This year the Caroline Farmers Market, which opens for the season at 10 a.m. on May 5, will feature several new vendors, including a potter and a woodworker as well as additional new farmers with produce and most of the farmers, artists and crafters that market goes have come to enjoy. However, no product will seem so exotic as Willis and Shirley Hilkers honey, made by some very well traveled bees. Bill and Shirley are Tompkins County snow birds, migrating to Florida every winter. This year 32 bee colonies migrated right along with them.
Despite the travel fees, about $100 per hive each way, $200 round trip, Hilker finds that giving the bees a winter vacation in the orange groves actually makes sense from a monetary standpoint. “The bees made over 2000 pounds of honey this winter and we’re busy extracting that right now.” He explains, “But it’s not just the sales of honey that help make this a winning proposition. It’s also the survival issue. If I left the bees in Tompkins County over half of the hives wouldn’t survive the winter due to the cold. They’d also have to be fed if they stayed here. At about $100 per hive to repopulate with new bees in the spring, we’ve avoided a great deal of expense by having them winter in a warmer climate. The hives come back healthy and ready to pollinate the spring apple crop. Right now many of the bees are up in Geneva, enjoying a newly blossomed apple orchard.”
“Money can be made both in Florida and in New York by renting bee hives to people needing their orchards buzzed, but we could be making even more money if we were large scaled enough to travel even further. Bee keepers in Texas and Louisiana make $150 to $180 per hive renting their bees to almond orchards in California. They might also travel up the coast to Oregon and Washington for apple orchards and stone fruits like peaches and plums.”
Hilker shows off his honey room, which contains a heated electric knife, that looks like a miniature chain saw, to slice off the top of the wax cells in each frame, an extractor that looks like a giant wringer washer with slots to hold the frames and a spin cycle, and a big tank that filters all the bits of wax and other matter that might still be in the honey after it’s been whirled through the extractor. It smells wonderful in this room and as soon as the door is opened we are joined by a number of bees, also attracted to the aroma. HIlker shoos them gently away.
Hilker shows the hives stacked against the wall, each section contains ten frames filled with honey waiting to be sliced, spun and filtered. “If you look at the frames, you can see the different kinds of honey that the bees have made. Each honey has a characteristic color and aroma. You can see,” he shows a frame with dark yellow hexegons, “that this frame has goldenrod honey made up here last fall. This other frame,” he shows off a rectangular wooden frame willed with a sheet of aromatic hexagonal combs filled with pale yellow honey, “is orange blossom honey made in Florida this winter.” When we extract we do one kind of honey at a time, as much as possible, and we’ll label each batch by what kind of honey was in the combs. The bees make different amounts of honey, depending of which plants they have access to. For instance, apple blossoms don’t have a lot of nectar an we’re lucky to get 6 to eight pounds of honey per hive, but locust, which will bloom soon, will give us 20 to 100 pounds per hive and goldenrod and orange blossoms can give as much as 100 pounds per hive. You can also see where the bees have laid eggs and hatched out new bees, in a crescent shape, then used the cells to store more honey.“ Hilker speaks with affection of his bees. His wife Shirley calls them his babies.
The hives are shipped four to a pallet and loaded on a truck at both ends of their journey with a fork lift. He says, “We don’t have to man handle things any more and we don’t have to use a hand cranked extractor any more. Bee keeping has gotten a lot easier. We’re still adding equipment, too, having picked up some used equipment in Florida that we’ll be reconditioning.” Hilker still considers himself at the hobby stage with his bee keeping, with only 32 hives.”There are people who have 1000 to 10,000 hives, they’re the ones who do most of the migrating with their bees.” Still, he’s serious about the quality of his honey, which tastes as good as it smells. “We’re careful not to overheat the honey when we extract it, so the honey retains all its flavornoids, its aldehydes and ketones,” he explains. “Unlike some commercial honey, this is good for you. You can even use it on a cut as it’s antiseptic.”
Hilkers honey, along with his and Shirley’s jams and jellies will be available at the Caroline Farmers Market, which is open from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. every Saturday from May 5 through October 27. Other vendors will be available selling meat, vegetables, cheese, baked goods, arts and crafts and there is a snack bar where the food is always home made and often of local origin. The Market is locate in the Brooktondale Community Centers Old Fire Hall, 522 Valley Rd. in Brooktondale, and has plenty of parking as well as a playground for the youngsters. It’s also the site of the developing Brooktondale Inspirational Gardens, and well worth the short drive six mile drive from downtown Ithaca.
See a list of all our vendors.