Sticky Business

Bill Mraz has turned minding his own beeswax into a honey of a business at Champlain Valley Apiaries in Middlebury

by Craig Bailey

To produce a single pound of honey, bees need to make 20,000 flights, collecting nectar from hundreds of thousands of flowers. It's a statistic that's not lost on Bill Mraz, owner of Champlain Valley Apiaries in Middlebury. He and his tiny staff spend a good part of each year visiting approximately a thousand hives the company maintains at more than 30 locations from the Canadian border to Shoreham.

Mraz is the first to tell you it's not easy work.

"Keeps you in shape," he says, patting his belly. "That's about the best thing I can say for it." He continually pokes fun at beekeeping, theorizing that bee stings, an occupational hazard, might make people like him "weak in the head" to "go into businesses that don't make any money." Nonetheless, it's obvious Mraz loves the industry he's been involved with since he was a child, and is proud of the Mraz name, which is legendary among beekeepers.

Bill Mraz is likely to harvest less than 10,000 pounds of honey this year at Champlain Valley Apiaries in Middlebury. Production is very low due to the cool summer.

Champlain Valley Apiaries was founded by Mraz's father, Charles, in 1931. The son of Czechoslovakian immigrants, the elder Mraz kept bees in Woodside, Long Island, then an agricultural enclave of Czech culture just outside Queens. "He started working around with other beekeepers and finally bought a beekeeping business from a guy in Middlebury," Mraz relates. Charles had worked summers for the man, Phil Crane, and moved to Middlebury permanently in 1928 to buy the operation when Crane retired. Three years later, he dubbed it Champlain Valley Apiaries. In the mid '40s, he moved the business to its current location: a nondescript, three-story building on Washington Street Extension.

Bill, one of five children, says he worked for his father for as long as he can remember: "It wasn't a choice!" he laughs. When it came time for a career, though, he chose mechanical engineering. After graduating from Norwich University in 1958, Mraz worked for a number of firms, including G.E. in Burlington for 11 years. "My father got into his 70s and he wanted somebody to take over the business. So I finally came back," Mraz recalls. "It isn't an easy business to dissolve; he had a lot of bees."

In 1976 he returned to help his father with the business; in 1980 he and his family moved from the town of Georgia to Middlebury and Mraz bought the company. Though becoming owner of Champlain Valley Apiaries wasn't his intention earlier in life, Mraz offers a simple explanation with a sly, deadpan delivery: "I gotta have something to do when I get old." He continued to work as an engineer part-time until a few years ago.

At the time Bill bought the business, Charles was getting more and more into apitheraphy --treating ailments such as arthritis and multiple sclerosis with live bee stings at his Middlebury home. The elder Mraz experimented with the folk remedy as far back as the '30s. "He really was the guy who pioneered it," says Bill. People would come from around the world to be treated by Charles, who saw upward of 20 people a day, seven days of the week. He never charged for the service -- to do that, or to extract the venom before delivering it to patients, would have crossed the line into practicing medicine.

When Charles died last September at age 94, The New York Times devoted a 1,300-word article to his passing. The piece called him "an inventive beekeeper ... the country's leading evangelist for the therapeutic use of bee stings."

Though not proven by medical science, many people, including Bill, believe apitheraphy works. Still, he has no interest in filling the void left when his father died. "I look at it from too much of an engineering standpoint," he theorizes. While the elder Mraz was happy to glean six positive results out of 10 treatments, "why the other four didn't get better didn't ever seem to bother him, which would bother me. I'd want to know why." Furthermore, Mraz is too busy tending his bees and occasionally offering engineering consulting services to find the time.

Champlain Valley Apiaries still plays a significant role in the bee venom industry, however. The company might be the only one in the United States that sells bee venom to pharmaceutical companies across the globe for use as desensitizing treatments for people with allergies to bee stings.

Mraz and his workers use electricity to incite the bees to sting. "It's no fun," says Mraz, again with the deadpan. "We get them really mad and they sting this collector. It's this thing that gives them an electric shock, and it's got a little diaphragm that they sting through and deposit the venom on the backside. It's a liquid when they deposit it and then we dry it so it keeps and sell it dry."

