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Nov. 28, 2021

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Making honey can be a real moneymaker

Beekeepers find hives generate buzz with consumers

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Honey bees buzz around beekeepers Tom Millis, left, and Elsa Stuart as they inspect one of the hives in their backyard apiary. (Sara Diggins/St.
Honey bees buzz around beekeepers Tom Millis, left, and Elsa Stuart as they inspect one of the hives in their backyard apiary. (Sara Diggins/St. Louis Post-Dispatch) Photo Gallery

DES PERES, Mo. — A vegetable garden was first on Tom Millis’ to-do list when he bought his home in the St. Louis suburb of Des Peres a decade ago. Then he and his now-wife, Elsa Stuart, added native flowers to their 2-acre property.

Bees were next. They’d help pollinate the plants and make a little honey, maybe even enough to give to friends.

Last summer, the couple harvested 1,600 pounds.

“What are we going to do with all this honey?” Stuart asked Millis.

They decided to form a bee corporation.

In October, the couple launched Millis Meadows, joining the ranks of hobbyists-turned-entrepreneurs whose fascination with the communal insects blossomed into side businesses selling hive products. In the United States, honeybees have bounced back since colony collapse disorder was identified in the mid-2000s, increasing awareness of the pollinators’ plight. Honey consumption has almost doubled over the past 50 years, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, even as the use of other caloric sweeteners has dropped.

Most backyard beekeepers start small after learning about the practice from a family member or on social media. Millis and Stuart, both veterinarians, dove into research on the invertebrates and converted their garage into a workspace before they added any flying tenants to their garden. At least six apiarist organizations in the region offer mentoring and workshops to help “newbees” establish colonies, mitigate setbacks and minimize the inevitable stings.

“You can’t just master it in a year,” said John Pashia of Affton. “There’s very much an art to the science.”

Pashia joined the Eastern Missouri Beekeepers Association 15 years ago after a friend got him interested in the practice. At the time, about a dozen people were regulars at meetings. Now the club claims hundreds of members.

“People are becoming more connected to nature and wanting to know where their food comes from,” Pashia said. “As a hobby, it’s extremely interesting. You’re overwhelmed by Mother Nature.”

Bee colonies are complex ecosystems, and their care requires time and money. Most backyard hives resemble a chest of drawers, with 10-inch-tall wooden boxes called “deeps” on the bottom and shallower “supers” stacked on top. Inside are eight to 10 frames into which worker bees construct honeycomb. The hexagonal wax cells can hold eggs, pollen and nectar — which the workers dehydrate by fanning it with their translucent wings until it thickens into honey.

Honey is collected from the supers — a barrier called an excluder keeps the queen from laying eggs in them — usually in the summer or fall. Extracting equipment can cost thousands of dollars. The process takes days to complete.

Jeremy Idleman of Ballwin was prodded into beekeeping a few years ago by an uncle, after Idleman returned from an Army deployment to Iraq.

“I had some anger issues,” he said.

He learned that beekeeping had been recommended for World War I veterans to help them recover from shell shock.

“I found that I was much more calm when I was working the bees,” Idleman said. “There’s a lot of therapeutic qualities to them.”

The constant hum of the hive is soothing, like white noise. Success is measurable. Every couple of days, he checks on his growing brood. He slides out the frames, each one heavy with bees, and drips of nectar glisten in the sunlight.

At harvest time, Idleman uses a hot knife to slice the caps off the comb, the wax falling away in a long curl. A centrifuge spins the honey out of the frames. It slides down the wall of the steel drum and out a spigot, like a golden ribbon.

“It all forces you to be present,” Idleman said. “I figured if it worked for me, it would work for others.”

In 2016, he formed BeeFound for veterans and first responders with post-traumatic stress disorder. In addition to the five hives he keeps, he manages a “foster apiary” for the nonprofit’s Bees for Bravery program applicants. He’s given away 20 hives this year and more than a dozen people are on the waiting list.

Idleman bottled 200 pounds of his own honey last year. He sells it online, for $13 a jar, to help fund BeeFound.

Like beer and olive oil, honey varieties have proliferated in recent years amid a growing appreciation for flavor and style nuances. Clover is the most common of the more than 300 types in the United States, which vary based on local flowers.

Pat Jackson of Hazelwood, Mo., an all-day tea drinker, says she can taste the changing of the seasons when she stirs in her honey.

“In the spring, it’s a very delicate flavor,” she said. “Fall honey is a darker color. The flavor is deeper.”

Jackson gets her sweet fix from Tinker’s Bees and Pure Raw Honey, owned by Guy and Tracy Tinker of Florissant, Mo.

“What the bees are foraging on makes the honey completely different,” said Guy Tinker, a computer technician.

The Tinkers started tending bees in 2014. In their second year, they collected enough honey to give to friends. By the fourth year, they were ready to form an LLC. They sell primarily online and at a few local shops.

Rob Kravitz of south St. Louis pops a teaspoon of Tinker’s each day with his dose of vitamins. “It helps me wake up in the morning,” he said.

Honey, which contains vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, enjoys a healthy reputation that eludes many other sweeteners. Its sugars have been partly broken down by bees, making them easier for some people to digest. Honey can work as a cough suppressant or a salve for wounds.

Many consumers swear by local honey as an allergy remedy, though clinical studies have not borne that out; the Mayo Clinic refers to it as a “sweet placebo.”

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