Christina Fabris is serious about her honey. In the chill of the Wilmington warehouse workspace she shares with husband Joe Csoltko, she extracts from a warming cabinet delicate jars and specialized vessels of varieties with names like Smokin’ Hot Honey Child and Bite of Venus, discussing their origins, infusions and terroir like a sommelier.
Even with the creative infusions of things like lavender and saffron, “we want the honey to be the flavor and have the other hints come and go,” Fabris says. “It can be whatever you want it to be.”
Fabris, a general contractor by day, comes to her role as apiarist—beekeeper to the rest of us—honestly, learning about how the pursuit combines agriculture and environmental stewardship from her Italian uncle, Alfonso Fabris, and local Ray Walker, who she describes as the couple’s “beekeeping mentor and guru.” Csoltko, a hydrogeologist, brings to the team his own passion for honey plus a scientist’s eye for observation and data collection. Together they run Iris & Callisto’s Apiary and their spinoff apiary service, Bee Api.
Offering honey samples on sustainably manufactured wooden tasting spoons, Fabris notes how each variety bears a special character based on the season in which it was created and the plants the bees traveled to. The world of high-quality honey is built on such things, but here on 3rd Street in a light industrial corner of Wilmington’s east side, it means even more. With no acres of rolling meadows, forests or pastures from which to gather nectar, the couple’s bees thrive on what they gather from urban foliage, community and backyard gardens, and the slices of nature afforded them in city parks and along the rivers, returning to the couple’s rooftop hives to do their work.
“If you’re out in Middletown or up in Lancaster County, you’ve got fields and woods and you know more or less where the bees are going and what are the predominant blooms,” Fabris says. “Here, there are lots of beautiful areas for bees to go, but we don’t know what’s in everyone’s backyard. We don’t know what every urban garden has. We can get our honey and say we taste these flavor profiles, but when it’s urban it’s tricky. It’s not like just going out into a field and saying, ‘This is all alfalfa.’”
With the help of modern technology that allows them to passively observe the life of the hive and the bees’ comings and goings, the old ways of beekeeping are carried forward in this distinctly urban setting. Examining their bees’ pollen under a microscope helps them learn their bees’ daily destinations and understand what influences the flavor.
The brightly painted hives on the roof of their warehouse serve as a beacon to those coming and going on the nearby train tracks. And through their own neighborhood outreach, they’re helping students from places as diverse as local farmers markets, The Tatnall School and public schools in their neighborhood understand the important role bees play in the city’s ecology.
“We kind of nerd out and try to teach kids how to do the things we learned to do in college” to understand a honey’s origins, Csoltko says. He adds with a laugh, “We’re trying to do something different from the little plastic bear.”
Published as “A Buzzworthy Pursuit” in the April 2020 issue of Delaware Today magazine.