Honey, Mead, and Beekeeping: FSW Talks with A Bee Friendly Company
Posted on September 3, 2014
At first glance, it might not seem like beekeeping has much to do with food production. But, it has more impact than you might think. Without bees, we wouldn’t be able to grow food, or much of anything else. We got a chance to talk to Michael Jordan a.k.a. The Bee Whisperer of A Bee Friendly Company in Cheyenne, WY to get the scoop on beekeeping, honey, and homemade mead. Yes, Michael Jordan is his real name.
Rachael Moyte: How long have you been a bee keeper?
Michael Jordan: I have been a bee keeper since 2000, and I have been an educator of beekeeping now for almost 10 years. I teach youth beekeeping throughout the world through orphanages.
RM: I’ve got to ask you. Do you have an estimate on how many times you have been stung?
MJ: It used to be that I kept a record for about the first three years, and now it’s more about getting in and out without getting stung. I get stung quite often. The most I have been stung is 37 times in one sitting. I think anything over 100 will give you a little dysentery and make you a little sick. I have never been stung enough times to have it affect me, but my father will swell up like the Incredible Hulk if he even gets near a bee. It just doesn’t seem to affect me as much as it should.
RM: How did you get into your specialized industry?
MJ: Well, I was reading a book back in 2000 when my grandfather died. The story is one that will hopefully make us one day; it was a book that was written in a hand ledger. It was written in runes, Gaelic, Hebrew and it had a whole bunch of different writings in it of old lore. I spent the time deciphering it and it turned out to be a story about a drink called King’s Mead. Mead is a honey wine. After I was able to get the recipe down, it seemed that it was an award winning recipe. I won a couple awards for it and I decided to get bees in order to make it happen.
That’s how we got into beekeeping and since then, we have grown and changed so much that I would love to own a meadery or a winery to produce it, but right now my object is to get young people to get into this dying art of beekeeping.
RM: What type of bees do you keep?
MJ: I keep a variety of bees. Mason Bees for pollination; they don’t collect any honey and they’re very small. They’re a mud bee. I keep leaf cutter bees and they’re for alfalfa pollination, and then I do have a variety of honey bees. I have Northen Hygienic Minnesota, Russian, Italian, Carolinian, I have feral bees that I have captured throughout the last 10 years. I have even introduced Africanized Queens for mass population control, so I have a variety of bees and teach a different gamut of beekeeping altogether.
I’m hoping to one day bring in the second set of dwarf honey bees into the United States. They’re a stingless bee about the size of a nat, and [agriculturists] are trying to use them to pollinate greenhouses so workers can work without getting stung. I’m hoping to move in that direction one day.
RM: How many colonies do you have and approximately how many bees is that?
MJ: Right now we operate 135-180 colonies. We expand our operation to about 500 and when we get over that, we usually sell back down. We never go over 1000 beehives because that’s poor management. Each colony has roughly 80,000 bees. So if we’ve got 135-180 colonies, that’s a couple million bees. That’s enough to teach you how to be nice [laughs].
RM: How do you harvest your honey?
MJ: We harvest our honey two different ways because we do two different types of honey beekeeping. We do a top bar modification and we do a langstroth modification. We have even invented our own beehive, so we do all different types of biodynamic beekeeping.
But to harvest our honey we either do solar extraction and mashing, which is when you take the honeycomb and mash it, then slowly drip drain it. It takes a long time and you don’t get as much honey, but it’s something anybody can do at home.
And we do what’s called “spinning extraction” and we use a centrifuge. We put the honeycomb frames in a centrifuge, cutting the wax capping off of them, and then spin it centrifugally, throwing the honey against the side of the drum. Then the honey goes down to where you can run in through a couple of screens and then put it in jars.
RM: I know you have a special recipe for mead. Can you tell me about it?
MJ: I do. I have a 400+ year old recipe for mead. It’s one of four known in the world for open fermentation and it is worth about $1.6 million dollars. I have traveled to different parts of the world to learn about making the ultimate mead.
My recipe is what they call a consistent roll; once it ferments the fermented liquor comes to the top and spills out. You add more of the additives to it. It ferments it, spills out. It keeps processing the fermentation, rising the alcohol to the top in which I grasp it when it overflows. Then I do what they call “arctic icing” and I freeze it. It takes the water content out of the liquor, raising the alcohol content, making it so that your wines don’t vinegar.
The Vikings, where my recipe comes from, did it that way to make their journeys longer with the liquor because if it didn’t vinegar, it stayed good longer. My mead is around 26%, so it’s pretty high.
I’m a big mead drinker. It’s one of my favorite drinks. I make a blueberry mead champagne and people tell me that it’s better than my King’s Mead. So, I really enjoy that.
RM: What kind of kitchen equipment do you use to make mead and does the process involve any special equipment?
MJ: No special kitchen supplies, really. My mead does because I do open fermentation, but you can go to any brewer’s supply and buy the equipment to make mead.
RM: So, can you tell us how to make mead?
