WATERTOWN — Two longtime beekeepers are watching their children and grandchildren continue exploring the health benefits of honey, especially after a study found it’s the most preferred sweetener in the country.
The National Honey Board surveyed 2,000 U.S. consumers this year and found in that group, the number one preferred sweetener was honey, beating out white sugar for the first time in five years. The findings indicate a surge in customers wanting a healthier option, helping Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties, considering they’re among the top producers of honey in the state.
Rolly Churchill, Burrville, used to produce 40 tons of honey a year with his father. He was a commercial beekeeper up until the industry was crippled in the late 1970s, causing Mr. Churchill to get out of the business and become a paramedic for 35 years.
He retired in 2017 and got back into beekeeping. He has a dozen colonies that will each have at least 500,000 bees during the summer. He’s always focused on the health benefits that honey, particularly raw honey, can provide, and it’s become a family business.
His granddaughter is using honey to make soaps or lip balm, and his daughter is infusing honey with lavender and will soon likely do it with garlic and sage. It’s all focused on the well-being of local consumers, and they sell it as a team out of a self-serve barn stand across the street from the Burrville Cider Mill on County Route 156. Customers come to the stand, choose their honey and place money in a box, resulting in little contact with other people.
“I think the business has been a boom because of COVID,” Mr. Churchill said. “I don’t think they want to go to the store.”
With many in the industry, Mr. Churchill wants to encourage others to get into the business. He considers his family business to be a smaller operation, though he wants it to be a destination for visitors. He wants people to be able to come and learn about how colonies function. He wants to make it educational, even if it’s just a few facts. Such as how a bee has a 21-day lifespan, or how a queen lays roughly 3,000 eggs a day during the summer. Or how a bee has to travel a distance amounting to three times around the globe in order to produce one pound of honey.
Further north in Potsdam, Luke Martin has been a beekeeper for more than 50 years.
He was roughly 16 years old when a swarm of bees landed on an apple tree at his house. They had come from his neighbor’s house, who was a commercial beekeeper. His neighbor came and collected his bees, but a few remained, which marked the first time Mr. Martin knew he was interested in the business.
“You develop an immunity to a bee sting, so it doesn’t swell up,” he said. “Now I would rather get stung by a bee than bitten by a mosquito. Those itch too much.”
Over the years, Mr. Martin had a day job, but he would at one time end up with 100 colonies. He’s since scaled back to somewhere between 20 and 30 colonies, and he too has focused on the health benefits of raw honey.
He said he’s seeing a trend in people wanting it for its healing qualities. If a small amount of moisture is added, honey can be used as an ointment on a wound. Many local honeys have a small amount of pollen in it, which can help those with allergies develop an immunity and have less of a reaction.
He said consumers are also seeking out raw honey to be added as sweetener, from coffee to a morning bowl of cereal.
“The consumer is becoming more aware of health and values,” he said. “You’re either going to spend money getting good food, or you’re going to give it to the doctor.”