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The Sweet Life

How Legendary UT Football Coach Phillip Fulmer Cares for Honeybees

Amy: Thank you for sparing time to talk with me about honeybees. I know that this is something that you do for fun, and I appreciate you sharing. 

Phil: I’m glad to be here, and I hope the little bit I know about them we can share with people and make them more interested in what the honeybee does for us. If they weren’t here, we’d have a difficult time of surviving because they do so many good things for us. It’s important that we pay attention to our environment and to what is causing the different issues that the bees are having. 

A: How did you get into this?

P: One of my great friends and former teammates Larry Johnston, who is a Maryvillian as well, said, “Hey, I’m having a good time with these honeybees and now that you’re retired you should do it with me.” This was after I left UT as a coach. I’ve always been fascinated by bees, and my grandparents kept big gardens, so I understood pollination and what the bees did generally. Larry said it doesn’t take much time, which is not exactly right, but it doesn’t take a ton of time. So, I decided to try it, and I really enjoyed it. I think we are also doing some good things for our family because I wanted my children, and particularly my grandchildren, to appreciate nature. We have a big enough place with room for the bees. We started off with a 60x60 garden, and they help me in the garden and the bees, which is precious and fun. We are fortunate to have most of our grandchildren close, so we enjoy it. Mike Smith here in town, who is my mentor, was nice enough to come over here and teach me everything. He’s been one of those guys that you can count on.

A: I’m so glad you have your grandkids into this because they will learn from you, and they will carry this on. That’s what all of this is about, isn’t it?

P: Well, it really is. The time I spent as a coach was wonderful. We built hundreds of great relationships with families across the country as kids came to campus, and we did it very much as a family. The kids grew up in it – recruiting and ballgames. It was special for them to be on the sidelines. Vicky insisted on that, and I fought against it a little bit because I didn’t know what they’d hear Dad say down on the sidelines sometimes. But it turned out to be one of the greatest experiences that we did as a family because they understood the commitment and passion, the love and tough times when you don’t win.

I’m not the greatest gardener of all time, but we do get lots of vegetables to enjoy and give away, and the honey process in July or sometimes early August has really been fun. The kids look forward to it. They have their little bee suits and are not afraid, except for one who got a bee in his bonnet one day, and I can’t get him back up there. 

It’s interesting. You get to know the hives because each hive has a personality, probably related to the queen’s personality or age. As long as you don’t bang on them some way or another, they are pretty docile, until you get to a place where they are storing for the winter and then they are protective. There’s not a lot of pollen or blooming left for them to gather so they start being a little bit defensive at that point. I don’t go out there in shorts or a T-shirt, I can promise you that. I found out early on, after I had gotten hooked on how much I enjoy doing it, that I am allergic.  I got stung and swelled up, but I have since had the shots and everything, so if I should get stung again, it shouldn’t bother me. I take great precaution to make sure I don’t get stung and carry an EpiPen with me now. You must be careful. They aren’t out there to bother you unless you bother them.

A: For a beginner, how does someone get started?

P: How you get started is find a good mentor, read about it, and stay with it. You’ve got to commit some time to it. The guys who do it commercially, that’s a full-time job. They’re doing it every day. For me, as a hobby, just pay attention once a week or to see what’s up with them, what stage they are in. I have a big poster in the barn with what each time of year you’re supposed to do what. I also keep it on my calendar. I’m very much a rookie at this, so there are guys who know a lot more than I do.

A: How many hives do you have?

P: I only have two hives now. I’ve had as many as six, and you have all of these different dynamics. Some of them leave or the queen ages… We had a couple of years where we had pests that disrupted them. I plan to have four hives this year.

A: Do you sell your honey?

P: I don’t sell the honey. There’s usually enough for family, and we give it away to friends, that sort of thing. This is a hobby for me. A lot of people have made a good business out of it, and that’s good for all of us. 

A: How do you enjoy eating your honey the best? 

P: Well, I like to have it like my mother used to do with homemade biscuits. In this household, there’s not a lot of homemade biscuits made and that’s probably a good thing, but I’ll have it on toast or cereal. Our children use it for quite a bit of things, and we’ll also cook with it and use it as a substitute for sugar. 

A: Phillip Fulmer, thank you for talking about honeybees and encouraging others.

P: Thank you for bringing it to light. People should be paying attention to nature in general, particularly to our honeybees, which we need for our own existence.

For information on beekeeping and how to find beekeeping clubs near you, visit tnbeekeepers.org

This interview with Coach Phillip Fulmer is also available as a podcast if you would like to listen. Visit Tennesseefarmtable.com, Season 10, Episode 13.

Join Amy Campbell-Rochelson weekly at The Tennessee Farm Table Podcast & Broadcast for stories of Food, Farming, and Folklore. Listen on your schedule by podcast at TennesseeFarmTable.com or listen in on your radio Saturday mornings at 9:00, 89.9. WDVX, Knoxville, 2:00 WUTC, Chattanooga and Sundays at 1:00 from Radio Bristol.

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