FREEDOM — Business is always buzzing at Fox Honey Farm.
The Svetleachni family oversees nearly 1,000 hives spanning 25 locations in rural areas of Brown and Outagamie counties. The roughly 50 million bees that call those hives home annually produce about 50,000 pounds of honey.
Fox Honey Farm, based east of Freedom, has been bottling and selling its four varieties of honey since family patriarch Sergei Svetleachni began beekeeping full time in 2004 with about 400 colonies. Nine years earlier, he moved his family to the Green Bay area from their home in far eastern Russia.
These days, Sergei maintains final say in what happens with the beehives, but he receives full-time assistance from daughter Rita and sons Dan and Artem. Dan helps in the field with the beehives. Artem updates the website (http://www.foxhoneyfarm.com) and operates the honeyhouse, where extracting and bottling honey takes place. Rita handles sales and the online store.
“It’s not that I like working in the hot weather with bees and sometimes getting stung by them,” said Dan, 21, who was born in Green Bay. “What I really like is spending almost every day with family. Not a day goes by I’m not working with my brother or sister or talking with my dad. That’s my favorite part.
“And it’s nice that so many people enjoy our honey. We have a quality product that’s pure and not processed or filtered in any way. So I think it’s a nice job to have.”
Virtually all of Fox Honey Farm’s sales take place online, with the majority getting shipped to people with Russian heritage, Dan said.
“There are Russian communities in many cities, and it started by my dad getting in contact with those communities and spreading the word that way,” Dan said. “Russians really enjoy honey. In Russian culture, you put it in tea, in desserts, in all kinds of things. It’s used more than sugar.”
This time of year, Fox Honey Farm is busy checking the hives, removing dead bees, consolidating pallets and preparing to get the beehives loaded onto semitrailers for the annual trek to Florida. Each year about 30 percent of the bees die, Dan said, but the operation restocks through natural reproduction.
The Svetleachni family keeps the nearly 1,000 hives in eastern Wisconsin typically from late spring through late September, during which time clover honey is harvested. This year’s harvest has been significantly better than last year, Dan said.
“The beehives are in lots of different places,” Dan said. “Sometimes farmers ask us to put our bees next to their soybean fields for increased production.” Each property owner receives 50 pounds of honey in exchange for letting the beehives occupy several dozen square feet of land.
In late September, the beehives are trucked south, where Fox Honey Farm operates a similar set up near the Florida panhandle town of Wewahitchka, 30 minutes east of Panama City.
“In January or February, things start blooming and the bees start flying and collecting honey for about three months,” Dan said. “We bring them back to Wisconsin after we get three separate crops down there.”
Florida harvests include, in chronological order, red honey, tupelo honey and gallberry honey.
Red honey primarily comes from maple, willow, tai tai and other shrubs. It is described as having a mild, pleasant taste and aroma.
Tupelo honey, sought after in part because of its uniqueness, is derived from the Tupelo gum trees growing in the swamps along the Apalachicola River. It does not crystallize.
Gallberry honey comes from a small evergreen holly bush (inkberry) that grows along the South Atlantic and Gulf Coast.
Sergei and Dan handle much of the hands-on harvesting of the honey from the hives. To make that process easier, Sergei has been developing beekeeping suits that are thicker (to minimize the potential for bee stings), lighter (since harvesting often happens during warm weather) and has many small air pockets (to increase breathability for the skin). They also wear the standard headgear and gloves.
Once honeycomb frames are collected from the hives, they are brought to the honeyhouse and uncapped using hot knives. Then they are placed in a honey extractor, which spins the frames and forces honey to drip out and collect in a bucket. That bucket is poured into a larger tank and immediately dispensed into various jars and pails.
Fox Honey Farm doesn’t heat or filter its honey.
“Therefore, in our honey you will see lots of specks and particles of pollen, propolis and beeswax, especially on the cover,” the farm stated. “For someone who knows honey well, this is the best sign of quality raw honey.”
Fox Honey Farm also sells bees.
“It seems like a lot of people are getting into beekeeping now,” said Dan, noting that five combs, bees and a queen bee costs about $180 early in the season. “It doesn’t take a lot to get started.”