Bird Island beekeepers have sweet passion for bees and their honey

·6 min read

Jul. 30—BIRD ISLAND

— In the three years that Russ Koopman of Bird Island has raised honey bees, he has learned some important things.

"There are three things that are certain in beekeeping," Russ said. "One, you are going to have sticky fingers. Two, you are going to get stung. And three, some of your bees will die."

Russ, and his wife, Sharon, have also learned there is a rather insatiable appetite in the community for their locally-produced honey, in both traditional and creamed varieties. The couple sell their honey, under the Small Town Honey brand, at the weekly Buffalo Lake and Bird Island markets, along with other special events in the region.

"The first time we made $87 and we were so excited," Sharon said. "It kept growing and growing."

Beekeeping had always been a dream of Russ', from back when he was a teenager. He tried to talk his father into starting a bee colony, but Russ wasn't able to finally realize his dream until 2019. He purchased a small hive from a fellow beekeeper and was able to keep it thriving.

"I got it through that first winter," Russ said. "That was one babied bee hive."

Russ now has 10 hives, each with tens of thousands of bees doing what bees do — gathering pollen, making baby bees and producing honey. Russ has become a huge fan of his little livestock, amazed at what they are able to achieve. Each colony is its own well-run community with a queen to lay the eggs, drones to fertilize the eggs and worker bees to do everything else. Workers can be foragers, nurses, scouts and protectors.

"They have senses we don't completely understand," Russ said.

One of the most important things a beekeeper can do for their colonies is find a good location for them. Russ has his on an abandoned farm site between Olivia and Bird Island, close to some CRP land and surrounded by trees. It is far enough away from agriculture fields that he hasn't had a problem with pesticide spraying, which can kill a colony.

"When you live in an agriculture place like this, you have to be extremely careful where you put them," Russ said.

Russ' bee of choice is the Carneolan or grey honey bee. It is native to Eastern Europe, can survive Minnesota's colder winters and is thought to be more docile than other honey bees, making it a good choice for both new and experienced bee keepers. It is also a good honey producer.

Honey production depends on the availability of good nectar streams for the bees. Bees will harvest nectar from plants such as wildflowers, clover, thistle and even dandelions. Russ can sometimes tell which plants the bees are gathering from based on the pollen he collects. For example, a species of thistle that grows around his hives has vibrant red-orange pollen. Russ' bees get quite a lot of their pollen and nectar from surrounding trees, such as basswood.

"Trees are the biggest sources of pollen we have," Russ said.

The dry conditions impacting Renville County this summer will probably have an effect on honey production. Last year Russ harvested about 1,000 pounds of honey. For this year he is reducing expectations.

"I'm not holding my breath," for a year like last year, Russ said. "It might be 500 to 700 pounds."

The honey produced by the bees is used as a food source for the hive's young, along with food to get the hive through the winter. Beekeepers need to make sure they leave enough honey for the bees to survive. Russ uses a system of honey supers, which provide extra hive space for bees to store honey. Russ can then remove the filled trays from those supers.

Russ then brings the filled honeycomb back to the basement of the Koopman home, where he extracts the honey. For the best honey consistency, Russ looks for honey with a moisture level of less than 18%. Depending on the level coming out of the hive, Russ will leave the full supers in front of a dehumidifier to get the honey to the correct consistency.

"Our house is a honey house," Russ said

After the moisture is at the right level, Russ puts individual frames of honeycomb into the honey extractor, a machine that spins the frames around, causing the honey to flow out of the comb. The honey is then put through a few strainers to remove large particles like wax and pollen pieces. Then the honey is either bottled or creamed. The honey produced by Small Town Honey is considered raw honey, because it is not heated in any way and only goes through minimal straining.

"From the hive to a bucket to a jar," Sharon said.

For the first few years with their hives, the Koopmans just did what they call "runny honey," the traditional honey people find on their grocery shelves. But last fall the couple found themselves with hundreds of pounds of honey and needed a new product.

"We had so much honey last August," Sharon said. "That is when Russ started thinking about creamed honey and the different flavors."

Creamed honey is when the honey is made to crystallize on purpose by seeding it with small honey crystals. This gives the creamed honey a smooth texture. Russ then adds dehydrated fruit such as strawberries or orange to make different flavors. It can take several weeks before creamed honey is ready for sale. Creamed honey is pretty common in Europe, Russ said, but rather unknown in the United States. Based on sales from Small Town Honey, there is a growing fan base in and around Renville County for creamed honey.

"We can hardly keep up," with demand, Sharon said.

Small Town Honey also sells raw pollen collected from the hives and products created by the beeswax left from the hives, like candles.

"I like going to these smaller towns, because people know me," Sharon said, adding it is a great way to meet people in Bird Island or chat with interested shoppers.

Despite the popularity of their product, the Koopmans don't plan to expand their honey empire. Honey production can be very expensive and very time-consuming. Russ doesn't want his beekeeping to become a full-time job, especially because he started his hives as a retirement project.

"Russ is like, 'I want this to be a hobby, I don't want this to be a business,'" Sharon said.

The couple have learned a lot from their beekeeping and honey-making. It has been a fun, if challenging, hobby, and Russ has enjoyed learning more about bees and their very important place in the environment.

"They are very intelligent animals. The organization inside a beehive is just amazing," Russ said. "I don't know how they do all those things. They are just amazing critters."