A PASSION FOR BEES: What started out as an accident has turned into a big success for this Southeast Idaho family
Walking into the Macys’ house is like stepping into a storybook depiction of autumn. The first thing that hits you is the smell, like an apple pie baking in the oven. Then you notice the color. Jarred honey and bagged beeswax reflect the light and give the room a warm amber glow. There are also boxed apples and candles galore. It’s the perfect place to spend a chilly autumn afternoon.
On this particular afternoon in early October, the Macy family is preparing for two events: The Great Pumpkin Festival in Old Town Pocatello and Vintage Vixen’s Fall Idaho Market Days in Filer. Products are neatly packaged and ready to be sold, and it’s impossible not to tell just how much of this product comes from bees. Hint: It’s a lot.
Though he will insist he’s not an expert — and that, really, no one is — Sean Macy sure knows a lot about honeybees.
How they reproduce, how they make honey, how to “make” a queen, how they survive the winter, how they like to keep the hives immaculately clean, and even the morbid (but fascinating) details about how when the season is over and winter comes the worker bees drag all of the drones outside when the weather gets cold.
“I’ve got about 40 percent of it down in eight years,” Sean said. “You learn something new every time.”
DEMAND FOR LOCAL HONEY
Sean, who owns Macy’s Apples & Hives with his wife, Chantelle, says the honey business started off as an accident. The family has been running an orchard on their land on the Fort Hall Indian Reservation for eight years as a way to raise money for college for their three children, and they originally decided to put out two hives to help with the pollination of the trees.
In the first year, those two hives produced so much honey that the family didn’t know what to do with all of it.
“I can’t tell you how bewildered we were at the amount of honey that came out of two hives,” Sean said. “It was a lot. It was 5, 6 gallons that first year with two hives.”
So Sean took the extra to his job to see if anyone wanted it — he works for the Idaho National Laboratory — and soon realized that the honey was something people were willing to pay for.
“So I went to work with this huge problem — what do I do with all this honey? — and I mentioned it and my eyes lit up, and my coworkers said, ‘We’ll buy it. How much do you want for it?’” Sean said. “And that’s when we discovered the demand for local honey.”
So the Macys decided to take the plunge and go all-out with beekeeping — and so far, it’s worked out great.
“The bees have actually been much more profitable than the orchard,” Sean said.
Here are some of the bee-related products the Macy family sells:
Raw honey ($8 for a pound)Honey suckers ($1.50 each)Beeswax ($6)Beeswax candle ($15-$25)Beeswax lip balm ($3)Cuticle cream ($6)Raw honeycomb ($15)
The honeycomb, especially, has been a hit since it’s notoriously difficult to find — you’ll likely never see it in a store.
“You bite into it and the honey’s just dripping down your face — it’s nostalgic,” Sean said.
Though the Portneuf Valley Farmers Market, where the Macy family has been selling its products for four years, is over for the season, you can still shop all the products at macysapplesandhives.com or at Elwen Cottage, 334 N. Main St. in Pocatello.
“People want local product, and that farmers market has been instrumental and wonderful,” Sean said.
Last year, with 15 hives, the apiary produced a whopping 117.5 gallons of honey. This year, possibly because of less rain, 20 hives produced 105 gallons.
Eventually, Sean would like to increase to 49 hives in his apiary — the maximum number anyone can have before they have to register with the state and pay a honey tax.
In addition to supporting a local business, there’s another big reason to eat raw honey produced locally: It can alleviate allergies. OK, not all allergies — it won’t, for instance, cure you of a seafood allergy or even a wheat allergy because honeybees don’t harvest anything from wheat — but if you are allergic to certain plants that pollinate where you live, eating local honey can help with that. Just like a flu vaccine gives you a small amount of the flu, the honey gives you tiny bits of the pollen, which can result in your symptoms going away.
“My wife swears by it,” Sean said.
Sean said that when his family first moved onto the land, there was a snowball bush and a lilac bush, and Chantelle, who works as the administrative manager at an accounting firm in Pocatello, wanted them ripped out because of allergies that stuffed up her nose and made it hard for her to breathe.
“Well, the bees harvest off those flowers,” Sean said. “As they harvest, they pull nectar and pollen and those pollen amounts get put into the same frame where you harvest your honey from. So when you harvest out your honey, bits of that pollen come out with it, so you start consuming the thing that gives your body so much trouble when you’re hit with so much of it all at once. When you consume local honey and you get small amounts on a continuous basis, it lessens those symptoms.”
