Bee Biz Inc. is a honey of a business for Oxford entrepreneur
However, an Oxford man has found his niche raising a smaller animal and a product you can’t see in rows or grazing in fields while driving through the state.
George Bunnell Jr. is a third-generation beekeeper and successful small agricultural business owner with Bee Biz Inc., which employs three full-time staff members, houses 4,000 colonies of bees and has an exclusive honey contract with Sioux Bee Honey.
“Beekeeping is unique,” Bunnell said. “It’s just another form of agriculture. It’s something that can be a viable business in rural Nebraska.”
A family business
The beekeeping business started in George’s family with his great uncle, who then introduced the business to his dad, George Bunnell Sr.
George senior kept bees as a side business to farming until a horrible storm ruined his crops one year.
“That’s what made up his mind that he was going to quit traditional farming and be a beekeeper,” George junior said. That was when George was 10 years old.
Setting up in Oxford
In scouting for the best place to base his beekeeping business, George’s dad discovered Oxford, a town of 779 people in Furnas County. George junior already had a start on the beekeeping business at that time.
“When I was seven years old, my dad gave me three hives of bees and that’s how all this got started.” George said. But it was George’s time away from rural Nebraska that affirmed his desire to continue in the family business.
After he graduated from high school, George earned a degree in business administration/economics and had a banking career in mind. He lived in Minneapolis for a few years while his wife, Karen, finished her education and career training. Karen works as a dietician at Phelps Memorial Health Center in Holdrege.
“After being in the city for a couple of years, I really wanted to move back to a rural area,” he said.
He chose to return to Oxford.
A honey of an operation
Bee Biz is based right in Oxford in a large metal building where 12,000 “supers” (the white boxes that the bees live in) can be stored. At that facility, there is hot room to keep the honey warm until it’s extracted from the supers and an extracting machine where the honey is removed from the combs. After the honey is removed from the combs, it is siphoned into a large separator tank and then into barrels for delivery.
George has a contract with Sioux Bee Honey in Sioux City, Iowa. This year’s crop yielded about 400 55-gallon barrels, each with about 675 pounds of honey, which George said was a “decent” harvest. He serves on the board of directors of Sioux Bee, an international co-op, representing District 5 which includes Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.
George employs three other full-time staff members at Bee Biz in addition to several part-time and seasonal employees in this labor intensive business. Two full-time staff members are nephews, Brandon and Chase Quinn. Brandon has already purchased a share in Bee Biz. Cody Quinn, who is not related to George, also works full time at Bee Biz.
It takes the entire crew to perform the work needed in keeping bees and producing honey.
A help to California almond growers
The honey-producing season is late May to early August. After the bees produce the honey, George and his staff travel to the different fields where his supers are located and bring them back to Oxford for the extraction process. He has bee supers in more than 100 fields in Nebraska, northern Kansas and South Dakota. The bees need to be near alfalfa or clover fields in order to gather nectar from the clover and alfalfa flowers.
During the winter months, George stores his 4,000 colonies of bees in the building in Oxford, but some of those bees travel to California for six weeks to help with almond pollination. The almond business is booming in California, George said, and the almonds have to be pollinated by honey bees.
“It takes most of the bees west of the Mississippi to pollinate them,” George said. “It’s been a huge driving force in the industry the last several years. We provide a service and they pay us well for it.” And, keeping the bees in California isn’t just a six-week vacation for him. He has to test the strength of the colonies and move the supers to different orchards and make sure they are in the right position.
Riding herd on the bees
Whether in California or in fields in the Midwest, the bees need to be checked at least every 10 days to two weeks. Bee Biz feeds the bees high-fructose corn syrup purchased in bulk from a plant in Blair Nebraska, and treat them so they don’t contract brood disease or become infected with mites.
After the honey harvest ends in September, the bees still need to be cared for and fed while inside during the winter. That also is when they work on replacing Queen bees and building colonies up again for the California trip and for the next honey season.
“It’s challenging just to keep bees alive,” George said.
A rewarding career
George said that beekeeping is a job he finds rewarding.
“The thing I like more than anything is the fun of growing bees — seeing bees start in the spring and then grow and produce,” he said. “It’s just such a miraculous process. When the honey bees go out in the spring, you have the hope for a monster honey crop.”
And, George said, “It’s enjoyable just to be out among nature all the time. There’s nothing cooler than being on top of a hill in the middle of Nebraska watching the sun come up. It’s that part of nature that’s fun to participate in.”
He also enjoys tasting the fruits of his labor. George enjoys honey on ice cream and peanut butter sandwiches, and his wife makes a great honey mustard salad dressing that he eats nearly every day. And, of course, he enjoys honey on biscuits.
“Biscuits with honey are hard to beat,” he said.
With his wife being a dietician, George feels comfortable that eating honey is good for him as honey is known as an energy booster and immune-system builder.
“She takes the potato chips away from me sometimes, but she never takes the honey away from me.”
For more information…
Bee Biz Inc
George Bunnell Jr.
807 Central Street
Oxford, NE 68967-2756