Raw, wild bee honey is sweet business of this dedicated Ozark County couple
“Nearly 40 percent decline in honeybee population last winter ‘unsustainable,’ experts say.” (ABC News)
“More bad buzz for bees: Record number of honeybee colonies died last winter.” (NPR)
“This past winter saw the highest honeybee colony losses on record.” (Washington Post)
People seeing these headlines might be inclined to think the world’s honeybee population is steadily decreasing and will eventually lead to the tiny insects’ extinction.
But Ozark County beekeepers Ginny Watkins and Buddy Goree are confident that’s not the case.
The couple owns Ozark Mountain Honey near the Missouri-Arkansas line past Theodosia. They harvest only raw wild bee honey.
Goree said the majority of the honeybee decline in most areas is caused by what is known as “colony collapse disorder.” CCD happens when the majority of worker bees in a colony disappear and leave behind a queen, food and a few nurse bees to care for the remaining immature bees and the queen. The problem has become a worldwide concern.
However, according to most sources, the bees being affected are from managed honey bee populations. In fact, that population decreased by 40.7 percent from April 1, 2018, to April 1, 2019, according to a study conducted by the Bee Informed Partnership.
But Watkins and Goree don’t have managed honeybee populations, they said. They collect swarms and have smaller hives and don’t feed the bees sugar and other foods many beekeepers, especially commercial beekeepers, feed their bees.
“We are cooperating with the bees,” said Goree.
The couple live by the belief that wild and natural beekeeping is better. “Hobby beekeepers sometimes don’t really know that natural is better,” said Goree. “That’s because many bee societies are geared toward commercial beekeeping and don’t tell them that. We try to duplicate what is in nature, and that’s why the bees stay. The bees have to like it there for them to stay.”
In the beginning
The couple started beekeeping in 2010.
“I just wanted to stop eating sugar,” said Watkins. “I wanted to be healthier.”
But the first year wasn’t easy. “We started out with two hives that first year,” said Goree. “One died, and I thought we were bad beekeepers.”
Goree said that’s a common thought among first-time beekeepers. But his fears were soon eased when a long-time beekeeper friend told him that kind of loss was not uncommon, especially at first.
“Sometimes when you buy bees from other areas you don’t get healthy bees,” he said. “But you don’t know that right away.”
“We now know the bees won’t stay forever,” added Watkins. “It’s cyclical, and you can’t guarantee how much honey you’ll have from year to year – or if you’ll even have any.”
Despite the cyclical nature of wild beekeeping, the couple was determined to maintain a chemical-free environment for the bees.
Keeping them in the area
The couple’s acreage has many different flowers, bushes and trees, including honeysuckle, blackberries, lespedeza, asters, black gum trees and more. They have found that leaving the land alone has led to healthier bees and more honey to harvest.
“We are allowing most of the land to be,” said Goree. “We are clearing a few paths and some of the dead trees. But we are allowing the undergrowth to grow because that’s what the bees like.”
The couple has spent a lot of time learning about their bees and what makes them happy and keeps them healthy.
“They love water, sunshine and to be protected from the north wind,” said Watkins. “They like to have room to spread out.”
When the bees find their space too small, they swarm, said Watkins. The existing queen and about half the bees in the colony leave the hive and search for another home. This exodus leaves the original hive with a newly hatched queen.
But when that happens, Watkins and Goree try to catch the swarm and move it to a new place away from the original hive.
“When they swarm, we put out a lure, a swarm trap, in the tree,” said Watkins. “We can recover some swarms that way. Some do swarm back into the wild, but you can’t really stop a swarm.”
Watkins said the biggest dangers to hive survival are wax moths and hive beetles. “Hive beetles can kill a hive in three days,” she said.
“We have to keep looking at the healthy hives and continue being aware of their health. If you have a strong hive, the numbers [of bees] will keep the moths and beetles out. It’s like an army. The more bees, the more protection,” she said, adding, “We really don’t worry about our hives in the winter. We know it’s a good thing when it snows and there is no snow on top of the hives. That means it’s 95 degrees in the hive and the hive is healthy and strong.”
During the late summer and early fall, the colony starts producing winter bees. According to bee experts, winter bees are physiologically different than summer bees and are suited to survive long winter periods confined.
Winter bees can live four to six months. Summer bees live only four to six weeks, they said.
Bees do not hibernate, and they stay active during the winter. Their main job is to take care of the queen. They cluster together for warmth, the queen at the center of the cluster. Outer bees trade places with the inner bees to maintain the temperature of the hive and allow for honey consumption.
Spring honey and winter honey
The winter honey in the hive is from the bees’ fall foraging and is darker than spring honey. “It’s full of nutrients,” said Watkins. “That’s what they need to survive the winter.”
In the spring, as the weather warms up, the bees leave the hive to forage again. The spring honey is quite different from the fall honey, said Watkins. “It’s sweet and full of energy.”
“The honey tastes different [during the year] because of the different flowers and sometimes tree sap,” said Goree.
During a long drought a few years ago, Goree andf Watkins worried about what the bees would find to forage and make honey. They were pleasantly surprised when they gathered the honey from the hives that fall.
“Bees are smart,” said Goree. “They didn’t have a lot of flowers that year, so they went to the trees and used the tree sap.”
According to Goree, the honey that year was dark and woody; some honey even tasted like whiskey, he said.
“We learn more [about beekeeping] from the bees by watching them,” said Goree. “The bees know what they are.”
He takes natural, wild beekeeping very serious. “This is life and death to me, it’s that serious.”
Editor’s note: Ozark Mountain Honey offers free tours and honey tastings. For more information, call Watkins at 417-273-2021.