Minding her own bee's wax

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Meghan Gray is a quiet, polite, 18-year-old.  The high school senior studies AP English and advanced chemistry at Glenwood Community High, and also studies psychology and sociology in the afternoons at Iowa Western Community College.  She eventually plans to study veterinary medicine at Iowa State University.

Gray knows attending college costs money - a lot of money.  She, like many high school students, works part-time to help put aside money for college expenses. She works three days a week at a grocery store in Glenwood - but she also runs her own business.

The venture started as a hobby. In 2007, Gray’s mother, Colleen, was approached by friend Erik Wray, who wanted to put a bee colony on the Gray’s farm. Colleen was open to the idea.

Meghan watched Wray with interest and helped him with his beekeeping operation. By spring 2008, the family was keen to try their hands at keeping their own hives. Family friend Diane Von Tersch helped by donating her family’s no-longer-used beekeeping equipment to the Grays, and the family was off and running.

They keep a style of honeycomb that is known as small cell. The smaller cells in the comb mean that natural-sized bees are born to the colony.  The natural-sized bees are not prone to as many diseases, meaning the beekeepers do not have to use as many, or any, chemicals to prevent problems such as Varroa mites, a parasite that is one of the honeybee’s biggest predators.  

“Our honey does not have any chemicals in it,” Meghan said.

Seeing the potential for selling chemical-free honey, Meghan and her mother attended a Smart Start class in spring 2009 through Iowa Western Community College. In this class, they learned about starting up a small business.

That year she also toured a commercial beekeeping production in Shenandoah, Iowa, for research. Meghan, along with her older brother Kyle and younger brother Kory, did an entomology project on beekeeping for 4-H in 2009. This project included having a display of honey at the Mills County Fair.

That fall, Meghan entered her freshman year of high school. As an extracurricular activity, she joined Future Community and Career Leaders of America (FCCLA).  As a part of the organization, she prepared and presented a project for the Students Taking Action with Recognition (STAR) competition. Meghan entered the Entrepreneur category – and for a project, she chose to create and present a business plan for Gray Bee Honey. The project won a gold rating at the Iowa state competition in early 2010, and won a silver medal at the national level in June of that year.

The STAR project does not require students to implement their proposed business plan, but Meghan had other ideas.

“I thought, ‘maybe I could do this for real’,” Meghan said.

With a business plan prepared and the beekeeping project in place, Meghan supplemented the class work with real-world experience. She took beekeeping classes. She and her mother worked to expand the beehives. In spring 2010, Meghan sold her first product, which was, quite simply, raw honey.

Obtaining raw honey, which is honey that has not been heated, isn’t quite simple. Getting the bees to produce this golden sweetener requires working with the tiny livestock for three out of four seasons.

“In the winter you’re pretty much off (duty),” Colleen said. “In that respect, it’s more like raising crops than raising livestock.”

In the fall, Meghan and her mother check the hives to make sure the bees have enough food to survive the winter.  If it looks like the bees may need more food than they have stored, Meghan and Colleen feed them sugar-water. In the spring, they check the food stores again, and feed them more sugar-water if necessary. They must take off old honeycomb so the bees can make new, and fix frames and hives as needed. They also split the hives so they are more viable. Summer is the busiest season. Honey is extracted three to four times, and it must be bottled - or used for other products.

Along with summer being the busiest time for beekeeping, Meghan sells Gray Bee Honey products at the Glenwood and Silver City farmer’s markets.

As the bottled honey business did well, Meghan began to work with more products. In 2011, she began to make lip balm, then expanded to lotions.  She added soap in 2012. Later that year, Meghan found a recipe for jam that uses honey instead of sugar, and realized she could use jam to solve a problem.

Honey can naturally crystallize, which is not harmful in any way, but is visually less attractive than liquid honey. The way to make crystalized honey liquid again is to heat it - rendering it unable to be considered raw.

Farmers markets provide one means of sales, but they are only during warmer weather.  In order to keep her business solvent during colder weather, Meghan and Colleen approached the Sue Fichter, owner of Hairworks in Glenwood, about selling Gray Bee products at the salon.

“I’ve done the family’s hair for a long time,” Fichter said. “They’re great people, Meghan’s a great girl, and I said ‘sure, go right ahead.’”

Meghan has one small shelving unit and one basket in which to sell her honey products, and she and her mother drop into the salon often to check on products, refill the stock and pick up money. Hairworks does not make any commission from selling these products for the Grays.

Through these products, many of which cost less than a fast-food meal, Meghan has steadily made money. Half of the money she earns goes towards her college education, and the other half goes back into the business.

Meghan plans to continue Gray Bee Honey while she’s in college. This may be a viable plan, since the majority of the work takes place during the summer.

“All of this has been Meghan,” Colleen emphasized proudly. “I’ve been here to coach and assist when needed, but truly, this has all been her success.”