Traditions & Changes
Our first honey house was in the international village of Morses Line, Vermont & Quebec. On the right of the road is the old Richard Brothers Apiary that we moved into. The second building on the right is the Bucket-of-Blood bar, with the Vermont-Quebec border in the middle of the bar. In the Prohibition, the customers would move north to Canadian side for liquor the name of the bar and remnants of glass in the back yard attested to some of action in this building. The buildings on the left are all in Quebec. The forage for the bees was abundant, and they were independent of any boundary or business there.
If you draw a line from the United States north into Canada, the further north you go, the more honey the bees generally make each season. Our first honey house was as far north as one could go in the United States, in Morses Line, Vermont, north of the US Customs office and hugging the Quebec border. The flowers from the dairy farming community on both sides of the international line supported our bees as they gathered nectar, pollen, and propolis.The two Richard Brothers had kept bees here for years, and we continued that tradition, working with a peak of around 180 colonies of bees in Franklin Country, Vermont.
This is a bi-lingual community the language would gracefully move in out of French and English throughout the day. There is an innocence that is so pure here I remember going to a baseball game in Montreal with one of the neighbor children, and he remarked that the buildings were taller than his silos. The farms here are a sacred space, and are passed down from generation to generation in families that carry their traditions forward in time. We began here with a two seater outhouse, a mortgage of $130/month and a huge, sacred poplar tree in the front yard that gave propolis to the bees (seen as a smaller tree in this picture, on the right of the road.)
Our bees are all wrapped for the winter now. They are stronger than they were 12 months ago, with many more bees of the Russian, mite-resistant stock than we have ever seen. For years we have wrapped them, and when the last yard is completed, there is a peace that settles over the honey house. The hard working bees are insulated from the cold winds, snow and rain. With more than 30 bee yard locations, the wrapping takes weeks and is a rhythm of fall moving into winter that invariably ends with time outside in the snow in a polar environment. This year we started to bring four bee hives tight together, and wrap them in a cluster so that they may share their heat and move through the winter as stronger families. These changes convey and air of hope and promise to the bees.
We are continuing to work with our bees with organic policies. It is expected that at least 30% of the colonies may pass on this winter, and from the stronger survivors we will raise more queens, with the genetics of the Russian bees providing mite resistance. We will not use any chemical medicines to artificially allow the weaker colonies to live. Our organic procedures will protect our Apitherapy raw honey and our traditional plant medicines made with this honey. We feel that every action that we move through regarding the bees is transmitted into the integrity, medicinal and food value of our honey and plant medicines.
There is a new snow today covering the honey house and the fields around here. The snow is welcome as it will insulate the nectar plants, bring water and nitrogen to these plants, and remind us to get our cross country skiis and skates out of storage. As we wind down this season and anticipate the holidays, we reflect on the years of the rhythms of traditions of working with the bees. So much is old, and also so much is new as we learn more about how to have a relationship with the bees that are facing so many environmental challenges. .
About 40% of what you eat depends on pollination by insects, much of this by honey bees. With the decline in bees, gardeners and farmers have been noticing less crops honey bees are the “canaries in the coal mine”, and they have helped us be more aware of changes in our environment. We are grateful to be sharing the traditions of beekeeping and plant medicines with all of you and send you our best and the end of the agricultural season and beginning of new seasons.
about Caledonia Spirits
The adventure continues
a note from the honey house & Todd
I began a relationship with honey bees when my brother Tom and I got our first bee hive and placed it on the top field of our family farm. He was 9, I was 12. We were enchanted by these angelic insects that were always flying and gathering nectar, pollen, and propolis.
About 40% of the food we eat depends on insects for pollination, and to a great degree, these are honey bees. Everything that honey bees do for us is a benefit to our communities. Even their sting is beneficial to most people. If you are not allergic to bees, getting sting by a honey bee can be a very healthy thing. Charlie Mraz always said and wrote that beekeepers do not get cancer. Drawn from the traditions of Eastern Europe where bee venom is respected for its healthful properties that support the immune system, many have come over the years and asked to have bees put on them for this venom.
After some seasons with the bees, I knew that I wanted to be a beekeeper in Vermont. I loved the land and the ongoing rhythms of the seasons, and working with the bees keeps one very close to the earth, the flowers, and the cycles of the seasons and life. Vermont is a community where agriculture is honored and respected.
