Fall is a busy time of year for Dave and Betty Billings Chase at their Wing Farm Apiary in Rochester.
That’s when they do the most extracting of honey from their 31 hives—28 of them in a field near their home on Wing Farm Road, and three more on the top of Maple Hill.
Wearing a full coverall suit, complete with a hood that has a mesh screen to see through, Dave demonstrated how it’s done.
“We have a little smoker device that we build a fire in, using pine needles or a burlap sack or anything that will smolder for a while,” he said. “You use the bellows part of the device to puff smoke around the entrance to the hives before you open them up. That makes the bees engorge themselves on food, so that they’re less likely to sting you.”
Dave got the idea for the business six years ago.
“I’ve always been interested in bees, but had never really thought about making honey. Then I was in the store one day and realized just how much honey we go through at our house,” he recalled. “I saw in the paper where someone was selling a bee colony and that’s when I got a hive and we bought our first colony of bees.”
The business has grown and two years ago, the Chases partnered with Clyde Tuggle and his wife, Mary Streete, who have a home on Maple Hill, to form Maple Hill Ventures.
“We named it that so it can cover anything we want to do, but right now it’s part of Wing Farm Apiary,” Dave explained.
The label on their jars reads “raw wildflower honey naturally produced in Rochester, Vt.”
Betty points out that there are a lot of health benefits from using raw honey.
“For example, if people who have allergies eat specifically local honey, that can help them,” she said. “And you can use it for facial and skin care.” busy pretty much year round, and Dave noted that “in the dead of winter is basically the only time there’s not a lot to do, except stress about how they’re getting through the winter!”
During the winter, the bees cluster inside the hives and keep each other warm that way. As they do that, they’re creating a lot of moisture, so it’s important to keep a good flow of air through the hive.
“In the winter, he’ll go up to there and put his ear to the side of a hive, tap on it, and he can hear them buzzing around inside,” Betty said.
“In the spring, you’re setting your hives up,” Dave continued. “On the first warm day of about 40° or higher, you inspect the hives to look for the queen and see if she’s laying eggs yet. They look like very small grains of rice.”
Getting stung is an occasional occupational hazard, and Dave estimated that in a typical year, he gets stung about four times.
Although Dave and Betty do all the apiary work themselves, Betty noted that their older daughter Jessica “likes to taste test,” and younger daughter, Sarah, “likes to put in her creative 2¢” making signs, etc.
The work of extracting the honey is done in a special room constructed inside a barn next to their home, and last winter, Betty’s dad, Doug Billings, spent a lot of time helping Dave build, assemble, and paint 20 new hives.
“It’s a lot of work, but the best part is when you open the valve and the honey comes out,” Dave said, standing next to the gleaming stainless steel equipment. “That’s when you really appreciate it. We have spoons right next to the bottling tank.”
They package their honey in quarts, pints, and half-pints, and also sell plastic containers of honeycomb. They can sell honey in one gallon and five gallon pails, by special order.
“We’ve talked about offering cards with recipes that use honey,” Betty noted. “Eventually, we also hope to make our own lip balm, hand lotion, and candles.”
Right now, they sell their honey at area farmers markets, through word of mouth, and at the Rochester Hardware, and hope to make it available at other local businesses.
Dave said he learned all he knows about beekeeping by reading books on the subject.
“I’m convinced that if I keep bees for the rest of my life, I still won’t know everything about them,” he commented. “There’s just so much to know!”