HALLOCK, Minn. - When a 13-year old youth wants to start a farming operation, but finds the start-up costs too high, what options are available? Well, Alex Hunt decided to concentrate his efforts in a certain segment of agriculture, in his case bees, and Hunt Honey was born.
Because the crop rotation on the family's Hallock farm always included canola, there were a number of bee hives located there each year during blossoming time. After visiting with the beekeeper and crunching a few numbers, he decided to try the bee-keeping business. He started out with a $5,000 FSA loan designed to help youth get started and was able to start out with 20 hives.
From that beginning five years ago, the business has grown to the point where Alex has his own line of honey products - Hunt Honey - that features not only honey in various forms, but beeswax lip balm and articles of clothing with the Hunt Honey logo.
This young beekeeper is also very willing to share the amazing story of how these millions of insects convert the nectars of many different flowers into honey - a wholesome, natural sweetener. All of this work is done in a bee hive, where the population consists of three different classes of bees - a single queen bee, drones and worker bees.
"Bees are a social insect and they all work together for a common goal," explained Alex, the son of Hugh and Pam Hunt. "They are basically one huge family and they all do their part to make the hive productive."
This concept of working together is very apparent as he outlines the activity within a hive during honey production time, which for the most part started for the season when the canola started to bloom. His hives were located around the Hallock area and concentrated on his parents farm. In addition to canola, there were a few scattered fields of alfalfa, areas of sweet clover and other wild flowers for the bees to forage in as well. The worker bees (foragers) travel through the fields gathering nectar from the flowers of the various species, and in the process rub pollen off the male parts of the flowers which then comes in contact with the female flower parts, thus pollinating the flower so it can produce a seed.
This enhances the pollination rate of such crops as canola, which is why growers find it beneficial to have bees visit their fields - a higher pollination rate means more yield.
The bees convert this nectar into honey and it's deposited in a honeycomb the worker bees have constructed out of beeswax, a substance secreted from two glands on the underside of the bee. Once a honeycomb layer is filled with honey, other worker bees fan the honeycomb with their wings until the moisture level of the honey reaches a level of 18.6 percent.
The top of the honeycomb is then sealed over with wax to prevent the honey's moisture content from changing. Producing the wax to form the honeycomb and seal off the comb once it's filled with honey requires a lot of energy, he noted. To make three pounds of beeswax requires the bees to consume 18 pounds of honey, and the bees will be reluctant to draw out a comb unless there is an abundant source of nectar.
Recently Alex moved the hives from the Hallock vicinity, since the canola had finished flowering, to an area where there is more sunflower and other flowering plants. But before the move he extracted the honey from those honeycombs filled with basically canola honey. This process involves using a heated knife to remove the wax top the bees made to seal in the honey and then subject the honey-filled comb to a machine that spins the comb and forces the honey out by centrifugal force. The honey is then filtered to remove any bits of wax and then stored in 55 gallon drums. For his retail sales, Alex heats and further filters the honey.
"This heating operation melts any micro crystals in the honey and as a result the honey will stay uncrystallized for a long time," he explained.
At this point, Alex either seals the honey in large drums and ships it to a honey processor, or he will package it under his Hunt Honey label for Internet sales or in local grocery outlets.
Bees are very territorial and will always return to their home hive, unless that hive is moved when the bees are out in the field and they can't find it again, he esplained. If a bee tries to gain admittance to another hive, it is usually killed by defender bees.
Honey bees, like all other living things, vary among themselves in traits such as temperament, disease resistance, and productivity. The environment has a large effect on differences among bee colonies. There are several different varieties of bees that a beekeeper can use to populate his hives. Alex generally has Italian and Carniolan bees.
Although a large number of hives are shipped from this region in the fall to California for pollination of the almond crop, bees that remain here during the winter actually do quite well.
"It can be 40 below and as long as they have a good amount of bees in the hive to keep it warm and enough food, they will survive quite well," he explained. "From about October to December, the queen quits laying eggs and the temperature inside the hive will vary from 70 to 90 degrees. In mid-December the queen starts laying eggs again and the hive must be maintained at a strict 90 degrees for the eggs and the larvae to grow and become a bee."
The bees are able to control the temperature of the hive by either fanning the hive with their wings to bring the temperature down, or if it's too cold they will cluster together and vibrate their wing muscles to increase the temperature.
For those hives traveling to California, that trip usually takes place around the time of deer hunting season here. The time is delayed until the temperatures in California become cooler, so the bees don't suffer the shock from large temperature changes.
Alex treats the hives for mites before they are shipped. During their time out west, the bees are on a diet of sugar water, since they produce very little honey from the almond flowers.
Space doesn't allow to completely detail the extremely interesting life of honey bees, such as how a new queen is introduced into a very protective hive, once the old queen dies, and the many jobs the worker bees have assigned to them before they are allowed to become foragers. But there is a lot of material on the Internet if further information is desired.
And checkout Alex's website for Hunt Honey: www.hunthoney.com.