The bees teach us something new everyday. Beekeeping can be a viable enterprise on a small scale farm, but there are some considerations to take in before diving in.
Before getting into raising your own bees, it is helpful to know what skill and knowledge you will need to become a successful beekeeper. We created a ‘skills and knowledge list’ to help you decide if you are ready to become a beekeeper:
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What is North Country Fruit & Vegetable Farmers?
University of New Hampshire Extension specialists interview seasoned growers in northern New Hampshire who share insights into creating a successful agricultural business.
Bee keeper Janice Mercieri, Olivia Saunders
Yeah, we're a special breed to be able to just go over and open up a box of bees that has 50,000 bees in it and, and not be alarmed and stay calm and then tell our stories afterwards.
Welcome to the North Country small farming rural living podcast. My name is Heather Bryant and my UNH Cooperative Extension colleagues Olivia Saunders Nick Rowley and I are launching a series of five podcasts this fall, the podcasts are a COVID friendly answer to the North Country fruit and vegetable seminar and trade show that was started by our retired colleague Steve Turaj approximately two decades ago. We plan to release the podcast in the fall, and then in October, we will run a series of five interactive lunchtime discussion sessions, one for each podcast. During these sessions, we'll be able to dive deeper into each topic, you can ask questions of the people we interviewed and or each other, the topics will center around issues and ideas of interest to farmers and people who choose to live a rural life. Thanks very much for joining us.
Jan, Thanks for meeting with me today to talk about your sustainable bee business. Before we dive into some questions, do you want to just give a little overview or synopsis of your business?
Thank you for asking me to do this. First of all, I love talking about bees and our bee business. Anybody that knows me knows that I can't keep my mouth shut. When it comes to this. We, I say my husband and I, we run this as a family business. We like to promote not only being sustainable with your farm business, but we like to promote keeping our Earth healthy. And we feel it's really important. We manage about 104 hives total, give her take through the season, grow bees for other beekeepers. So I do a lot of grafting of queen bees, a lot of dividing of other colonies. I like to sell our products, which are basically a raw local, unprocessed honey, we make a lot of items from our beeswax and our honey that we sell. We do sell retail, but the majority of our business now is wholesale, to different stores and food co-ops in small, smaller businesses that can’t order full cases at a time. So we don't mind helping them become sustainable also in their business by offering it like that. So if a business calls and they want to order, you know, six jars of this and six jars of that, you know, and a few of these and a few of those, that's fine with us, because we know it's going to help their business grow.
And you're mostly selling to shops and vendors in Coos county, in Northern New Hampshire?
Grafton and coos County. Yeah. And those two counties and a few restaurants and breweries.
So you already mentioned this a little bit but you know you and your husband run White Mountain apiary in Littleton. What does it mean to you to run a sustainable small business in northern New Hampshire?
it is a lot more work than going to work from nine to five. We were up here the other night after wicked storm blew through to check on the bees to make sure that things hadn't gotten tipped over with the high winds and so it's a commitment. It's a commitment to our customers. It's a commitment to the community. And it's a commitment to our livestock. I mean, right behind you right now is probably close to 2 million bees in these hives. You know, we're committed to keeping them healthy, so they can grow.
So we work with many small diversified farms and farm businesses in New Hampshire. Hopefully they're listening to this podcast today. What would you say to another small vegetable or animal or fruit farm that wanted to add bees as one of their enterprises, if they wanted to diversify their enterprises into beekeeping?
Well, the beekeeping would help their business because of the pollination factor that portion of it. But what I would say to them from the beginning is come you know to either here or to another apiary and spend an hour diving into hives with a beekeeper prefers to see if it's something that you're comfortable with. And then after that, get some education, take a class, it's really important. Join a local bee club, because you can usually get a mentor and support local.
I think that is one thing that is unique about beekeeping, probably across the US is that there are many, many local associations or clubs to get involved with which you don't really see for, you know, raspberry growers or some other commodity group. But there is this fraternity amongst beekeepers.
