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Mind Your Local Beeswax

Honey production by regional beekeepers is thriving, and with good reason

by B.A. Nilsson on September 20, 2012

Supermarket honey has a remarkable consistency of color. That’s because it’s been processed and blended to a fare-thee-well, drawn from sources that may originate outside of this country and thus have been subject to even less regulation than is imposed on the domestic industry.

“As long as more than 50 percent of commercial honey comes from domestic sources, it can be labeled as being made in the U.S.A.,” says Mark Rulison. He’s the third generation of a family that has been beekeeping in nearby Amsterdam since 1893. “It’s cheaper, among other reasons, because overseas labor is cheaper. That’s what we’re up against.”

What defines honey is the pollen contained therein, and, according to a study conducted last year by Food Safety News (foodsafetynews.com), at least 77 percent of the honey tested—honey obtained at supermarkets, pharmacies, and chain restaurants—lacked any trace of pollen.

This comes in addition to an earlier test that discovered high rates of antibiotics in the commercial honey, much of which originates in China and India.

Locally, pollen-rich honey is making its way from the farmer’s markets and co-ops to supermarket shelves. Some Hannaford stores are carrying product from Ole McDonald Honey Farm in Sharon Springs, and Niskayuna’s Shop-Rite has honey from Rhinebeck’s Russell Maple Farms.

“It’s difficult to keep up with the supermarket demands,” says Patricia Marks, née Russell, whose grandfather started the combination maple syrup- and honey-producing business. “I’m out on the road delivering constantly.”

What began as a hobby eventually morphed into a full-time job, “and I probably spend about 70 hours a week at it in the off-season, and up to a hundred hours a week when it’s busy,” she says. But she’s indefatigable enough to be working with both Hannaford and Price Chopper to get her product on their shelves.

“We sell at local farmer’s market in Rensselaerville, the Fox Creek Market in Berne, Hilltown Farm and Garden in Westerlo, the Gallupville Store and, of course, Honest Weight,” says Richard Ronconi, who has operated Partridge Run Farm and Apiary in Berne since 1969. “I have 24 hives divided between my own farm, where they’re surrounded by woods, and in Medusa, where there are more open fields.

As with most small honey producers, the issues he deals with are long-standing issues like weather and mites. “Problems like colony collapse, which have been getting a lot of media attention, mostly occur with migrant beekeepers who move their hives around the country. It’s essential for crop pollination, but it puts a lot of stress on the bees. And if too much honey is taken out of the hives and the bees run out of food, they can end up freezing to death over the winter.”

Ronconi doesn’t worry about granulation. “We sell raw honey. We take out the comb, and extract and strain the honey, but otherwise it’s unprocessed, so you get the enzymes and pollen. The problem with shelf-storage of honey is that it can crystallize. That’s a natural thing that goes away if you heat it a little, but supermarkets don’t want it on their shelves. So most honey is pasteurized at a high temperature, killing the desirable enzymes and pollen. And so much of what you find in the supermarkets has been blended that you’re essentially getting just a sweet liquid.”

Honest Weight Food Co-op carries the area’s largest variety of small-producer honey. Nectar Hill Farms (Schenevus), Dawes Hill (Nunda) and Partridge Run Farm are among the brands, and Rulison’s is featured prominently both in jars and in the bulk-container section.

“We sell a lot of honey there,” Mark Rulison says. “I think concern about bees has made people more aware of our product, and they’re buying more of it because of that. I’ve had people stop their cars when they see me working a hive that’s near the road and ask how the bees are doing.”

Although Rulison’s hives are scattered throughout the region—he has 1,100 in all—a couple dozen of them perch picturesquely in a wooded area not far from his Montgomery County farm. Wearing the traditional veiled beekeeper’s hat—but bearing no other protection but a smoker he decides not to use—he lifts the cover off a hive, the bottom of which is covered with bees. Below that is a super, a box filled with a vertical array of combs stuck into place by honey and beeswax. He pries loose a comb and inspects it as honeybees surround him, too chilly or docile or uninterested to sting.

Beyond a small sales counter in one of his barns is the part of his processing operation where jars are filled and boxed. Mark’s son, Ben, sits at a machine that measures the proper poundweight of honey as he inspects its color through a backlight. It underscores how small an operation this kind of farming remains.

An even smaller operation is tucked into a Schenectady neighborhood not far from Union College. Lloyd Spear began with 20 hives, but when he retired, 12 years ago, he added another 280 and now has them scattered throughout Columbia and Rensselaer counties, with a few of them even more local. But the processing is done right here, and honey manager Amie Collins describes the stainless but sticky machinery.

What looks from a distance like a thick toboggan is a device into which the combs are loaded, and which carries each one across a scraper. “This uncaps the comb,” she says, “removing the wax with which the bees seal the honey deposits.” And the wax doesn’t go to waste, as a nearby shelf of decorative candles attests.

Next is a centrifuge, which deposits the honey in a container that allows for further wax removal, using the simple principle that wax floats to the top. After that comes final heating and filtering.

“We heat the honey that we sell in the little plastic bottles,” she explains, “because that seems to be what the customers want. But raw honey continues to be our most popular seller.” The extraction season begins in early summer and can last into October if there are flowers blooming. “We look for a late harvest from goldenrod and aster, but you have to leave honey for the winter. Conventional wisdom says you should leave behind 44 pounds per hive.”

And it’s going to differ from harvest to harvest and year to year. As Ronconi explains, “The first honey we harvested this season was much darker than what we’re getting now. It’s a lot like wine. It’s entirely dependent on the soil and weather.” And this quality of honey makes it easy—and tasty—to become a connoisseur.

Keeper of the bees: Mark Rulison and friends. Photo by B.A. Nilsson.