With spring’s arrival
With spring’s arrival, there’s a buzz to their business
It’s a busy season for honey producers and their keepers
By DAN BENSON email@example.com, Journal Sentinel
Sunday, May 9, 2004
Don Thill is disturbing his workers. Worker bees, that is.
This is the time of year that Thill and other beekeepers are waking up their bee colonies and putting them back to work.
But the bees can get a little cranky, said Thill, who normally doesn’t bother with gloves or nets when working with his bees.
“Changes in weather make them testy, like when a front is coming in and the temperatures start to drop,” Thill said. “But you’d be testy, too, if someone took the roof off your house just when it was getting windy and cold.”
Spring is a busy time of year for Thill, who has about 75 bee colonies scattered around northern Washington County and southern Fond du Lac County.
It’s a time to remove canvas covers from the hives, strengthen the colonies by feeding them a corn syrup mixture, clean the colonies, make repairs, introduce new queens, split colonies to encourage repopulation, “and pray for warmer weather,” Thill said.
Beekeeping is big business in Wisconsin, compared with most states.
Wisconsin is the eighth-largest producer of honey among the 50 states, generating 5.7 million pounds of honey in 2003, according to the Wisconsin Agricultural Statistics Service.
And that doesn’t include the inestimable economic benefit of pollination, without which most fruit and vegetable crops would be devastated.
For the Rev. Larry Westerfield, things are buzzing on about five acres he owns on Harding Road in Dodge County, plus a few other places, including Washington County.
Westerfield, pastor of St. Olaf Lutheran Church in the Town of Ashippun, is in his third season as a beekeeper, having been introduced to the hobby by his friend, beekeeping mentor and congregation member Bruce Benson.
Between them, they have about nine hives scattered around in Washington and Dodge counties, including his five acres.
“It’s an ideal spot protected from wind and early morning sunshine. They wake up early and work hard all day,” Westerfield said.
What their bees produce each year is almost 600 pounds of “Heavenly Honey,” as their homemade labels say.
Most of what they collect stays home, he said.
“We use honey liberally in our own houses. And we give a lot of it away,” including some to the St. Olaf church festival where it is sold as a fund-raiser.
Chip Krohn, in the Town of Grafton, owns more than 200 hives, enough to operate a sizable side business for him and his wife, Sherry.
He became interested in beekeeping as a hobby while living in Texas in the 1970s and it wasn’t long before he shared his newfound enthusiasm with his father, Charles R. Krohn, buying two hives as a birthday present from the Sears catalog in 1980.
A few years later, when Krohn moved back to Wisconsin, he and his father, who went into beekeeping full-time after retiring from A.O. Smith, began to tend hives together and formed Great Lakes Honey Co.
Today, Krohn tends the hives mostly by himself. His father died a year ago in April.
Every year, each hive generates up to 150 pounds of honey, which Krohn and his wife sell at local farmers markets. They also sell other bee-produced items such as beeswax candles, lip balm and honey popcorn.
Krohn’s colonies are scattered throughout Ozaukee and Washington counties in orchards and near truck farms, he said.
The flavor of the honey depends on the flowers that are predominantly visited by the bees, Krohn said.
That emphasis is reflected on the labels. The subtleties of differing honeys is akin to wine tasting, Krohn said.
A taste of honey
Basswood honey, for instance, is collected from linden trees and is a light, mild honey “with a hint of mint flavor because it contains natural menthol,” he said. “A very excellent-tasting honey.”
“I like the wildflower honey the best. It has a darker, stronger flavor with a butterscotchy taste from the asters and golden rod.”
Honey also contains a number of health benefits, Krohn said.
Krohn said he has used honey as an antiseptic ointment because bacteria can’t grow in it. “Some people believe that the small amount of pollen in honey helps build up resistance to allergies,” said Krohn, a regional water leader with the Department of Natural Resource’s southeast office in Milwaukee.
Most bee colonies are placed in orchards and vegetable farms.
“Some of them come to me and ask for bees but I’m happy to find a place to put my bees for the honey. And the bees are very important to the crops,” Thill said.
Some farmers, especially those with apple orchards, often pay beekeepers to put colonies on their property, Thill said.
Finding sites for bees is getting more difficult, he said, because of real estate development. Thill’s hives have been kicked out of West Bend, Jackson and other developing areas.
Beyond the economics of bees and beekeeping, there are spiritual benefits, as well, the beekeepers said.
“I enjoy working with my bees. It takes the stress away, very relaxing to me. And it’s very interesting learning what the bees do; the life cycle of the bees,” said Thill, who got started in beekeeping nearly 15 years ago with the encouragement of his aunt, Margaret Ahlers. She is president of the Ozaukee Washington Beekeepers Association and co-owner of Honey Grove Ice Cream in West Bend, where honey is used to make ice cream.
Westerfield said he finds the bees “inspiring.”
“Everything the bees produce is marketable — pollen, honey, wax, propolis,” a kind of glue the bees manufacture to fill cracks and glue things together. It’s used commercially to make varnishes and ointments.
“I get a lot of enjoyment observing their behavior. It’s very relaxing. When I go sit on the bench next to the beehive, it’s a little like sitting next to the ocean. There’s that rhythm and sound,” he said.
For more information on beekeeping and area beekeepers, log onto the Internet at www.honeylocator.com and www.nhb.org.
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