As one goes north, from Florida to Saskatchewan, the yields of honey increase with each latitude. In Vermont there are five months of cool weather where the bees can gather nectar from the flowers. An average plant is 84% water, and in the south the heat shuts down the water and thus the nectar from flowing through the plants. The heat in the south is much more of a challenge than the cold weather of the north.
Our first honey house was in Morses Line, Franklin, Vermont, with the land touching the Quebec border. We were between the U.S. and the Canadian customs offices, on some land that once had a bar that straddled the international line. The bar was called the “Bucket of blood” because of the fights there in the 1800’s. In the U.S. prohibition, customers would go from the Vermont side to the Quebec end of the business for their beverages. Years later, there still was a pile of broken bottles in the back yard. On one side of the land, the kids would speak French, and on the other English. Two bachelor brothers had lived there for years, and were beekeepers. They left us a barn of equipment to use with our bees.
We took the neighbor youth the Expos baseball games in Montreal, and they said the building were taller than their silos.
In past days, a family in Vermont would have bees, chickens, and elderberries, now many people have dogs, cats and goldfish. That is fine, and I am happy that the bees, the chickens, and the elderberries are returning. It is very exciting.
This mortgage for this first honey house was $1,000 down and $133 a month. There was a two seater outhouse in the rear barn. It was exciting to get plumbing and heat in the house. Next to the house was a huge, sacred poplar tree that the bees gathered propolis from. Our work was very idealistic; the honey went into pint and quart canning jars that were re-usable. A clamshell label was held in place with a rubber band, thus more information could be put on into this label and one did not have to use water and work to get the label off of the jar. With every purchase came a free rubber band. Our label had 8 cycles of the moon on the front of it, Moon Shine Apiaries.
We ran about 180 colonies. While in the seventies, beekeeping was a lot easier than it is now, with most of the colonies getting through the winter then, it has never been easy to be involved in such a labor intensive business and cover all of the costs. We never had a way to heat the honey; I just could not bear to hurt the honey. In the first few hours of extracting and bottling honey, I plucked all of the darker pieces of wax and propolis out of each jar with a chopstick, and then realized that was nuts and we could not do that and continue. We brought this raw honey to market, that was never heated or filtered. People would say that our honey was dirty as it had dark specks on top of the jars. We had to get involved in a ongoing education effort to explain to each person that complained or commented that theses were small particles of beeswax, propolis, and pollen, the “good stuff” that allows for raw honey to be a medicine, a food, as well as a sweetener.
Most all of the honey in the marketplace was heated and would thus stay liquid for months into the winter and spring. Most truly raw northern honey will get hard by the end of October. There were a few co-ops and health food stores in Northern Vermont that would take the honey and in time, asked for this new way (to them) of handling honey, which actually involved taking the time to do nothing to it at all. This was nothing we started, it was just helping to bring back something that had been done 100 years ago. I began to make monthly trips to Boston to serve the stores there, and always stayed with my grandparents. They were a huge encouragement over the years, and for that I am grateful.
In Scotland, we were farmers. One branch of the family distilled, and today, one can still buy the Antiquary scotch from Edinburgh. It began with J & W Hardie. My great great great grandfather John Hardie sailed from Scotland to New York City in 1817. It was a rough voyage, and his diary gives thanks for sparing his life on this sailing ship. “There was no work for a young man” in New York then, he wrote and within weeks he was headed to Alabama to farm. His son John farmed cotton in Arkansas and had a seat on the cotton exchange of New Orleans. He said that “the best best fertilizer was the footprint of the farmer” and that has been a guiding force in my life – take the time, fertilize the ground and relationships, keep going, do your best though all the crop abundances and seasons of crop failure. We have always been in the growing and marketing of the crops. Our friends in Quebec call it “transformation”, to give value to a crop and bring it in a value added form to market.
