Sticky Business…

Bee farming is a sweet success

Fred Putnam shows off his Best in Class and Best in Show ribbons from the Vermont Farm Show.

Bees must visit 2 million flowers to produce a single pound of honey.

So when beekeeper Fred Putnam, Jr. says he expects to collect nearly a ton of honey this year, he’s talking about almost 4 billion flower visits.

But the bees aren’t doing all of the work.

Just as dairy cows rely on farmers to help them produce milk, bees rely on apiarists to help them keep producing honey.

“It’s just like other farms,” said Putnam, who owns Busy Bee Honey in Brandon. “These are living organisms and you have to take care of them. There is a challenge to keeping them alive and healthy.”

Because rainfall affects nectar production, raising bees is just as weather dependent as other kinds of farming or husbandry work, Putnam explained. And he would know a thing or two about that: he grew up on a dairy farm.

Putnam spent his career with the U.S. Forest Service, and for much of the time he was posted in Middlebury. When he retired, he started looking for something to keep him busy.

Honey was not one of the things he thought he would land on.

“I hated honey — never liked it at all,” he said. “I’d always had the store-bought stuff, the stuff that comes in the little bear-shaped plastic bottle.”

Putnam had intended to go into the maple business. His dad had made maple syrup when he was a kid, so he knew the process and was interested in picking it up again. He got as far as making an offer on a piece of land just down the road from where he lives, but someone else beat him to it — by mere hours.

Soon afterward, as luck would have it, Putnam and his wife, Shan Ko, attended an information session put on by the Addison County Beekeepers Association.

“It was very complex and I told my wife, ‘This isn’t for us,’” Putnam told The Reporter as he prepared to don his beekeeping suit. “Several weeks later, I decided to give it a try anyway.”

It was like going back to college, he said.

“There’s a very steep learning curve. I attended classes and seminars and we’ve been more successful every year.”

Now in his fourth full season, Putnam doesn’t hate honey anymore.

“Comparing raw honey to that store-bought stuff is like comparing real maple syrup to Aunt Jemima,” he said. “Plus, I enjoy the technical challenge of raising bees.”

As his love for honey has grown, so has his operation — from two colonies to 27, which he divides among three locations.

“We have different locations so that (the bees) can collect from different flower sources, producing different flavors in the honey,” he said. “It also keeps from having all your eggs in one basket in case something goes wrong.”

Myriad things can spell disaster for a beekeeper.

If the honey is not removed from the hive, there is no place for the queen to lay eggs and the entire colony will ‘swarm,’ or fly away en masse to find a new spot to make a hive.

Because bees only live four to six weeks (four to six months in winter), a hive that loses its egg-laying queen is at risk of withering and dying.

If the hive fails to produce a new queen on its own, the beekeeper must order a new one and introduce her into the colony, a process Putnam was engaged in while he spoke to The Reporter (see video below).
See the video of Putnam introducing a new queen to one of his hives here.

“The queen comes in a wooden box with a screen that has a hole in the end that’s capped with a piece of fondant (hardened sugar candy),” Putnam explained as he put the box into the buzzing hive full of angry bees. “The screen allows the queen’s pheromones to waft through the hive, introducing her to them, and after about three days, the bees will chew through the fondant so she can leave the box.”

Not having enough honey to use as a food source to last through the winter can also kill a colony, so Putnam leaves 150 to 160 pounds of honey in each colony to see them through the winter.

“We weigh the boxes around mid-September to make sure they have enough honey,” he said. “Then we check them throughout the winter to make sure they’re going to make it.”

When he sees the bees making their first trips collecting nectar every April he can finally let out a sigh of relief, he said. Once those bees start collecting, he starts making honey.

Different seasons and different flowers create different flavors in the honey.

“Spring honey tends to be light in this region, but it gets a touch darker in June,” Putnam said. “In July, there is a distinctive difference due to the local wildflowers coming in bloom and it gets darker as the season goes on.”

Busy Bee Honey sells seven varieties of honey, each with its own color and flavor.

“The goldenrod honey has a very distinct aroma,” he says as he pulls out a jar of crystallized honey. “It is produced from nectar from goldenrods and it gets very thick, almost always crystallizing within months of being jarred and becoming almost a butter consistency.”

Putnam and Ko sell their honey at local events such as Field Days and the town-wide yard sales. They also sell person-to-person and often host visits to the honey house where they make all the honey.

“We’ve had visitors from as far away as Alaska,” he said. “We love having folks out to the honey house.”

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