Beau August 22nd, 2009
It is fitting that I share Part II of our honey harvest today- the first ever National Honeybee Awareness Day. The USDA issued an earlier press release highlighting the critical role of honeybees to agriculture.
“Bee pollination is responsible for $15 billion in added crop value and is an essential component of the production of more than 90 food crops – particularly specialty crops such as almonds and other nuts, fruits and vegetables.”
“Honey bees are critical to the process of pollination of our crops throughout our country and an important part of maintaining a stable and sustainable ecosystem,” Secretary Vilsack said. “Honey Bee Awareness Day will help highlight this important role, as well as the significant threat honey bees now face from the phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder.”
It is no surprise that people have become more aware of the plight of the honeybee by media reports and tv specials in recent years. We even read about how to save or help honeybees, and companies such as Haagen-Dazs have extended their influence and financial support as well (I love Haagen-Dazs ice cream!)- they even have a cool flash-based site at HelptheHoneybee.com .
Certainly the threats to the honeybee are real. Many researchers believe we’re seeing a cycle of change with the bees especially in regards to human-based chemical influenced threats that may compromise their immune systems. There have been cycles of losses in past years of course where the honeybee faced similar threats of disease. Yet with the abundance of immuno-chemical challenges within the environment, and coupled with physical threats due to mites, hive beetles, bacteria, and viruses, the honeybee today must overcome greater challenges than ever before.
The honeybee is even attacked by other critters! A Bald-faced Hornet hovers in front of this hive, just before grabbing one of the workers to take back to its own colony. The Bald-faced Hornet is actually in the yellow-jacket genus made up of predatory social wasps.
So do the bees just stand there and let themselves get picked off by predators? Usually, yes- they are not bothered normally from such threats and appear unsuspecting. But the bald-faced hornet is sneaky, and grabs a bee very quickly, or knocks it to the ground and then carries it away in its legs. Sometimes however, the bees react quickly too and they “ball” the other insect such as the bald-faced hornet, or an intruding bumblebee, and eventually they kill it (sometimes they ball a drone or a queen bee within the hive as well). In this picture the bees “balled” a larger insect that I couldn’t determine for sure- researchers believe the heat and carbon dioxide produced inside the “bee ball” kills the intruder… and sometimes a few bees die as well.
Today there’s an increasing trend focusing on natural and organic methods of beekeeping, in a similar fashion to gardening and healthier living choices. This trend is tailor made for the small and part-time hobbyist beekeeper with relatively few bee hives. Yet it doesn’t come without risk- trying to shepard hives of thousands of bees through the various seasons is an inexact science, and involves a great deal of art and intuition born only of experience. There are no guarantees, and it can become an expensive hobby. And if I do find disease with the bees, do I just let them struggle with it? Give them chemicals to fight it? We’ll see.
While the bees are facing challenges, does that mean we can’t find them anywhere? No. You can still purchase live bees from many companies around the nation, but it helps to order early (meaning during early winter) in order to get on the list and receive bees throughout the spring. By mid-summer it’s difficult to find package bees for sale to start new hives. Then you’re off to the races, learning how to take of them and wondering what you got yourself into along the way.
Ah, but beekeeping does come with its own rewards! Eventually (in the second year for most new beekeepers), you’ll find yourself harvesting honey from your very own hives. It’s a rich reward like no other, and brings a satisfaction and pride at the work these amazing creatures have performed.
A couple of weeks ago it was time to gather our honey, and what I take from my hives is pure, natural and raw. The bees produced it on their own, in a challenging spring and summer season of rain and cooler weather this year. Most of it is from wildflowers and trees in the area. Blackberries, elderberry, maple, clover, dandelion, mulberry, aster, locust, basswood… many more than I can count. One of the hives is a lot stronger than the other- producing around 35 pounds of honey to the other hive’s 10 pounds this year. In some parts of the country, the weather really hurt the honey yield, so I’m thankful for how well these bees did this year.
A beautiful frame of capped and filled honeycomb.
