Herald Journal, July 11, 2005
Honey comes naturally for this local beekeeper
By Lynda Jensen
Honey comes naturally to John Swanson of Howard Lake, since he’s been a beekeeper for a quarter century and comes from a line of family beekeepers.
Swanson keeps 100 hives and many thousands of bees, harvesting and selling honey far and wide, from Cokato to Delano as “Swan-Bee Honey.”
The hives are kept in various farm fields throughout Wright County most of the season, where they pollinate crops and other plants, except in the winter months when they are trucked to California to pollinate almonds there.
Last year, the bees produced about seven 55 gallon barrels of honey, with more expected this year since he has doubled the number of hives.
Honey is about the perfect food, and if processed properly, is full of antioxidants and immune boosters that benefit those who enjoy it, Swanson said.
“Plants put all their energy into the flowers, and the bees concentrate this,” he said.
Swanson prides himself on using as little chemicals as possible to keep his bees.
“I try not to use any,” Swanson said, noting that if any chemicals are used, it does not get into the honey. “I want as natural of a product as possible.”
This approach can be labor intensive, but it’s worth it and the end result is easily detectable to a trained palate, he said.
For example, Swanson will not heat his honey more than 100 degrees during the processing because this will kill enzymes and other beneficial characteristics of it.
In fact, honey can help battle something like allergies, he said.
“Live bacteria can’t live in honey,” he said.
Locally harvested honey can offer immune boosting properties that will enhance resistance to allergies, he said. The consumer should choose honey harvested within an approximate 20-mile radius to obtain this benefit, he noted.
There are several products that come from honey, including lotions, soaps, candles, and bee pollen, the latter of which is used as a dietary supplement.
Honey comes in a wide range of flavors, with the most common being straight clover honey, he said. Other varieties that he produces include white sweet clover, Valencia orange, and wildflower honey, the latter of which exhibits an interesting mellow aftertaste.
“Fall honey is darker, such as wildflower honey, and early honey is lighter colored,” he said.
A recent craze is unfiltered honey. “The old timers like it,” he said.
Bees can be interesting creature to maintain and beekeepers in Minnesota must be licensed.
Swanson has been stung a few times himself.
Bee stings are also reportedly been good for arthritis. “They say beekeepers never get arthritis.”
Bees don’t care for the color black, possibly associating the color with their natural predators, such as bears. They also don’t care for unusual smells.
When he approaches the hive, he uses a smoker to mellow the bees, and moves in slow, deliberate movements. His bees are probably accustomed to his scent, but he can’t use mosquito spray, after shave, or deodorant, since the bees can detect these scents, he noted.
“They know when you’re afraid of them,” Swanson said. This is possibly because they can pick up different sweat patterns. “They can sense fear and excitement.”
It takes one bee to produce a single teaspoon of honey. “Then it will die,” he said. There are an average of 37,000 flights from bees in one bottle of honey.
Bees respond to weather as well.
“They love the 80s,” he said, referring to sunny temperatures. If it gets too hot, they will spend most of their energy trying to cool the hive. They get lazy if the weather turns cool, he said. “In the 60s, they won’t work at all.”
Last year was cool and turned out to be a poor summer.
Harvest time for bees is between August and October. In October, the bees are loaded up in a trailer and sent to other warmer states for their pollination services.
Interestingly enough, bees are in demand nearly everywhere, and there is a shortage of them, he said.
Farmers from Minnesota to California pay Swanson to set up his hives on their property, and many different crops demand pollination that the bees provide.
For example, apples, pumpkins, cranberries, and almonds are some crops that need bees.
For almonds, which are grown in California, the quality of crop drops tremendously without bee pollination.
Swanson’s bees are pollinating apples at Carlson’s Orchard in Winsted, among many other apple growers.
Swanson buys queen bees, and will divide his hives to expand his stock.
There are several varieties of European honey bees that he works with, which include genetic strains of Italian bees, Russian bees and other kinds.
Currently, he buys queen bees from Hawaii, called Kona Queens. Other queens he keeps are called Minnesota Hygienic, which are a strain of Italian that were produced by the University of Minnesota.
Bees are generally very clean insects, but the hygienic variety exhibits even more cleanliness, making them more resistant to disease and parasites.
Parasites can be a problem for bees, since there have been many changes, particularly over the past 20 years, he said.
The most recent threat to American beekeepers has been two varieties of mites brought from overseas.
Swanson keeps busy with his bees, along with operating a small business, Johnny’s Install, where he does floor covering installation.
His dream is to be a full-time beekeeper someday, which would compliment his degree in entomology, otherwise known as the study of insects.
“My goal is to have 1,000 hives,” he said. This would fill a semi truck trailer of hives.
“It will take a few more years of the rat race before I can switch into beekeeping full time,” he said.