What began as a beekeeping hobby with 12 hives has grown into a bustling business with approximately 600 hives in production.
Eugene Woller, owner and CEO of Gentle Breeze Honey, took up beekeeping in 1965 with the purchase of seven hives from a retiring beekeeper. “I started beekeeping through the Department of Agriculture Research facility located at the University of Wisconsin-Madison,” said Woller, 70.
Woller was intrigued with beekeeping after taking a class through the UW-Madison Entomology Department.
He was offered at job doing research on honeybees at UW-Madison through the Department of Agriculture, which laid the foundation for his hobby and eventually his business.
Gentle Breeze Honey debuted its product at the Dane County Farmers’ Market in 1972. By the early 1990s the hobby blossomed into a full-time business.
The early days involved calling local grocery stores and restaurants, asking if they’d be interested in purchasing his honey.
“We have been blessed to have the business grow, mainly through having a great product,” Woller said.
“Word of mouth and satisfied customers have been the impetus that has made Gentle Breeze Honey a success,” he said.
The business was named from a comment made by Woller’s mentor Emmet Harp while the two were working together. “Emmet mentioned what a gentle day it was,” Woller recalled. “That comment stuck with me and at the point we began marketing the honey; Gentle Breeze Honey seemed to be a fitting name.”
Gentle Breeze Honey, a pure clover honey, is bottled on-site at Woller’s Mount Horeb location in a building known as the honey house. Beeswax candles and hand-dipped beeswax taper candles also are made on-site.
Aspiring beekeepers also can purchase queen honeybees from Woller.
To produce the honey, the bees visit flowers and collect nectar which is brought back to the hives. The nectar is stored in the hive’s wax cells. The bees fan the nectar until the moisture is at the proper level for sealing with beeswax produced by the honeybees.
“At the point the honeycombs are sealed,” Woller said, “we remove the excess frames to the honey house for extraction.”
The honey isn’t harvested until at least three-fourths of the super – the section of the hive used for honey storage — is sealed with wax. This is to ensure that green honey, which is honey before the bees have fanned the moisture content of the nectar, is not being taken.
In order to remove the bees from the hive during collection, Woller said that either smoke or bee escapes, where the bee is trapped out of the super to be removed, are used. Bee blowers also are used to remove excess bees from the honeycombs.
Once in the honey house, the filled supers are placed in the hot room which is heated to 80 degrees. The heat allows the remaining bees to escape and slowly warms the honey for extracting.
The combs are placed into a centrifugal extractor and the honey is spun out by centrifugal force and stored in a large holding tank. The beeswax and propolis separates from the honey. Propolis is a resinous mixture produced by bees by mixing saliva and beeswax with tree buds, sap flows and other botanical sources. It is used as a sealant for unwanted open spaces in the hive.
Since the honey is heavier, it settles to the bottom of the tank. The honey is drained from the bottom of the tank and bottled. The remaining beeswax on the top of the tank is melted down for candle production. No chemicals are used in the production of Gentle Breeze Honey.
During peak production time, a hive houses approximately 50,000 honeybees in each hive body. Woller said that they have not had any problems with their bees dying off.
“We provide our bees with lots of TLC and take great care in where the hives are located,” he said. “We don’t move the colonies out of state, and we concentrate on having them local, generally within a 50-mile radius.”
Hive location is important to the production of the honey.
Locations are handpicked with attention to floral source, water availability and wintering capability. Hives are placed on small farms in the driftless areas of Wisconsin, which have a reduction of commercial spraying of the crops that the bees would visit.
Gentle Breeze Honey is never heated above the temperature of the hive, thus maintaining all the natural flavor and nutrients stored by the bees. Customers have told Woller they’ve found allergy relief through consistent use.
Gentle Breeze Honey is a family business.
Woller’s wife Donna Woller is dedicated to keeping the books for the business. Their three children — Scott, Tim and Tammy — helped to nuture the business in the early years.
“Scott developed a severe allergy to bee stings at a young age, which is the case with many beekeeping families, so he decided to pursue a medical career,” Donna Woller said.
Tim Woller, his wife Cathy and their four sons — Spencer, Stuart, Raymond and Christopher — help out at Gentle Breeze. Daughter Tammy Woller-Li shares her father’s love for bees and has established 14 colonies in her backyard in Illinois. She and her daughter, Nyah, are learning the art of grafting queen bees.
Woller’s brother-in-law Harold and his wife Donna, both retired, work two to three days per week for the Wollers. A total of six full-time employees plus four or five part-time employees along with summer staff round out the team.
Gentle Breeze Honey is available at many local grocers throughout Wisconsin and the greater Chicago area.
It also can be found at the Dane County Farmers’ Market, which has led to new outlets to sell the company’s honey.
Beekeeping skills are essential to be successful in the business, Eugene Woller said.
“I have acquired this skill over many years and still don’t have all the answers,” he said.
“Working with a mentor is one of the best ways to grow in this career. Knowing how to handle the honey once it is extracted is also very important.”