Sweet Life at
The Home Of Honey

February 8, 2011

What could be sweeter than a life's work devoted to honey?

Renee Curtis Pratt - the fourth generation to operate the legendary family-owned Harold P. Curtis Honey Company in LaBelle, Florida - cannot think of anything she'd rather be doing than working in the family business.

I asked her to tell me all about it and she obligingly squeezed me in between the swarms of determined shoppers at her downtown LaBelle storefront, right.

Harold P. Curtis Honey Company, aka "The Home Of Honey"

Renee's family has been in the business since 1921. Their first honey store went under the name Geo. E. Curtis & Sons, named after great-granddad George.

"The family started this company in LaBelle in 1954. My grandad Harold was a "queen breeder" initially, and he worked with the hives until the mid-80's."

Grandad Harold, left, along with his brother Elliot and their father George, began transporting hives to Sanibel Island via ferry in 1954, the same year they opened their LaBelle operation.

The men brought their hives to the island when the mangroves were flowering, later returning to relocate the hives to the next blooming community. They carted the dripping combs back to the shop, creating bees' wax products and bottling the honey for sale.

Harold's and Elliot's sons later joined the business. The third generation - Renee's uncles - are still involved in the honey and bee business.

The Flavors of Southwest and Central Florida

Today the family's claim to fame is the variety of honeys their hives produce:

"Bees will be drawn to the strongest smelling bloom around. They'll forage 10'-15' from the hive, and up to 30' once they've found something they like."

So the Curtis hives are moved from place to place throughout the year, following the pollen.

"We stay within a radius of 60-70 miles of home, because we have arrangements with property owners and we know where the flowers are in bloom."

Some honey producers - including Renee's uncles (the business was amicably divided among the family after the 1983-1985 "bee mite" catastrophe in which 50% of Harold's hives perished) - lease their hives as pollinators to large farm operations, but Renee keeps her branch of the business small and manageable.

"Our bees are pollinators on a small scale, but I prefer the honey production." In 2004 she sold all but 300 of her hives and now she buys and bottles the honey from her uncles' hives as well.

Hives are moved in the early morning hours - while it's cool and the bees are less frisky. The hive boxes are covered with bee net and stacked with a fork-lift, four hives per pallet, and taken to their new temporary home, wherever plants are producing pollen. As every allergy sufferer knows: pollen season for any given plant can run from two to six weeks.

When the pollen season has run its course, wooden frames heavy with wax combs and thick honey are removed from the bottom section (the "brood chamber") and empty frames are installed. Then the hives are taken to the next location and the bees begin anew.

Extracting and Bottling

The frames are brought back to the shop where the extracting and bottling take place. A series of specialized machines and vats fill the large back room behind the storefront. Although there was no processing occurring on the day I visited the air was heavy with the smell of concentrated honey.

One wonders why the honey doesn't just pour out of the comb when it is lifted from the hive? Well, after the bees fill each cell with honey they cap it with a wax lid and now the caps have to be sliced off to get at the honey. The frames are first run through an "un-capper". This machine looks and functions much like a woodworker's planer.

Wicked-sharp blades slice off the caps which fall into the machine's base, above right, and are propelled through a long enclosed heater where the wax melts. "This is the only part of our process that uses heat," Renee emphasized. Any residual honey is heavier than the wax and is drained off.

Eventually the melted wax pours into pans to harden, left. The wax is fragrant and it hardens to a rich dark golden color. There were no bee parts nor debris visible in the trays. The family makes candles and other products from this material.

Meanwhile the frames, now uncapped and full of honey, are stacked vertically in the fins of the next machine, a stainless steel "extractor". This horizontal centrifuge can handle up to 60 frames at a time. As you would envision, the extractor spins and the honey is flung out of the frames by centrifugal force. It collects on the bottom of the tank and is drained into pipes. The photo, right, shows the inside of the extractor and its fins and bits of stray wax left behind from the last processing.

PVC pipes ferrying honey from the un-capper and the extractor merge to be pumped into a large standing tank, which Renee confirmed was formerly a dairy tank. The honey rests there for a time, letting any stray wax separate to the top, then it is piped to its flavor-specific tank for bottling, below left.

The honey is sold in the storefront, in nearby independent grocery and gift stores, and at the company's Online Store.

Growing up in a family business

Fewer people have that experience these days, it seems. What was it like for Renee?

"We had fun, we went to school and studied and I took dance lessons and music lessons, and we did sports. But when we had down time we were expected to work in the business."

Renee's three children - the fifth generation - were given the same opportunities and experiences, but Renee feels she was more lenient with them and allowed them more free time.

"They all worked here through school like I did, but whether they stay in the business - that's their choice."

Renee's elder son likes bees but he also likes fishing and is a licensed charterboat captain. Her daughter is a successful CPA. And her youngest son, 21, is alas allergic to bees - so she doesn't expect him to decide to come aboard as a career choice.

Renee has devoted her life's work to the company and she does not regret a moment of it - but she does not know if the company will remain in the family beyond her lifetime. She wonders aloud whether she has done the right thing.

But this moment of doubt is brief. Renee is visibly proud of her children and their accomplishments, and when it comes down to it she is emphatically glad that she allowed them the freedom to make their own choices in life.

That's when I saw, as clear as orange blossom honey, that for Renee it's not the honey itself, or the honey business, that gives her life its flavor.

It's the satisfaction of knowing that she's done right by her forefathers, and right by her children.

That's the most gratifying knowledge anyone could hope for. Sweet.

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