A Darien man’s journey from beekeeper to business owner
Demand for local honey keeps these honeybees busy at one of Werner’s many hives.
Photos by Stephen Gabris
It all started when Mark Werner traded a rototiller to get his first beehive thirteen years ago. The layered white wooden box, like a buzzing filing cabinet set out in the family’s Darien Center field, was a novelty at first, and a way to get some honey.
“But then it became an obsession,” says his son, Mike. “He had one hive, but he was out there every day checking on it. That’s what makes a good beekeeper.”
Mark needed more hives, and more bees, so he got them from people who had lots of bees but didn’t want them. He advertised on Craigslist and the Pennysaver looking for honeybees that needed rescuing from inside house walls, barn lofts, shed corners, and abandoned buildings rather than facing an exterminator. He started getting calls almost immediately from property owners who were concerned about the damage heavy hives would do to their walls, then increasingly, from people who were more concerned about saving the bees.
At first, Mark removed the invasive hives solo and at no charge, sometimes taking an entire day to carefully cut out the intricate wax structures while keeping the bees alive. If he missed any of the comb or failed to seal the entrance, bees’ heightened sense of smell might draw them to return. If removing the hive would hurt the bees, he wouldn’t take the job. As demand skyrocketed, he recruited his wife, Diane, and son Mike to help.
They’ve worked on some doozies. Once, Mike spent hours inside a tiny crawlspace gently handing pieces of bee-covered hive out a small window to his dad. Another house had honey dripping out of a light fixture in a ceiling. The easiest was a small wooden barrel completely encasing a hive, which the Werners simply loaded into their truck and drove off with. They’ve been inside a lot of churches and old buildings, where there are plenty of ways for bees to get in and set up shop unnoticed.
The family soon realized there was something special about some of the squatter bees they were rescuing and raising in their expanding collection of bee boxes: they were hardy enough to survive Western New York winters in outbuildings without any help from humans, some for nearly twenty years. Many local commercial beekeepers send their hives south for the winter to safeguard the bees from the cold. Most of the bigger bee supply companies that ship bees to local hobby beekeepers are located in southern states, too, and their bees don’t make it through the frigid months here. But the bees whose descendants had survived generations of Northeast winters seemed to be genetically programmed to hunker down and emerge unscathed come spring, saving them from the stress and risk of a big move.
Mark, Diane, and Mike Werner now run a thriving bee rescue and education operation as well as produce honey.
The Werners started breeding and sharing the queens from these hardy colonies with other local beekeepers. Then, they began carefully tending and selling already-thriving nucleus colonies; small, established bee communities with a queen and workers that are used to start a new hive (called “nucs” for short). The family business called Bee Country was unofficially born.
With new hives came new beekeepers with a lot of questions, so the Werners began hosting small, inexpensive, hands-on classes for beginners—something that was sorely lacking when they started tending bees—and for experienced beekeepers who want to learn advanced techniques. While there’s an endless array of beekeeping info available online, much of it isn’t pertinent to northern climates. That’s why Mike and Mark also invite everyone who visits Bee Country for bees or classes to stay in touch via phone or text with questions.
Through teaching, they discovered a need for high-quality, affordable beekeeping equipment suitable for the local climate. They began using winter downtime to build wooden frames, boxes, hive bodies, and covers based on designs used since 1852—forgoing the hype and unnecessary extras many companies try to sell excited newbies. When a guy showed up to buy a nuc box (which looks like a smaller version of the cardboard box of printer paper), set it on the passenger seat of his Camaro, and drove home in a pair of shorts getting stung because he didn’t have a bee suit yet, the Werners started buying things like suits and smokers in large enough quantities from suppliers to get a bulk discount, which they pass on to their customers. Bee Country added a brand new barn last fall to store gear and honey, and to serve as a proper woodshop to build boxes.
As Bee Country grew from one hobby hive into a thriving bee rescue and education operation, the byproduct of all the hard work was the same: 100 percent pure raw wildflower honey. At first, the family hand-squeezed the wax combs to extract the honey in their kitchen. (“Everything was sticky in this house for years,” recalls Diane.) But, as the number of hives expanded, so did the amount of honey. The Werners built a honey house near the hives, a small cottage-like structure flooded with sunlight that warms the wax of the combs before they’re spun in a machine to draw out the honey.
Summer honey is pale yellow and subtle, whereas autumn honey is a darker amber with a richer flavor, both based on which flowers the bees have access to during each season. All Bee Country honey is kept raw and never fine filtered or heated to more than 100 degrees (the average high temperature inside a hive). Keeping the honey close to how the bees produced it preserves the nutrients and enzymes that make raw honey such a nutritional powerhouse for immunity and allergies, and keeps it shelf stable for indefinitely.
A lot of Bee Country’s raw honey ends up at 810 Meadworks in Medina, where it’s made into meads that range from sweet to dry. Some honey goes to the new Beltline Brewing Company in downtown Buffalo’s Larkin District, where it becomes a main ingredient a honey Kolsch. Shoppers can find Bee Country honey in jars, sticks, squeezable pouches, and comb at small shops throughout Western New York, and on the farm’s website at beecountry.net.
Rather than ending up in candles or lip balm, all of the fragrant yellow beeswax is given back to the bees. It takes bees a lot of energy to make wax; recycling it to establish new frames for bees to use as a base to build their honeycomb allows them to focus on making honey and prepping their hives for overwintering.
With business buzzing, the Werners are hoping to find someone they can train to take over Bee Country’s hive removal service. It’s a physical job, one that Mark, a retired construction worker, feels would be better done by a younger crew. And with only three employees, there’s not enough time in the day to tend hives, harvest honey, make boxes, teach classes, answer thousands of texts and calls on their informal beekeeper hotline, and be away from the property rescuing bees. Having the help would also allow Bee Country to extend its role in the greater good beyond teaching others to be stewards of bees.
Bee Country is working with Cornell University to test pesticide levels in beeswax and study the extent to which industrial agriculture byproducts still make it into hives placed near farms who solely use natural practices. They are starting a program to work with military veterans, who may find a calming escape in the low hum and purposeful flights surrounding beehives, and purpose in becoming stewards of such important little creatures. They’d like to teach even more people about beekeeping successfully to help preserve the area’s pollinator population. And to do that well, the Werners themselves want to keep learning.
“You can never know everything about bees,” explains Mike. “With all that’s written down, sometimes it seems like the bees are out to prove it wrong.”