ALWAYS A BEEKEEPER, NEVER A BEE
Perhaps you have had the opportunity to tag along with a beekeeper, spied on a neighbor tending a hive or studied jars of honey on a store shelf. I had never kept bees, or known anyone who had, but I was curious about the hives scattered around Allandale Farm. Then, in the beginning of 2009, I met the beekeeper-who was retiring from his honey hobby. "I'll take it all," I said, and spent every cent I had on enough equipment for 50 hives. I prayed that I would like keeping bees, and that I wasn't allergic to bee stings.
When I told my parents that I was going to Bee School to learn how to make honey, they thought I was going to B-school to learn how to make money. Bee School was priceless (in fact, it was only $55 for a weekly night class from February to April). I never would have had so many successful misadventures without it. The other students were beginning with one or two hives; I was starting with 16. The old-timers threw their heads back, laughed and told me I was nuts. I had to agree.
I had stacked my garage with top feeders, telescoping covers, capping scratchers, veiled hats, triangle escape boards, extractors and queen excluders, not even knowing what half of it was for. I made towers of "supers," the rectangular wooden boxes without tops or bottoms that make up the popular Langstroth hive. Ten frames are suspended like hanging files in each super. The bees build a wax comb on the frames from wax producing-glands. The lower part of the hive is the brood chamber where the queen lays eggs. The bees store honey in the upper part of the hive. All parts of the hive are movable and interchangeable for easy inspection and management. I spent the month of April assembling 16 hives around the farm.
My first act as a beekeeper was to install the bees and a queen into each brood chamber. Feeling confident, I drove to the apiary to pick up my bees. Each screened container held a queen and 10,000 bees clustered around a sugar-water feeder. Back at the farm, I shook the bees out of the package and into the supers. Then I was supposed to carefully place the queen in the hive.
Nothing-not all the classes I had taken, books I had read or YouTube videos I had watched-had prepared me for the cloud of stinging insects. Panicking and scrambling, I released the queens of my first two hives into the air. "Come back!" I yelled, standing with an arm stretched in the direction they had disappeared. They didn't return. A hive without a queen, or eggs to make a new queen, will not survive. That week, my parents gave me Beekeeping for Dummies for my birthday.
By May, my remaining 14 hives were humming and buzzing. Using my smoker, a medieval implement of fire and bellows, I opened each hive and scrutinized the behavior of my little ones. I added another super to each brood chamber to accommodate the 1,500 eggs laid by my queens each day. Smoke tranquilizes the bees by masking alarm pheromones released when I intrude the hive. Also, they think their hive is burning down so they gorge themselves on honey and get so full that they physically cannot sting. But smoke is traumatic to the bees, so I have to restrain myself from micromanaging them.
At this point, I had been stung nine times and it turned out I wasn't allergic. I was getting to know the personalities and moods of each hive: some aggressive, some sluggish, some welcoming. One of my hives was so happy that it wanted to divide itself in order to double its population, nature's way of creating more beehives. Half of the 60,000 bees flew away in a swarm with the old queen. They ensured the survival of their mother colony by leaving behind an egg that would become a new queen. My bees landed on a picture-perfect Winnie-the-Pooh hollowed out branch 25 feet up a big old tree. I called an experienced beekeeper. He said, "Go get them now and install them in a hive, because once they're settled they'll be defensive and sting." Bees will not sting while preoccupied with establishing a new home.
Armed with nothing but a bee suit and a five-gallon bucket, I clambered up the ladder to the swarm. Sweating and whimpering, I reached a shaking hand into the ball of bees clustered in the branch. I scooped them into the bucket, hoping I had the queen who should have been in the middle; the bees would follow her back to my new hive. I fell off the last rung of the ladder-keeping the bucket upright, but almost ending my career in apiculture. After risking life and limb to reclaim my wild bees, I set them up as only a novice would: in a hive directly under the same tree, and they preferred the tree. I kept an eye on that hive all summer, gazing up longingly at the golden honey that could have been mine.
One day in July I happened to look out my window and saw a woman and child scream and run away from my house.When a bee finds a good source of food, she communicates with the other bees using a dance. My house had become the destination of just such a waggle. I was so excited that my bees were making honey that I had practiced extracting it one night and left a bucket of it in the garage. The bees found it. Our mail was not delivered for days. All we got was a single piece of junk mail with the word BEES scrawled across it. I tossed my first honey into the woods, and contemplated my new career choice once again.
