Novice beekeepers abuzz about business options
By JOHN CARLSON
The Star Press
MUNCIE, Ind. (AP) -- Looking a little like spacemen in their protective suits and masks, Stephen Hunter and Dave Bilger slowly carried the white wooden boxes before them, disappeared around a mound of earth, then approached the stacked containers housing their buzzing beehives.
Minutes later, hundreds of bees were swarming around them, while countless thousands of others went about the constant business of making honey.
Last year, these fledgling beekeepers harvested about 60 gallons of the sweet, golden stuff.
"It's really kind of a miracle of nature," said Hunter, whose day job is being information technology manager at Ontario Systems. He noted that in and of itself, honey can keep a man alive, and that it never spoils, having even been found in usable shape in Egyptian pyramids with the simple addition of a splash of water.
"Honey never goes bad," he said.
It's also a natural sustainable resource that two guys can employ and profit from without investing a lot of capital.
"For me, it just fits with 'What else can I make myself?'" said Bilger, operations manager at Lifetouch and a local brewer who, along with Derrick Ayers, writes The Star Press' Talking Pints beer column.
The two started their company, Honey Rock Farms, last spring.
"We'd been talking about it for a number of years," Bilger noted of their plans for the business. "The work's only hard at the end of the season, when you're carrying 70-pound boxes of honey home."
Smiling, Hunter agreed.
"We've got 40,000 to 60,000 employees in each hive we have," he said, with satisfaction, of their bees. "We don't pay 'em a dime, but we give 'em a nice place to live."
That's what they were tending to this day as they approached the hives, 10 or 12 of which they maintain, bearing those boxes. The boxes, called "supers," held the removable panels on which the bees store their honey.
"When they consider the honey done, they cap it with wax," Hunter said.
Taking the box off the hive at harvest time, they blow the bees away with an old leaf blower, knock off the bees' wax caps, put the heavily-honeyed panels in a centrifuge owned by one of their mentors, Brad Truax, and hit the "on" button.
"The motor spins that all around fast," Bilger said. "It runs down to the bottom of the cylinder. You pour that honey into a bucket and it's ready to go."
These days, the two have hives at Hunter's grandfather's place in Mount Pleasant and near some woods on the farm of another mentor, well-known farmer Bill Frazier, a longtime beekeeper whose hives include one he inherited from his grandfather 50 years ago.
While Hunter and Bilger do some of his heavy lifting these days, he is still in the bee business.
"I get bit every once in a while," acknowledged Frazier, a former paratrooper and longtime political activist.
As for Hunter and Bilger, they have been stung five or six times.
"Our running joke is, 'You know, we're not gonna be here that long, we don't have to suit up,'" Bilger said. "That's when we get stung."
Besides giving them a place for their beehives, Frazier is something of a link to the folklore of beekeeping, which he proved by reciting some old beekeeper's sayings that could have come from the Farmer's Almanac: "A swarm of bees in May, is worth a bale of hay," he said. "A swarm of bees in June, is worth a silver spoon. A swarm of bees in July, let them fly."
"That means in July, they're usually not going to do anything," Frazier explained.
Sometimes, though, the bees will produce honey for late July or early August, a second chance to harvest following the normal June harvest. Last year, the two young beekeepers know, was considered a bumper crop.
With the bounty of their hives, Hunter and Bilger, both of whom are married and the fathers of two, sell their honey in half-pints, pints (which cost $7.50) and quarts, and also sell a pump that dispenses it without a mess.
"We actually have a restaurant using these," Hunter said.
Interestingly, the nectar the bees collect from various flowers near their hives will change the honey they produce. Opening a small bottle, Hunter offered wooden dipping sticks to share delicious tastes of slightly mint-flavored honey colored pale gold, while noting other honeys can look more like maple syrup.
"The flavor range is pretty impressive," Bilger said.
Meanwhile, the two are looking ahead to eventually offering more organic, high-quality, sustainable agricultural products through their business, even to the point of Angus beef.
"Honeybees," Hunter said, "is step one."