Apiary Profile: Otto’s Honey, East Wenatchee, WA

On the way up to Okanogan during my recent “honey foraging trip”, I stopped at quite a few fruit stands, since many stands in those parts seemed to carry local honey and I didn’t want to miss anything. One such stand had a few jars left from Otto’s Honey. The fruit stand owner was nice enough to dig up a business card and give me a number, and soon I was on the phone with beekeeper Eldon Otto, who fielded my questions about the honey and invited me to stop by on my way back down.

Arriving at the Otto’s the next day, I fully expected to walk into a little storefront, or at least find a wooden honey stand outside a house, like I had so often seen. Instead I walked smack into their indoor workplace.  In a tidy and very warm room, two men were moving frames of recently-collected honey through an extraction process, so I got to watch how it’s all done. I was impressed by the cleanliness of their operation and by how nicely laid out it was in a small space, with shiny extraction equipment filling most of it. My favorite part was when Eldon showed me a stainless steel vat of leftover comb, some of which had crystallized honey still in it. We could grab a chunk of that and chew on it, and boy was it good!

Otto’s Honey

Otto's Honey
Eldon Otto
East Wenatchee, WA
(509) 884-2662

Honey varieties:

Otto’s produces two honey blends: “Wildflower” and “Basin” honey. Both are labeled “Wildflower” so you have to go by the color. They also produce straight Buckwheat honey.

  • Wildflower Honey: the bees are taken to a higher elevation in the countryside nearby. I have two examples of this honey. Both are viscous and have the kind of less-overt sweetness I call “soft” (interestingly, Eldon used the same word). One is light colored and reminds me of Knapweed honey. The other is slightly yellower, and while similar it has a savoriness that must come from a different mix of wildflower nectars, perhaps collected at a different time or place.
  • “Basin Honey”: this is deeper-colored than the actual Wildflower honey and has a thick, non-uniform texture. The flavor is round and fruity and comes from a blend of many local honeys collected in the “basin”, that is, the local agricultural area: Carrot, Alfalfa, Coriander, Onion, Buckwheat and more. I was able to sample some of these honeys separately; each seemed a bit one-dimensional on its own except for the Buckwheat. The Carrot’s flavor starts out nice but fades. The Coriander has no flavor at all. Altogether however a richer flavor emerges. There is some Buckwheat content, enough to add some richness but not enough for any Buckwheat strangeness to be detectable.
  • Buckwheat Honey: I love Buckwheat honey, but forgot to buy some!

Where To Find:

The Otto’s  extraction season is short (August through mid-October) and they stockpile most of their honey over the winter for sale the following summer. You can find their honey at thirteen local fruit stands and some local health food stores in the Wenatchee area. Once a year they also bring a number of barrels to Seattle to be sold under someone else’s name. This year they took over eight barrels to Seattle.

History

Otto’s Honey has been around for fifteen years. They have somewhere near 500 hives, down from 800 due to Colony Collapse Disorder. When I asked how the business started, a familiar story came out: Eldon began to say that he started with two backyard hives, then his son-in-law interjected to say it was “a hobby gone horribly wrong”. This was made more funny by the extractor spinning at full tilt behind them like some sort of manic mutant washing machine. I’m starting to think I’m going to hear every professional beekeeper say something like this.

Eldon himself still cannot believe his bee hobby has grown to its present scale. He describes his business as being mostly about pollination. They service the local farms, and also take their bees down to California each year. Honey is an added bonus. As Eldon explained it, honey used to sell for around 87 cents per per pound until a few years ago, but the price has gone up to almost $2 per pound, making the honey itself a more worthwhile enterprise. While all of this pays off for the Ottos, it’s not their only business. Eldon pointed to the  “Otto’s Construction”  logo on his work shirt, saying “this is what pays the bills, but I got into beekeeping to do something more intellectually challenging than drywall.”

 

Frame of honey

A frame containing two kinds of honey as a result of the bees changing nectar sources: Buckwheat (darker) and Carrot (lighter).

Frames of honey

Frames from the hives after being uncapped.

Crystallized honey in leftover comb

Crystallized honey in leftover comb: yum!