Though Mraz collects the venom from many bees simultaneously in the third-story, laboratory-like space of his building, it remains a formidable task: To collect a gram of venom requires 10,000 stings. "The market's really tiny," Mraz says, though "you could collect a lot of bee venom if there was a market for it." Venom sales are a small part of the company's annual gross income of less than $300,000.

"In a way, it's a nicer business than honey," he quips. "You send them this little envelope with dried bee venom in it and they send you a check back. They don't want a 10 percent discount."

Most of the company's honey is sold to the New York City market in health food stores through a handful of distributors. "It's kind of a classic agricultural food product -- very small margin of profit. Our biggest market is ethnic groups," says Mraz. "To the average American, unfortunately, honey is honey. They buy the cheapest jar on the shelf." Mraz says his honey is "top of the line. It's a little more expensive than the others." Europeans, Koreans, people from the Middle East and South America tend to be fussy about quality; some even regard honey as more of a medicinal product than food.

Mraz also distributes a catalog during the holiday season to a mailing list of 5,000 addresses. Mail order sales generate about 10 percent of the company's business. "It's a little more profitable" than selling to distributors. "We make UPS a lot of money at the same time," Mraz jokes. "The bills are outrageous. That's one of the problems with honey: It's heavy," he says, which makes it hard to expand his market geographically.

"We'd like to make more honey," says Bill Mraz, "but right now the Champlain Valley is pretty maxed out on bees." His company maintains more than 1,000 hives in dozens of locations from Morse's Line to Shoreham. From left: James Gabriel, Mark Mulqueen and Mraz.

At the same time, American beekeepers are competing with imported honey from nations such as China and Venezuela. "We're getting killed by imports," says Steve Parise, apiculturist with the Vermont Department of Agriculture.

Parise is responsible for overseeing the 1,200 registered beekeepers in Vermont, and visits a dozen of Mraz's hives a year. "There's no question that there are beekeepers who could certainly use the assistance," he offers, referring to subsidies. "There wouldn't have to be any kind of assistance program if there was some way to regulate the volume of imports," he says. "There's an awful lot of politics involved with that."

Subsidies on honey were eliminated a dozen years ago, and duty on imported honey, according to Mraz, is insignificant, making competing with foreign companies difficult. Quality is a selling point: "You can hardly get good honey in China," Mraz claims. "They adulterate all their honey over there -- they mix it with corn syrup and stuff like that to stretch it out."

It's 6 p.m. on a Wednesday in late August. The Champlain Valley Apiaries facility -- resembling a barn, a manufacturing space and an office rolled into one -- is quiet. An occasional flying insect buzzes by, drawn into the rustic building by the scent -- an earthy, delicious smell that pervades every corner of the worn structure. The company's office manager, Pat Shorkey, has gone home for the day, as have Mraz's two employees who "work the bees" with him: James Gabriel and part-timer Mark Mulqueen, sound man for the local band Viperhouse.

Mraz is dipping tongue depressors into bottles filled with varying hues of golden syrup -- many gifts to him from fellow beekeepers from across the country. Mraz's business might be the largest apiary in Vermont, and one of the largest in New England, but it's small beeswax compared to those in the Midwest that might maintain up to 30,000 hives.

Mraz invokes the analogy of honey to wine more than once. Like a connoisseur sampling a fine vintage, he takes a taste and can sum up the floral source of the honey, whether it be clover, alfalfa, orange blossom or tupelo. Most of the almost 40,000 pounds of honey his company produces a year is clover honey.

"Clover's a bit of a misnomer," Mraz admits. "The better term is legume honey," since his bees visit a variety of nitrogen-fixing plants, mostly clover and alfalfa. What's more, not all honey bearing the Champlain Valley Apiaries label is produced in Vermont. Mraz sells approximately 100,000 pounds a year. To make up the difference, he blends his honey with product from other American and Canadian beekeepers --a common practice. Blending not only helps him meet demand, but helps him control quality. Many factors, including weather, affect the quality of honey. "American tastes tend toward the lighter honeys," he says.

