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Friday, September 25, 2015

What’s the Buzz?

YOU’RE SURROUNDED BY BEES. They move with a purpose, settling on a hive’s landing board abulge with yellow pollen, or clustered on a hive frame to build hexagonal-celled honeycomb, or challenging your wish to be there by dive-bombing your face.

But this is the payoff moment. The time and money—and patience—you’ve invested in your apiary is about to yield honey. Fresh, raw honey that will reveal a familiar flavor on top of the sweetness: the flavor of your yard. Even if you don’t go munching on the wildflowers out there, you’ll recognize it.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
My bees have been raising brood and storing honey in large Langstroth hiveboxes, on top of the strongest of which I placed a shallower box, or supers. That’s where the excess honey is stored, an amount (it’s hoped) that exceeds what they’ll need for winter.

At this point, my kitchen serves as honey house. The process begins with schlepping the shallow super to the back door. I brush them free of bees, but a few of them hang on and travel with me. I dip a long knife in boiling water to heat it enough to slice through the waxen honeycomb and, as my wife holds a frame over a food-grade bucket, I cut the cappings and let the wax and some of the honey fall within.

Both sides uncapped, the frame goes into the basket of a hand-cranked centrifuge. It has room enough to whirl three frames, and a brief, energetic spin flings most of the golden liquid against the centrifuge’s stainless-steel walls. I flip the frames to empty the other sides, then return them to the super and work on the next three.

The honey from the uncapping bucket and the honey from the centrifuge go through a two-stage strainer with dimensions of about 5/64 and 1/32 of an inch, the first holding back wax remnants, the second smaller impurities like bee parts.

And that’s it! About 25 pounds of rich, raw honey drips through, which, combined with the another late-in-the-season harvest, should get us through the winter with a little bit to sell on the side.

It started, as I suspect it does for most backyard beekeepers, as a lark. My daughter wisely renounced sugar. Sweetening with honey requires recipe changes when you’re baking, but the health benefit is profound. And there’s no sense buying commercial honey, which has been refined to a point where you lose the antioxidants and enzymes, not to mention its antimicrobial characteristics.

A few years ago, Food Safety News ( sent a large and varied sampling of commercially processed honey—the stuff you find in the supermarkets—to Vaughn Bryant, who directs Texas A&M’s Palynology Research Laboratory.

As Richard Schiffman reported in a 2011 Huffington Post piece, “Bryant’s results were astonishing: Virtually all drug-store honey and small individually packaged honey served up in fast-food outlets does not contain pollen, and 76 percent of the amber stuff sold in America’s leading supermarket chains is likewise devoid of this telltale evidence of its origins, and therefore does not qualify as honey by the FDA’s own standards.” In fact, much of the commercial honey comes from China, where it’s cut with corn syrup and laced with potentially toxic chemicals and antibiotics like chloramphenicol. Bogus honey (and bogus olive oil) gets through because the FDA is too understaffed to police such things.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
So we sought raw honey from local beekeepers, and our consumption increased to the point where we were buying it from Lloyd Spear, a Capital Region apiarist, by the 40-pound pail. “You should keep bees,” he suggested.

I was further encouraged to do so by talking with honey producers at farmers’ markets and trade shows. It’s a collegial business, made even more so with the increased problems of disease that plague the hives. I received offers of help and, as a large, Florida-based apiarist told me, “It’s the little guys like you who are going to keep the bees alive.”

My wife and I took an all-day class at Betterbee, a supplier of bees and equipment in Greenwich (Washington County). Taught by co-owner Chris Cripps, a veterinarian and longtime beekeeper, it certainly stoked our enthusiasm, but half of the session was devoted to disease. We loaded newly purchased hive parts and bee-wear in the trunk and prepared to receive our first nuc, or nucleus colony, which is a unit of five frames of active bees with an egg-laying queen.

The hive seemed to flourish through the summer, but had produced no extra honey by fall. By December, the bees were dead. We were heartbroken. We decided to give up.

We bought two nucs and another set of hive boxes the following spring. One hive never seemed to get going, so we combined them as winter neared, and we could hear activity within at the beginning of March. Three weeks later they were dead. Probably, we learned, of starvation. We decided to give up.

We joined the Southern Adirondack Beekeepers Association instead, purchased more hive boxes, and installed bees into three of them. This time we treated for disease and kept a closer watch on the critters. And we drew on the help and advice of Bruce Blender, a beekeeper we met through SABA, who inspected the hives with me throughout the summer and showed me how brood frames should look and develop.

“I started keeping bees five years ago,” he says. “I knew that bees were in trouble, and I thought I could help by raising them. It helps the environment, too.”

That’s an understatement. Bees pollinate at least a third of our food crops, and we’ve been losing so many of the wild pollinating insects that domesticated honey bees are needed more than ever.

“I have eight hives,” says Blender, “and this summer we harvested 650 pounds of honey. In fact, we ended up leaving a lot of the extra honey on the hives; we don’t have any more room for it.” He and his wife, Brenda, also process the wax into lip balm and skin cream, and you’re likely to see them selling their wares at farmers’ markets next spring.

And that’s where you need to be buying your honey. Although some locally produced honey is stocked by area supermarkets, the farmers’ market lets you meet the person who bottled the stuff. You’re supporting not only the local economy but also every aspect of local food production, which starts with pollination.

I’m heading into winter now with four healthy hives that are about to get their next disease treatment. I’m going to make sure they’re fed as we head into spring, and I’m hoping that a hive or two will swarm into the boxes I’ll buy over the winter. We’re going to turn our farm’s old milkhouse into a honey house. This time, I won’t get stung. Except by an angry bee or two.

Metroland Magazine, 24 September 2015

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