How One Student’s Beekeeping Hobby Became a Massive Colony

2014-march-april-food-home-swarmed-7

written by Danielle Harris


In many ways, Devon Prescott, 20, is a typical college student. The blonde, athletic junior at Oregon State University appears more surfer than entrepreneur. He plays intramural volleyball, wakeboards, bow-hunts, fishes, and goes on weekend capers with family and friends. Yet, as the owner and operator of Prescott Honey Farms, he quickly steers conversations toward professorial themes of grafting larva, mating flights and brood patterns.

beekeeping, 1859
photo by Bill Kratt

Instead of checking what’s trending on Twitter, Prescott checks the weather. His schedule does not involve the usual weekend parties but revolves around the seasons—feeding and transporting bees, and extracting honey. Rather than listlessly bouncing between majors on his parent’s dime, his goals are clear: double his operations to 900 hives by the end of summer and purchase his own acreage, home and shop right after graduation. In beekeeping, Prescott hasn’t just found a hobby, he discovered his life’s pursuit.

The business began with a wild bee hive in the willow tree in the Prescott family’s yard in Redmond. “We’d watched it for about three years,” Prescott says. “I always asked Dad how to get the honey out.” One day, the hive “swarmed out”—a term for when the older queen leaves with half the hive to find a new home—into the neighbors’ tree and settled on a branch. Frightened, the neighbors called a beekeeper, and 14-year-old Prescott carefully observed him suit up and use a bee brush to shake the swarm into a bee box.

beekeeping, 1859, oregon
photo by Talia Galvin

About a week later, the same hive swarmed again. With a makeshift suit consisting of cheesecloth tucked into the hood of his sweatshirt, Prescott climbed a ladder, cut away all the pine branches to get at the basketball-sized cluster of bees and used a stick to knock them into an old beehive box he borrowed from a neighbor. “I didn’t get stung at all,” he recalls. “They’re pretty docile when they’re in a swarm.I do that stuff without a suit now.”

That was six years ago. Last year, Prescott Honey Farms chugged out 5,000 pounds of honey, and grossed revenues of nearly six digits in pollination fees and honey sales.

The path from teenage hobbyist to successful young entrepreneur required a focus rarely seen in high school students. Like most new enterprises, beekeeping required equipment. Prescott acquired accoutrements from other beekeepers leaving the business or bought them with money from 4-H proceeds and other odd jobs. He transported hives by borrowing the family’s van and towing a utility trailer. Always looking to save a dollar, he attempted to build his own gear. It didn’t end well. “I tried to go cheap and use plywood,” he says about his hive-building experiment. “Each year, half of my hives would die from mites and starvation.”

beekeeping, 1859, oregon
photo by Talia Galvin

The ancient practice of beekeeping presented many mysteries, which could only be solved with persistence. Prescott joined the Central Oregon Beekeeping Association, a group of about ten members, hoping to learn more. Surrounded by hobbyists, the teenager picked up what he could but learned more through trial and error. He subscribed to the American Bee Journal and read relevant online material. He resolutely continued buying and catching nucleus colonies, and splitting the hives. As these hives died out, his frustration grew.

After graduating from Sisters High School in 2011, Prescott knew he needed to learn from experts who ran successful operations. Making cold calls to various companies proved fruitless. No one called back. Even though he was willing to work for free, the beekeepers dismissed him because he was so young. After many unreturned calls, he scored a phone conversation with Dirk Olsen at Olsen Honey Farms in Albany. Though the renowned beekeeper didn’t need anyone to work for him, Prescott’s pluck impressed him enough to bring the young beekeeper under his tutelage. The experience proved invaluable.

“I learned how to take care of the bees and how to develop an efficient system,” Prescott says. He also learned where to spend his dollars. “My loss was due to not wanting to spend the money in the right place, such as not wanting to buy queens, which are $20 apiece, and in the feeding of the bees. I realized how to put money into the bees to keep them healthy so they would be productive for me.”

That year, all but two of Prescott’s thirty hives survived.

Since then, growth has become the norm for Prescott Honey Farms. Prescott piggybacked on some of Olsen’s pollination contracts— a windfall for an amateur beekeeper with just thirty hives. Borrowing a truck and trailer, Prescott, along with his dad and younger brother, hauled the hives to Chowchilla, California to pollinate almonds.

beekeeping, 1859, oregon
photo by Bill Kratt

Today, Prescott’s enterprise is buzzing. He has 436 hives and is eyeing forty more. He bought two flatbed trucks, a pickup and a forklift. He also does research for the honeybee work laboratory at OSU, and inspects and manages the pollination process for Central Oregon Seed in Madras—the biggest carrot seed producer in the world.

The bulk of beekeeping profits result from pollination fees. Prescott’s bees rotate from the central valley of California where they pollinate almonds to Hood River for pears, cherries, apples and blueberries. In June, they rest in Marion County on the high quality pollen and nectar of maple trees, dandelions and scotch broom. The blackberries also bloom which marks the start of honey flow.

beekeeping, 1859, oregon
photo by Talia Galvin

In July, some of the bees go to work again on chicory. The rest of them go to Madras to pollinate carrots, onions and parsley for seed. In mid-August, all the hives move to the Smith Rock area between Terrebonne and Prineville to pollinate the wild flowers. Honey extraction occurs from mid-August to September and accounts for about 20 percent of revenues.

“My favorite part is working each hive. I get lost in my thoughts, and it’s calming,” Prescott says, leaning back with a faraway look of satisfaction.

3 Comments

  • So nice to read about this young man and bees. We had hives in California and know some almond growers in Chowchilla! Small world.zg

  • Devon, you are one of a kind!!! So impressed with what you are doing! We wish we could order your honey and have it sent to HI!!

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