If you think that a transition from the corporate world to the world of beehives and honey is an unlikely one, you probably haven’t talked to Lloyd Spear. However, I was lucky enough to visit him at his honey house and learn how he got into making honey.
Spear grew up on a dairy farm in the Syracuse area and although there were beekeepers nearby, he didn’t work with bees until the 60s, when he picked it up as a hobby. He started out with only two or three hives in his garden to help the flowers. Because Spear did a lot of traveling for work, he says, “I didn’t have the ability to join a bee club, hook up with a mentor, [and] get the benefit of learning from somebody else.” Instead, he learned about beekeeping from books, which he says is “the hard way to learn.” As hard as it may have been for him at the time, it worked out. When he retired from the corporate world, Spear expanded his beekeeping operation into a full-time job. 12 years ago, he bought his honey house, the former site of the GE Women’s Club just outside of Downtown Schenectady.
The honey house is where Spear, the honey house manager, and “a slough of part-time workers” process the honey. First the honey is extracted from the combs and put it into barrels. During this step, bee’s wax is gathered for the candles that are made on-site. After that, some honey is pumped into large tanks where it is strained through filter cloth, then heated. Filtering and heating, create the two major categories of Spear’s honey, processed and raw. Each type has its fans. You’re less likely to find bee wings or granulation in processed honey, but the processing eliminates health benefits, such as pollen content and natural enzymes. Even though it granulates more quickly, raw honey is more popular because it’s more flavorful and because devotees believe that the pollen content in the honey helps their allergies. Although the benefits aren’t proven, allergy-stricken customers swear by raw honey’s benefits and buy it every week.
Spear also produces and sells several varieties of honey classified by the flowers they come from. The options that you’ll find at the Schenectady Greenmarket are wildflower, clover, alfalfa, and basswood. He also sells buckwheat and orange blossom honey, which he buys from beekeepers outside of the Capital Region and sells to farm stands. In a good year, he produces black locust honey, but Spear told me that they “haven’t had a black locust flow now in three years [because] the blossoms are very sensitive to environmental conditions.”
How does he know which flower the honey comes from? He says that for experienced beekeepers, “there’s a number of ways to know, perhaps the most important is [that] not everything blooms at the same time. In addition to that, there are distinctions based on color and based on taste.” He added that, “all honeys have the same sugar content… but the flavor varies considerably depending on the flower.” For example, buckwheat tastes like molasses, and orange blossom honey tastes like oranges. Wildflower, a fall honey, is consistently Spear’s most popular variety, probably because it is his most flavorful locally produced honey.
Most of his honey comes from southern Rensselaer and northern Columbia counties although he has hives all over Rensselaer, Columbia, Albany, Schenectady, and Saratoga counties as well as hives in Watertown where he gets most of his alfalfa honey. A lot of people ask whether or not Spear’s honey is organic – simply put, it’s not. As Spear told me, “organic honey requires [that there be] no contact with a flower that might have been sprayed… Bees commonly forage three miles, [and] the U.S. Department of Agriculture determined that there’s no place in the United States where no pesticides have been applied within three miles.” He does sell some organic honey, but it comes from Brazil so you won’t find it at the Greenmarket.
But organic or not, Lloyd Spear’s honey business is one worth supporting. You can come and try his honey or admire his beautiful candles every week at the Schenectady Greenmarket.