Yeah, we're a special breed. Haha. To be able to just go over and open up a box of bees that has 50,000 bees in it and, and not be alarmed and stay calm and, and tell our stories afterwards.
So when we talk about sustainability, we often talk about the three legged stool where you have economic sustainability for your business, the environmental sustainability, you know, with you working with your bees, and that's a big part of it and the earth. This third leg, social sustainability, making sure your family, your health, your well-being that you're happy doing what you're doing. So what does sustainability mean to you and to your business?
Well, first of all, I don't think that I've ever been happier than I am right now. You know, we're sitting here on these 80 plus acres in the middle of a field surrounded by beautiful trees and a pond. And it's peaceful, and it's very Zen like, and I become very calm, going in the hives. Now, I mean, it took me a couple of years to get over my initial, my fear of it. And I guess I have to add the caveat, I had the fear because I was allergic to bees, and was doing this. And I've built up over the first eight years, it took me to build up immunity to getting stung by the bees. And for the past two and a half years, I have not had to use my epi pens. I still carry them with me. But I don't have to use them.
So you've learned the Zen of beekeeping? Yeah. And that translates to other aspects of your life?
Very much so very much so.
So there's a lot of talk in the beekeeping world about the loss of annual winter loss of bees. So that leads me to my next question of whether beekeeping itself is sustainable.
I think honey, beekeeping will always be sustainable. We are always going to find backyard beekeepers, sideline beekeepers and commercial beekeepers that are going to learn to grow or already are growing new colonies. So I think that will always happen. What concerns me with these high numbers of losses, I know the national average is at 47% right now is that we can replace that 47% very easily. But we can't replace the 47% of native bees that are probably being lost at the same time as our honeybees. That type of number and sustainability or lack of sustainability on the side of the natives concerns me greatly. I think most of it has to do with climate. I think some of it has to do with chemicals in the environment. And some of it has to do with genetics.
In your apiary, you have focused a lot on northern raised queens and kind of getting your own genetic stock going and I know you've traveled the state far and wide and probably across borders to get wild swarms so you can get some of that genetic into your breeding line. And I don't know if you call them northern hardy or mutt bees but tell us about your journey as a sustainable quote unquote beekeeper. And what do you do differently now that you didn't do at the start with your beekeeping?
When I started growing my own queens, I just got excited that I had new queens. I didn't test them to see how hygenic they were. Now we do test for hygenics before we graft from a colony, and I think that that's really important not only for the queens and the stock, you know the workers bees that they're going to be putting out. But for the brood, the drone production brood that the queen is going to be putting out I think is really important. And we in our nuc yards, our mating yards, we like to put in drone stock that we know have been genetically tested, the way I can explain it simply is that for those that are not beekeepers, a queen has a set of 16 chromosomes, a drone, the male bee also has a set of 16 chromosomes. So you want to get the best of both of those sets. So if we test our queen breeders for those great genetics, and then we test our drone breeders, for those great genetics, what's going to come out of it, or it's going to be some great colonies. And so that's what we're looking for, you know, they are open mated. So we can never tell exactly who they are meeting with. But our yards are off by themselves enough, they're isolated enough, that we can pretty much guarantee that that's who they're mating with, we're not in a big urban area that has a lot of different bees. And that's one of the reasons we moved our brood production to this Whitefield spot, instead of leaving it in Littleton, because there were a lot more beekeepers in their backyards in Littleton than they are up here.
Just thinking there's a lot of similarities with people that save their own seed, or are like, you know, corn, for example, is one that is susceptible to that. Mixing the genetics, like your bees in littleton downtown would be susceptible to any other corn that might be growing in the city.
So what does that look like when you're doing those genetic testing or hygenic testing of your bees,
Bee keeper 12:08
We are looking to see how they will clean up anything in their comb that needs to be cleaned up, we basically take a three inch piece of PVC, and we place it on the comb, and we hit them with liquid nitrogen to kill those that area. And we will go back and we will check in 12 hours, 18 hours, 24 hours, 48 hours and see how much of that has been cleaned up. And we go by percentages. So anything that's over 95% I'm happy with.