I opened my hives every couple of weeks during the summer to add honey supers and check on my queens. The bee suit, a loose canvas ensemble, is never sexy but the heat added a new level of discomfort. One August day, I found no eggs in one of my hives. I decided to buy a fertilized queen for $25, because it was faster than the month it would take the bees to make their own. That night I was unable to release the queen into the hive, so I brought Her Majesty upstairs and put her on my nightstand. I was concerned that she would get too cold during the chilly New England night. Turning to my partner I said, "Bees regulate the temperature of their hive to 93 degrees, Honey. Can she come under the sheets with us?" He gave me a look of disbelief, and the bee slept on the nightstand. She was fine in the morning.
By Labor Day weekend, I was so immersed in the beekeeping process that I had lost sight of my end product. Honey is made from the nectar of flowers within a four-mile radius of the hive. Bees masticate the nectar; exposure to the air along with enzymes from the bee turns it into honey. This is collected in the comb, then they seal it over with wax for storage. The bees survive on honey in the winter. I had learned in Bee School that relieving the bees of their honey would make them mad, and I got a healthy dose of sting therapy while removing the supers. They say it is great for arthritis, but it made me itch for days.
My friends and family were impressed that there was honey in September as planned.We lugged the supers into my garage, each frame laden with 10 pounds of honey.With a heat knife we sliced down the length of the frame, uncapping each cell. I melted the cappings later, and made the beeswax into lip balm. We put 20 of these dripping frames in the extractor, which functions like a centrifuge. The honey splattered against the sides of the tank and glugged out a hole at the bottom. This crude honey contained all sorts of debris: dead bees, live bees, sticks and wax scraps.We filtered it twice to make the final product.
I was proud to produce 250 pounds of honey from 14 hives, although it is possible to extract up to 100 pounds per hive.This phase of my beekeeping venture brought new questions and concerns: names, logos, bottles, labels, product liability insurance and the biggest question of all:Who's going to buy all this honey? Good thing it never goes bad.
I stood in melting snow before a beehive, afraid to look inside. I had just fumbled and bumbled my way through a year of beekeeping, and had become attached to each hive. The survival rate for hives over winter in Massachusetts is low-I was told to expect 100% losses. A strong hive going into the winter has a better chance of survival, so I did all I could to prepare my bees for the cold. They keep warm by coming together in a cluster, shivering and rotating around the queen. The cluster gives off heat that could condense and fatally dampen a hive. I lined the top of the hive with newspaper to absorb this moisture. I left one full super of honey for food. But just in case, I reluctantly ordered 14 replacement bee packages.
Finally I lifted the lids of each beehive. Thirteen of my 14 colonies had survived the winter. I was about to call the apiary to cancel my bee order, but decided to expand my fledgling operation instead. My honey had sold out in two weeks, and I had made enough money to cover Bee School, gas to Bee School, my queen and the beer for the Labor Day harvest party.
I do not dream of amassing wealth through beekeeping. I get the satisfaction of working hard, making something from nothing and learning a traditional and increasingly popular trade. Plus, pollination helps the farm, and local honey can help people with allergies. With one or two hives, beekeeping can be a hands-off hobby with sweet rewards, despite the way it sounds here. If you get no honey, at the very least you will have great stories to tell.
The first step to becoming a beekeeper is to enroll in Bee School. There are two beekeeping associations that offer Bee School in the Boston area. Norfolk County Beekeepers Association (norfolkbees.org) had 25 students three years ago, and 97 this past year. The Essex County Beekeepers Association Bee School (www.essexcountybeekeepers.org ) frequently sells out, and now offers two sessions concurrently.
Wendy Mainardi is the founder of Allandale Honey Company. She is the CSA manager at Allandale Farm, located on the border of Boston and Brookline. She is the author of The Pick List, the CSA's weekly newsletter. Wendy can be reached through her website www.allandalehoneyco.com.
Cooking with Honey
Honey is the beekeeper’s rent, payment for providing an ideal home for the bee colony. This primitive sweetening,
This natural and highly complex product of bees can vary widely. The darker the color, the stronger the flavor. Most recipes don’t need a fine-quality honey and aren’t worth the expense, but a few do, such as the honey ice cream below. The best honey should be savored as is, with biscuits just out of the oven, say, or spread on nubbly wholegrain toast.
Using honey in the kitchen is different from using sugar, so the cook should keep several basic facts in mind. In substituting in recipes, know that honey is about 1¼ times sweeter than sugar and in liquid rather than solid form, so remember to compensate both ways. Because honey is so viscous, it’s hard to measure: Start with less and add more as needed, so not to over-sweeten. If honey crystallizes in the jar, gently heat the jar in hot water to return it to a liquid. The bees have already processed nectar into honey to preserve it for themselves in the hive. That chemistry keeps baked breads and pastries moist longer for us.