WORTH TOWNSHIP – As more consumers seek out locally-made products, Tim and Cheri Heeter are working hard to make sure their honey is just right.
“They’re just asking asking questions you wouldn’t expect,” Mrs. Heeter said of people they meet at festivals and farm markets.
The interest in “farm-to-table” keeps growing – a practice that cuts out the middle man, Heeter said as he and his wife gave a tour recently of their apiary and farm, Breezy Ridge Acres in Worth Township, Mercer County.
The 57-acre property on state Route 965 was very overgrown when they bought it about 10 years ago, having moved from the McCandless area.
Mrs. Heeter had been working as a behavior analyst, and her husband of nearly 38 years worked on computer networks and security.
He grew up on a farm in Clarion County and is an Air Force veteran, while Mrs. Heeter is a “city girl” who lived in New York and Florida. They have two grown sons, TJ and Chris.
She had been looking for a place to keep her two horses, and they soon turned the land into a working farm that includes honey bees, peacocks, chickens, ducks, and guinea fowl, plus Buttons the dog.
“It takes a lot of work. ... It’s been very interesting,” Heeter said.
The Heeters planted an apple orchard, and adding bees was Heeter’s idea to help with pollination.
He started with a few hives in 2010 and did some research that included a class for beginners.
“It blossomed into more bee hives,” he said.
There was some trial and error, and the Heeters now have about 50 hives of honey bees, which also pollinate clover and other plants at the farm. Each hive contains up to 50,000 bees.
This is their busiest time of year for honey extraction and selling their products.
“Every extraction tastes a little bit different,” Heeter said of the the various plantings that the bees visit.
The honey is bottled in a few different sizes, and there are beeswax candles, large pieces of beeswax, and reusable food wrappers made out of beeswax.
The Heeters have encountered quite a few people who keep honey bees as a hobby, and Heeter has mentored four budding beekeepers.
Beekeepers who operate on a much larger scale sell hives for things like almond and apple pollination.
“Their hives move around the country,” Heeter said.
Small producers like Breezy Ridge Acres deal mostly with direct sales. They set up at farms markets in Grove City, Slippery Rock and Franklin, and their honey is sold at some local grocery stores and produce stands.
There’s a lot to learn about extracting honey for public consumption, and there are visits from state bee inspectors and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, he said.
The stacks of bee hives are literally buzzing with activity, while the nearby “honey house,” a small red building, contains all of the necessary equipment.
The walls are plastic to allow for easy cleaning, the lights are shatter-proof, and the water is tested annually.
The Heeters explained how the honey extractor works – the wax cappings are removed from the honeycombs with a decapping fork, then the honeycombs are placed in a metal basket.
The basket spins around, sending the honey to a drain, through two different strainers, and into 5-gallon buckets. The honey is then bottled.
There’s a warming room to store honey during the winter, Heeter said, noting that the weather can be a challenge, like this year’s rain.
Breezy Ridge Acres has produced just under 1,000 pounds of honey this year; they got more than 2,000 pounds last year, Mrs. Heeter said.
The rain washes away pollen and nectar. Honey bees live for 48 days, and they forage for nectar during the last week of their life.
Beekeepers also have to look out for mites, and even mice searching for a cozy spot.
Honey extraction will wind down in October and pick up again around April, Heeter said.
There are two hive boxes that the Heeters don’t touch; those are for the bees’ own consumption.
“Bees first, us second,” Mrs. Heeter said.
As for the movement to “save the bees” – some species are becoming endangered because of things like herbicides – the Heeters said that the easiest way to help is to plant a variety of flowers for pollination.
The “bee hotel” products, which resemble bird houses, are good for helping mason bees, he said.
Bumblebees and sweat bees are very good at pollinating, so they are important to flowers, trees, fruits, vegetables and crops.
The Heeters are proud of their honey, which is certified as “naturally grown.” They don’t use any insecticides or fertilizer on their farm, and they said they enjoy using their product every day, typically in place of sugar.
“They’re fascinating,” Mrs. Heeter said as they checked on the hives.
FOR MORE information about Breezy Ridge Acres, 514 Jackson Center Polk Road, Worth Township, call 814-786-7142, visit BreezyRidgeAcres.com or check out their Facebook page.