Richard Grebel of Albany gives his bees plenty of smoke to calm them before taking honey from their hives. This year, Grebel expects to produce about a ton and a half of clover and wildflower honey. (Sept. 17, 2012)
ALBANY Richard Grebel, an 80-year-old post-war Wisconsin transplant, has retired to supervise his thousands of employees.
On his ample Coakley Avenue acreage, he has a flock of “hair” sheep that lifts its collective heads in unison and comes running when he yells, “Come here, come here.”
“They think I’m going to put them in the next pasture,” Grebel said.
He has a flock of rams, including a favorite he calls “Red,” and fields to plant in white clover. He has a pond he’s stocked with mosquito fish and catfish, including one albino. When he and his wife, Mary Lou, feel like having fish for dinner, Grebel moseys to the pond to sprinkle fish chow on the surface. When the catfish gather like hungry puppies, he slips a net around the fastest. Any, that is, expect the lucky white one.
“He’ll probably die of old age,” Grebel said.
There’s a muscadine vinyard and an elderly Great Pyrenees named Pearl who loves to ride with Grebel in his golf cart.
And there are the bees.
“See those bees flying in and out there? Look down through there. That’s bees working,” Grebel said of his lines of white bee hives.
Without benefit of a bee suit, but armed with a metal smoker to calm the bees, Grebel methodically opens one of the wooden hives and lifts the heavy honey frame as bees swarm and hum around him.
“You always use plenty of smoke and let ‘em know you’re there,” Grebel said. “They’re busy today. I got stung about a dozen times this morning — right through my britches. I don’t even swell anymore. It hurts for a couple of minutes and then it’s gone.”
Grebel said the first time he worked with bees was as a boy in Wisconsin, where his dad produced as much as 14 tons of honey in a single year.
“We could make so much because it was dairy farm land,” said Grebel. “We had hay fields we could cut then grow them back again.”
According to Grebel, most of the wild bees living in trees have been killed in recent years by the Varroa Mite, a tiny invader that can feed like a tick on the body of a bee. Domestic beekeepers treat for the mites, however, and strides are being made toward greater control of the danger.
As a young man, Grebel was drafted into the U.S. Army and served during the Korean War. After a two-year hitch, he found the strict 8-year, once a week Reserve requirement a hindrance to his farming. One week he just stayed home, he said.
“Of course, they called me right away,” Grebel said. “But they gave me a discharge to join the Air Force, and then I only had to go once a month.”
Eventually, though, Grebel decided he wasn’t going to milk cows the rest of his life and put in for active duty. The man from Beaver Dam wound up at Turner Air Force Base in Albany. Originally a cook, Grebel was able to study air conditioning and refrigeration, which he continued as a career after leaving the military.
With a production of around 3,000 pounds expected this year, Grabel’s honey operation is fairly small-time when compared to a lot of commercial operations. The little yellow buzzers make two separate products for Grebel: clover honey, from the fields he provides, and the wildflower variety, which is just as the name implies. Nectar in the blossoms visited by the bees will flavor the resulting honey. Consistent and controllable nectar sources make for consistently flavored honey.
Still, the wildflower product is preferred by many, and not just for its taste. Raw honey from wild sources, if local within 50 miles or so, can do wonders for allergy sufferers, Grebel and many others say. In theory, the honey works to desensitize the patient to the allergen — similar to the shots administered by medical doctors.
“All kinds of people buy it,” Grebel said. “White people, black people, people who have been on allergy medicine. They buy this honey and completely get off their medicine.”
Grebel is not alone in his contention. Studies indicate great improvements in many allergy sufferers who enjoy wildflower honey, and even some allergists recommend a regimen of one or two tablespoons daily. Grebel cautions though, that supermarket honey isn’t local. Neither is it raw, as it’s heated to 160 degrees before it’s packaged for sale.
“Heating it like that destroys all the good properties that come with raw honey,” Grebel said.