“The honey is sweet, but the bee has a sting.” Or is it, “The honey is sweet, but the brandy has a sting?” Depends on which beekeeper’s honey you are referring to.
LU cross country runner Nejc Ferle was once the youngest beekeeper in his home country of Slovenia.
“It’s our family tradition,” he said. “We bee keep to get honey to use for honey brandy. It’s better, it’s healthier and more useful. My dad is the number one honey brandy producer in the whole country.”
The process of beekeeping is wearing and rigorous, but Ferle learned the ropes well after growing up around a beekeeping father and grandfather. He began at age 14 and now has 40 hives.
“When trees and flowers start blooming, the bees start taking the pollen and they put it into wax that is inside the hive,” he said. “They fill the wax with water and pollen and then honey is produced.”
One hive can produce up to 60 pounds or more in a good season. Bees fly about 55,000 miles — more than two times around the world — to make just one pound of honey.
“Every beehive is on a scale — you can see how much honey has been produced,” Ferle said. “When it reaches around 12 kilos, which is about 25 pounds, you take out the frame with the wax and honey, and you take a blade and remove the wax because the frame is now filled with honey. Next you put these frames in a machine that circles around so just the honey goes out.”
Twenty-five pounds seems like quite a lot, but when compared to the number of bees producing the honey, the ratio is significantly disproportionate.
“There are from 20,000 to 50,000 bees in one beehive and one queen bee,” Ferle said. “If the queen bee leaves the bee hive, all the bees follow. In Spring, some of the bee queens leave their beehives and all the 40- or 50-thousand bees follow her. You can find them on a tree. You get a long stick and catch them on a net and put them back in the beehive.”
When keeping, especially collecting bees to bring them back to their hives, one must be careful not to be bitten by a bee — or a bear, Ferle said.
“About four years ago I went beekeeping with my grandpa,” the kinesiology major said. “A bear destroyed the beehouse a few times. At first we put up a high fence, but next time everything was destroyed because the bear climbed over the fence.
“We then put nails in planks and laid them out on the ground. I was doing some work around the beehouse and I stepped on a big nail. I went straight to the hospital. I was caught in my own trap.”
The gains outweigh the pains, however. When he was 16, Ferle met the Slovenian president for being the youngest beekeeper in the country.
“There was a beekeeping congress,” the now 20-year old said. “I went to all these meetings to learn about beekeeping. They shook my hand and welcomed me as the youngest beekeeper to the country. It was just me and older people so they easily noticed me.”
Beekeeping has brought Ferle recognition and experience in other areas of food production as well. He and his father make brandy, in addition to honey, from homegrown apples and pears.
“The bees will take the pollen from our very own apple and pear trees — it’s a full circle,” he said. “The brandy we make has between 50- and 60-percent alcohol. The ratio is 50/50 or 45/55 after we mix it. Fifty-five percent brandy and forty-five percent honey. It has to be mixed for two weeks at exactly 36 degrees celsius, which is around body temperature. If you mix it at any higher temperature than this, all the vitamins and minerals in the honey would evaporate.”
After the honey crystallizes from sitting, it can be de-crystalized by putting it in the oven at 98 degrees for five or more hours.
“We have like 40 or 50 (apple and pear) trees, but sometimes we have to get brandy from other farmers because it’s hard to produce 10,000-plus liters of brandy,” Ferle said.
After a few days of mixing the honey and brandy, the sediment goes down to the bottom of the mix.
“When the sediment goes down, it’s no longer a mixture,” Ferle said. “You’re left with pure honey brandy above the sediment. After that we separate the honey brandy, bottle it up, label it and sell it.”
“Our brand is called FerMedica,” he said. “‘Fer’ is the first three letters of my surname and ‘Medica’ actually means ‘honey brandy’ in Slovenia. The ‘c’ is pronounced like ‘ts.’”
The brandy costs between 13 and 18 euros, depending on the store. FerMedica products are all around Europe. However, they have not yet made their way to America.
“This is my dad’s primary job. Maybe it will be mine too. I’ll open a factory in America,” Ferle said.
“Hopefully, I’m as creative as my father,” Ferle said “‘Lets try to do a honey brandy with chilli,’ my dad will say. We’ve done it. We have honey with dried fruits, nuts and many other things. A lot of tourists are from other cultures that don’t drink alcohol at all so we offer other products that suit them.”
With all the honey that Ferle and his family use for their products, they still see the importance of leaving some for the bees.
“Honey is actually something that bees produce to eat themselves,” he said. “They make it during the summer to eat in the winter. When you take the food away from them, you have to give them sugar or leave them half the honey at least so they can eat. If you take all of the honey then you’re taking all of their food and they’ll die.”
Bees, on average, live around two years. Because of their long life expectancy, Ferle and his father do not get new bees, but rather wait on the queen bee to hatch eggs. If the queen bee dies, however, all the other bees will fly away and die as well.
“There is a parasite called Varroa destructor that killed, and still kills, many bees,” he said. “Three or four years ago, a lot of bees in Slovenia died because of pesticides that were used to protect against bugs. When bees went to take pollen they poisoned themselves. Twenty percent of bees died. If all the bees died, all of humanity would be extinct in four years.”
Slovenians use the word “umreti” when people or bees die. When all other animals die, they use the word “poginiti.” Bees are the only animal regarded as like humans.
“Bees are more important than most people would expect,” Ferle said. “They’re part of what’s keeping us alive — not to mention, the honey brandy is unbeatable.
“It’s better to drink honey brandy than it is to put honey on bread. The honey is sweet, but the brandy has a sting.”