DAVIS, Ill. (AP) — At dawn a worker bee moves to the outer lip of the hive box, grooms a last few bits of pollen from her hair and takes flight.
Within minutes, thousands of other workers will follow. Each will gather a few precious drops of golden nectar, return to the hive, deliver their cargo to a pantry bee and return to the fields.
The pantry bees will store the nectar in cells. Still other bees assigned to ventilator duty will fan the cells with their wings, evaporating the excess moisture until the nectar ripens as honey. Housekeeper bees then cap the cells with the purest white wax, assuring the colony enough food to survive another winter.
Phillip Raines and his family keep bees near Davis. Raines, who has been a beekeeper for 15 years, manages about 600 hives.
“Some die out over the winter, but I build them back,” Raines said. “My bees are healthy. There are still battles with mites, and there is a growing problem with mite-borne viruses, but I am doing well.”
The Raines family bottles and distributes products as Raines Honey Farm. In addition to raw unpasteurized honey, the family has beeswax candles, soaps, lotions and lip balms. Customers can also special order bee pollen and propolis, a natural antimicrobial high in antioxidants.
Raines said restaurants buy hundreds of pounds of honey a month in an effort to add farm-to-table items to their menus.
“We are finding very talented chefs who are creating dishes like ricotta cheese drizzled with honey, honey-infused whipped creams, toast drizzled with honey and herbed olive oil, and even drinks like honey lemonades with a little vodka added,” Raines said. “The things they are doing are just amazing.”
Sharon Raines, Phillip’s wife, was running the family honey stand at a recent indoor farmers’ market at Lou Bachrodt Automall in Cherry Valley. She said this winter has been hard on their colonies. They took about 300 south to winter in Mississippi. Those hives are doing well and will return to Illinois soon.
“We leave a lot of honey in the hives for the bees in the fall,” she said. “We don’t take extra wax out either, so they don’t have to work as hard in the early spring.”
Sharon and Phillip depend on a wide variety of clovers and wildflowers to get the flavor their customers want.
“We try to stick to placing our colonies on organic farms and forest preserves that have a lot of wildflowers,” she said.
Sharon Raines said the business typically has four types of customers — those who want good-tasting honey, the health conscious who use honey as a remedy for their allergies, parents who use honey as an alternative to sugar and those who use honey as a secondary health product like burn salves and ointments.
“Our lip balms are doing very well, too,” she said. “It contains a secret bee-made ingredient that works as an anti-astringent. It’s long-lasting and heals chapped lips faster than the commercial brands on the market.”
She said her family has a number of favorite uses for their honey.
“We use honey in tea,” Raines said. “We use it instead of sugar, particularly in chili, and our son Anthony loves honey with peanut butter sandwiches.”