“There are certain pursuits which, if not wholly poetic and true, do at least suggest a nobler and finer relation to nature than we know. The keeping of bees, for instance.”
-Henry David Thoreau
Last weekend, my friend (and beekeeping mentor) Ellen came over to have a look at my hives with me. I was wondering if there was anything I needed to do for them in order to get them ready for winter. I figured I should fill up their feed buckets to ensure that they had enough food to get them through. Imagine my surprise when we opened up the first hive and saw that the top two supers had so much honey, Ellen assured me I could take a super and would still be leaving the bees plenty to make it to the spring!
When we checked the other hive, we saw the same thing. I really couldn’t believe it. From the day I installed my hives in the yard, I had absolutely no intention of taking honey the first year. My sole purpose for keeping bees was to try, in some small way, to help the bee population in general. If enough small-scale farmers keep a few hives, we can begin to have an impact, however small, on bringing back the bees from the brink of destruction. Selfishly, I also knew that the act of keeping bees could only benefit my gardens, so it wasn’t a wholly altruistic act.
If you aren’t already familiar with the plight of the bees, you can read about it here: The Plight of the Bees.
So, I set to preparing to harvest honey. It looked as though I had about 13 full honey frames that I could take. Throughout the week leading up to Honey Day, I started worrying about the bees. What if I was taking too much? What if Ellen was wrong? What if I took the honey and the bees starved? I did this for about four days. It was totally fun. (It wasn’t totally fun).
In order to take honey frames for harvesting, I needed to separate the bees from the honey. One method of doing this is placing a triangular bee board just below the super you want to take and placing a rag soaked with an almond-scented spray above it. THEORETICALLY, the bees will move away from the almond scent and down into the top of the bee board. They will find themselves in the triangular “maze” and won’t be able to move back up through the hole. As they continue to walk, they will find themselves in the super below the one they were in, all will be well, and the beekeeper will come back to find the honey super free of bees.
Well, of course that didn’t happen for me in the slightest.
I tried three times. In the dark. And it was cold. And the bees didn’t budge.
So, I got a little more aggressive. Ultimately, I took off the top super full of honey (and bees) and took each honey/bee-laden frame one by one and smoked it and tapped the bees off of it and back into the hive. I did this one frame at a time, until each frame was bee-free. There is something about roughly handling bees in order to take their honey that is tremendously demoralizing and make-me-feel-shitty-ing. Also, I fully expected a revolution to ensue wherein the offended bees would exact their revenge simultaneously and my family would find my bee suit-clad corpse between the hives next to a pile of suicide bee bombers. Luckily, I made it out unscathed… physically anyway.
“Let come what will, I mean to bear it out, And either live with glorious victorie, Or die with fame renown’d for chivalrie: He is not worthy of the honey-comb, That shuns the hives because the bees have stings.” -William Shakespeare
Very fortunately for me, and for the bees, the second hive was a totally different experience. There were only about a dozen bees in the top super and it was a simple matter of removing the top box and checking each frame for the lingering bee or two and tapping them back into the hive. Much better.
The next morning, Ellen came by to look at what I’d done. Of course, I was positive that I’d killed all my bees and that I’d taken the wrong honey and that all the bees hated me forever.
This turned out to be not-true. I’d done it right(ish) after all and the bees were left with plenty of honey and it was time to go spin some for ourselves.
Later that day, I went to Ellen’s with our honey and equipment and learned how to harvest honey.
It was a labor-intensive, wonderfully-aromatic, insanely gratifying process that yielded surprising quantities of deliciousness.
First, we uncapped the honey on each frame.
This involved slicing away the top of the capped honey into a container below. Any caps not broken by the uncapping knife were gone back over with an uncapping fork and scraped away.
Once the honey was revealed below its cap, the frames were placed, four at a time, into the extractor. The extractor is a simple centrifuge with a spigot at the bottom. We placed a heater below the extractor to help the honey along and cranked until the frames had released all their honey. Then we did it again. And again. And then one more time.
What a moment it is when the spigot is opened and the honey pours out!
We marveled at the color, the flavor, the aroma. More than anything, I marveled at the quantity. When you stop to consider that a bee, in her entire lifetime, only makes 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey, the fact that I harvested two-and-a-half gallons is fairly mind-bending. I can’t even do that kind of math, but rest assured, it took A LOT of bees.
We repeated the process with Ellen’s frames and were astounded at the difference in the color and flavor of our two honey harvests.
Our hives are only about five miles away from one another, but with access to very different flowers. The only overlap we could think of was goldenrod. It is fascinating to me how much variation can exist in essentially the same product.
For the record, there is no such thing as not-delicious honey.
And no, you can’t have any.