MOUNT HOREB — It was the early 1960s, and Wausau native Eugene Woller had just graduated from high school, receiving a scholarship to attend the Farm and Industry Short Course at UW-Madison. He and a friend had signed up for the five-week course, with Eugene showing a special interest in the third week’s session: beekeeping.
“My friend still claims to this day that about three weeks in, I turned to him and said, ‘This is what I want to do for the rest of my life,’ ” Eugene said.
When the course ended, he jumped at the opportunity to work part time for the university, completing honeybee research for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It was a job that went on for four years until Eugene began a career in management for private industry.
During that time, Eugene and his wife, Donna, had made the move to southern Wisconsin and started Gentle Breeze Honey in 1965 as a hobby after Eugene purchased seven hives from a retiring beekeeper.
Twenty-two years later, when their three children headed off to college, the Wollers decided to make their honey hobby a full-time endeavor, turning Eugene’s personal hobby into a business marketing products in grocery stores across Wisconsin and in the Chicago market.
The seven original hives have grown to about 600 hives and Eugene’s original call to Copp’s in Stevens Point has yielded interest from grocery stores from Green Bay to La Crosse to Milwaukee.
“The bees have been good to us. We’ve been really blessed,” he said.
The Wollers are now at a point of transition, with their son Tim and his wife, Cathy, in the process of buying the honey business from his parents. The transition is exciting for Eugene, who is thrilled to share his passion for bees with Tim’s four sons — Eugene’s grandsons.
Eugene reflected on his time in the bee business, one that has seen changes over time. While start-up costs and bee protection suits have changed, he said the biggest change has come with the forage available for bees.
“The bee industry has changed a lot because the environment has changed and the way we farm has changed,” he said. “Back in the ‘60s through the ‘80s, we were golden around here with floral sources because farmers would graze cattle in small lots. There were so many more opportunities, but now we keep moving our bees further into the Driftless Area, working with farmers and CSA groups to get a good spot for the bees.”
The Wollers have 20 fields for pollination and foraging in locations from Fitchburg to Oregon to Barneveld to Cross Plains, an estimated 40-mile radius from their facility outside of Mount Horeb. Their primary sources of honey are white clover and alfalfa, plants found on Wisconsin family-owned farms.
Per the contract, the Wollers bring the bees to produce honey and the farmers get the benefit of having pollinators for their fields. Renting bees is more common than you’d think in Wisconsin, especially in the cranberry business, Eugene said. He’s also had contracts with farmers growing cucumbers and even almonds.
Once a field is selected, Eugene finds the perfect spot for the hives. Working through an agreement with the farmer, the spot has to be accessible year-round and have southern exposure. The hives remain on the field throughout the year, with Eugene even checking on them monthly during the winter.
Although some may say not to open the hive during the cold season, Woller is confident that if one picks the right day and can be quick, they can open the colony up to check on them.
Carefully opening the top of a hive he had on-site, a small cluster of bees was exposed, feasting on sugar board. Woller was then able to hold his hand near the bees, feeling the heat from a small swarm. Further down in the hive, Woller said about 20,000 bees are preparing for spring, keeping the hive at an average temperature of 72 degrees.
These bees don’t hibernate over winter — and neither do the Wollers.
While the average beekeeper is enjoying some down time in January and February, the folks at Gentle Breeze are busy year-round getting product ready for sale. There are a few full- and part-time employees working on labeling bottles or constructing frames for the hives, along with many other tasks.
Bees are ordered starting in March and April in packages. Each package contains 2 pounds of live bees. Worker bees arrive at Gentle Breeze Honey from California; queen bees come from Hawaii. They require some time to get introduced to each other, but natural instincts make it rather easy for the worker bees to figure out who is their queen.
When Eugene started in the bee business, he could purchase a package of bees for $7. Now a package of bees is pushing $125, he said.
By June, the hive has its largest population, between 45,000 and 50,000 bees. And by August, it’s time for Woller and his crew to remove frames from the hive and extract the honey. They won’t harvest the honey until at least three-fourths of the super is sealed with wax. Honey stores are left on the hive, ensuring the bees can survive through the winter.
Along with regular employees at harvest time, the Woller family also tries to bring on several high school or college students to help extract honey and to help with managing the beehives. It’s a learning experience as well as work experience for them.
The honey is placed in a “hot room” at their facility, heated to about 80 degrees to allow the bees to escape and slowly warm the honey for extraction. It is then spun out and drained into a large holding tank and strained through nylon cloth to catch remaining wax particles where the honey settles to the bottom, and wax and propolis stay on top. Barreled honey for future use later in the year is warmed to aid in bottling.
“Our flavor is different because the honey is warmed by a warm water bath, limiting the amount of heating,” Eugene said. “To conserve energy, an outdoor wood burner provides energy to heat the tanks.”
Gentle Breeze’s Fancy White Clover honey is sold in a variety of sizes, along with honey comb, a pure honey spread and handmade beeswax candles. And while the honey is sold in several grocery stores in the state, those seeking honey from Gentle Breeze also can find supplies at the Dane County Farmers’ Market early April through mid-November, where the Wollers have been selling honey since the market’s beginning in 1972. It’s currently the only farmers’ market at which the Wollers sell.
Eugene estimates Gentle Breeze Honey produces between 50 and 70 barrels of honey each year, depending on a variety of factors. With about 680 pounds in a barrel, that’s up to 47,600 pounds of honey annually. And Eugene hopes to increase that number with the addition of more bees in the future.
“The next few years are going to be fun,” Eugene said. “Tim has lots of ideas and I’m all for them. I back him all the way.
“I’ll get to work with my son and my grandsons this summer,” he said. “You can’t beat that.”
For those who may be interested in beekeeping, Eugene provided a key piece of advice: “Check with your local county agents and find a beekeepers group in your area,” he said. “Most counties have a group that meets once a month and have a wealth of information. Find a mentor.
“It’s a fun hobby,” he said. “I never look at it as work.”