PAONIA - When Clay and Eric Carney and their cousin William Austin decided bees could be their ticket to college, they first did what kids do: thought up goofy names for their startup honey business.
They rejected the Three Abeegos and the Three Buzzketeers. Instead, the 5,000 pounds of honey they sold in their first season came with professional-looking, trademarked Austin Family Honey labels.
"I was concerned that when I was 25, being a Three Abeego might not be as cute as it was at 11," said Clay, who at that age is the youngest partner in the growing honey enterprise.
In an economy that is anything but sweet, Clay, Eric, 13, and William, 14, have learned there is still demand for a good jar of locally produced honey.
"We sold their honey like crazy," said Lee Bradley, owner of the Orchard Valley Farm market near Paonia, one of 15 markets statewide that buy it from them.
The boys used a sales-call list from their grandfather's fresh fruit and vegetable business and made their first sales call at Orchard Valley last summer. They had a practiced pitch and a detailed price list, Bradley said.
At $3 a pound, their prices are a little higher than their competitors'. There aren't many when it comes to local honey. Two beekeepers sell honey commercially: North Fork Valley Honey in Crawford and Ambrosia Honey in Parachute.
The boys made their pricing decision based on flavor and debt. Their honey gets rave reviews for taste because it begins with a lot of fruit pollen.
The boys also are financially beholden to a family friend, Dr. Jean Van Dusen, who invested $5,000 in the business. She said their characters were enough for collateral on the no-interest loan.
The boys learned a quick lesson about running a small business. They sold $5,000 of honey in their first year, but their startup costs were that much. This year, they plan to spend part of Van Dusen's investment to buy a larger spinner to get honey from the combs quicker and a fancier bottler that will speed the bottling process.
The idea for the honey enterprise came about four years ago when the boys were still in grade school.
Eric went to a berry conference in Nashville, Tenn., and was mesmerized by a beekeeper's presentation.
"Eric stood right there and listened to the beekeeper the whole time. He missed the rest of the tour," said his grandmother Tony Austin.
He begged for bees, and last summer, his grandfather Glenn Austin bought eight hives that now have been split into 12.
They sit on a small bluff next to a peach orchard on a family farm that also produces cherries, apples, apricots, berries, plums and fresh vegetables. The farm gets an added benefit from the bees: They pollinate the orchards, so there no longer is the need to rent bees for that chore.
Out here, the boys don white jumpsuits and netted hats and pump smoke into the hives to subdue the bees while they check to see how they are wintering.
As the sleepy bees crawl around their combs, the boys talk about the need for antibiotics and mite medicine, the difference between drones and other worker bees and the constant battle with skunks and bears.
The boys also share cool facts: Bees fly out of their hives "to go to the bathroom," for instance.
Some of this they learn from publications such as the Beekeeping Journal and a beekeeper's catalog - or from their grandfather, a farmer for nearly 40 years. They also have a mentor, beekeeper Chris Williams of Parachute.
"For their age, they are very knowledgeable," Williams said. "They're all really enthusiastic."
They like to share their bee knowledge by suiting up and taking their bee brushes, hot knives and smoking pots to schools. They demonstrate how they use the brush to move stubborn bees from the frames, the hot knife to trim the wax seal from the combs and the pots to calm bees when they are opening a hive.
The boys have plans to gear up when school is over in the spring and get more honey to markets in Delta County, Salida, Buena Vista, Colorado Springs, Woodland Park and Monument.
The farmers market is their favorite, they said, because they can really work on their customer relations philosophy there. They know it's not enough to simply place a jar of honey in front of browsers and hope to sell it.
"You also have to have a good personality and stuff like that," Eric said.