If you ask Terry Klein, there's a buzz about locally produced honey in mid-Michigan.
Klein, the owner of T.M. Klein & Sons Honey in St. Charles, might be a bit biased. You see, he has had his hand in the honey jar since he and his wife Mary bought their first hive in 1969 as a way to pollinate their garden. Things gradually took off from there, and he has been supporting the family with bees and honey for more than four decades.
"They are amazing little insects," says Klein, 71, taking time away from a busy morning on his 40-acre farm. "At first, I was scared to death of them, I didn't know what I was doing, but I did a lot of reading, and slowly but surely, I started learning what to do, and really started to enjoy myself."
Klein's enjoyment has turned into a successful business venture. He hopes to harvest 5,500 gallons of honey this season, and he will sell all of it and much more. He procures nine times that much from other honey producers and resells it to merchants throughout Michigan.
T.M. Klein & Sons sells honey to grocery stores such as Jack's Meat and Fruit Market and the Meijer stores in Saginaw and Bay counties. A big customer is Great Lakes Brewing Co., in Cleveland, which purchases more than 200 55-gallon barrels annually to produce its Christmas Ale. Klein also sells to local farm markets who put their own private label on the honey, and to distributors who resell it to small markets and grocery stores, "from Detroit to the U.P.," he says.
Klein is but one of hundreds of beekeepers in Michigan. In fact, the Michigan Beekeepers Association has been around for 147 years and is dedicated to those who spend their time keeping bees.
"The nutritional aspects of locally produced honey is just off the charts," says Terry Toland, president of the Michigan Beekeepers Association. "It's a natural sweetener, not a processed food. We don't raise the temperature too high to cook out all the nutrients.
"It's also a great way, for hobbyists, to have great gardens, flowers, trees, you name it. The pollination is out of the world, and the honey is unbeatable."
The Michigan Beekeepers Association is dedicated primarily to recreational beekeepers, but a brand new group, the Michigan Commercial Beekeepers Association, recently held its very first meeting and about 40 commercial beekeepers showed up in Mesick to voice their concerns on some issues facing commercial beekeepers.
Klein was among the commercial beekeepers, and the main issue the group is dealing with is the possible elimination by the state of Michigan of the spotted knapweed, often known as the star thistle. It is very important to beekeeping because of its pollination value, and it is being intentionally eliminated because it is not indigenous and has been deemed invasive by the state.
"If they get rid of the star thistle, I'm afraid you'll have a lot of beekeepers leaving Michigan and going to Indiana and other states," Klein says. "It's that serious. We offer a service to fruit farmers, setting up hives for a fee to pollinate their crops. If there are fewer beekeepers to offer the service, the price will go up, and the price of fruit will go up, too. This is an important issue, and this is why we organized."
Klein does attend meetings, but the majority of his time is spent at one of his 50 different hive locations from Saginaw County to Linwood, Rosebush, Crystal and Gladwin. Each hive has 1,200 colonies, with 50,000 to 60,000 bees per colony. You get the idea. A whole lot of bees.
It has become quite the family affair for T.M. Klein & Sons Honey. Terry is the CEO, wife Mary is "the boss," and signs the checks, son Dan does field work, son Dennis works the business end, grandson Joshua is the secretary and treasurer, granddaughter Rachael and grandson Matthew work bottling.
"I've really come to love the family aspect of the business," says Terry Klein, who has 15 employees. "Even our other employees are like family. We just got to 50 barrels of our 100 barrel goal for the season, so we bought pizza for everyone."
Klein says the variety of the activities in the day is what keeps him fresh after so many years.
"There is no typical day," he said. "That's what I love. You can use apples, buckwheat, blueberries, wildflowers, alfalfa, clover, star thistle, and you really have a variety of things during the season to take care of. It really is an exciting business, even after all of these years."
Like we said earlier, there's plenty of buzz.
Jeff Barr is a freelance writer who has lived in Michigan for 45 years. He has covered every part of the state, including mid-Michigan. You can reach Jeff by email.