Photos by Brian Samuels
Chances are you’ve consumed honey at some point in your life; in a cup of morning tea, drizzled on an apple slice, or simply licked off a spoon. But to produce one’s own honey seems inconceivable to most. To do that, you’d need to live on a farm, right? And there’s no way you’d have enough time to look after a beehive.
The truth is that beekeeping isn’t as complicated as one might think. Just ask Kristin McDonnell, a server at Rialto in Harvard Square who, for the last six years, has been an active apiculturist (that is, beekeeper). A graduate of Brown University’s plant ecology program, Kristin has always taken interest in natural history and the connections between organisms. It was a book on beekeeping, however, that spiked her curiosity.
“I had picked up the book thinking, ‘Well maybe this is something I would like!’ The more I learned about the process and the intricacies of the communications within the hives and how closely they’re tied to weather and patterns of bloom and how we use the land and the choices we make in our own little pieces of property, the more I just fell in love.”
As a next step, Kristin enrolled in an 8-week course held by the Norfolk County Beekeepers Association, a non-profit in Walpole whose goal is to educate aspiring apiarists, as well as the general public, about bees. At these sessions, students study the history of beekeeping and are provided with advice on where to get hives, the various techniques for managing the hives, and how to extract the honey.
Before she knew it, Kristin was ordering her equipment and the bees were on the way (they’re shipped up from the South, since the honey bee season starts earlier there).
In terms of equipment, there is very little one needs to get started. The most important element is a wooden box that has 10 moveable frames, called a Langstroth hive. These frames can be taken out to extract the honey and then put back in to allow the bees to continue working. As Kristin explains, “It’s a less stressful way to do it without disturbing the bees too much.”
To start, Kristin kept the hives in the backyard of her Roslindale home. But as time passed, one hive turned into two and two turned into three and three turned into six and then she knew it was time to relocate them.
“I got to the point where I was outgrowing my urban backyard so I moved my hives to Allandale Farm. It’s a really wonderful place to have bees. John Lee, Allandale Farm’s General Manager, was very supportive about having my hives there. There are a number of other beekeepers on the property. It’s a win-win. They get free pollination out of it and we get a wonderful spot to keep our bees.”
Kristin takes great pride in the development of her hives and she finds that each one has their own distinct personality.
“I always recommend people start off with two hives because it’s amazing to see the differences between them. One likes to get up early in the morning. One waits until it’s warmer. One of them is really gentle and the other is a little bit more agitated. Some bees, because of their genetics, are excellent wax builders and are great at building out that white, bright comb. And then some are just a bit slower. It’s dramatic, the differences.”
The amount of time required to maintain hives varies throughout the year. During the beginning of the season, periodic checkups are needed to make sure the bees are doing well.
“You’re assessing the health of a hive by just checking the entrance of the box. Do they look like they’re moving calmly in and out in a way that would suggest they’re a healthy hive? This can take anywhere from two minutes to fifteen minutes, and during the active part of the season, you’re doing that once a week or once every two weeks. It’s not a ton of work. It’s just more the regularity of it. Just like you would with your garden. You want to check in and see if it needs watering or fertilizer.”
May and June are the peak months when the boxes fill with honey. However, because honey is created from the nectar collected from flowers, both weather and the bloom season greatly affect how quickly bees will produce. Therefore, the exact time of harvest varies from year to year.
“It’s something that I love about bees. They’re so tied into the patterns of the natural world. You have to pay attention to how much rain you’re getting and what time it rains. If it rains in the middle of the day, the bees can’t fly. If it rains at night, it’s perfect, because the blooms come out and access them.”
Kristin’s Bussey Brook Honey, which she affectionately named after the brook that runs through the Arnold Arboretum near the farm, is harvested at two points throughout the year—once in the spring and then again in the summer. In May, extra boxes, called “honey supers,” are added to the Langstroth hive to collect honey. Throughout June, they’re checked frequently to see if they are full and if more need to be added. Since there isn’t a bloom in July, there is a lull in production during this time, but it picks up again in August with the fall bloom.
Unlike some beekeepers, Kristin does not harvest in the fall, instead leaving any remaining honey for the bees to eat throughout the winter.
“I let the bees keep that because I don’t want to feed them any sugar syrup if I don’t have to. It allows them to have their natural honey diet. I do feed them if they need it, because I obviously don’t want them to suffer. But I prefer to have them eat their natural food supply.”
During the first few years, beehives often won’t produce much in the way of surplus honey, but as of July, Kristin had already pulled off almost 100 pounds. Commercial beekeepers, she explained, will get somewhere closer to 200 pounds per hive, but Kristin is “more conservative in her harvesting” and leaves a lot for the bees to enjoy throughout the year.
While beekeeping has remained a hobby for Kristin, working at Rialto has been a way to get her product in front of patrons. The restaurant’s pastry chef, Jonathan Posiko, has created a dessert that lets the natural beauty of her honey shine. The dish, a honey panna cotta, is layered with blueberry gelée, blueberry compote, and honey gelée, and then garnished with honeycomb. In addition, Rialto’s drink menu features the aptly titled “Beekeeper Cocktail,” their take on the Bee’s Knees (gin, lemon juice, and honey syrup).
In the coming year, Kristin hopes to get her honey to more people through farmers markets. Beyond the honey, she has also been working on recipes for hand-made soaps, skin creams, lip balms, and candles that utilize the beeswax and honey.
There’s no denying that talking about bees and sharing her experience with others is what Kristin enjoys most about beekeeping.
“I came to this from a bit of a natural history, scientific perspective, like, ‘Isn’t it amazing that they can communicate where a particular bloom is by dancing? That’s insane! How do they do that? How does a hive of 10,000 bees figure out where they’ll start a new home and all fly in uniform direction?’ Every time I look at the hive something blows my mind. But it’s also a sensory experience. You open the hive to the smell of the wax and the smell of the honey. You’re listening to the bees to see what their mood is on that day and you might be able to assess their health by how they sound. It’s just mesmerizing.”
Recipe courtesy of Young Won, Beverage Director at Rialto
Makes 1 cocktail.
1 1/2 ounce Barr Hill Gin (or the gin of your choice)
1 ounce honey-lemon verbena syrup (see recipe below)
1/2 ounce Suze liqueur
Dash of Creme Yvette
Lemon zest, for garnish
Place all of the ingredients in a mixing glass. Add ice. Stir until cold. Strain into a cocktail glass. Dress with lemon zest.
HONEY-LEMON VERBENA SYRUP
2 tablespoons dried lemon verbena leaves
1 1/2 cups water
1/2 cup honey
Bring water to a boil in a saucepan, stir in the dried lemon verbena leaves and remove from heat. Let steep for 15 minutes.
After the tea has steeped long enough, strain the tea. Pour 1 cup worth of the strained tea over the 1/2 cup honey in a glass measuring cup or container. Mix until honey has dissolved. Chill until ready to use in a cocktail.
Brian Samuels is a Boston-based food photographer and writer and is the creator of the food blog A Thought For Food (www.athoughtforfood.net). Brian’s work has been featured on Saveur.com, Bon Appetit, The Wall Street Journal, The Huffington Post and Edible Boston. He can be contacted at email@example.com.