As a young commercial beekeeper, I tried many a path to make the business work. We took most of the colonies of bees to the Pee Dee River region around Mullins, South Carolina for four winters. There the bees can be “split” in the Spring to make up for the loses that they are experiencing world wide. Spring starts two months earlier in South Carolina then Northern Vermont, and they have flowers to provide nectar and pollen throughout the winter. Spring moves up the Atlantic coats at the speed of 15 miles a day. One Spring we brought the bees from South Carolina to Cherryfield, Maine to pollinate wild blueberries. Moving bees is a Herculean amount of work and expense. I recall the day I was given three checks for $37,000 for pollinating blueberries on a 10,000 acre field in Maine. I was delighted, as I thought I had found a way to make beekeeping work. Later I realized that after all the labor, hiring a tractor trailer, diesel for our own truck, an axel break down in Virginia on the trailer, months of work and the bees not making any honey that summer in Vermont and New York because they were so weak coming off of a month on the blueberries, that we lost money. It was exhausting, but worth trying.
One night I was loading our red Dodge one ton truck at midnight. Especially when it gets warm in the days of Spring in the South, one has to load and move bees when it is dark and cool. I had a vision to look into making cough syrup with raw honey and vinegar. The “folk doctor” from Vermont, Dr. Jarvis, has long taught and written about the value of using raw honey and apple cider vinegar to make a healthy drink.
These were the years of 1,000 miles on the roads each week. After the bees were loaded, I drove eight hours to my parents’ farm in Maryland, slept and hour and then started driving north before it got too sunny and hot, which would have been hard on the bees. When I arrived in New York, I unloaded the colonies and worked with them. These long days gave rise to inspiration on how to diversity, give value to raw honey, and use it in traditional plant medicine.
After Cornell Ag. school, I had moved to Hardwick, Caledonia Country. Caledonia translates to Scotland. After a year there, I realized that I had to be in the Champlain Valley of Vermont and the St. Lawrence River Valley of Northern New York State in order to be a commercial beekeeper, with at least 1,000 colonies of bees. These river and lake valleys are where the bees have traditionally done well. While living in Hardwick, I was the bee inspector for the Vermont Department of Agriculture in Northern Vermont. I inspected the bees of Lewis Hill, and we became friends. Lewis is a gentle giant of Vermont horticulture and with his wife Nancy wrote many books over the years about horticulture, berries, and living in the Northeast Kingdom, the three counties in the north east corner of Vermont.
For 14 years, Lewis told me about the elderberry, a berry bush that he grew in his nursery. He had cultivated varieties that were more hardy for overwintering in the north and that had larger berries. Elderberry has anti-viral agents that get rid of the virus in the common cold.
I was so occupied with the honey bees and building up the operation and the markets for raw honey, that I politely listened to Lewis when he suggested that I look into the elderberry, that I did not hear him for 14 years. In this time, we built the operation up to 1,900 colonies, but the winter loses continued to escalate and be severe most seasons. Then I started to see elderberry syrup in health food stores that was made with white sugar and/or fructose from Europe. I realized that we could make a higher quality product with raw honey and local, organic elderberries right at home in Vermont. I went back to Lewis and told him that I wanted to learn more about the elderberry from him. He was happy that I was finally opening to learning about the elderberry, took me into his office and pulled out research articles and books for an hour.
Tim McFarline and I developed our elderberry syrup formula at the Vermont Venture Center, with the help of the Cornell pilot plant in Geneva, New York. Agriculture is so challenging and humbling, I learned how to ask for help, and we were blessed over the years by herbalists and scientists in Vermont-New York-Quebec-New Hampshire who we collaborated with.
As a second product after the wild cherry cough syrup with raw honey, the elderberry syrup allowed us to continue to diversity away from relying so much on selling just honey from our bees.
Honey Gardens Apiaries was blessed to continue extending its line of traditional plant medicine one season where the bears were getting more of honey than we were sending to market. Hardly an hour went by when I did not have to deal with putting bee hives back together after the bears came into a bee yard. They are looking for the protein in the young brood. While I learned that the bears can communicate across four counties within a day if there is a message about an crop of berries or where the bees are, it was not much comfort as our losses were so great. If there was a tree next to an electric fence, they would climb the tree and then vault into the bee yard, across the electric fence. They are smart.
Then, one day, I was putting eight hives back together that the bears had pushed over in domino effect. Boxes of bees and honey were everywhere. This was a campaign were were not winning. A very clear message came to me that we were spread out too far as commercial beekeepers, should work closer to home, and develop a honey product with purple loosestrife. This beautiful purple plant was spreading throughout many of the towns we worked in Vermont and more so in St. Lawrence and Jefferson Country, New York State. This particular yard was surrounded by thousands of acres of purpose loosestrife. I soon learned that the plant has strong antibiotic, antiviral, and fungicidal qualities. We began to harvest it and mix it with raw honey, Usnea (lichen that grows from living a dead trees), and propolis to make a throat spray and wound wash.
