Ron Smail, 60, figures he has a five-year plan leading up to retirement that is both sweet and sour.
The sweet comes from tending bees. The sour comes from the occasional sting that comes from disrupting a bee hive.
This is second time Smail has ventured into beekeeping. He dabbled in the business about 25 years ago. When he sold out he retained a few hive boxes. Recently daughter Stacie, who works in a preschool, became interested in healthy eating and recognized the benefits of honey as a natural food rich in nutrients.
That’s when Smail came back round to restarting the business.
By his nature, Smail follows his interests with passion. A love of woodworking led Smail to what today is a 30-year career with Midwest Cabinets, Chanute, which he owned for 11 years and now manages after having sold it.
Smail incorporates his beekeeping to coincide with his daily trips to and from Chanute. Several of his and Stacie’s 75 hives, located in eight yards — a term for the places — are easily accessible along old U.S. 169 between Chanute and Iola. They plan to increase hive numbers to 400 in the next year or so.
The Smails harvested 84 gallons of honey in July, coming from pollen bees collected from the area’s clover. Earlier this month they extracted another 67 gallons.
Smail said the clover produces the sweetest honey.
“The first 84 gallons were sold in four weeks,” Smail said, at $60 a gallon.
In the retail community, the Smails’ honey is marketed under the brand Deer Creek Farm Honey in Iola at Harmony Health, a natural foods outlet at 309 W. Lincoln St. The Smails also offered their honey at the Kincaid Fair last weekend and have found Iola’s Farmers Market a receptive venue.
PARTICULARS of beekeeping are a science within itself, one that Smail has mastered enough that he intends to offer classes for potential keepers next year. He hopes to find people interested not only in learning about bees but also keeping a hive or two for personal use.
Stacie stressed the health advantages of raw honey, which is the way the Smails’ product is sold.
Smail pointed out the difference was that much honey found in commercial settings was processed, which included heating to 160 degrees along the way. That removes many components natural food enthusiasts rave about, such things as yeast, pollen and enzymes.
The honey will keep indefinitely at room temperature, Smail said, although sometimes it has a tendency to get cloudy from crystallization, a condition that’s easy to remedy.
“Just put the jar in a pan of warm water, 100 to 105 degrees, loosen the lid and let it sit until it clears,” Smail explained.
Smail is careful not to overtax his bees, noting the importance of leaving enough honey in a hive to tide bees over during cold-weather months.
“Some people keep taking the honey and feed their bees sugar water in the winter,” he said. “You could live on candy bars, but that wouldn’t be good for you. And it’s not good for bees’ health not to have all the nutrients that are in honey, which aren’t found in sugar water.”
Bees don’t hibernate, rather constantly have movement within the hive during wintertime that keeps the interior of the cluster at 94 degrees no matter the temperature outdoors.
“They’re always working,” he said.
Which begs for an explanation of how honey comes about.
Workers — all females — collect pollen from a wide variety of plants — flowers, crops, fruit and nut trees, and commercial forage crops — and return to the hive where the pollen is fed to young bees. After in-body processing, the bees regurgitate honey. It then is stored in combs, with the bees’ intent to consume it later.
Man learned as early as Egyptian times that honey was a tasty and healthful food.
When it’s time to harvest, Smail, removes a comb, takes off its wax cap and extracts the honey in a centrifuge. His only processing is to run the honey through a sieve and then a large-diameter screen and finer filter to remove impurities.
“The bees make it perfect and we do nothing to take away all the natural and healthful things in honey,” said Stacie.
THE SMAILS purchased bees to get back in the business, but intend to split hives to increase their numbers, and production.
They also plan to raise their own queens, rather than risk buying ones from distant suppliers.
A queen is the focal point of a hive and to raise one is a bit of a complicated process. In simple terms, Smail will remove a larva laid in a hive and then position it vertically instead of horizontally. That will lead to the oversized queen developing.
The queen’s role is propagation. One will lay as many as 2,000 eggs a day, with 98 percent of them developing into female workers. The function of males, called drones, is to be consorts for the queen.
Life expectancy varies widely among bees.
Some workers, whose chore it is to fly up to three miles in search of appropriate pollen, can die within six weeks because of their zeal to carry heavy loads and serve the hive.
While regeneration of bee numbers often comes from within, Smail noted that he and Stacie have added wild bees. They sometimes are found congregated around a queen on a limb or side of tree, and can be coaxed into a box to begin their commercial roles.
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