What started as an admirable effort to save a hive of honeybees has become a small hobby business and is struggling against the forces of nature to expand.
Brothers-in-law Terry Sullivan and Mark Juscius discussed their operation June 8 during a morning visit by teachers from multiple counties on a teacher trek organized by the regional vocational center. The special Home Grown Business Tour featured stops at the apiary on Conlogue Road plus Red Barn Cookies, We Lik It Ice Cream and Dan Wright’s much larger honey operation in Kansas.
“We’re obviously a hobby,” said Sullivan, noting they have around 20 hives scattered at properties owned by various family members. They also placed hives in a 100-tree peach orchard near Hindsboro at the request of the orchard owner.
Marketed as Pride of the Prairie All Natural Honey, their output is still on a small scale and not widely available. Their 2016 honey harvest was 28 gallons. What they don’t personally consume is sold through just a couple of outlets like an upscale winery near Belleville. Juscius also experiments with the wax left over after uncapping the honey frames for use in lip balm, candles and other uses.
Juscius is not sure that retail stores are the best option for a quality honey operation because of the competition from adulterated products labeled as honey and selling at a discounted price.
“The number one counterfeited food in the United States is honey,” said Juscius.
According to the two men, much of the honey sold in the U.S. by the big box retailers is produced in China by a process that distills honey by steaming the raw product into a vapor, letting that condense into a liquid which is super filtered to remove all of the pollen and then heavily diluted with corn syrup.
By contrast Pride of the Prairie is merely screened to remove bits of wax and other debris associated with the honey harvest. It is never filtered. Juscius held up a jar of honey that appeared to have a foam on top, which he said is the desirable grains of pollen that naturally come to the top in unfiltered honey.
Juscius would prefer selling directly to breweries if they can ever get their production to match demand.
The venture started by accident a couple of years ago when a small swarm of honeybees was discovered trying to establish a hive in squirrel box near the Juscius House.
“My sister didn’t want to kill the bees, but she didn’t want them close to the house,” said Sullivan.
As a young man, Sullivan kept bees for a brief period and suggested they attempt transferring the swarm into one of his old hive boxes. That worked, and his fascination with bees was rekindled. Juscius also found his curiosity piqued by the social insects and wholeheartedly joined the endeavor of acquiring more hives.
Their presentation to the teachers focused on bee biology and questions moved the talk into environmental pressures on bees.
Keeping bees is a challenge in the face of parasitic varroa mites, hive beetles, diminishing food sources and the increasing use of chemicals for agriculture, commercial operations and home use. Sullivan recounted discovering a large pile of dead bees around the entrance to a hive last summer after an aerial application of fungicide to an adjacent soybean field.
“Our immediate goal is to get the bees through the winter,” said Juscius, adding bees are struggling to find enough food sources to sustain the hive over the winter.
He and Sullivan feed the hives during the winter to keep the survivors strong enough to forage the following spring. They said the active intervention designed to assist the bees is the difference between keeping bees and having bees.
Sullivan said 21 percent of beehives nationally died during the winter of 2016-2017. In some years, the die off ratio is as high as 50 percent.
“Bees should be on the endangered species list,” said Juscius. “They survived for millions of years and here in the last few decades we have nearly destroyed them.”