By Moira Blazi
Right now, the 160 million (give or take 20 million or so) bees who labor for McLaury Apiaries are out working, like they do almost every minute of their short busy lives. Most of the bees are buzzing sweet clover, thistle and alfalfa flowers near their home in northwest Montana, the north Idaho panhandle, and just out on Highway 37 near where the river bends. They are making wild sourced honey which will be flowing into jars, baked goods, and cups of tea in just a few short weeks.
As the summer winds down into fall, some of the bees will have a rest in the tri-cities area, then, they will be off to the vast and inconceivably productive almond orchards of north-central California. They will spread out in all directions, working as far south as Fresno. From December through February, Montana bees will work the almond orchards, helping to pollinate over one million acres of trees which produce over 2.5 billion pounds of almonds annually.
It is safe to say that just about every almond or almond product consumed in the U.S. comes from that area of California and that our local bees are part of it.
When the bees’ work is done at the almond orchards, the men and bees will pack up and head north to apricot, cherry and apple orchards, and blueberry fields in central and eastern Washington. There, the miraculous creatures will once again pollinate much of the bounty produced. In fact, when The Montanian visited with Angie McLaury at McLaury’s Apiaries, Angie was munching on a bag of Washington Stemilt cherries just purchased at Rosauers, which, she said, were almost certainly pollinated by McLaury bees.
“It takes a full two weeks to pack up the colonies and move the bees from one location to another, always done at night, so we don’t smother them,” McLaury told The Montanian. “There are over 4,200 colonies to get packed and moved, and it takes ten semi loads to do it.”
Although moving the bees around is an enormous enterprise, the McLaurys and their crew stay almost as busy as the bees do. They produce honey and beeswax products at McLaury’s Apiaries located on Parmenter Creek Road in Libby.
Since most of their bees are now home producing honey, crews are busy preparing the production facilities for the coming onslaught. Preparation involves cleaning honeycomb frames and equipment, tanks and barrels, and fine-tuning the state of the art honey extractor, a relatively recent purchase that separates honey and wax from the frames using centrifugal force, just like a washing machine extracts water from our clothes.
The extracted honey and wax are then put into another machine which separates the honey from the wax and sends the fresh, pure, golden honey into gigantic storage tanks. One tank has been nicknamed “big Bertha” by the apiary’s staff.
From there, the honey is poured into 50 gallon drums and shipped to large suppliers in Oregon and Pennsylvania who distribute McLaury honey to manufactures and bottlers all over the country. “There are 66 to 70 drums per load, and we usually send out three full loads of honey per season,” Angie McLaury told The Montanian. That doesn’t include the 20 or so barrels that are kept for local distribution.
Their locally distributed honey can be purchased at Mountain Valley Market in Kalispell, Sharon’s Bakery in Bonners Ferry, and the Amish Farm to Market store in Libby. It can also be purchase directly from Angie at one of the three farmer’s markets she attends every week during the summer months.
Its not just honey that she sells locally; with the wax left over from the extraction process, Angie also makes and sells an enchanting array of beeswax candles and other products, all of which are hand poured with loving care.
“I sometimes come out here to work in the morning and just lose track of time, sometimes I only quit when I just can’t pour anymore wax,” she said with a grin.
I like to pick mostly nature shapes that speak of Montana like trees, beehives, leaves, pinecones, bears and birds for the candles, she said. And she also makes plain beeswax taper candles that are not only beautiful but practically smoke free.
McLaury’s Apiaries wholesale their products to Azure Standard Foods in Oregon who distributes Angie’s handiwork far and wide, but locals are able to buy directly from her at the apiary or at the Eureka, Troy and Bonners Ferry farmer’s markets.
The McLaurys and their staff are truly local treasures, along with the bees that they so lovingly care for.
Speaking of the bees, Angie reminds all of us, that after their busy year when the bees come home, the cycle of nature begins again in early spring and the modest blossoms of chokecherry, snowberry and dandelions are their first food. These flowers provide sustenance needed to feed their young before the work of honey making begins. So, as tempting as it may be to cut them, try to leave a few yellow dandelion flowers for the bees as they prepare for another busy year serving us humans.
For more information on McLaury’s Apiaries’ products and services, call 293-3022 or visit their Facebook page.
(picture) Angie McLaury holds a box of beeswax taper candles that she made. Photo by Moira Blazi, The Montanian.