Working with bees in 85-95 degree summer weather is a pretty warm affair though. Especially dressed in such fashionable, clunky apparel. It’s hot, sweaty work- and I don’t think the bees appreciate some big, sweaty human prodding around in their home. That’s where the smoke helps. I use a little smoke from burning grass or burlap and waft the smoke around the entrance or the top of the hive, and it calms the bees. Not only does it mask the odor of the beekeeper, but the bees have an instinctive response to fill up on honey in case a fire threatens the hive and they need to leave. Not all of them bury their heads in cells to suck up honey at the first whiff of smoke… most just seem hang out and continue doing whatever they were doing.
But when I open their hive without smoke they tend to get a little defensive and “ping” off my veil or coveralls more quickly. A hive of more defensive or aggressive bees will come pouring out at you in a heartbeat, seemingly with stingers first! So a little smoke goes a long way, and keeps the bees under control. That’s kind of important really, and while some people advocate not using smoke, I believe it actually aggravates the bees less, and helps you get finished a whole lot faster so you can close the hive back up and let the bees get back to their work.
Uncapping a frame of honey.
I mentioned before about an old honey extractor from years ago? My folks kept that old extractor through the years for some reason. It was laying in a corner of the barn… beat up and kind of rusty. I pulled it out to look at it last year and frowned, “No way…” I thought. After pricing new extractors this year I reconsidered.
So what the heck I thought, and I did a little experiment… I removed all the parts and conducted reverse electrolysis in a 55 gallon drum with a battery charger and some iron rods. It was amazing- the rust came off that thing in less than 24 hours! I then hand-cleaned, bleached and scrubbed the extractor ’till it was nearly sparkling, and painted it inside and out. I finished by completely coating it with two coats of food-grade epoxy- a clear, hard coat finish that nicely sealed it top to bottom. Finally satisfied that it was in good shape to use for extracting honey, I still didn’t know if it would work very well.
I soon found out that they made things pretty well a hundred years ago however, and the extractor worked like a dream. It was made by The Standard Churn Company out of Waupenka, Ohio sometime around 1910. My grandparents were kids back then, and I can’t help but wonder how much honey this old extractor has seen. The company made butter churns mostly, but I’ve found references for their extractors in old farm manuals.
After uncapping each frame by using a knife to remove the top wax cappings on the cells, you put two frames in the extractor and crank one side for a minute- then take the frames out and turn them around. Crank some more for a couple minutes, then take the frames out and turn around one more time. Crank again for a while and that about does it. The honey came out easily, taking a little time of course, but I can’t argue with the results. As the honey spins out of the frames, it drips down the sides of the extractor and out into a bucket with a strainer set up at the top. The honey is lightly filtered to remove bits of wax and sealed in a food-grade bucket ready for bottling. No heating, no super micron filters… raw, natural and ready to eat! That afternoon we hand-cranked about 20 medium frames of honey with that machine, two frames at a time- it was actually kind of fun.
Over three days we pulled supers and frames, extracted the honey and then began filling up the pre-washed half-pound glass bottles. Lots of helpers- the boy loved it, and Memaw pitched in too :) I was like a kid in candy store… moreso with so much honey around. It’s not a huge amount for the first real honey year- nearly five gallons in all. Maybe more if we get a good flower bloom this fall. I’m still looking at various designs and names for a label of some kind too, but it’s just not there yet.
I’m still amazed by the process- and the honey! It’s exquisite… a beautiful amber gold that tastes incredible. I filled up a few honey bears too, and the young boy got to have one all his own.
I like to think the flavor is enhanced by the time spent working with the bees, and watching them dance around the flowers, surviving through the pace of the changing seasons. The other morning I watched the sun rise, enjoying the colors of dawn. I heard a bee zooming by as I enjoyed the morning. They’re up early too when it’s warm out, and the flower sources are a little scarce right now. I smiled, marveling at the wonders of nature. We help them have a home, the bees do their thing, and we receive a little honey in return. I sipped my coffee and thought of how many more things we could do if we really wanted to.
There are three hives now at Fox Haven- not very many, but a lot from my perspective. Earlier this month I requeened the weaker hive, and split off a new hive from the strong colony, starting it with its own new queen. That’s another way to increase the number of hives you have in your apiary, and it’s also a story for another day. If you missed it before, here’s a link to read about The Honey Harvest Part I.