Rick and Heather Shouse of Morris enjoy the satisfaction of providing for themselves. Whether it’s raising chickens for the eggs, cultivating a large vegetable garden, or growing fruit trees and berry bushes, they and their two sons live a healthy, natural lifestyle. Becoming beekeepers just seemed the natural next step.
“We’re trying in a small way to be self-sustainable,” Rick said. “It’s healthier.”
The Shouses added honey to their produce just last year when they decided to take up beekeeping. They had read of the good health effects of honey made from local flowers and thought it would be good for their boys, who have allergies, and for the whole family. Plus, the Shouses are just honey-lovers.
“We use it a lot,” Heather said. “I use it in muffins and in cakes and in teas. You use half as much honey as you would sugar in recipes, and it’s better and fluffier.”
Rick loves honey on his ice cream.
“I like it on a lot of stuff,” their 10-year-old son Gabriel said, “like grilled cheese.”
“It’s a lot better on the environment,” Brenden, 13, added. “You don’t have any of that stuff where they’re engineering it.”
Beekeeping had always been in the back of Rick’s mind. He remembers when he was young, talking about robbing hives for honey.
“He talked about it for a long time before he did anything about it,” Heather said.
Then one day, he saw an ad in a local farmer’s paper for beekeeping equipment. A widow was selling her husband’s equipment.
“She was selling 30 hive boxes and an extractor, and we bought it all,” Rick said.
They figured it would be an investment that would pay off in health and good-eating, and financially.
They celebrated Heather’s birthday that fall with an all-day beekeeping class.
They read books, talked to local beekeepers, joined the Will County Beekeepers Association and turned to the internet for as much information as they could find on their new endeavor.
The family all pitched in to get the hives and equipment in order. There were many pieces they decided to make themselves, including the hive bodies, bottom boards, frames, supers, top hive feeders, and top covers which they made from aluminum sheets formerly used in the printing presses at the Morris Daily Herald.
Then, in March 2011, they ordered their first bees. Three pounds of bees and a queen cost them $73. The queen bee came in her own tiny wooden box with a couple of attendants.
The Shouses decided to begin with five hives.
Their new colonies were gently shaken down into their new homes that consisted of a large wooden “brood box” with ten vertical frames inside. Each frame held a flat, thin sheet of wax. The queen lays eggs on the wax, which are carefully attended and grow into adult worker and drone bees. Honey is also produced in the combs the bees fashion from the wax.
In the spring and fall, the bees are fed sugar water and vitamins, but in the summer, they are able to get everything they need from nature.
The Shouses live in a neighborhood, so they set their hives out around the countryside so as to not bother the neighbors and to allow the bees to have access to local wildflowers. Rick is the designated hive-checker and dons the bee gear at least once a week to take care of the hives.
Last year, their first year as beekeepers, Heather and the boys said they did not get stung once, as their jobs kept them away from the hives and in the garage with the extractor and equipment. Rick, however, wasn’t as lucky.
“I’ve probably been stung a hundred times,” he said with a smile. “My first suit was just a hood, and they would crawl up inside. One crawled across my eyes, and I got stung on my nose once.”
That was when Rick gave in to the purchase of an entire suit, rather than just a hood.
“When I wear it,” he said, “I don’t get stung.”
He checks the hives late morning or early afternoon when many of the bees are out in the field.
“They tend to get cranky after dark,” he said.
When he visits the hives, he looks at the overall health and conditions. He examines for disease, worms, mold, and other problems.
“Moisture got in one hive over the winter,” he said, “and mold grew in there. A lot of bees died. If I wouldn’t have caught it, they would have all died.”
Another time, he found a hive infested with little white worms. He also looks at the density of the bees.
“When seven or more frames are drawn out,” he said, “I put another one on top so they don’t get too crowded.”
The bottom two boxes are for the bees, he said, and the top ones are for his family. He takes the full frames home where they extract the honey from them, then they are returned to the hive. The Shouses extract honey through Labor Day, after which they let the bees keep the honey for themselves to get them through the winter.
It’s been a rewarding experience, Rick and Heather said, and even one that has been fun.
“It’s relaxing,” Rick said.
“I like it relaxing in the truck watching,” Heather said with a laugh.
They harvested almost 300 pounds of honey last year, which is around 21 gallons.
“That’s phenomenal for a first year,” Rick said. “Last year, it was really hot, and they just loved it.”
Their first year as beekeepers, the Shouses saved what they thought they would be able to use then sold the rest.
“We thought even if we only break even,” Rick said, “what we consume would make up for it.”
It took them by surprise how much their friends loved the honey. It was better than store-bought, they were told.
“One person told us, ‘I’ll never go back to the bear,’” Rick said.
This year, the family expanded their hives to 11, and the bees seem to be doing very well. Gabriel is hoping to prove himself enough this year to merit his own hive next season. Meanwhile, it’s grilled cheese sandwiches topped with fresh, natural honey for family lunches this summer.