John Rodgers took up the hobby of beekeeping because he wanted to produce fermented honey, otherwise known as mead. That was 10 years ago.
Rodgers has yet to brew any mead of his own, but today he produces enough honey to supply a handful of meaderies.
“The first year, I needed 12 pounds of honey,” Rodgers said. “So I got seven beehives… I ended up with 1,200 pounds.”
Rodgers’ honey doesn’t just make mead or get bottled as raw honey. His honey also goes into soap, lip balm, lotion bars, bath bombs and candles.
Starting out, Rodgers’ found some clients by connecting with people whose honey suppliers were no longer producing.
“Some people fell into my lap,” Rodgers said. Craigslist and Facebook helped too.
Within the first year of going into the business, Rodgers knew he could make it a full time vocation.
It wasn’t always easy though. He reinvested all the money the business made for eight years, all while working a full time job at the same time. Some weeks he worked 90 hours or more.
“It was stressful on the family, it was stressful on everything,” Rodgers said. “It was just a matter of getting it done.”
In his first years, most of Rodgers’ bees would die over the course of the winter, which meant he would have to pay for more. Today, his bee population numbers are healthy.
“Now I’m the guy selling them,” Rodgers said.
He also found a way to get his bees away from the harsh Wisconsin winter: shipping them out to California.
Rodgers connected with a broker who helps him ship the bees off to almond farms in the Golden State to help with the pollination process there, and enjoy a more temperate climate during the winter months.
“Everybody else’s bees go to bed for the winter, and then I pack mine up and put them on a truck to California,” Rodgers said. “They stay alive out there, that’s the most important thing.”
When they return in spring, Rodgers’ bees will have an abundance of local plants to make themselves busy with. Those local plants make their mark on the honey’s color and flavor too.
“There’s separate boxes from the hive,” Rodgers said. “When the dandelions are done blooming, you pull that box off so that means you have dandelion honey. You put another box on, and when the locust trees are done blooming, you pull that one off and you have locust honey. They’re completely different colors.”
Each of the boxes Rodgers’ bees use to produce honey can carry up to 100 pounds of the stuff. He has 865 of them in his Baraboo warehouse.
Other honey producers are just getting started.
In Wisconsin Dells, Scott Joles has been making fruit wines for years. Like Rodgers, his interest in beekeeping began out of a desire to produce mead. Joles bought bees from Rodgers.
“Last year, I got my first beehive going, but they didn’t survive through the winter so I’ve got to start again fresh this spring,” Joles said. That’s a little more complicated than I ever imagined it would be, the whole honey bee thing. It takes a lot of attention and a lot of studying and a lot of learning.”
Joles is undeterred. He plans to have some mead ready by September.
Cultivating honeybees isn’t just about honey. For years, the honeybee populations in North America declined as a parasitic varroa mite infected colonies. The mite causes worker bees to die and jeopardizes the entire colony’s chances of survival over the winter.
“That’s a mite that lives outside the bees spreading a virus, called the deformed wing virus,” said Cornell University Biology Professor Dr. Thomas Seeley. “This mite spreads it very effectively and makes it a much bigger problem… it kills the bees.”
Seeley is the author of three books: “Honeybee Ecology,” “The Wisdom of the Hive” and “Honeybee Democracy”
His newest book, “The Lives of Bees: The Untold Story of the Honeybee in the Wild” is available May 28.
If infected by the mite during development, honeybees’ wings don’t form properly and they’re unable to fly or survive.
Fortunately, the honeybee populations in the wild have begun to make a comeback. The honeybees looked after by beekeepers, which might have acted as a contingency population in a worst case scenario, have not seen the same recovery.
“What we have found is the colonies living in the wild, their population numbers have increased,” Seeley said. “That’s because they’ve undergone natural selection for resistance to this mite, and thus the impact of the mite is not as high.”
Seeley said there is a simple explanation for the different population trends: natural selection.
The populations controlled by beekeepers however, have not seen such a successful rebound.
“The beekeepers treat their colonies with varroacides or miticides and that means there’s no natural selection for colonies that are resistant to the mite,”Seeley said.
For beekeepers looking to ensure longterm resilience against the mite, Seeley recommends avoiding varroacides and miticides and simply letting natural selection take its course. Over time, the new population will be less susceptible to the mite.
