Hanlon Hill Honey Farm

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Photo by Fotolia/Lightpoet
Raising honey bees on a honey farm.

Life changes for a city couple when they move to the country and run a honey farm.

Report From Them That’s Doin’

Three years ago, my back was covered with red rashes. Valium tranquilizers helped me through the day. My hands periodically erupted with psoriasis-like blotches for no reason (except “nerves”). Jeanne — my wife — and I brought booze home by the carload. And every morning I had to have my glass of prune juice, or else my hemorrhoids killed me.

All this, of course, was just my body telling me — in no uncertain terms — that I’d had enough of the federal bureaucracy in Washington, D.C. Jeanne and I both had “respectable” computer jobs and were pulling down “the long green” (as we used to say in the Defense Department), but our bodies were self-destructing. Our jobs had degenerated into episodes of mad paper-shuffling interspersed with periods in which killing time was the hardest part of the day. (Once, Jeanne spent an afternoon cleaning out halt her desk . . . purposely leaving the other half so she’d have something to do the next day!)

We wanted out. We desperately wanted to find the light at the end of the tunnel . . . but not the one marked “retirement”. (A fellow employee once confided to me that he was “just killing time till retirement”. I asked him how long that would be. “Five years,” he replied. Imagine: He was killing the next five years of his life!) No, we just wanted to find a place in the country and settle down . . . never mind our pensions.

Neither of us was country-bred, but we realized then (and still do) that there are some things which — deep inside — you know are true about yourself. It’s just a matter of listening to your conscience. We finally started to listen when we picked up a book called Working Loose (Random House, 1972). Near the beginning, it asked: “Forgetting about money, what would you like to do more than anything else?”

Strange as it may sound, we’d never thought of life in those terms before! For us, it’d always been [1] work hard in high school, [2] get good grades, [3] go to a good college, and [4] get into grad school so your family can be proud of you . . . then [5] walk into a “good” job, make lotsa bucks, and strangle in red tape for 30 years. I mean, isn’t that what life’s all about?

“No! No it’s not!” we finally decided. “We’re going to do what we want to do for a change . . . and we’re going to do it right now!”

Casting about for ideas, Jeanne and I took trips to Florida, Canada, and lots of places in between. Along the way, we felt out the landscapes, chatted with farmers, and checked land prices.

Dairy farming appealed to us at first . . . until we found out how much capital the average dairyman has tied up in buildings, land, equipment, and livestock. (About a quarter million dollars is all!) We also briefly considered raising sheep, chickens, and rabbits. None of the ideas seemed suited to our wants and needs. Either the initial investment was too high, or the necessary know-how took too long to acquire, or the return on investment was too low.

And then . . . and then we turned to honeybees. After talking to county agents, beekeepers, and the pros at Penn State University, we began to think that maybe beekeeping was just the line of work we were looking for. Honey farming, it seemed, made a fine one-family business . . . no need to exploit the labor of others. The capital requirement was within our means. Also, the price of honey had recently tripled in response to consumers’ growing reluctance to buy refined sugar. Then too, I’d always had a good attitude toward stinging insects. (Once — when I was eight — I reached into a birdhouse and pulled out what I thought was a bird’s nest, but which — in fact — was a wasp’s nest! Amazingly, I emerged from the incident unstung . . . even though I had been surrounded by a thousand angry wasps!) So, bees it would be.

Next, we had to decide on a location for our honey farm. Our main requirements were that the area we moved to had to have [1] a mild summer climate (it gets hot inside a bee suit, I reasoned), [2] friendly folks, and [3] low land prices. Since we’d always been partial to Pennsylvania, we looked for — and found — our homestead in the hardscrabble land of the Keystone State’s northernmost border area.

During our last winter in Washington we devoured everything we could find on bees and beekeeping. Then, before moving, we ordered our package bees (which are shipped up from the South each spring) and beehive equipment. And — finally — we sold our suburban mansion, loaded up a rental truck, and U-hauled our way north to our “dream farm”.

Little did we know then how long it would take that “dream” to materialize. Our bee equipment, for instance, didn’t arrive as soon as it should have (although our package bees — we learned — were on the way). The local beekeeper through which we’d ordered our equipment told us — much to our disappointment — that we’d just have to “make do” . . . try to protect our new bees from still-frigid weather, for instance, with sheets of linoleum, when what the hives really needed were sturdy outer covers.

When our bees finally arrived, we had to hive them in all-new, fresh-smelling pine boxes which — because they were all new and fresh smelling — drove many of the bees right out past the ill-fitting linoleum covers and into the woods. (Bees prefer old, waxy boxes that smell of a million previous bee inhabitants.) With each departing swarm, we saw $20 fly away before our very eyes!