So you're you're essentially giving a rating to each colony, which is the the queen, you're rating the Queen by rating how clean that the cleanup is. Yeah, and that's a function of Isagenix,
that's a function of hygenics because every colony will get some form of disease at some level, but a good hygenic healthy colony will clean it out before it becomes a problem. And that's what we're looking for.
So again, many similarities to anyone with animals that is breeding in their rating, the ewe or the mother, the sow, whatever it is for their certain traits.
We're looking for them to be not only hygenic we're looking for them to be gentle. We're looking for them to be good brood producers. We're looking for them to be good honey producers, good pollen producers. And well I have one bee yard that is strictly for pollen. Yeah, yeah, they do make honey they too. They do make brood, but they bring in tons and tons of pollen
Folks listening might not be as aware of some of the pressures on bees. So we've talked a lot about hygenics. But why is that so important to beekeepers nowadays?
Bee keeper 14:05
Because these bees can bring in pollen or nectar that has been tainted either by other pathogens, because they're going from flower blossom to blossom to blossom. So these diseases can be spread that way, diseases and can also be picked up from any chemicals that they've come in contact with. And I had one hive last year in Littleton that they basically propolized every single bit of pollen that they brought in, because they did not want the bees in the hive to use it.
So the bees know something we didn't That's right. They're always smarter than us aren’t they?
I think so. I think so, they've got it down pat. And the unique thing is, is that they're born with this. They're not taught this This is something that that is in them as soon as that egg is laid.
So Jan, you're involved in many different organizations in the beekeeping world that help your help the beekeeping community, both here in your local community, but also statewide. So can you talk about why being involved in these community organizations is important to you and your business?
I learned so much from belonging to these organizations. Not only do the bees teach me something new every day. But I also learn from information that I received from these organizations about new studies, new findings, new methods, and I like to belong to a lot of the community information organizations, so I can share that information with them. An example was I was giving a talk to a local garden club. And a woman said, I cannot, not spray my lawn with a weed and feed, because it has a lot of ajuga. And I want to get rid of it. I said, Well, first of all, ajuga is kind of nice, it's pretty, the bees love it, it's healthy for them. But if you really don't want to look at it, there's other methods. And it was something that I had learned from another organization, I belong to just add some lime to the soil, and then you will not have the ajuga, it won't grow, it changes the pH. And you don't have to worry about it. And then you don't have to put the chemicals down on your lawn. So it's simple things that we can share with others, that can make a huge difference. I don't know if you realized it or not. But I know there had been studies, quick studies done that even once COVID hit, and we had the lack of airplanes, the lack of truck traffic, the lack of you know, all of this going on in our, in our world, the difference in our oceans and in our land. And our you know, there's just been incredible turn around in that short period of time. That has made such a huge difference. So can you imagine if we continued that? Yeah,
I mean, in some ways, no, but I know what you mean. So you're well known throughout the beekeeping community in New Hampshire, but you didn't always do this work. So what things did you do at the beginning, that got you to where you are now?
Smile, keep my head down. Don't make too many waves. Get the education. I mean, I took a lot of local Bee classes, I took a lot of regional Bee classes. I completed the bleak Bee classes at Cornell University. Take advantage of any workshops that you can. And you will learn about all of those by belonging to these organizations. We have New Hampshire beekeepers, and then we have 10 separate regional bee clubs in New Hampshire. And then there's some also some local private ones around New Hampshire that you can get involved in. So yeah, definitely do it. And give back
Okay, so this next question is kind of a bee nerd question. And if you don't keep bees might be confused. So we'll have to explain that later. But Italian, Carniolan or Saskatraz. Do you have a favorite?
Do I have to just choose those three?