Sean continued, “That snowball bush and lilac do not bother my wife anymore. Not a little bit.”
Sean has developed another immunity as well: an immunity to bee stings.
“If you’re introduced to small amounts of venom from the bee, you can create an immunity to it,” Sean said. “So now if I get strung on my hands or my arms, I’ll get a little bit of pain for a minute or two, a little bit of swelling and the swelling will stay, but the pain and the itch that (normally) comes with it late goes away.”
A FRAGILE ECOSYSTEM
The other part of the Macys’ business is the orchard. Of the 765 trees on the Fort Hall property, most are apple (about 630 are honeycrisp and about 70 are golden delicious), but there are 50 peach trees, 10 cherry trees and a couple each of apricot and pear.
Rows upon rows of little trees, some with autumn color, but most still green, take up 3.5 acres with 15 feet between the rows and 10 feet between the trees.
In the future, Sean said they’d like to buy up some more land and build an indoor-outdoor facility to host weddings and photo shoots.
But, he said, “The main concentration right now is paying for college (for their kids), and then we’ll take it from there.”
Life on the orchard is fragile. The peach trees struggle to survive in Idaho’s climate. (Although, because there wasn’t a spring freeze this year, the peaches did amazingly well and the Macys sold 2,500 pounds of them.) This year, the winter was so warm that the trees never went dormant, so the Macys didn’t get any honeycrisp apples. (About 630 of their 765 trees are honeycrisp.)
Getting the trees started is an exact science, as well. For the first couple of years, the family plucks the fruit off the trees because they want all of the tree’s energy to go into root development. Additionally, new trees should be watered as little as possible.
“You want it almost in a drought state,” Macy said. “Because if you water too much, the roots will stay shallow to the ground and they’ll grow out, versus if they’re in a drought condition, they’ll go down.”
The bees, too, see all sorts of threats. Pesticides, herbicides, mites and yellowjackets are all catastrophic for a hive, and winter can kill off hives, too, so Macy covers the outside of the hives in black paper to try to absorb extra sunlight on freezing winter days. Last year, the Macys lost three of their 15 hives.
Macy is quick to admit that there is not one right way of doing things when it comes to honeybees. He puts three boxes for each hive instead of the traditional two to prevent the hives from becoming overcrowded. When that happens, the hive will create more queens and then half the workers will swarm away. At their peak — 15,000 to 20,000 bees in a hive — that’s a lot of bees to lose.
“Other beekeepers will have different philosophies on why (having three boxes) is not correct,” Sean said. “It’s one of those things where there are 20 different ways to do beekeeping and I’ve discovered one that works for me.”
LESSONS LEARNED FROM APPLES AND BEES
Sean said he’s learned a lot about honeybees, but that there’s still a lot more he could learn, something he’s more than happy to do..
“It’s taken me eight years to get to the point of knowing a lot of these answers and I’m still learning stuff every year,” Sean said. “I love the orchard. The orchard’s a lot of fun, it’s a lot of work, but these bees have my passion right now.”
Sean said the best thing about having the orchard and honey business is that it taught his children the importance of hard work. He has one son serving in Germany in the Air Force, a daughter in her freshman year at Boise State University, and the youngest, Brock, will follow in his brother’s footsteps when he graduates from high school this year.
“That’s one of the benefits of doing this is work ethic,” Sean said. “All my kids have got it.”
The kids learned by example from the work ethic of their father. Sean Macy, in addition to working full time as a radiation control technician at INL and running the business with his wife, is working toward his graduate degrees in technology management.
Sean also emphasized the importance of his wife in the business, saying Chantelle is the driving force behind it. She designed the website (an impressively well-designed website for a small business) and helped come up with some of the specialty items such as the lip balms and cuticle creams.”
Sean loves his work as well and lives by the old adage, “Do something you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.”
“We’re not quite there where we can live off the income of this, it’s not in the plans to ever do that,” Sean said. “But once the kids are covered for college, it could become a good retirement investment. It’s not work to us.”
For more information, visit macysapplesandhives.com, email firstname.lastname@example.org or follow the business on Instagram at Macys_apples_and_hives. The website also has a shop where you can buy all the products. If you live in Pocatello, Chantelle might even agree to meet up with you and save you shipping costs — just another perk of buying local.