MJ: If you want to make it at home, get two milk jugs or gallon containers, fill one container with a gallon of water. Dissolve two pounds of honey in that gallon of water. Don’t get it boiling but just dissolve it. Pour that mixture so that it is equal amounts in two milk jugs. Put balloons over the opening on the containers with red star champagne yeast. You will make mead in about 30 to 40 days. So it takes nothing to make mead. It’s very simple and it’s one of the finer drinks out there, I believe.
RM: What is the most sought after item you sell?
MJ: That’s hard to say because right now it happens to be powdered sugar. We dehydrate our honey and turn it into a powdered sugar that we sell. Right now it’s selling at a phenomenal price, at about $18.00 a pound. But you have to remember that a pound of sugar is like a quarter-pound of honey sugar. The sweetness and variable from powdered, granule honey when it glycerizes and you keep removing the water content out and pounding it, it turns into powdered sugar. It takes a little more time and it usually takes about three pounds of honey to make about a pound and a quarter of this powdered sugar.
It is a phenomenal sugar. When you’re making cookies, if the recipe calls for a cup of sugar, add maybe a quarter cup or a little bit more of the honey sugar, you get the same amount of flavoring or maybe even a boost of flavoring depending on where your honey source or granulation comes from.
We always sell out of honey on our website. We have a waiting list that people call and get on because we only produce so much honey. We don’t manipulate or force corn feed the bees. So our honey sales are always good, especially when you’re selling it for $7 to $12 a pound for just good, raw, wildflower honey.
RM: Have you ever thought of selling your honey or mead in local restaurants, and do you sell your honey at farmers’ markets?
MJ: I sell to Always Granola, who makes specialized granola bars and specialized granola for people who have gluten problems, people who eat Paleo, snack food items and such. So we supply them. I have a couple gas stations locally that I supply my honey to, and then our website. I would like to get into some farmers’ markets but, I’ve already sold all of my honey! I produce and sell out at a good, marginal price so I do fairly well. If you have someone who sells good, raw honey at your local farmer’s market, BUY IT!
As far as selling my mead, man, I would love to. Selling alcohol is a hard business to get into and even microbreweries fade in and out due to the different laws of the business. But yeah, I would love to sell my mead, but we’ll have to wait and build that market up.
RM: What are the benefits of raw honey vs. store-bought honey?
MJ: Store-bought honey is usually corn sugar. They [manufacturers] drip feed corn sugar into the hive, the bees think the combs are leaking so they pick it up, they process it in the enzyme and then make honey. So, a hive out in the wild would make about 60-90 pounds, while a corn sugar drip fed hive will make about 150 pounds. It’s worthless honey. It may say “pure granulated honey” on the bottle, but if you feed the bees no nutrients, the honey has no nutrients.
Store-bought honey may be “raw honey” or “honey”, but on a store shelf it has to be pasteurized to meet the requirements for government installation. That means there is no nutritional value in any honey sold on the shelves.
Most of the honey on the store shelf has either a soy additive, or is about 51% corn sugar. It may say “raw honey” and you may have it for a long time, but go to a farmers’ market or local beekeeper, buy honey from him and see the difference.
Good local raw honey reduces your allergies by about 30%, simply by taking a teaspoon a day every day for two weeks, then reducing it down to a teaspoon every week. You will see such a difference that you will not want to buy store-bought honey anymore.
RM: What advice do you have for someone who wants to start a beekeeping business?
MJ: Find a mentor. Lookup your local laws. Go to a doctor and have an allergy sting done.
I know some beekeepers that have gotten their knowledge from books, but they’re four or five years into their business. If you get a mentor, you stay with him for fourteen months and you have eliminated that extra time. Most books are based on backyard beekeeping, which, I don’t know many backyard beekeepers that would spend $17K on a Queen. Most commercial beekeepers have spent a lot of money on learning about bees so that they can be better.
In some states, counties, and countries, if they find your bees when you aren’t supposed to have them, they will burn them. If nobody claims the bees, takes care of them, registers them with the county ordinance, the local government will come in and take them.
You’re going to get stung, so you probably want to know what your reaction to a bee sting will be.
RM: How could a foodservice business reap the benefits of keeping bees and harvesting the honey?
MJ: There used to be a restaurant in Johnstown, CO that had a beehive in their restaurant. People would come to look at them so it increased business simply by bringing more people through the door.
The honey was free. So, all of their honey and sugar [for the business] was free. That one hive was able to produce about 90-100 pounds of honey. The bees collected sugar from coke cans, melted ice cream bars, anything with a sugar content within a five mile radius and literally took anything with sugar content within a two mile radius with them.
So the restaurant had more exposure by simply having the bees, and they had a free product that they could charge for.
Contact The Bee Whisperer
If you’re interested in learning more about beekeeping, mead making, or if you want to get some of the Bee Whisperer’s honey, go ahead and visit A Bee Friendly Company. There, you will find all the information you need.
Also, Michael Jordan will be participating as a mentor in an online beekeeping course available to everyone through PermaEthos starting in 2015.
Photothx: Mike S. of Cheyenne News