The word “honeymoon” is thought to come from ancient societies that followed the lunar calendar. When a couple wed, they would often spend the first month of married life celebrating their new love with mead, a honey-based drink.
Celebrating the sweet life together for almost thirty years, painter and beekeeper Gayle Prevatt and sculptor Enzo Torcoletti cherish the native wilds of the First Coast. When the two artists met all those years ago, Enzo owned a beautiful piece of land in St. Augustine on Moultrie Creek, just south of US 1. Situated on a little bluff, the couple has lived there for almost three decades, off the beaten path. “When we moved to Moultrie in 1985, there was nothing but woods on US 1 in this area.” Prevatt says.
Tucked away from the hubbub of suburbia that sprawls along US 1, Moultrie maintains its rich history. In the late 1700s, when Britain gained control over Florida, the British dubbed Moultrie “Woodcutter’s Creek” due to its vibrant timber trade. A rich agricultural community blossomed along the banks of the meandering waterway. Vineyards, a winery, a turpentine camp, citrus groves, and small farms of pioneering Floridians took root. The area is ripe with a rich history that continues on today. The artists’ home was built from the old lumber of a speakeasy and dancehall that stood on stilts in the creek during prohibition. According to Prevatt, some of the descendants of the region’s original settlers still live in the area. The neighborhood has managed to create an oasis that still resonates with the wild beauty of old Florida, and the native flora that flourishes in the area produces some of the finest honey on the First Coast.
Wild cherry. Wild plum. Wild persimmon. These are just some of the flowering trees that grow on the little bluff on the creek that Prevatt and her husband call home. “It is the wild flowering trees on our property that provide a major source of nectar for our bees,” she says.
The natural world has served Prevatt as a source of inspiration since her youth. When she was a child her grandfather, a world traveler, collected seeds and plants as souvenirs from each place he ventured. He cultivated a tropical garden in his yard that served as a place of childhood wonder.
“As a child, I was amazed by his yard. My grandfather shared with me how beautiful nature is and growing up I planted seeds everywhere.” Prevatt says. The lessons she learned from her grandfather have served her well as a beekeeper.
“Gallberry is a swamp shrub that grows on the creek. It makes a delicious tangy honey,” she says. The flavor of honey is cultivated by the type of nectar that bees gather from flowers, saps, and honeydew (a liquid produced by certain aphids). Flowers are the major contributor to a honey’s taste and aroma, and climate determines when blossoms bloom. “Every year the flavor of the honey changes according to the blooms,” says Prevatt. “This year it was too cold, so the bees used early honey to feed their babies.”
In the summers, Prevatt and Torcoletti visit their second home in Abbadia di Naro, located in the Italian province of Pesaro. In 2009, as a student of the University of Florida Master Beekeeper Program, Prevatt decided to make foreign beekeeping her focus. Knowing that some of her Italian neighbors were beekeepers, during one summer she seized the opportunity for research. After photographing some apiaries in the community, she says she decided to go a little deeper. “I just walked up to their house and asked if they would be willing to share with me. They taught me many things. For example, they have a different way of raising their queens, and know how to grow queens.”
According to Prevatt, beekeepers in Italy receive support from their government, such as funding for beekeeping festivals and free testing of bees. “In Europe bees are considered very medicinal and are highly revered,” Prevatt says. Northern Italy is known for its Acacia honey. In its pure form it is a very pale honey, and it is recognized for healing properties such as detoxing the liver, gastrointestinal relief, and boosting respiratory health.
Some of Prevatt’s favorite varieties of honey come from Europe. “I love honey with distinct flavors. Someone once gave me a tiny jar of honey from France, and I was so surprised to taste that it was thyme honey,” she says. The honey she makes at home in Moultrie is laced with flavors like Gallberry, Loquat, wild cherry and persimmon, just to name of few.
But it isn’t just about enjoying the delicious fruits of her labor. For Prevatt, beekeeping is almost a sort of meditation. “It forces you to slow down and be in tune with nature. You have to adjust to the bees, and when you do there is a beautiful harmony that takes place,” she says. “You lose yourself in that moment of tending for them and you are really at one with nature.”
It takes a certain type of person to be a successful beekeeper. Handling swarms of stinging insects is not for the faint of heart. You have to be tenacious and focused. The work is laborious and requires stamina. “The physical labor can be really demanding, particularly the lifting. You have to get yourself physically up to the task.” Prevatt says. While individual strength is essential, a community of support best serves a beekeeper as a way to draw knowledge from experience. Prevatt says, “People who are beekeepers are disciplined and know how to persevere. I do beekeeping for the love of it, and the friends I have made along the way.”