I like the best of all of them. I mean, it's it's like people, you know, you have different races of people and there's good people in those races and there's bad people in those races. So it's the same with the bees. I have some Italians here in this brood yard. That are wonderful. I have I've had Italians that are not wonderful. So I think it just depends on the luck of the draw. It also I think depends on if you're putting in new queens that year how the how the Queens were grown and, and what those queens when they were being grown, What they had is resources. I tell beekeepers now you have to take care of your bees in the summer if you want to have great winter bees because our bees that are being laid in August and September are going to be our winter bees. If I don't have healthy bees, then, taking care of those eggs and larva I am not going to have healthy bees going through the winter. They will only live four to six weeks instead of four to six months. So it's it's a process to know that you have to have those nurse bees taking care of those winter bees that are healthy because they're going to give them enough royal jelly enough pollen enough bee bread enough honey and enough care to sustain them. So they grow into the bees that will live long.
I still don’t know what your favorite is, but
my own my North Country bees
and maybe that wasn't the answer I was looking for because you you do have such a mix and I think that is part of your success is having...
the diversity. Yeah, the diversity and the genetics I think makes a huge difference. They don't get watered down
right? No inbreeding depression there. What is the hardest part of keeping bees in northern New Hampshire?
Winters. Absolutely winters,
What you're setting up for right now summer months,
yep. Yet we we have a winter bee room and I put the breeder Queens in there. So I don't have to worry about them. Our other brood production queens will remain here in this yard.
So when you say a winter room, what are the conditions like in there ?
We have a special room as part of a garage that is totally closed off. And dark. There is no windows, no light in it at all. It has a fan going 24-seven to move the air. It has intake air, and it has a huge exhaust fan. And that's not to keep it warm or cold that is to get rid of CO build up because bees do produce the CO. It was also to remove heat. We've gone in there I had 43 hives in there. We've gone in there on a 15 below morning and those bees have had that room at 39 degrees. So we try to keep them between 38 and 40. And they had it themselves so the fans didn't have to go on that day to remove some of the heat. They keep their brood colony much warmer, their cluster much warmer. And that produces excessive heat and excessive heat produces excessive moisture inside the hive. And it's the excessive moisture inside the hive that will kill the bees through the winter.
So that room is sort of moderating temperature, temperature humidity, and you've had that room now one full winter?
Two full winters
and you're you're feeling like this is part of the success of those breeder queens.
Absolutely. The first winter we went in with 45 breeder queens and came out with 43 and if you look at the National ratio of losing 47% of the colonies, I lost 5% and was amazing. I was a happy camper.
I think a lot of other not a lot but a fair amount of other beekeepers of your size or larger are moving bees to Southern New Hampshire or southern USA for the winter. Right. And so your alternative is?
Bee keeper 24:20
keep them here and keep them happy, give them all the resources that they need. We don't transport our bees, we don't do a pollination routine. We have friends that will go out to the almond groves in California and then down through Texas, to the pecan groves and then to Florida then to Georgia and then up to Maine for the blueberry barrens and we don't do that. Our bees stay with our bees. Many of our yards will stay right where they are for the entire winter. We don't move them so we don't have to worry about spreading any of those pathogens that would be picked up by other bees.
Yeah, maybe we can talk about that a little more. How do you think that shipment of bees around the US affects the colony, an individual colony.?
Considering that the bees only live four to six weeks in their natural life, putting that many flier miles on them is pretty daunting. I know I would be tired if I traveled all those miles in the short period of time that they do. But it's, it's a stretch for them. The other issue is they are going to monocultures I would not want to eat the same thing for six weeks, and have just that, I think it's really important for them to have that diverse diet to keep them healthier.
Which we certainly have in New Hampshire. As a beekeeper, what might other farm operations learn from your experience as beekeeper,
try to find a simple way of doing a tough problem, simplify it, streamline your time, our time is very valuable, as be farmers, as any kind of farmer you're going to your time is got a higher ratio on it than any other job. And I think that if you can find a way to streamline your operation, that's really important, whether that be in the actual doing of a process, whether it's collecting the honey, whether it's extracting the honey, you know whether it is having a business plan and following it. Whether it is using QuickBooks to help with your bookkeeping, all of those things, I think make a difference, whether it's joining an organization of a group of other farmers to talk about marketing. And there's so many different things, you know, whatever you can do to grab and absorb and chew on a little bit and hopefully make it part of your own operation.