Apiary Profile: Cougar Canyon Apiaries, Malott WA

I came across honeys from this apiary when I was stopping over in Twisp, WA before a backpacking trip. At the local natural foods store, a whole shelf gleamed with Cougar Canyon honeys, each enticingly hand-labeled with the place the bees sat and the date of extraction, such as “Fox Mountain, 7/18”. You don’t get much more raw and local than that, and upon my return home I loved these honeys. But I was curious what wildflowers the places and dates represented. I tracked down a phone number and ended up in long, interesting conversation with beekeeper Ron Hull. Among other things, he told me that his late fall Silver Sage honey was his favorite each year. That set me thinking that I should return to the Okanogan area in October to look for fall honeys. This week I did return, and Ron Allard of A&A Honey took me in his flatbed truck up to meet Ron Hull of Cougar Canyon Apiaries at his honey shed in the hills of Chiliwist.

Cougar Canyon Apiaries

Ron and Gertrude Hull
P.O. Box 218, Malott WA 98829

Philosophy

Ron Hull is a purist, and as a result this apiary does things differently than others I’ve seen. As he says, “I’m dealing with the perfect product; why would I want to mess with it?”

First of all, instead of mixing the honey from many hives and extraction dates, honey from single hives is put directly into jars. The  jars are then labeled with the location of the hives (where they were placed for nectar collection) and the date of extraction (after the hives are hauled back to the honey shed). The Hulls will be the first to say that the nectar collected by the bees for each honey isn’t guaranteed to be from a single source, though one source may predominate (bees from a particular hive will go for only one nectar source at a time, but may change sources suddenly). Both Ron and Gertrude are very knowledgeable about the local flora and pay attention to what is blooming at any given time. In a phone conversation I had with with Gertrude, she could rattle off a list of wildflowers that were blooming when one of their honeys was being collected.  Ron puts the bees out where he hopes to get certain kinds of honey; a particular location will provide different types of nectars depending on the time of year.

Secondly, the honey is processed with no heat beyond the original temperature of the hives. Frames of honey are usually “capped” with wax by the bees to seal the honey in the comb. Most apiaries, in order to automate production, put the frames of honey through an uncapping machine which uses a heated saw to remove the wax surface. Ron believes that the heat of the saw changes the flavor of the honey, so instead he uses a stainless steel knife to do it by hand. It takes him longer to get the honey out, but he gets it out in its original state.

Honey varieties:

No two honeys from this producer are alike, and quantities are small. Some example honeys I’ve obtained from Cougar Canyon Apiaries:

  • Fox Mountain, 7/18/2012: mostly Vetch (clear light yellow, viscous, soft sweetness with a faint farmlike smell)
  • Fox Mountain 8/15/2012: mostly Barnaby Thistle (murky light greenish-gold, viscous, candy-sweet)
  • Chiliwist, 6/30/2012: Wild Buckwheat, Yarrow, Service Berry, Wild Strawberry, etc. (deep gold, runny, tastes like buttered toast)
  • Buzzard Lake, 10/25/2012: mostly Knapweed (clear yellow, runny, sweet)
  • Rattlesnake Point, 8/19/2012: mostly Hay, plus orchard flowers (light golden, medium-thick, sweet like candy)
  • Rattlesnake Point, 10/13/2012: mostly Silver Sage (reddish-brown, viscous, woody and distinctive)

Other Bee Products:

  • Beeswax Candles

Where To Find:

The Hulls sell their honey locally in Okanogan and the Methow Valley at local stores (such as the natural foods store in Twisp) and farmer’s markets. They sell out every year this way, and do not have a retail storefront.

Stories

A few years ago a fire swept through the area, including the place called “Fox Mountain” where some of the Hull’s honey comes from. Ron had a lot of bees out there when the fire came through. You would think that they would have all perished in the flames, but as Ron tells it, the bees fought the fire and the hives survived. The bees fanned the heat out of the hive and formed a protective ball; the outer bees died but the inner ones lived.

After the fire, Fox Mountain grew over with Vetch, which makes a nice clear and viscous honey. Along with that came Sweet Clover, which Ron says makes a thin honey with loads of pollen. Then the next year came Barnaby Thistle, which blooms in late July and August  after the Vetch and makes a nice thick honey with a slight greenish cast.

Ron also told me about Hay honey. Farmers attempt to cut down their hay as soon as it flowers, but they can’t do it all at once. The bees are all over it while they have a chance, and also collect from local orchards and dandelions, etc.

