How An Illinois Apple Orchard Ended Up Making Prize-Winning Honey (VIDEO)
Bee stings don’t concern Rachel Coventry. Growing up with more than 2,000 apple trees in her backyard, she essentially cohabited with the busy pollinators. “They usually won’t harm you unless you step on them, which I accidentally did most every summer,” says Coventry, the granddaughter of Paul and Joyce Curtis, the founders of Curtis Orchard in Champaign.
Coventry knows what she’s talking about when it comes to bee behavior. Now an apiarist, or beekeeper, she manages the hives on the Curtis property. The work ensures a healthy pollinator population, which translates into thriving crops and other sweet benefits.
“From each hive, we can harvest up to 200 pounds of honey,” Coventry says. “Because we have a variety of nectar sources, including apples, cherries, black and red raspberries, as well as red and white clover, wildflowers and dandelions, we have a complex blend of flora available to our bees.”
That results in an outstanding product. “Our honey carries a light golden color and a rich, mellow flavor with unique fruity tones as its trademark,” she explains. Experts agree with Coventry that the flavor exists in a class by itself. In fact, the International Black Jar Honey Contest named the Curtis Orchard honey its grand prize winner, making it the best-tasting honey in the world for 2016.
Busy Bees on the Farm
Depending on the time of year, anywhere from nine to 25 active colonies reside at the orchard with between 50,000 to 70,000 bees in a colony. So, managing those hives and harvesting their honey keeps Coventry busy. More than just work, she considers it a labor of love – love for the farm she’s known all her life, her family who has nurtured the land and her work in the Peace Corps.
“I was a crop extensionist in Paraguay for two years,” Coventry says. “Lots of the locals had hives, and we worked with them and learned from them. We did wild hive captures and worked with Africanized bees. When I returned home, the person who had been managing the bees for my grandpa had retired, so I took over those responsibilities with my grandpa at the orchard.”
In the Curtis operation, the farmer and the beekeeper work together. “Healthy bees mean healthy crops and vice versa,” Coventry says. “Because we are not just a monoculture operation, our bees have many plants to collect from. Like humans, they get different nutrients from different sources, and that makes them healthier.”
Apple growers need healthy bees, and lots of them, to ensure pollination. While the bees do their part by visiting the farm’s flowers, the farmers do theirs by protecting their pollinating partners.
“Because bees are vulnerable to many of the pesticides used to control insects that destroy crops, the proper use and timing of those chemical treatments is very important,” Coventry says. “Farmers and beekeepers on the same farm must work together to ensure that spraying schedules are communicated and coordinated. It’s also important to remember that nearby growers could impact your hives when they spray.” To avoid those problems, Coventry suggests that beekeepers register their hives on DriftWatch.org. The online tool provides a map showing the location of specialty sites, such as hives. Those applying pesticides can use that information to prevent and manage drift effects on bees or sensitive crops.
Busy bees like those on the Curtis farm make a big impact.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates nearly one-third of the food we eat in North America comes from bee-pollinated plants. Because bees also pollinate clover and alfalfa, which cattle feed on, they impact meat and dairy farms as well. Honey production, like Coventry’s, creates additional economic value for the agriculture sector. In the United States alone, USDA estimates the value of bee pollination at nearly $16 billion a year.
“Most people don’t realize how important the bee is to the success of the farm and to the foods they enjoy every day,” Coventry says. She commits to spreading the word by raising healthy bees – and helping others do the same. She spoke with growers during the Farm Bureau’s Illinois Specialty Crops, Agritourism and Organic Conference earlier this year, has collaborated on a Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education grant on bee behavior and pollen collection, and has taught a course on beekeeping at Parkland College.
“Winning the award for our honey gives us the opportunity to raise awareness about the importance of bees to individual operations and the agriculture sector in general,” she says. “When farmers and beekeepers work together, it benefits everyone.”
If You Go...
For honey, apples, pumpkins and other fall treats, visit Curtis Orchard at 3902 S. Duncan Road in Champaign.
Hours: July 20-Oct. 31 Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Nov. 1-Dec. 20 Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Dec. 21-July 19 by appointment
For more information or to check fruit availability, call (217) 359-5565 or visit curtisorchard.com.