Honey Harvest is a highly anticipated time at my house. As a beekeeper, I see honey harvest as a reward for a year of supporting honey bees with appropriate housing, resources and food, not the least of which are bee friendly plants that I make available for them to forage on around our home. That being said, with just two hives, there have been times when I haven’t harvested, or harvested very little, so I do not take honey harvesting for granted. My first priority is always to support the bees and in doing so, I only harvest surplus honey when the bees are robust enough in numbers and resources to allow me to take some of their exquisite honey.
I don’t make use of the word “exquisite” much in my every day vocabulary because it really denotes something quite special. What I like about this word is that it represents a beauty that fosters delight and that is exactly how I feel about this amazing gift from honey bees. Raw, natural honey from bees in my backyard makes me swoon. That feeling comes not just from the taste but from the knowledge of the process of how it came to be, the very notion of pollination required to garner such a delicacy and the gift given to the environment with these vital services.
I think it’s important to understand how honey comes to be before even sampling one spoonful, especially given that a tasty teaspoon is likely an entire life’s work of many honey bees, each one contributing just 1/12th of a teaspoon during their lifetime. This helps us better appreciate that honey is a premium gift to humans because the main endowment honey bees provide is one of sustenance as the primary pollinators of our food supply, allowing us the plethora of choices we have every day, a privilege we Americans have just walking into a grocery store where an array of produce awaits us.
To produce honey, honey bees need to gather nectar. They visit flowers, sipping the nectar with their proboscis and stashing pollen into pollen pouches on their legs to be tucked away in their honey comb for their young as a valuable protein source. The bee does not digest this nectar, but rather stores it in her honey sac. During the process, they find themselves covered in pollen and as they forage from plant to plant, pollen pieces drop onto nearby plants allowing the life cycles of plants to continue and food to be made for us in the form of fruits and vegetables.
As a field honey bee flies back to her hive, enzymes secreted into the collected nectar initiate the transformation process of nectar into honey. When she arrives at her hive, the nectar is transferred to an awaiting house bee who then spreads droplets of nectar into honey cells and the curing process begins. Initially, the nectar is approximately 80% water and 20% sugar, but during the magical period of honey production, this ratio reverses and once it reaches about 18.6% moisture content via diligent fanning of wings by these laborious bees, house bees cap the honey cells with a thin layer of wax. At this point, the honey is generally ready for extraction.
With the high humidity here in summer, you can imagine how much work removing the excess moisture from the honey must be for honey bees, feverishly and diligently fanning their wings to aid the curing process. Yet, it is no surprise as phrases like “busy as a bee” or “worker bee” became infused in our dialogue over the years because of the honey bee’s revered work ethic. Honey bees literally work themselves to death, living only four to six weeks in the summer months, dying on the job, all for the greater good of the colony, or more specifically, their species. It’s teamwork at it’s finest.
My large hive generously filled four medium supers with nectar this spring that has been curing into honey so the anticipation of harvesting honey was almost tangible as we eyed up the tower of boxes on that hive every day. When the honey was ready, I found myself without the brawn of my husband to help lift those heavy boxes. Bear in mind that a capped medium frame of honey can easily weigh four to five pounds. Multiply that by ten frames and you can see how heavy a full honey box is to lift, especially when it’s stacked up high upon other boxes.
Removing honey from a colony is not always pleasant. Honey bees can have varied temperaments and certainly don’t care to part with the honey they worked so hard to produce. There are various ways to remove the bees from the honey comb from fume boards to leaf blowers (yes, you read that correctly and I’ve seen it work effectively) to simply brushing them off. The bees in my large hive have an exceptional disposition and I’ve been amazed at how accommodating they’ve been to my intrusions, requiring very little smoke during inspections. So I decided to just brush them off with a bee brush and called upon my little girl, fully gowned and ready to assist, knowing what was to come from her efforts.
I did this one evening, wanting to extract while the honey was available and I had use of our bee club’s extractor. So I removed each frame, gave it a shake, gently brushed off the bees and then placed the bee-free honey comb laden frames into an awaiting hive body box with a ventilated inner cover as a lid to keep bees from getting back to the honey. The bees flew around, smelling their precious honey but were quite gracious about sharing with me.
The honey was then taken inside to the awaiting honey extractor, after a second check to make sure all bees were gone. I removed two full boxes for this first extraction, planning to harvest the other two boxes a week or so later when I again had access to our club extractor and the time needed for the project.
Inside, I scraped off the thin wax layer on the frames with an uncapping tool, placed four frames at a time into the extractor, and then spun out the honey. The honey flew out of the opened combs and hit the stainless steel walls of the extractor, slowly running down to pool at the bottom of the canister.
After a while, I could see ample honey collected at the bottom of the extractor and it was time for the cherished job of opening the flood gates. I opened the valve of the extractor and delighted in watching the honey flowing into awaiting strainers to catch wax and other bee debris, allowing golden honey to flow into the bottling bucket below.
Once all the honey is extracted, the bottling bucket gets sealed to keep out moisture and it sits for a few days to allow air bubbles to rise. Like everything with beekeeping, there are different schools of thought on how long to let the honey sit before bottling. I bottled mine after three days and it was sheer joy to watch the beautiful honey pour into the jars. Equally intoxicating was the smell in our house from the honey and wax during these few days. The result is filtered, raw honey that maintains a flavor unparalleled to anything you could purchase in a store. The goodness of my honey is maintained since it’s not pasteurized and the pollens from the local flora are contained within this delicious honey.
This unlikely journey in beekeeping that I embarked upon in 2012 has taught me so much appreciation and respect for our world. In “settling for bees,” I gained so much more than I ever imagined. Honey bees have opened my eyes to the entangled food web we’re a part of and to understanding how our choices, often convenient but poor, greatly impact other parts of this web. We are all connected but unfortunately, our greed as a society has led to practices with dire consequences just beginning to be noted. This is why so many are returning to the old ways of farming utilizing crop rotation, pasture raised animals, organic and integrated pest management practices, and choosing seed sources carefully to employ more sustainable practices.
Often, the smallest of us are actually among the greatest and that is the case with pollinators. Our world would be dramatically different without their contributions and I shudder to think of the possibility of future generations not having the choices we have and missing out on the bewildering and intricate beauty of this world.
Overuse of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and insecticides is just part of the problem. Loss of habitat is serious for our pollinators and it’s actually something we can play a role in, making a small difference, one yard at a time. I implore you to consider your sprays before spraying and to make absolutely certain that if you do spray, to do so only when your plants are not blooming since otherwise you will be enticing pollinators to feed from these poisons and return to their nesting areas with toxic chemicals. As well, only spray when pollinators are not flying to minimize their contact with these toxins. Additionally, consider what you’re planting and add bee friendly and native plants whenever you can do so.
I delight in seeing honey bees, bumble bees, native bees, butterflies and birds enjoying the nectars and pollens from what I’ve planted. In this regard, I chose plants that aren’t just pretty, but life sustaining because nectar rich food sources are required to sustain our pollinators, and ultimately us too. Planting nectar rich plants, particularly natives that grow and thrive in our environments, attracts pollinators and while they’re busy on those plants, they help out nearby plants as well. I see it in my garden all of the time. Consider that a one pound jar of honey required honey bees to collect nectar from over a million flowers! So plant those native and bee friendly plants, sit back and relax, and as they say at the movies, “enjoy the show!”
And so it goes. I plant bee friendly plants and in return, the bees don’t just visit those plants, but also nearby plants in search of nectar and pollen, producing many of the foods I enjoy eating. It’s an enchanting relationship we share with pollinators, requiring little of us in reality, but yielding much in return.