One great thing about being in the country is being able to find small, local operations providing healthy products. When John Larsen went into business as a beekeeper, he decided to maintain Peaked Hill Apiary in Bristol as just such a small, family operation, reinvesting his income into the business and expanding as he could do so without relying on borrowing. He also chose to produce natural, wildflower honey, rather than processing it to achieve the nice, clear appearance one sees in the jars on the grocery store shelf.
Those who buy honey at the grocery store may be surprised to learn that three quarters of the honey sold is a product that has been so processed that the pollen itself has been filtered out. According to foodsafetynews.com, “[The U.S.] Food and Drug Administration says that any product that’s been ultra-filtered and no longer contains pollen isn’t honey. However, the FDA isn’t checking honey sold here to see if it contains pollen.”
That ultra-filtered honey may, however, contain dangerous antibiotics or heavy metals that, in some cases, can kill. Countries such as China and India have been processing contaminated honey to hide its origin in order to sell their product around the world and some of the largest distributors are using that honey because it is so much cheaper to buy, reports Food Safety News.
It is the pollen in honey that contains the healthy enzymes and antioxidants that have well-documented anti-allergenic benefits. The pollen can give honey a somewhat cloudy appearance but that is nothing to be concerned about, Larsen says. He notes that, while darker honey is perfectly fine, he carefully cleans any buildup in his hives to ensure the honey is nice and light.
Because producing natural, organic honey is labor-intensive, it costs a little more, but Larsen makes no apologies for that. It is the quality that is important to him.
The principal apiary, at his home on the corner of Peaked Hill and Jeffers roads in Bristol, currently has 20 hives, and the apiary has a second location with more hives in Wilton. He sells honey, lip balm, soap, and other health and beauty items derived from beeswax and honey from a shop on his property that also has fresh eggs. He is landscaping the property and will be building a honey house in the future for the extraction of honey that currently takes place in a clean room at another location.
The property has some ancient trees that could make excellent homes for bee colonies, but the bees are attracted to his well-maintained hives. He started out with 10 hives that he moved there from across the street on a neighbor’s property. The apiary sits on land with acres of fields where wildflowers grow, providing plenty of pollen to keep the bees — and beekeeper — happy. Even in early spring, with the hives still wrapped in an insulating plastic and traces of snow on the ground, there was plenty of activity at the hive as the honeybees began scouting out the early pollen and preparing for a busy summer.
Gingerly lifting the top of a hive to reveal the activity inside, Larsen did not need to draw attention to the loud hum coming from the disturbed bees, many of which made threatening flights out to warn against further disturbing them. Bees will sacrifice their lives to protect the colony, he said, but they first will make threatening movements with lots of noise in an attempt to drive away predators and others who come too close.
With the advice, support, and motivation of his wife, Krista, John Larsen does more than produce honey, soap, and health and beauty aids. The Peaked Hill Apiary also offers honey bee swarm and colony removals for people who find themselves faced with a bee invasion. (The company also handles wasps and hornet problems.) Larsen transfers the bees he removes from people’s homes and property to his own hives and helps to ensure they do not return to trouble the family by building colonies in their homes or outbuildings.
Larsen explained that, when a colony becomes overcrowded or the food supply is insufficient, the hive will split, with scouts searching out another location. When they find a suitable location, a swarm may form in a matter of hours. The earlier they are spotted, the better. A football-sized swarm may hang by a tree, fence, or side of a home for hours or days while scouts locate a more permanent place to build a colony, which may be the hollow of a tree but as easily could be a space inside a home if a point of entry and egress exists.
Swarms are easily removed but, once the bees form a colony, their removal may involve cutting into the home to reach hives built into partitions. Once the bees are removed, the area has to be thoroughly cleaned to ensure no honey remains to attract other bees or animals such as mice and squirrels.
Larsen stresses the importance of calling in someone like himself, rather than trying to remove the swarms or colonies on one’s own. Bees become very agitated when disturbed and even experienced beekeepers approach the task with some trepidation. Larsen acknowledges having been stung several times — eight attacks in one day during one removal. While bee stings are used in some therapies, they also can be deadly for people sensitive to the venom.
Peaked Hill Apiary also supplies hives to farmers and owners of apple orchards, as well as homeowners wanting to have bees on hand to pollinate their gardens. Instead of the 10 shelves in a normal hive that may contain 25,000 bees, he supplies smaller, five-shelf hives that can be stacked, if necessary, to expand the number of bees a customer has.
Larsen, who also works as an art teacher and coach for the Winnisquam Regional School District, said he enjoys talking about beekeeping and often speaks to groups such as the Girl Scouts, treating them to honey on ice cream or passing out samples of the products.
Larsen also likes to correct some of the misconceptions about honey, noting that one man who contacted him said he had to throw out all the honey he had at home because it had crystallized. Crystallization, Larsen said, takes place because of the high sugar content of honey, but it does not harm it. Placing a jar in a pan of hot water will melt the crystals; there is no need to throw it away. He warned, however, that putting a jar in a microwave will ruin the honey by overheating it.
Speaking of the health benefits of honey, Larsen he became convinced after a customer who had suffered from allergies for years followed a regimen of taking a teaspoon of honey a day and saw the symptoms disappear.
“People are getting back in touch with this kind of thing,” Larsen said, noting that he designed the company logo to look like the old apothecary jars of yesteryear.
In addition to selling products from his home, Larsen said Peaked Hill Apiary has products on sale at Bonne Sante Natural Foods in Manchester, Stage Neck Inn in York ME, and at the Machias ME Wild Blueberry Festival. (A condition of doing this story was that the reporter had to try honey over ice cream and blueberries. A condition of reading this story is you now have to try some at home.)
For more information on Peaked Hill Apiary, call 361-6212 or stop by at 33 Jeffers Rd., Bristol.