Beekeeping is a profession not suited for everyone. Between the boom-bust cycles of colony collapse that have plagued the industry in recent years to the potential for a painful encounter with the pointed yellow and black insects, it can be a challenge.
But for Dean Barnett, 71, who owns Mr. B’s Honey just outside of Redmond, he wouldn’t have it any other way.
On a recent afternoon, he walked fearlessly through the roughly 100 hives he has on his 10-acre property. As bees swarmed around him going on with their business of largely collecting water on a hot August day, he pulled the top off of one of the wooden hives and looked inside.
The retired school teacher has kept bees ever since 1969, when he brought an observation hive into his classroom for his students in Montana.
Fate gave him his first jumpstart later when he and his wife were living in Edmonds. A swarm from his neighbor’s yard who didn’t keep bees set up shop on his property.
He quickly gathered up the bees and made hives for them, and at the end of the season he was left with 10 buckets of honey, which he sold for around $45 each. After that, he was hooked.
He retired in 2001 and has been farming honey for decades.
“I told my wife I’d keep bees until I’m 75, so that’s only four more years,” he said.
At its peak, his farm turned some 26 tons of honey in a single year and he usually has around 600 hives on hand, each of which produces nearly 200 pounds of honey annually.
He’s taken a hit this year due to mites, which eat the bees and eventually force them to leave, a phenomena known as colony collapse. While he has far fewer hives this year, he’s hoping to nurse his existing hives back to health and expand again next year.
He runs the business with the help of a couple employees, one of whom has been with the farm for around 12 years.
Together, when the hives are healthier, his crew will bring the hives down to California to pollinate almond crops, and across Washington state to provide pollination for crops ranging from blueberries to raspberries.
“Beehives have become kind of valuable,” he said as the shortage of bees nationally has increased their demand from farmers.
There is some reason to be optimistic, though, as the Environmental Protection Agency reported that the number of colonies surviving the winter increased around 5 percent in 2015, and a Newsweek reporter earlier this month said the overall population had increased 3 percent by April 2016.
Other dangers face the intrepid insects as they go about their beesiness, including bears.
Barnett said at least two bears and a cub have been trapped on his property by local authorities, but not until they drank around 100 gallons of high-fructose corn syrup, which the bees eat, and generally sowed mayhem on the farm.
And while Barnett said thanks to an iconic animated bear, it’s easy to think they’re in it for the honey, that’s not exactly their first course.
“You’d think that the bears love honey, but it’s not really the honey that they’re after, it’s the protein,” he said of the bears, who generally eat the bees and larva first.
As many people who use local honey to boost a tolerance for allergies know, the type of pollen the bees gather dictates what kind of honey is produced. Barnett offers three main kinds: fireweed, wildflower and honeycomb.
Fireweed is made by the bees when they are brought to recently clear-cut areas of forest, where the fireweed plants grow in abundance.
Wildflower honey is a mix of any and all different types of pollen, and honeycomb is sold as-is with the natural honey still in the comb.
Of all these, the honeycomb is the most traditional.
“Most beekeepers don’t do this,” Barnett said. ‘It’s old-fashioned.”
The rest of the honey doesn’t undergo much more refinement, in fact, it’s considered raw.
Unlike larger commercial operations, Barnett doesn’t filter or heat his honey, meaning the particles and pollen are left in it, giving it greater flavor and character at the expense of shelf-stability. Although, this only means the honey will crystallize sooner, something that many honey-connoisseurs around the world welcome.
Barnett is looking forward to actually yielding a crop next year, and if properly taken care of, hives can survive the winter.
It’s not the cold that does colonies in, he said, but moisture.
The farm has a warehouse on site where the temperature is lowered to around 40 degrees F darkened, allowing the bees to chill out during the worst of the winter and return outside in February.
While Barnett doesn’t have enough honey to distribute to retailers, people interested in getting their hands on some honey can visit the farm’s website at mrbhoneyllc.com or by calling (425) 868-0233.