Hooked on honey

Tom Owens, ‘88, has managed Johnston Honey in Rochester with his wife, Heidi, for the past five years. They keep roughly 3 million bees, which can produce as much as 10,000 pounds of honey in a single season. Credit: Ken Klotzbach, Post Bulletin

For Tom Owens, beekeeping offers sweet rewards

Tom Owens has the beekeeping bug.

Owens, ‘88, a nuclear medicine technologist at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, has managed Johnston Honey with his wife, Heidi, for the past five years.

Owens inherited the business from his friend and former colleague, Don Johnston, who retired to Canada and left a network of buzzing hives in the grasslands outside Rochester.

The business needed someone to take the reins, and Owens was the man for the job.

Tom Owens

“Working in patient care all day long, it’s nice to get out in the country and see how the bees are doing,” Owens says. “And the bees are just fascinating — how they build their comb and things like that. You learn a lot as you go.”

Johnston, who founded the company in 1997, taught Owens everything he knew about the honey business. Owens learned the ins and outs of beekeeping, and of harvesting, bottling and distributing honey.

Beekeeping, he says, depends on the same variables as real estate: location, location, location. The most valuable lesson he learned from Johnston is that bees thrive in flowering grasslands, well away from cornfields that have been tainted with pesticides.

“They’re way more productive,” he says, “if you get them away from chemical spray.”

Owens runs eight apiaries across rural Rochester, with as many as 15 hives at each apiary, and as many as 50,000 bees at each hive. He hardly knows them by name, but Owens figures he has about 3 million bees.

The summer he took over, Johnston Honey produced roughly 4,600 pounds of honey, most of which was bottled and shipped to Hy-Vee stores in Rochester and Festival Foods stores in Onalaska.

As he’s gotten his bearings, Owens’ operation has only grown more efficient. In 2019, Johnston Honey turned out more than 10,000 pounds of the golden goo.

“We went from a stressful year to our best year ever,” he says. “Rain turned into flowers, and flowers turned into honey.”

There are obstacles, of course.

Skunks have been known to poke around the hives, craving honey themselves, and a few viruses have circulated among the bees, thinning out their ranks. But nothing has been catastrophic.

Not even global crises, such as climate change or the loss of honey bee habitat, have gotten in the way. If anything, Owens says, farmers around Rochester are allowing parts of their property to be reclaimed by Mother Nature, giving bees a better chance to survive.

“That’s probably been the easiest part,” he says. “You’re seeing more and more grasslands replacing farmlands.”

Johnston Honey has something for everyone, he says.

For those who don’t care for the taste — or those who can’t get enough — the company sells honey-infused soaps, lotions, lip balms and candles.

In the summer, all of this is enough to keep Owens as busy as … well, a bee.

Each week, he devotes about 15 hours to his hives. When September rolls around, Owens and three or four others will spend a whole week harvesting honey, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

It’s strenuous work, Owens says, but there’s something peaceful and meditative about it. He plans to continue the business even after he retires from Mayo — as long as he enjoys it, as long as customers keep enjoying the honey.

The only ones he can’t totally please, he says, are the bees.

“Bees are usually pretty gentle,” he says. “But when you’re coming in to steal their honey, they don’t appreciate that.”