schools, and at gardening programs. On a recent Friday afternoon, Orders gave a backyard presentation  for a group of people at a friend’s home. 

Justin Orders sells honey out of a vendor booth
Justin Orders sells his honey under the name Queen’s Orders Honey, which also serves as his beekeeping business. (Photo by Kandice Jones)

“I love talking about bees,” he says. “It never gets old.” He gives apiary tours when people come to pick up honey from his home, and as a yoga instructor, he started studying the feasibility of doing yoga classes by the apiary.

“Instead of yoga with goats this would be yoga with bees,” he says.

The Hive Host Program, launched in 2021, is the service that Orders seems most proud of, perhaps because it gives nascent beekeepers a chance to experience what can be a prohibitively expensive hobby or career. 

“[Beekeeping] is expensive upfront, and if you don’t know what you’re doing, you’re probably going to end up spending even more,” Orders says. “A lot of people I’ve mentored through bee school call me and say, ‘I can’t keep the bees anymore. I’m selling them off.’”

While Orders keeps an eye on expenses, his business is as much about passion as it is about profit. When it comes to honeybees and their importance to humanity, he’s a man on a mission

“Honeybees make a third of the food that you’re going to eat for any given meal,” Orders says. “They make that by being able to pollinate. I don’t think we have the technology to manually pollinate thousands of flowers every day.”

He hasn’t lost his boyhood fascination for insects either, calling honeybees unique among the insect world. 

“Just being surrounded by [bees] is almost therapy,” Orders says. “You get a glimpse into something that’s so unlike what we normally see in our day to day experience. It’s eye-opening, enlightening and a little bit scary.”

“Every time I go out to my hives I learn something new; I see something new,” he says. “I get to do what I’ve loved ever since I was a kid — playing with bugs.”

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