Bird Island’s beekeepers have a sweet passion for bees and their honey – West Central Tribune

BIRD ISLAND — In the three years that Bird Island’s Russ Koopman has been breeding honeybees, he has learned some important things.

“There are three things that are certain in beekeeping,” Russ said. “One, you get sticky fingers. Two, you get stung. And three, some of your bees will die.”

Russ and his wife, Sharon, have also learned that there is a rather insatiable appetite in the community for their locally sourced honey, in both traditional and cream form. The couple sells their honey, under the Small Town Honey brand, at the Buffalo Lake and Bird Island weekly markets, along with other special events in the region.

“The first time we made $87 and we were so excited,” said Sharon. “It just kept growing and growing.”

Local beekeeper Russ Koopman talks about his passion for bees on Wednesday morning, July 20, 2022, in the kitchen of his house on Bird Island. As a teenager, Russ wanted to grow bees.

Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

Realizing a dream after retirement

Beekeeping had always been a dream of Russ since he was a teenager. He tried to persuade his father to start a bee colony, but Russ was only able to realize his dream in 2019. He bought a small beehive from a fellow beekeeper and managed to keep it going.

“I got through that first winter,” Russ said. “That was a baby beehive.”

Russ now has 10 hives, each with tens of thousands of bees doing what bees do: collecting pollen, making baby bees, and producing honey. Russ has become a huge fan of his little cattle, amazed at what they can accomplish. Each colony is its own well-run community with a queen to lay the eggs, drones to fertilize the eggs, and worker bees to do everything else. Workers can be collectors, nurses, scouts, and protectors.

Russ Koopman ensures that his beehives are in good condition during a checkup on Wednesday morning, July 20, 2022.

Russ Koopman ensures that his beehives are in good condition during a checkup on Wednesday morning, July 20, 2022.

Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

“They have senses that we don’t quite understand,” Russ said.

One of the most important things a beekeeper can do for their colonies is find a good location for them. Russ has his on an abandoned farm lot between Olivia and Bird Island, close to some CRP land and surrounded by trees. It’s far enough away from agricultural fields that he hasn’t had a problem spraying pesticides, which can kill a colony.

“If you live in an agricultural area like this, you have to be extremely careful where you put them,” Russ said.

Russ’ favorite bee is the Carneolan or gray honey bee. Native to Eastern Europe, it can survive the colder winters of Minnesota, and is considered more docile than other honeybees, making it a good choice for new and experienced beekeepers alike. It is also a good honey producer.

A stray honeybee roams the truck bed of local beekeeper Russ Koopman outside Olivia on Wednesday, July 20, 2022.

A lost honeybee roams the truck bed of local beekeeper Russ Koopman outside Olivia on Wednesday, July 20, 2022. Russ lives to breed Carneolan – or gray – honey bees because they can survive the winter, are good honey producers, and a rather docile species.

Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

Honey production depends on the availability of good nectar flows for the bees. Bees harvest nectar from plants such as wildflowers, clover, thistles and even dandelions. Russ can sometimes tell which plants the bees collect based on the pollen he collects. For example, a species of thistle growing around its hives has vibrant red-orange pollen. Russ’ bees get quite a lot of their pollen and nectar from surrounding trees, such as basswood.

“Trees are the biggest sources of pollen we have,” Russ said.

The dry conditions hitting Renville County this summer are likely to have an effect on honey production. Last year, Russ harvested about 1,000 pounds of honey. He lowers expectations for this year.

“I’m not holding my breath,” Russ said for a year, just like last year. “It could be 500 to 700 pounds.”

Honeycomb will be in the basement of local beekeeper Russ Koopman on Wednesday 20 July 2022.

Honeycomb will be in the basement of local beekeeper Russ Koopman on Wednesday 20 July 2022.

Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

Living in a ‘honey house’

The honey produced by the bees is used as a food source for the hive’s young, along with food to keep the hive through the winter. Beekeepers must ensure that they leave enough honey for the bees to survive. Russ uses a system of honey supers, which provide bees with extra hive space to store honey. Russ can then remove the filled trays from those supers.

Russ then returns the filled honeycomb to the basement of the Koopman house, where he extracts the honey. For the best honey consistency, Russ looks for honey with less than 18% moisture content. Depending on the level coming out of the hive, Russ will run the entire supers in front of a dehumidifier to give the honey the right consistency.

“Our house is a honey house,” said Russ

After the moisture is at the right level, Russ places individual honeycomb frames in the honey extractor, a machine that spins the frames, causing the honey to flow out of the comb. The honey is then passed through a pair of sieves to remove large particles such as wax and pollen particles. The honey is then bottled or skimmed. The honey produced by Small Town Honey is considered raw honey as it is not heated in any way and only squeezed minimally.

Small Town Honey honey bear.JPG

The honey produced and packaged by Small Town Honey is considered raw as it is not heated and minimally pressed.

Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune

“From the basket to a bucket to a pot,” Sharon said.

For the first few years with their hives, the Koopmans just did what they call “liquid honey,” the traditional honey people find in their supermarkets. But last fall, the couple was left with hundreds of pounds of honey and needed a new product.

“We had so much honey last August,” Sharon said. “That’s when Russ started thinking about honey cream and the different flavors.”

Small Town Honey creamed honey.JPG

The Koopmans started making cream honey last year. It has become a popular product in the markets and comes in different flavors such as strawberry, lemon and cinnamon.

Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune

Creamed honey is when the honey is intentionally made to crystallize by studding it with tiny honey crystals. This gives the creamed honey a smooth texture. Russ then adds dried fruit such as strawberries or orange to create different flavors. It can take several weeks for creamed honey to be ready for sale. Creamed honey is quite common in Europe, Russ said, but quite unknown in the United States. Based on the sale of Small Town Honey, there is a growing fan base in and around Renville County for creamed honey.

“We can barely keep up,” Sharon said.

Small Town Honey also sells raw pollen collected from the hives and products made by the beeswax left from the hives, such as candles.

“I like going to these smaller towns because people know me,” Sharon said, adding that it’s a great way to meet people on Bird Island or chat with interested shoppers.

Sharon Koopman of Small Town Honey shows off wares.JPG

Sharon Koopman explains to Sue Savoie what cream honey is at the Renville County Market in Bird Island on July 20, 2022. Small Town Honey also sells at the Buffalo Lake Farmers Market and other events in the region.

Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune

Despite the popularity of their product, the Koopmans have no intention of expanding their honey empire. Honey production can be very expensive and time consuming. Russ doesn’t want his beekeeping to become a full-time job, especially since he started his hives as a retirement project.

“Russ says, ‘I want this to become a hobby, I don’t want this to become a business,'” Sharon said.

The couple learned a lot from their beekeeping and honey making. It was a fun albeit challenging hobby, and Russ enjoyed learning more about bees and their very important place in the environment.

“They’re very intelligent animals. The organization in a beehive is just amazing,” Russ said. “I don’t know how they do all those things. They’re just amazing critters.”

Honeybees swarm around beekeeper Russ Koopman as he checks a beehive near Olivia on Wednesday, July 20, 2022.

Honeybees swarm around beekeeper Russ Koopman as he checks a beehive near Olivia on Wednesday, July 20, 2022.

Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

Beekeeper Russ Koopman, who wears a protective headgear designed to keep bees at bay, will spend time checking his hives near Olivia on July 20, 2022.

Beekeeper Russ Koopman, who wears a protective headgear designed to keep bees at bay, will spend time checking his hives near Olivia on July 20, 2022.

Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

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