Just as winter lifts from our garden city, Missoula becomes—well—a garden city again. It seems as if blooms populate trees overnight and we’re happily walking down the petal lined sidewalks with a little pep in our step. Springtime is a treat that we’ve learned to savor. And so have our bees. In fact, the very ecosystem we admire wouldn’t exist without them. The golden honey they produce is one of our richest rewards—as if maintaining our ecosystem wasn’t enough—so we decided to ask a local business owner, Sam Wüstner of Bison & Bee, all about this special product.
Sam, tell us a little bit about the honey-making process. What materials are needed, how many bees make this company possible?
1. We harvest our honey from our hives, located on the mountain creeks outside of Missoula. By providing the bees with shelter and care, they are able to make honey and wax from the nectar collected from the flowers they visit. The bees from our 600 hives (with up to 50,000 bees per hive) work extremely hard to gather the nectar, flying up to 5 miles to do so. Each hive is comprised of a stack of wood boxes with wooden frames inside to hold the honeycombs and bees. After the surplus honey is harvested, we use centrifuges—a machine that spins the honey out of the combs to fill our jars and reuse the comb for the next year.
Can you speak to the difference between low-heat/unfiltered honey and commercially produced honey? Why would someone purchase local honey as opposed to getting it at the grocery store?
2. Unheated and unfiltered honey has pollen, vitamins, minerals, beneficial enzymes and antimicrobial properties. As the honey is heated and filtered it loses these benefits as well as its unique flavor. Despite being well documented by the media, honey from large distributors can be over-processed and even adulterated with non honey ingredients such as rice and corn syrup. Many grocery stores in Missoula are starting to carry local honey, allowing customers to learn about their local beekeepers and their process in making such high quality honey. This honey is not only better for the customer but it also strengthens the local community and economy.
Tell us about the bee "society" and how it works, and what is the Queen Bee's involvement/importance?
3. The honeybee is a social insect with all the individuals working for the survival of the hive as a whole. The main population of the hive is the female worker bees. They fulfill a wide variety of roles to maintain the hive throughout the seasons. A small percentage of the hive are the male bees and their function is to mate with the queen. The queen produces all of the bees in a hive by laying eggs which grow into the adult bees.
Why Bison & Bee? What made you start this business?
4. My brother and I started Wüstner Brothers Honey in 2011 and it has continued to grow steadily from the support of the local community. It is still the majority of our business but we started Bison and Bee Honey to meet the demand of customers who wanted a more liquid honey. Even though it is slightly heated to prevent it from crystallizing in the container, it is still pure high quality local honey. The Bison and Bee brand was created to make it clear that they are two different products.
Who designs your labels? Did you have an overall vision for what this business would grow into or has it surprised you along the way?
5. I did the design for Wüstner Brothers bee logo. Jeremy Haas designed the Bison and Bee label and he now runs an awesome handmade leather goods company called Pinch Flat Manufacturing. It is hard to believe the overwhelming support we have received from the good folks of Missoula and we are so grateful for it. This town has an incredible local food community and people recognize the incredible honey the bees make in the place we live.
What's the biggest challenge you've faced in having bees/having this business?
6. The business has been a ton of work and we are so thankful the community appreciates our honey and sustains us in return. Beekeeping is often at the mercy of forces beyond our control such as wildfires shortening the honey harvest.
What's your favorite/most rewarding part of running Bison & Bee?
7. Despite hardships, our success in caring for the hives makes it all worthwhile.
April is our "eco" issue, which pays tribute to how our community makes an effort in being more sustainable. Can you speak to how your business lends itself to that concept?
8. By taking care of the hives with organic treatments and educating our customers about the importance of pollinators, we advocate for the immense importance of our ecosystem.
What's your personal opinion on the future of bees? Can you give us any tips on what we can be doing to help their existence?
9. We have a lot more work to do to protect the bees. Important issues to work on in order to do this are land conservation for wildflowers and their ecosystems, biodiversity in agriculture, eating local food, finding alternatives to toxic pesticides and research to treat honeybee diseases and parasites.
Lastly, do you have anything you're working on or that the community can expect in the next few months or years? New Flavors? New branding, etc.?
10. We are expanding the hive locations this year in hopes to offer different varieties of wildflower honey.