You mentioned the business, your business plan, excuse me, you've been running this business for more than five years. So it's likely that your business plan has evolved or changed. Can you talk about that? How did you approach writing a business plan? And is that something that you're looking at annually or every five years, you know?
No, you know, I look at my business plan, like every three months, to make sure not only that, I'm staying on track that I'm not getting sidetracked somewhere else. I used the Small Business Association web page to help formulate my business plan. That was that was huge, huge. And it's free. It's online. It's part of the you know, government program. And I would suggest to anybody going into any type of farm business, or any business to, to make a business plan, because it's going to help you decide and formulate, you know what you want to do now, but also where you might want to go in the future. And those plans can change. And it's okay if they do but look at it with open eyes.
Sage advice. What other White Mountain or north of the notch farms or businesses are inspiring you right now?
One of the businesses that is really inspiring to me, is Tarnation Flower Farm out in sugar. Reggie and Vanessa have taken it to a whole new level. They are in bracing for change as fast as it happens. Because they have to. I mean, they dealt with the drought and COVID and, and they just keep moving forward with such great positive attitude. And I am inspired by them.
And great collaborators for your your bees. Great, great home for your some of your bees. For some of them. Yeah, there's definitely a group out there, many people out there that are aware of the issues with honeybees and native bees that want to do something to save the bees. And there's also people that are interested in becoming beekeepers. Sometimes these two things get conflated I think, but what would be your advice for people that want to save the bees quote unquote, and someone who wants to become a beekeeper?
I would say take an intro class to see if it's something you actually want to do. Take a good inventory of your land where you would potentially want to put them to see if it's going to be a good area or not. You definitely may not want to put your bees right next to a GMO corn field. You know, you want to, you want them to have the diversity. And even though they don't pollinate the corn, they still land on it. You want to have good water source nearby. There are many organizations that give great tips to people on if you just want to plant a pollinator garden, I would have to say the Xerces Society is a great resource to go on to their web page. Or if you have the opportunity to hear one of their speakers, definitely go go see it. But there's a lot a lot of the garden clubs in New Hampshire right now are also reaching out to the public to promote pollinator gardens and healthy yards. So that would be a good, good spot to start to.
Well, I don't have any more questions for you today. Is there anything else you'd like to share with our listeners?
Yeah, when you're looking for honey and New Hampshire, look for your local beekeeper, I have had people from Southern New Hampshire come up north and they want to buy my honey. And they want to buy pollen. And I say, Well, I will absolutely sell it to you. But you'd be you know, for your allergies. But you would be better off buying from a beekeeper in your local area to get your local pollen and your local honey. So that would be my answer. And we all try to promote each other.
Absolutely, honey is probably the number one thing I don't buy at a grocery store. Because you really need to look at the label and make sure it's at least USA produced.
But some of us do sell wholesale to the grocery stores. So when you are perusing those shelves to look for something that says raw, unheated local, and look at the address. Don't just look for the name, because it could be a company you know out of your town, or a local town nearby that is packaged in Ohio, you know, so you want to make sure that you're looking for something that is actually local. And if you can get your local beekeeper it's even better,
even better everybody wins. Well, I've had very much fun chatting with you today. Thank you for your time and sharing your wisdom with us. We're going to upload some photos to the website so you can see some pictures of one of Jan’s apiaries.
Thank you for asking me today.
Thanks again for joining the conversation about agriculture in the North Country. And be sure to check out our web page extension.unh.edu forward slash north where you can find this podcast information about the North Country fruit and vegetable conference, and instructions for participating in episode discussions. The North Country fruit and vegetable Podcast is a production of the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension in equal opportunity educator and employer. views expressed in this podcast are not necessarily those of the university its trustees or its volunteers. inclusion or exclusion of commercial products in this podcast does not imply endorsement. The University of New Hampshire US Department of Agriculture in New Hampshire counties cooperate to provide extension programming in the Granite State. Learn more at extension.unh.edu