Meanwhile, we had arranged to have a friendly neighboring farmer plow our garden plot, a 50 foot by 100 foot piece of ground. (Imagine: Here we were, a couple of ex-suburbanites accustomed to setting out a few tomato, eggplant, and pepper plants each spring, ready to take on 5,000 square feet of vegetable patch!) When the time came, we entrusted our seeds to the freshly tilled soil . . . and then, 10 days later, watched in horror as the entire plot erupted in weeds. We had to ask our neighbors what the various seedlings looked like, so we could distinguish them from the weeds!

Back in the apiary, things were progressing . . . poorly, Somewhat panicked by the loss of nearly a third of our bees (we now had only 17 or 18 hives left out of the original 25), I slavishly followed the advice of the local beekeeper and “fed” my poor bees sugarwater with a watering can. The feed washed down over the insects, onto the bottom board of the hive, and out onto the ground. I admit this did appear peculiar at the time . . . but who was I to question the advice of someone who had raised bees for 40 years?

My winged friends continued to struggle and die . . . as well they should have, since I was both starving and drowning them simultaneously. Had this gone on, no doubt our first year with bees would’ve been our last. Fortunately, though, help was on the way in the form of the local bee inspector, who moseyed by in July to inspect our hives for disease. (Lord knows, I hardly had enough bees to support a disease. I now strongly suspect he came by just to lend me a hand.)

“Your bees are starving,” the inspector observed laconically.

“Oh,” I said lamely. “What do I do about it?” In five minutes, he had me feeding the bees properly, using a syrup-filled tin can with holes punched in one end. (The bees sip daintily from the openings.) A one-week course at Penn State followed, after which — taking to heart the advice of the bee inspector (and the college professor) — Jean and I began to speak softly to the bees in their language, instead of cursing at them in ours. Our hives began — at last — to prosper (although we took only seven of them into the following winter).

We have since read, by the way, that of all homesteading skills, bee. keeping is the hardest to pick up just by reading a book. “Hands on” experience (as we used to say in the computer biz) is what the novice needs most . . . that, plus accurate advice from a helpful beekeeper. To this we can only add, “Amen!”

Over the two years that followed, we continued to learn a great deal. With the help of a knowledgeable neighbor, we built the “honey house” in which we now extract honey. We also brought 100 hives in from Indiana . . . hives which were so strong that, in two weeks, many of them had produced 60 pounds of honey apiece!

Another large hive purchase (this time 200 colonies from Ohio) set us back terribly, however. The first time Jeanne and I examined the hives we were to buy, they were “bubbling over” with bees. The equipment was sturdy, and the paint glistened. When we returned a month later with a truck to haul them away, however, the hives weren’t the same. Somehow, the paint had all peeled off, and many of the boxes’ protective outer covers had to be discarded before they disintegrated. Also, quite a few of the colonies lacked queens. We’d been bamboozled . . . but we needed the bees so badly, we took the lot anyway (and at the original price).

As a result of this experience, we resolved never to put ourselves at the mercy of fastbuck bee artists again. Shortly thereafter, we spent a little time studying woodworking equipment and came to the realization that we could produce our own beekeeping frames, boxes, etc., at a fraction of the price that commercial manufacturers charge. Now we’re in the process of turning out 700 hive bodies and 7,000 frames . . . and we’re beginning to find a lucrative market for our woodenware among local beekeepers, to boot.

Today as we begin our fourth year of homesteading-we can’t honestly say that we’ve successfully completed the transition “back to the land” just yet . . . but we feel we’re 75% of the way there. Every year, our honey yield increases as we continue to learn more about apiculture and refine our techniques. And every season, more satisfied customers return — along with their friends — to purchase our honey. (We feel they’re drawn to the honey’s full-flavored quality — a quality that’s made possible by the stainless steel extracting equipment we paid dearly for — and by the fact that we personally extract, process, and bottle the honey ourselves.) Also, our first efforts at setting up a honey-by-mail business have brought encouraging results.

No, we’re not all the way there yet . . . but it’s been a long time since red rashes ravaged my back. We don’t keep big supplies of booze (or prune juice) on hand anymore, either. And it’s been many, many months since I’ve needed a Valium “to help me through the day”.

I might add that after five “fruitless” years of marriage and three operations between the two of us, Jeanne and I now have little Levi Neal (the only 10-month-old beekeeper in these parts) around to help us. If we’d been reincarnated as royalty, we couldn’t be more pleased (or surprised)!

And to think, it all started with that one sentence: “What would you like to do more than anything else?”