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Kalispell beekeeper: Keeping abuzz about the natural methods


January 9, 2010

The honey bee is remarkable — for its impossible aerodynamics, its intricate social order, its uncanny navigational sense. But to Veronica Honthaas, the collective is even more intriguing. "You've got the bee," she said, pausing amid a discussion of the choreography each drone, each worker bee and the queen all follow in a colony's natural dance. "But the hive," she said, tapping a wooden box that will house a new brood of bees this year, "that's the real living organism." Honthaas is a 60-year-old organic beekeeper, traditional herbalist, reflexologist, potter, gardener, land steward and longtime horsewoman who, along with her farrier husband, Doug Honthaas, shares in noncompetitive, no-stress cattlesorting events with a group of friends. "I'm a teacher by trade," she said from the kitchen of her 110-year-old homestead on Kelly Road outside Columbia Falls. "I teach people to live better." Years ago when the young couple lived on their patch of land amid the trees and meadows by Happy's Inn, along the stretch of open U.S. 2 near Thompson Lakes, they used to keep bees. They had put together $3,000 to build their own primitive cabin with a hand pump in the kitchen and wildlife out the window. They raised and hunted most of their own food, and sugar just wasn't in their diets. "So we had honey," she said, honey that was harvested from the stacks of box hives hemming their land. Their bees encountered no agricultural chemicals from surrounding forest. They were treated with no pesticides for mites or other beekeepers' banes. They were fed their own honey to avoid the acidic imbalance that comes from a diet of sugar water. The bee colony's production was double the norm and its genetics were hardy — hardy enough that the colony continued to thrive untended for 10 years after the Honthaases moved to Columbia Falls. In an industry where large apiaries now expect 60 percent to 70 percent of their bees to die off every year, that hardiness is notable. This spring, Honthaas is anticipating the promise of a new beekeeping season in the shadow of Columbia Mountain and back at their Happy's Inn cabin, setting up for her first hives in years. Over the winter, she began looking for like-minded beekeepers. In January she tried to contact her own mentor from Flathead Valley Community College's early years, Maryann Hepple, the woman who "could inspire anyone to want to raise bees," Honthaas said. Hepple is gone, but the inquiry led her to Scott Kelley. Kelley has been keeping bees the past four years, swapping tips with a couple of like-minded buddies. He knew nothing of the organic methods Honthaas supports, but was of one mind with her about forming a mutual- support club with others in the local beekeeping community. First Best Place Task Force folks were eager for the group to meet at Glacier Discovery Center in Columbia Falls. "They said, 'You're part of the movement we're trying to make,'" Honthaas said as she recalled their reaction when she asked to use the facility. On March 24, the Flathead Beekeepers Club's inaugural meeting drew 25 people from as far away as Eureka, Somers, Kila and beyond. Neophytes and experienced beekeepers shared tips on starting bee colonies, diversifying genetics for Montana hardiness, choosing hive styles and more. "That highlights there is a lot of interest in this," Kelley said, delighted with the open attitude supporting both conventional and natural beekeeping without tension between the philosophies. "It's time for us to come together and start sharing our passion around bees." He was impressed with the diversity in experience level and as a beekeeper who had wanted to get a club under way for some time, he was grateful for Honthaas' push to get it all going. "She's been a huge force in getting us to this point," he said. "It's been a great working relationship. She's such a strong organizer and motivator — she's a force." For Honthaas, it's largely about giving back. She figures she's at the stage in life to pass along what she's learned, to encourage younger people in their passions. The life she and her husband live has roots much older than the 1960s back-to-nature movement of their youth. "I grew up in a family where you didn't get antibiotics" when illness hit, she said. "You got chamomile tea and a hot water bottle. We raised Marissa (their 27-year-old daughter) without ever using antibiotics." She doesn't disparage antibiotic use when medically necessary, "but (doctors and patients) don't use them respectfully." Herbs used in her practice are found in the woods or grown in her garden. They're used to maintain good health far more often than to treat illness. Food needs to be organically grown, free of toxins that can set the body out of balance. She applies a similar ethic to raising bees. Honthaas supports "regression," a movement among beekeepers to introduce feral bees' genetics into their broods by collecting bees from the wild. It counters a 100-year commercial trend to breed bigger bees, which can make them more susceptible to mites and has contributed to higher mortality rates. Regression proponents are coming up with smaller and darker bees genetically adapted to local climates. Wi t h Montana's winters, adaptation is crucial to a long-term sustainable colony. "You have to accept some losses," Honthaas cautioned. "But you will find out who the strong ones are." She's not trying to take on traditional beekeeping or the larger industry, but she cites research indicating that apiary chemicals — even natural chemicals used by some organic beekeepers — can erode the cas ing on a bee' s body. Pesticides in the area can kill bees, which typically fly a mile but can go up to five miles gathering pollen. Any chemicals they come in contact with likely will show up in the honey. Even bees that are fed high fructose corn syrup, instead of leaving enough honey in the hive for their food, will have that show up in their honey. "You've heard 'buy local, know your farmer.' Well, this is 'know your beekeeper,'" she said. "It's all over the world. Even in Russia they're working on this movement. It's small, but it's still a movement." In keeping with doing things a la Mother Nature, Honthaas advocates taking the time to understand the workings of the bee colony itself. While some see only the angry stinging of bees disturbed by humans harvesting honey, Honthaas talked of the Zen of beekeeping. It's the calm, collected, slow way of moving among the bees, a way learned by beekeepers who understand and work with their natural rhythms. "I t 's magic." Honthaas spilled the glow of a beekeeper's passion from her eyes. "They know so much more than you think they do."


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