Gene and Donna Woller, owners of Gentle Breeze Honey in Mt. Horeb, Wisconsin have been producing their raw honey since 1965 and it has been available at Willy Street Co-op since the early 1990s.
Gene took some time during the off-season to talk about his history with beekeeping, the future, and threats to this integral function of agriculture.
WSGC: “How you were introduced to beekeeping?”
GENE: “It is kind of interesting. I grew up on a farm in Northern Wisconsin in Marathon County and I came down to the University of Wisconsin for a short [agriculture] course in 1964. At that time they broke it up into three segments and one of the segments they offered was an opportunity for beekeeping. A friend of mine and I thought we’d give it a try, because we didn’t know a thing about bees and thought, ‘Well, how hard could this be?’ To make a long story short, I enjoyed it so much that when the professor asked if there was anybody that’d be willing to work for the summer as a research person I thought, ‘Well, why not?’ It was supposed to be for the summer but it ended up being four years and that’s how I started beekeeping.
“I worked on a federal grant at the UW with a Dr. Floyd Moeller, and at that time we were more interested in honey production rather than pollination. Then by my fourth year, things started looking like there were more grant monies going into pollination, then eventually that branch closed at the UW and the personnel went down to Tuscon, Arizona. We did some pollination research up here with cranberries, but a majority of it is done in Arizona now.”
WSGC: “What are your impressions or thoughts about the threat of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) on honeybees and their survival?” [CCD is a phenomenon in which worker bees from a beehive or Western honeybee colony abruptly disappear.]
GENE: “My impression is that it’s serious. A lot of people are concerned. I’m not sure that enough people are concerned to turn the tide, the tide being the political end of it. Right now, it’s not a ‘do or die’ thing, but it’s working its way into that direction. We’re facing two things: 1) we’re fighting this colony collapse disorder (CCD), and 2) we’re also not having the young men and women coming into the bee-keeping profession like we had several years ago. And the reason being that, to me it’s gone the way of the small dairy farmer where one time you had beekeeping as a second income and you could make a go of it. For a long time [Wisconsin] used to be a haven for honey. We couldn’t ask for it better back in the 1950s and1960s. We just really produced a lot of honey and that was because we had a lot of small dairy farmers who did rotational grazing that allowed alfalfa and all type of clover to come on almost all year. And also we had farmers that would cut everyday and work the fields. The point is there was always blossoming, a whole lot of blossoming. Now, you go across Wisconsin, and I do get across Wisconsin, because I make deliveries to the Green Bay area, into Stevens Point and La Crosse and southward from there, so I get a pretty good scan, I don’t see the dairy farms that I used to see. I see more commercial corn rearing and soybean raising and neither one of those contribute to the honey flow, so we’re finding a couple of things.
“Years back, people would [harvest] 200 pounds of honey from a colony. Well, I don’t think our average is anywhere near that now, in fact I would guess our average is in the 40 to 70 pound range now. Back in the 1950s and 1960s that’s what they were getting ...when I worked for the University I had an opportunity to look at documentation of colonies that were producing much more than that because we were getting as much as 400 pounds for a high at that time. But the average was 200 pounds on the hive. Now, we’re hoping to get 50 to 60 pounds on the hive and it’s not a matter of beekeepers not being good beekeepers. It’s just to let you know that there’s not the floral source anymore because of the vegetation that we’re growing.”
WSGC: “Where do your bees collect their pollen and nectar to create Gentle Breeze Honey?”
GENE: “All of our honey is Wisconsin only. We’ve got bees in Fitchburg, Mt. Horeb, Pardeeville, but what you have to remember is that honey is regional. If you drive 100 miles east, west, north or south, you’re going to see pretty much the same clover plants and nectar sources. I like to keep things close to home.
“[Our hives] are pretty much on organic farms, but you have to remember that bees fly a two-mile radius. And the scout bees fly out in the morning and they’ll come back and communicate to the other bees by giving them just a little taste of the nectar. Then the bees—it sounds kind of strange—but the bees actually analyze and they say, ‘Okay, this is good stuff,’ then they’ll watch and [follow that bee back to the source]. Sometimes they’ll fly right over other flowers and I’ll think, “What’s wrong, you bees,?” but they’ll fly right over them to go and find a better source. Bees are very independent. You can put them in a field of cucumbers and say, ‘Here they are girls,’ but they may see the white sweet clover across the fence and they’ll be in the white sweet clover and they won’t care about the cucumbers. And they also know they only have so many days to store as much honey as they can store, so they’re opportunists and they’re going to store whatever good source of good, thick nectar they can get.”
WSGC: “When do you harvest?”
GENE: “A lot of people don’t realize that bees start producing honey in as early as March. The bees get pollen off of tree buds and all that honey, up until the end of June, goes toward feeding the colony. We don’t get much surplus honey unless you move bees in for apple blossom pollination, but a lot of the guys that do that winter their bees in Georgia, Florida, Mississippi or Texas and when they bring them up [to Wisconsin] they’re full of honey because they’ve had a good flow of source there. Then they move them into the apple orchards and they get good honey off of that.
