Beekeepers abuzz about honey harvest, winters approach
COLUMBIA - In a room in the back of a large building just north of I-70, the air was thick with the smell of hot wax and honey. Jim Duever leaned into the hand crank, spinning a centrifuge affixed to a rickety folding table.
Inside the machine, centrifugal force was flinging honey out from two beeswax combs and against the metal walls. The honey dripped to the bottom of the centrifuge and poured in a thick amber stream into a bucket below.
Duever and more than 50 other people had convened for the recent monthly meeting of the Boone Regional Beekeepers Association. The meeting featured a honey extraction demonstration and a blind taste test of nine beekeepers' honey.
After solemnly reciting the pledge of allegiance, the group members welcomed new attendees and ran through their administrative affairs before turning to what the beekeepers seemed to love best: talking shop.
The conversation focused on preparing bees for winter: what to feed them and how much; how best to insulate the hives, if at all; and when to replace an ailing queen. Of course, there were nearly as many opinions as beekeepers.
But the mood was jovial, and the beekeepers of central Missouri have reason for optimism. Honey prices are high and the harvest looks to be bountiful.
From September 2006 to September 2014, the average retail price for a pound of honey in the United States has nearly doubled, from $3.91 to $6.37, according to the National Honey Board. The higher price is likely due to a variety of factors, including Colony Collapse Disorder and growing demand for local honey. The three-year drought in California - one of the nation's biggest honey producers - has also curtailed production.
Colony Collapse Disorder is a mysterious disease first reported in 2006 that has devastated bee populations around the country. The disorder is characterized by the disappearance of most of the adult bees in an otherwise healthy hive.
But Bob Brammer, central director of the Missouri State Beekeepers Association, said the onset of Colony Collapse Disorder has had a silver lining.
"Since Colony Collapse Disorder hit, there's been a large interest in people making sure the bees survive," Brammer said. "It's been good in a way, because the news media put a lot of info out. But it has really hurt the commercial beekeepers."
That increased awareness of the importance of bees, both for honey production and plant pollination, has contributed to a demand for local honey.
Authentically local honey commands a higher price because consumers can be confident in the product's provenance, and because local honey reflects the flora and climate where it is produced, Brammer said.
Steve Moller has been working bees for 40 years and sells honey under the "Lone Cottonwood Farm" label at several Columbia stores. The variability in the taste of local honey can surprise consumers who expect to get exactly the same product every time, Moller said. But that changing flavor becomes part of the appeal because it faithfully reflects what's in bloom.
With local honey, "the true flavor of the sources is accentuated," he said.
This year, the variability in climate and flora contributed to what looks like a pretty good harvest. The mild summer with occasional rain allowed a substantial nectar flow - the period when flowers are blooming and bees gather nectar.
The late start to the season and an unusually long clover bloom also benefited his bees, Moeller said.
Dennis Potter has been beekeeping for eight years and currently manages 14 hives. Potter estimates that his family, including grandchildren, consumes about 70 pounds of honey a year.
"It's been a good bee year," Potter said, while acknowledging that each beekeeper has a different experience. "It's very regional. The nectar flow goes with rainfall."
Brammer, on the other hand, thinks it will be a good but average year for Missouri beekeepers.
Regardless, the hives maintained by the association have done well. By the end of the meeting, members had extracted and bottled about 25 pounds of honey, all of which were quickly auctioned off to sweet-toothed group members.
Anyone interested in bees and beekeeping is welcome to attend a meeting of the Boone Regional Beekeepers Association, the members said. Meetings usually are held the third Sunday of the month in the Columbia Insurance Group building at 2102 Whitegate Drive. The association also offers a day-long beginning beekeeping class in January.
(Photo: Members of the Boone Regional Beekeepers Association decant honey at a meeting and harvest party Sept. 21.)