Five years ago we began to make mead, wine from honey. It is a wine that is older than grape wine, from the days of King Arthur’s court. It is appropriate to the north where honey bees are a more of tradition in our communities than grapes. It takes about a year to make good honey wine, and it is easy on the body when one drinks it, which is important for me. In the old days, the term honeymoon came when a couple was married and drank wine for a month to get pregnant and start a family. The wine nurtures amorous thoughts.
We continued our diversification with the bees and honey when we started Caledonia Spirits. Our mission was to employ people and to support agriculture in the region. Now we are buying honey, corn, elderberries, juniper berries from farmers. Three years ago, we built a winery and distillery on the banks of the Lamoille River in Hardwick. It is a very beautiful place, just south of the river, Hardwick Lake and the town forest. You can hear the loons on the lake at night. We have planted elderberries all around the building, and there are two bee hives there.
The adventure continues. Andrew Pinault is working with Ryan Christiansen to distill spirits. I am the assistant to the assistant and enjoy the marketing, graphics, and bees and working with all of the characters and personalities of the team that make this work. We all have gifts that compliment each other. Ryan started a successful home-brew shop and loves fermentation, yeast and the quest for quality. Now he is our Head Distiller and makes Barr Hill Gin and Barr Hill Vodka and Elderberry Cordial. Whiskey is aging in the barrel and our brand new whiskey still is being carefully installed, after we retrieved it at the Portland, ME harbor in early January 2013. Our gin and vodka stills were custom designed and built, using recycled stainless steel and parts from the US instead of buying stills from Europe. On Friday, the smell of honey vodka was in the air. The stills do work. They bring me glasses of spirits to taste, and I am learning. Our gin has a strong tone of juniper berries. The vodka can be creamy, really lovely.
It is good to be back in Hardwick. It is a collaborative community where people help each other. Many of us get together the first Tuesday of the month for dinner and discussion. The host picks a topic that she or he needs help on. When I need a tractor to push snow around, I borrow it from Vermont Soy. We help them develop a plan to do demos in Eastern Massachusetts, get raw milk from their North Hardwick Dairy and are looking forward to learning more about them about how to grow sunflowers for oil for people and to power diesel tractors and vehicles. High Mowing Seeds did trials for us this past summer with 22 varieties of sugar beets as we seek another source of carbohydrates for our beverages that is sustainable and will give the local farmers another option for a crop. After cheese and spirits buyers from NYC leave the Cellars at Jasper Hill, they come to Caledonia. I help the new beekeeper at the Jasper Hill take care of her bees. We love their cheese.
We would be honored for you to visit. In the town north of Hardwick, Barr Hill is in the center of the town of Greensboro. This beautiful hill has been conserved by the Nature Conservancy, and is a great place to hike or cross country ski. The view on our spirits labels is of forests and farms, Caspian Lake and mountains to the South. From the top, you can see the White Mountains, Camel’s Hump, Montreal, Lewis Hills’s nursery, his great nephew Shaun’s brewery, and over to his brother Jasper’s farm. Pete’s Greens is close, the next town north, Craftsbury. We are inspired by the high places.
Caledonia Elderberry Cordial, Barr Hill gin, and our Barr Hill vodka are now available at the distillery, some farmers markets, and the State stores of Vermont in a few weeks. Then we will work in Massachusetts, where Renee has cultivated great relationships with our honey wine. NYC will follow; we are looking for the right distributor relationship. Please let me know if you have any input on distribution in The City, contacts in liquor stores, bars and/or restaurants.
It is all relationship, and New York City and Boston make Vermont agriculture possible.
I am inspired to be in New York City today, where my great great grandfather landed in 1817, and spend the time with our daughter and her friends who just moved to Brooklyn. They are part of the farmers markets, working on fair trade, organic agriculture policy and the growing healthy food system.
Thank you for your support of our work with honey bees and those that work in agriculture.
October 16, 2011
a film by Jan Cannon
Health & the Hive: A Beekeeper’s Journey explores the importance of honeybees in our lives. Topics addressed in the film include pollination, queen breeding, disease control, bee venom therapy, organic agriculture and honey-based plant medicine.