“Beekeepers like myself, who are right here in southwest Wisconsin, do struggle with over-wintering bees, but that’s your own choice. In my case, I don’t like hauling bees on the road, there’s just too many things that could go wrong, so I choose to over-winter my bees, [thus] my bees aren’t as strong in spring. So we don’t really get our flow until the last week of June, maybe first week of July, all of July, going into August and then its pretty much done. We always like to say, ‘We have approximately a six-week window of surplus honey production.’ Then, if it rains during those weeks, we’re struggling. If there’s a really hard rain, it will wash all the nectar off of the plants, and it takes the plants two or three days to regroup and get the nectar back up in there. [If] there’s just a light rain, like an evening rain, that doesn’t seem to affect it that much and those are the ones that we want.”
WSGC: “How many people are employed by Gentle Breeze Honey?”
GENE: “Year round, there’s Donna and myself...I’m the beekeeper, she’s the bookkeeper. We have four retired neighbors and friends—retired from their dairying businesses—and they come in and they work maybe 20 to 30 hours a week. It all depends on what we need and how they feel. Then, during the summer we like to bring on four kids—two to work on extracting and working in the honey house, then two to come out with me to the field, and they just want to work 20 hours a week, some work 40.”
WSGC: “Would you describe the honey harvest and extraction process?”
GENE: “We built a new honey house we’re very happy with and we have an enclosed loading dock. First of all, to get the honey off the hive, we don’t use chemicals of any kind. We use a smoker, which drives the bees down. Then we take a blower and we blow whatever bees we can out of there. Then we load the hives on the truck. Next we bring them into the honey house, and you always have some hitchhikers, so we have a special room where we can keep the temperature at around 80 degrees [so that] the hitchhiker bees come up out of the combs. We put a small colony of bees [called a “nuc” (nucleus colony)] and we set that in the upper corner. Then we put a queen in there and the queen calls these worker bees to her and she’ll accept these worker bees in because they’ve gorged themselves with honey. We get quite a few pounds of [new] bees that way, probably 30 or 40 pounds of bees each year just coming in off the equipment. Then we can, rather than destroy them, recycle them. We put them into small nucs, then put virgin bees in with them and they raise [her] until she’s laying. Then we take that queen out and use it in another hive. We don’t throw anything away.
“Next we get the equipment in the hot room, up to about 85 degrees. Take them out, stack by stack. A stack is nine supers (a box, part of the hive, containing comb, filled with honey) and we run it though the uncapping machine, a stainless steel machine designed for uncapping comb. The cappings drop to the bottom and then we check the frames individually to make sure all the cells are uncapped. We put [the super] in the centrifugal extractor and we spin it out. The motor on it starts and it’s barely moving so the bulk of the honey comes out at a lower rpm. It takes about 20 minutes to spin the honey out. Then, by gravity, the honey drops down into the tank and we pump that out into another large holding tank. We then let it settle the night and we pump it from there, through to a little heating source to about 90 degrees. The reason we do that is because it takes away that little bit of a yeast smell that you might have. It’s still considered raw honey, it just takes away that yeast smell and then we bottle it or barrel it [in large food-grade barrels].”
WSGC: “If you’re heating the honey, can you still consider it raw?”
GENE: “It can get up to 95 degrees inside the hive during the broodering period, and we set everything at a little bit below 90 just in case you have some fluctuation. We heat all of our honey tanks with hot water. We have an outdoor wood-furnace, so it’s all even heat. It’s not like an electric probe where one part will get real hot.
“My real end goal is that if you and I can go out into the bee yard and take a taste of honey right out of the hive and then go into the honey house and take it out of one of the jars to taste and say, ‘This tastes exactly the same,’ that’s my goal. That’s the big difference between the taste of my honey and the taste of what I feel is a lot of other honey—it’s the handling part.”
WSGC: “If I’m counting on raw honey for my optimal health, how can I tell that your honey is raw?”
GENE: “Large bottlers will overheat the honey in processing. They’ll get it up to about 170 degrees and that sets the honey so that it can stay on the shelf for 5 to 6 years before it starts granulating. Then they can ship it to a warehouse and deliver it out when they need it and never worry about granulation. Ours granulates. That’s why I make deliveries myself and rotate the stock in the stores, so I can be sure we always have the best that we can possibly put out there. It works for us, but it’s a lot of work.
“Ours will granulate. We always tell people 5 to 6 months and it will granulate.”
WSGC: “How can I safely restore my honey to a smooth texture if it becomes granulated?”
GENE: “Warm it in a hot-water bath. I always tell people no hotter than what you can put your finger in, that’s where you want it. Do not use a microwave by any means. That breaks down the honey; it gets so hot; it’s so intense. A microwave heats from the inside out and that’s just not good. We also heat it using a conventional oven, as low as possible and monitor it checking every 15 minutes until it’s liquid.
Gene lent his time for this interview while he and Donna were on vacation in Arizona visiting their oldest son and his family. As we were ending our conversation, Gene ran through his itinerary that day, which included stops at their grandson’s kindergarten and granddaughter’s third grade classrooms where he gave students a glimpse into the world of honeybees and honey.
Though he’s a regular classroom visitor in the Mt. Horeb area schools, these visits were evidently an especially sweet treat.
For more information about Colony Collapse Disorder, please see: (http://www.ars.usdGene:gov/News/docs.htm?docid=15572, or one of your own valued resources for food and agriculture issues.