Mraz places his hives mostly on farmers' properties. The relationship is mutually beneficial: The bees harvest nectar from the crops; the crops benefit from the pollination. In the fall, Mraz pays the farmers "hive rent" in jars and tubs of the golden stuff.

A talk with Mraz reveals him to possess a breadth of knowledge from biology, chemistry and weather, to agriculture, history and world trade. "I find that to be the case with any of the commercial guys who have been in the business as long as Bill," says Parise, who works out of his home in Orwell. "You have to be a jack-of-all-trades." He describes Mraz as "a very intelligent, hard-working individual."

One who spends any time with Mraz is likely to formulate two notions: It's amazing that anyone is willing to do this amount of work for such a limited return, and it's surprising that honey doesn't cost $200 a jar. Far from complaining, Mraz seems bemused by the whole affair --whether it's competing with sugared-down foreign product, bad weather resulting in low yields, or the thousands of stings he's suffered over his life. If Mraz sets the example, a good beekeeper needs to be a pleasant-natured hard worker who's happy to roll with the punches.

A large amount of beekeepers' success depends on the weather. This summer's cool temperatures meant there was less nectar for bees to collect. "We had a very poor year," says Mraz. "If we're lucky we'll get 10,000 pounds."

The season starts in March when Mraz, Gabriel and Mulqueen start visiting hives to remove winter packing and check the condition of the bees. The introduction of mites from overseas has bumped bee loss over the winter from 5 or 6 percent to 10 to 20 percent.

By May they're "reversing" the hives: "We take the bottom boxes on the hives and put them on top," says Mraz. Bees winter in the bottom of the hive, and eat stored honey from bottom to top. Putting the empty hives on the top gives the insects room for the first honey flow of spring: the dandelion crop. "At that time of year we also pick our best hives to make what we call 'splits' with -- make new hives to replace winter loss," Mraz explains. "We're looking for big, strong healthy hives in the spring that have a good record of honey production."

Weather permitting, the honey starts to flow by mid-June and the workers continue to add more boxes to each hive to give the colonies room to store the incoming honey.

Pat Shorkey's been stung only twice during her 12-year tenure. "The bees and I have an agreement," she says. "I don't go out and tell them how to make honey, and they don't come in here and tell me how to do my office work."

"Early August we start taking the honey off," Mraz says. "(The bees) aren't happy to see you." The trick is to leave enough of the sweet stuff to allow the bees to survive in the hive through the winter. "It's a lot of guesswork," he offers. "With experience, you get pretty good at it."

Back at the honey shop, they remove the frames full of comb and honey from the boxes they've brought back, and run them on a conveyor belt through a planer that buzzes off the beeswax seal. From there the frames go into one of two centrifuges. "It's being spun, like a clothes dryer, to get the honey out," Mraz shouts over the hum as he peers into the top of large silver drum.

From there the honey runs through pipes into a spinner that separates out the wax particles. Mraz melts the wax, the consistency of sticky sawdust, to make candles the company sells in its holiday catalog.

From the spinner the honey flows through a pipe in the floor into a holding tank downstairs. From the tank, it's poured into 55-gallon barrels before it's bottled throughout the year as needed.

Mraz thinks, "The less you do with honey, the better it is." Consequently, he doesn't filter his product. "Honey is actually amazingly sterile stuff," he says. "Because of the high sugar content, it generally won't support bacterial growth." His best seller is what he calls "crystallized bee honey," a thick, milky, slightly granular substance with a flavor that could easily be described as ambrosia.

With work to do in the autumn preparing the hives for winter, and tens of thousands of boxes and frames to repair and build during the winter, Mraz says there's barely a moment's downtime. Of course, there is a certain tasty fringe benefit to the business, which also manifests itself in a continual need to wash one's hands. "Sticky business," he chuckles, as he turns to the sink yet again.