Who: Henry Storch of Old Blue Raw Honey
What he does: Migratory beekeeper and professional farrier
Where: Wren, Oregon
About five years ago, Henry Storch, a budding amateur beekeeper at the time, got a series of calls from thoughtful logger friends petitioning him to come collect honeybee colonies that had inadvertently been brought into logging sites. (The wild bees had been living in the trunks of trees that had been felled by the loggers.) Little did he know at the time that this would be the beginning of a move into professional migratory beekeeping.
This week we're getting a look at the life of a migratory beekeeper, from the start of the season in the California almond orchards, through the honey flow and harvest. But today, we learn a little bit more about Henry himself, and how it all started.
What Is Migratory Beekeeping?
Henry is what’s called a "migratory" beekeeper, meaning he moves his hives to different apiary locations throughout the seasons to facilitate pollination of food crops and to take advantage of nectar flows. Henry’s "migration" from rural Western Oregon to California’s Sacramento Valley, as well as from one site to another within a 50-mile radius of home, is fairly limited compared to other migratory beekeepers in the U.S. who transport bees cross-country multiple times per year.
How Henry Became a Migratory Beekeeper
When Henry first went out to re-hive his logger friends' bees, right away he realized that these bees were fundamentally different from most commercial colonies. His beekeeping program started in earnest when he realized that there was some potential to harness those survivor genetics into a managed apiary.
Henry trained to be a professional farrier at age 20 and spent the next 12 years driving from barn to barn on gravel roads, winding through remote parts of the Oregon Coast Range. That experience gave him an intimate view of the landscapes, micro climates, hydrology, and land ownership in the area. Henry’s a native Oregonian with a penchant for plant phenology, so this kind of observation was a continuation of a lifelong practice, but when he shifted his focus to beekeeping, his comprehensive knowledge of local ecology proved indispensable.
Since those early days, Henry has built up his hive numbers to around 300 colonies available for pollination services, and he operates a thriving varietal honey business, Old Blue Raw Honey. He sells honey online, at occasional events in Portland, OR, and through a few Portland restaurants.
The Risks of Beekeeping
Beekeeping, like any facet of agriculture in the modern world, involves a great deal of risk, so beekeepers must constantly adapt to new systems and challenges. Colony collapse disorder and other apicultural maladies are constant, ever-evolving threats to beekeepers’ hives and livelihoods.
Henry takes a number of steps throughout the beekeeping year to prevent and manage parasitic pests, bacterial diseases, nutritional deficiencies, and other disruptions to bee health. He feeds his colonies probiotics and pollen substitute when necessary. He distributes his hives among a number of smaller apiaries when possible to minimize disease outbreaks and spread his risk. He uses minimal organic-approved miticides on about 75% of his hives to limit losses and ensure that his colonies are adequate for pollination contract standards.
How Henry Breeds and Selects Bees
At the heart of Henry's program is an intensive breeding and genetic selection process, using traditional beekeeping methods with a few modern twists. Through careful observation and more quantified evaluations like freeze-brood hygienic testing, Henry chooses 50-60 hives every year that he believes have desirable traits. He doesn’t apply any treatments to them, letting them feel the full stress of pests and disease.
Many of these hives die or are seriously diminished over the winter, but that’s part of any natural selection process. The ones that survive, however, have proven that they have superior Northwest-adapted genetics, and only those breeding lines are propagated the next year when it comes time to rear replacement queens.
Through grafting his own queens and allowing virgin queens to mate only in remote areas with significant populations of feral hives thriving without management or chemicals, Henry has selected bees that are darker in color and naturally winter in smaller clusters. They also exhibit several disease- and mite-resistant traits, such as varroa-sensitive hygienic behavior and grooming. This process is ongoing, and though he’s made progress in the last few years, he hopes to continue to manage colonies that can consistently pollinate food crops, produce abundant honey, and have the ability to survive in a modern ecological context.
This week we're bringing you an inside look at the story of Henry Storch, a migratory beekeeper in Oregon, as written by his wife, Camille. Stay tuned for more about migratory beekeeping coming up all this week!