“It’s been done in a couple of places,” Seeley said. “It requires all of the beekeepers in the area” to coordinate.
The process can be a difficult one. Seeley said as much as 90 percent of the colonies can die off at first, but the remaining bees will emerge better suited to their environment and begin to rebuild what was lost.
“In two years, they will have bees that are resistant,” Seeley said. “We have good evidence of that happening in a number of places now in the world.”
Miticides are a “short term solution” Seeley said. “Beekeepers are down to just a few miticides that work well.”
Joles said he’s seen the debate over treating colonies up close.
“The groups I follow, everybody debates that subject all the time,” Joles said. “There’s people out there that treat no matter what… and then there’s people (that) didn’t treat at all.”
Joles didn’t treat either last year, after getting his mentor to check his hives.
In hindsight, Joles said he recommends starting with two hives. He started with one. “I had my queen take off on me and she took about half the bees with her. I had to scramble to find another queen, which I bought. I think that’s why my bees didn’t survive the winter.”
Making a business
In Lyndon Station, Laurie Oldigs and her family turned to experts when their honey production started getting serious. They took classes at the University of Minnesota to learn how the better manage their bees. Now they are producing Queens to sell to other beekeepers.
In Loganville, Jake Meyer also broke into beekeeping recently. “We’ve only got three hives,” Meyer said. “It’s small scale… we’re basically (in the) backyard doing it.”
For now, the honey Meyer produces is just for personal use and for family, but he’s hoping to produce enough to sell one day.
Meyer just joined the Sauk-Columbia County Honey Association, an organization that connects beekeepers with one another and helps new ones get started. Rodgers currently serves as the Association’s president.
For Meyer, the local interest in his products means a lot.
“I just want people to know how much we appreciate business,” Meyer said. “It’s awesome to have people buy local and support their local beekeepers or people that are doing syrup or vegetables or whatever it is… I think it’s a win-win.”
Carr Valley Cheese locations in Sauk City and Mazomanie also see local honey as a win-win. They sell Wisconsin River Honey, produced in Mazomanie.
“It’s important to have pollen from the bees for the area because of energy,” said Carr Valley Cheese Regional Manager Julie Vernig. “Buying locally helps sustain local businesses within each of the cities as well.”
Like Joles and Rodgers, Brad Allen wanted to produce mead. He began brewing it 10 years ago at a friend’s recommendation. His first year, he made one batch, the next he made three and the next he made 10.
Allen eventually felt obligated to start a business because he was producing the legal limit of mead and friends kept expressing interest in buying from him, and he couldn’t legally sell at the time.
That was how Mead King started. Allen bought a building in Rocks Springs to produce and sell his mead. He’s been surprised at the level of interest so far.
“I’m actually tripling my production capacity,” Allen said. “(Right now) every penny that comes in is going right back into it.”
Allen buys from local honey producers, including Rodgers. He started with small time producers, but has since come to need more honey to meet demand.
The honey they produce can result in different tasting meads. “Anything that goes into the honey affects the outcome quite a bit,” Allen said. “I usually try for the darker honeys and the stuff that comes out in the fall because it adds a lot of complexity to it.”
The mead brewing also affects the end product.
“You can make mead where it’s really thick and syrupy and there’s a lot of residual sugar after it’s been fermented, or you have it fermented where it’s very dry,” Allen said. His mead is closer to the latter.
Allen also offers mead infused with other flavors, including strawberry, cinnamon, apple cider and vanilla. He estimates he will produce about 2,000 bottles this year.
Both Meyer and Joles had a piece of advice for beekeepers just getting started: find a mentor.
In Baraboo, 14 year old Gunner Berning did just that. He got started three years ago with a $500 grant from the Sauk-Columbia County Honey Association. The grant was enough to get Berning two hives.
His family began with eight hives in all. They have 19 hives now.
“Every day I’m in the beekeeping world, I learn something new,” Berning said. “That’s one of the best things about what I do. You never stop learning.”
For Berning, the experience of working with other beekeepers has been a good one. “We all work together,” Berning said. “We’re just going to keep growing in good ways. And honey production, it’s going to keep going up.”
Rodgers sees educating and helping newer beekeepers as part of his and others’ responsibility to the profession.
“A lot of people helped me and I think it’s just passing the buck,” Rodgers said. “passing the baton to the next generation of beekeepers.”