Sweet treats and busy bees: Beekeeping family continues traditionsWritten by Saige
Lovell – Beekeeping has been in the Zeller family since the family arrived in the Big Horn Basin at the turn of the century.
“Zeller and Sons was formally organized in 1976, but my grandfather and my father were beekeepers,” says Von Zeller, one of the owners of Zeller and Sons Honey Company. “Rumor has it that my great-grandfather was a beekeeper, but we can’t prove it. We’ve been doing this for years.”
Zeller traces his roots in Lovell back to the first decade of the 1900s, when his ancestors settled in the area. His mother’s grandfather came to the Big Horn Basin at the same time, but from Utah.
“He was six years old when they came to settle in this area, and they walked from Utah,” says Zeller.
“After World War I, my grandfather began collecting bees out of bee trees in the river bottoms to get his start,” says Zeller. “That would have been around 1920. My father remembers playing with his toy trucks in the shade of the trees while his dad worked bees in the 1930s.”
Today Zeller keeps 2,700 colonies of bees; each colony holds approximately 100,000 bees. Yearly, each colony produces between 10 and 150 pounds of honey, depending on a variety of factors.
“Overall we probably run about 60 or 70 pounds of honey per colony per year,” says Zeller. “I’ve seen it as low as 10 pounds. If I really knew what caused the difference, I’d be rich.”
Zeller also mentions that the company made some minor changes, but overall maintains similar production strategies.
“Prior to the year 2000 we overwintered the bees in Wyoming, so they got to rest for the winter, but now we make them work,” explains Zeller. “We send all of our bees to California in February to pollinate almonds.”
Approximately two-thirds of all the bees in the U.S. go to California to pollinate almonds for four to six weeks in the winter, says Zeller.
Each year in the spring Zeller gathers his bees from California to feed and medicate them.
“Then we make our splits, which means we divide them and give them new queens,” says Zeller. “I raised queens one year before deciding I’d go back to buying them from queen breeders in California.”
After they’re split, Zeller distributes the bees to locations through the north end of the Bighorn Basin on the Shoshone River.
“Throughout the summer we add extra boxes called supers for the bees to put the surplus honey in,” he explains. “Starting in mid-August we gather all the bees and start extracting the honey from the frames.”
The honey collected is put into 55-gallon drums and sold as raw honey to a packer.
Zeller says that honey in Wyoming, Montana and the Dakotas is some of the best honey in the world because of its light color and mild flavor.
“The packers who buy our honey blend it with other darker honey to make the honey in the store consistent,” explains Zeller. “Here we sell it pure.”
After all the bees are gathered, they are fed and medicated again and trucked to California.
There are a number of varieties of bees that can be utilized, but Zeller keeps European honeybees called Italians and Carnolians.
“The bees I work with are more docile than the Africans. The Italians are probably the most docile of the bunch, and they are easier to work with,” says Zeller. “The Carnolians winter much better.”
Zeller compares his bees to others that people have heard of, including the African bee, which looks just like a European honey bee, but is much more aggressive. The bees his grandfather started with were also much more aggressive.
Though he has been beekeeping for a number of years, Zeller still encounters challenges with his operation.
“The cold winters aren’t the challenge anymore,” says Zeller. “The challenge now is mites and colony collapse disorder.”
Zeller mentions he loses nearly 25 percent of his bees annually to mites, as compared to in the past when he only lost between five and 10 percent annually.
“The only problem we have with cold is that if it stays cold for an extended period of a month or six weeks where it doesn’t get above freezing,” explains Zeller. “Usually that doesn’t happen. The winter of 1978 and 1979 was deadly cold, though, and we lost half our bees. That was the last time cold really had an affect.”
Zeller explains that as bees get cold, they cluster. As it gets colder, the bees cluster more tightly. The bees can roll the cluster to move to food, if it is warm enough, as well.
“They will starve to death within inches or less of food if it’s so cold they can’t move,” says Zeller.
“It’s an enjoyable business,” says Zeller. “I get to be outside, like anything in agriculture. But whenever I think I know what I’m doing, the bees let me know that I don’t.”
The other business owned by the Zeller family is Queen Bee Gardens.
“In 1976 we decided to add a value-added product, and thought about packing, but we opted to do candy instead,” says Zeller.
Zeller’s brother Gene runs the candy business with their mother Bessie, Gene’s son Ben and son-in-law John Sponsel. Zeller’s daughter April Christiansen also helps with the candy business.
“We started exclusively in the health food market as healthy candy, because it doesn’t have refined sugar. Our chocolates do have sugar in them, though,” says Zeller.
The candy combinations at Queen Bee seem endless.
“For basics, we make pralines, our version of a turtle, called a honeymoon, English toffee, truffles, bark, haystacks and other things,” says Zeller. “The pralines come in eight or nine varieties, and there are more than 30 varieties of truffles. In the honeymoons, we have four basic nuts and four basic coatings that are combined.”
Approximately 50,000 pounds of honey from Zeller and Sons goes into making honey candy each year at Queen Bee.
“We’ve had some tough years, like everyone in agriculture,” says Zeller. “But we’re fortunate here to operate.”