History

Cougar Canyon Apiaries had its start in 1991. Prior to that Ron Hull was a Watermaster for the Appleseed company (the Okanogan area is filled with orchards, mostly apple but also pear and cherry). But in 1991 Appleseed was sold to MetLife, who brought in their own managers and pushed out many established employees including Ron. Around that time a friend had given him some beehives, and he has been beekeeping ever since. Ron splits his time between bees, helping out local orchards, and helping with production at A&A Honey in nearby Okanogan. This gives him the freedom to not worry too much about scale, so he can bottle individual and distinctive raw honeys.

Apiary Profile: A&A Honey, Okanogan WA

I first met Ron and Donna Allard at a farmer’s market in Winthrop, Washington when I was on my way back from a backpacking trip this summer. They had traveled over there to sell their delicious alfalfa honey. They told me about their canola honey, which they didn’t have with them at the time. Not having ever tried canola honey, I emailed them later to ask how I could get some, and they actually sent me a jar in the mail, saying I could pay them back next time I was in town. I finally returned to the area this week and had a good time hanging out with Ron and Donna. The next day Ron took me on a tour of his facilities, and also took me up to visit Cougar Canyon Apiaries.

A&A Honey

Ron and Donna Allard
Okanogan, Washington
(509) 422-4195
beemanron1@gmail.com

Honey varieties:

  • Alfalfa (~90% of production). Also:
  • Baby’s Breath (early in the season, small amounts)
  • Knapweed
  • Canola

Other Bee Products:

  • Beeswax Candles

Where To Find:

The Allards sell their honey locally in Okanogan and the Methow Valley. Most is sold at area Farmer’s Markets (each of the towns have a market once a week on different days: Okanogan, Twisp, Winthrop, Tonasket, etc.). They also sell in local stores and through fruit stands. Lastly, the honey packer Silverbow will buy their honey by the barrel, though that is less profitable.

History

Beekeeping has been a full-time business for the Allards since the 1970s. Before that time Ron was a steelworker, and for sixteen years he helped construct a number of Seattle buildings, including the King Dome. Finding himself burned out on the construction business (and various nonsense having to do with union work), he moved to Okanogan. For a while Ron drove a truck, but he eventually tired of it and decided to buy a restaurant. This turned out to be a grueling episode in their lives. He worked all day and night in the restaurant and was rarely able to leave. His wife worked a full-time job elsewhere and then spent the rest of the time helping out Ron. The restaurant, however, led to the beginning of their beekeeping story: a group of guys would show up every morning to socialize over coffee, and a certain fellow would ask for honey. This led to some talk with a local beekeeper, who gave Ron a few hives so he could produce his own honey for the restaurant. At first he just made honey for his customers, which he would put out in bowls. But then a local orchard offered to pay him $25 per hive for pollination. $75 was good money in the 70’s. Ron realized he could make more money from hives,  and as  he jokingly describes it, “it was all downhill from there.” That was 1976.

All joking aside, beekeeping turned out to be a good choice for the Allards. The business has scaled up enough to make them a good living, and they sell all of their honey each year. Ron’s son is also involved in the business, and to help with production he sometimes gets help from part-time beekeepers in the area. Plus, their yearly pollination trip to California provides some welcome time off. They started taking bees to California in the 1980’s, and in the past have also gone to the Dakotas. Getting the bees to California is grueling (an 18 hour nonstop journey during which the bees face a number of potential challenges, including inspection stops in the heat), but once arrived and the hives placed, the Allards can relax and tour around the area if they want.

Challenges

Like I’ve heard from other beekeepers, the Allards say that with bees there is always something new to learn, both on the positive and negative side.

Colony collapse disorder has directly affected A&A Honey. Ron said that at one point they had 1,400 hives, which suddenly dropped to 400. To combat CCD they keep up on the latest theories (such as toxic GMO crops), and they produce a lot of their own bee medicines on-site, including essential oils that beekeepers have found help with various bee ailments such as fungus.

Getting different kinds of honey means moving the beehives to different outdoor locations, leaving them exposed to the elements and to animals. This is not usually a problem, but Ron told me the story of a bear that found its way into a farm and tore apart his hives. The bear seemed to eat everything, not just the honey: the wood, the wax, the bees. The bear cost him thousands of dollars in damage. The farmer got his friends together and hunted down the bear.