Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Bee Day arrives

The much anticipated day to collect the honey from Stew's beehive finally arrived last Friday, and a ho-hum feeling buzzed through my spine. The project had been going on since February, with free bee stings for everyone including the dogs, which had learned to flee whenever they saw or sniffed any bee-related doings. Most of the time the beehive just sat there, bees buzzing in and out, without a hint of what was going on inside.

Adding to the anti-climax was all the lore about bees everyone's heard since childhood. About their industry, tight social habits, unimaginably complex society. Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumble Bee" which celebrates their speed while giving violinists cramps. The 1924 Continental Insurance Building on South Michigan Avenue in Chicago, topped by four stone bison that represent strength and also support a huge glass beehive which is lit blue at night and honors the legendary thrift and hard work of bees, while presumably reminding passersby to go visit their insurance agent. Enough about bees.
Smoke calms the bees prior to
opening the hive. The white box
is the one containing the best
honey, made from wildflowers. 

Indeed, the only members of the bee world who've gotten bad rap are the drones, the males who just hang around and do no work except mate with the queen, a crucial function when you think about it. The drones die shortly after mating which makes their gesture the ultimate example of sacrifice for the common good--and of killer sex. Recently, lethal "drones" or pilotless aircraft have become a key part of the U.S. military arsenal, though I can't figure out why they got that name.

My cynicism toward beekeeping vanished, however, when Félix, decked out in a beekeeper outfit that was about three sizes too big, opened up Stew's beehive.

Sincere apologies are in order to everyone--Stew, Félix and particularly the bees--for my lack of appreciation of their work. I was dumbstruck.

The formerly empty wooden boxes--sixteen by twenty inches, each holding eight frames, about five by seventeen inches--were loaded with bright-gold honey and wax, dripping and glistening in the sunshine.

Empty, the boxes weigh about five pounds. Now loaded with the sweat equity of tens of thousands of bees laboring through the summer, they weighed over fifty pounds each. 

Stew extracted the honey from only one box, which had been inserted, late in the summer, into the stack of boxes that make up the hive. Two other boxes are called "honey supers" and were also filled with honey though made from sugar Stew had fed the bees when he first set out the hive, to feed the original crowd of ten thousand bees, plus the queen, and get the party going The final box at the bottom of the hive, about twice as high as the others, is called the brood chamber, and is the home base where the queen and the bees live.

The sugar-derived honey in the first two "supers" is not considered very valuable or tasty. The honey in the last super, however, which the bees made from flower pollen, is the real stuff that we collected. If you add all three super boxes, the bees produced a total of between one hundred and thirty and one hundred and fifty pounds of honey and wax since Stew put out the hive.

Stew the proud beekeeper. 
There aren't enough zeros in a calculator, or cells in my brain, to even begin to estimate or picture what went on in the hive during the summer. Stew started with ten thousand bees and ended with approximately sixty thousand. That final census of course doesn't include the deaths of thousands of the sex-crazed drones or those bees squashed while trying to sting someone.

Making honey is an unimaginably laborious process by tens thousands of bees flitting in and out of the hive hundreds of times a day as they collect tiny bits of pollen that they then combine with some sort of enzyme to create the final product.

How many times did the bees have to go back and forth to create one hundred and fifty pounds of honey? Told you there weren't enough zeros in a calculator and the results would be meaningless anyway even if there were, because the numbers would be so large.

Part of the success this summer must have been the above-average rainfall which led to a rampage of wildflowers, particularly in our ranch where they are protected from livestock by fences.

Extracting the bees from the wax comb is a relatively easy process using electric centrifuges in which you place three or four frames at a time and flip on the switch. But motorized centrifuges can cost thousands of dollars.

Our dog Lucy kept a vigilant eye during the
extraction process for any stray drops of honey.
So Stew and I extracted the honey manually, which took several hours and was a colossal mess in the kitchen. There was gooey honey all over the floor, counters and several sets of bowls, knives, needle-nose pliers and spatulas, in addition to drowsy bees still stuck to the frames. Fortunately our dog Lucy loved the honey and stood guard to lick any droplets that fell on the floor tile.

We separated the honeycombs from the frames and cut them into small squares that we put on a strainer over a bowl. The crystal-clear honey dripped down slowly, like extra-virgin olive oil. For later batches we got impatient and zapped the cubes in the microwave and squeezed them gently through the strainer with a potato masher, which sped the flow but gave us slightly murkier honey.

The very first batch, the "extra virgin" was particularly light and had a tangy taste to it. The inaugural jar of honey went to our friend Billie.

We only got honey from one frame and put the combs from the other seven in plastic bags and into a sealed cooler chest for later extraction. Sealed well, the honeycombs are supposed to last for several months.

By late afternoon the kitchen looked like a greasy spoon diner after a weekend rush.

A myriad details and refinements await Stew's apiculture project. Honey from mesquite and huizaches is supposed to be the best, but I can't imagine how you persuade bees to stick to certain kinds of flowers, particularly since they cover a three-mile radius from the hive during their frantic rounds. I guess you could keep extracting the honey after each wave of flowers.

Ta-dah! One of the first jars of honey. 
Or how to collect the wax. We used pre-made honeycombs to get the bees going but we can't figure out where the new wax went. A rented centrifuge might be in order next time.

But the most pressing question at the moment is also the most basic: What do we do with the thirty-four pounds of honey and honeycombs we have so neatly sealed and stacked in the basement? Suggestions from readers are welcome--particularly other than "I want some."

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6 comments:

  1. Stew could set up a stand on the highway to Queretaro and sell the excess! Or he could have a booth at the tianguis........or, he could give me a wee bit! Ha. I managed to fit that request into the sentence.

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  2. How about the jardin? You could sculpt the bee wax into replicas of the parroquia or The Great Goose and fill each with magic honey. With the tag line -- "Eat the ambrosia that made the Maya see the stars." Or something cheesy like that. You will be beellionaires before the year is out.

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  3. Wow! This is exciting stuff. Truly, I am in awe of this project. Plus, I love the photo of Stew and yes, like Babs, I can just see him standing by the road selling the nectar from the gods.

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  4. Yummy, and what a great thing to do! Stew and the honey look great! ♥

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  5. As someone who grew up beekeeping, I can offer a few suggestions for next season. First, honey is marvelous if left in the hive and immediately upon harvesting. Once you put it into jars, it starts to darken and crystalize. After a while, it's not that appetizing. So if I were in your (enviable) position of having fresh honey, I'd just harvest a little bit at a time.

    I give you kudos for keeping plenty of the honey in the frames; I think it'll keep better that way.

    As for the excess, well, good luck.

    Too much of a good thing can be wonderful. Or not.

    Saludos,

    Kim G
    DF, México
    Where we are enjoying being with our BF.

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