Honey Harvest

Just in time for a Happy, Sweet New Year!

The BeeMan sells his honey from his house in the New Hampshire woods in the White Mountains

For the BeeMan, 2012 was a very good year, one of his best ever in recent memory.

Spring came early this year to the White Mountains, with lots of sunshine, warm days, and early blossoming.  But then, in June, it rained almost non-stop and BeeMan thought his honey production would suffer, since bees crave hot, dry, warm sunny days for foraging, pollinating, and raising new broods in their hives. But the rain allowed for tremendous crop growth and lots of blossoms for the bees to pollinate – it was one of the best growing seasons ever in Maine – and then came the record-setting heat wave in July, and things once again started looking up.

BeeMan took a week’s vacation from his regular job at Lowe’s, but harvesting the honey from his 35 hives located on his land and on other people’s property (mine included) up to 15 miles away was no vacation.  He started at 7 a.m. every morning by driving his truck to the sites of his hives.  Wearing his bee jacket to avoid stings and toting his smoker to calm the bees, he opened the hives and removed most of the “supers,” the boxes containing frames of honeycomb filled with honey.

Dried leaves or grass are put into the smoker, and then lit. The smoke calms the bees when their hives must be tended, reducing the likelihood of getting stung.  You can see the smoke coming out of the top of the cone.

Bees at the top of the hive’s “super” (one of the boxes that has the frames full of honeycomb)

Each frame holds a sheet of honeycomb, from which the honey is extracted.

This is a close-up of a frame. You can see the remains of the honeycomb. The honey has already been extracted from this frame.

Each stacked wooden box weighed up to 50 lbs – a job that entails a lot of heavy lifting for a man well into his seventies and plagued with arthritis.  And each box had to be lifted a minimum of three times:  once from the hive, lugged tens of feet if the area where the hives were located was not vehicle-accessible, lifted onto his truck, and then shlepped from his truck to his Honey House where BeeMan would begin the honey extraction process.

This picture is of the BeeMan shlepping empty supers to the hive. But when they are full of honey, typically each box weighs 30 – 50 lbs.

After scraping the honeycomb from the supers, he puts the sticky, honey-filled combs into an electric extractor, which extracts the honey from the combs with centrifugal force.  From there the honey is put through two filters, to remove the occasional dead bee, or bee body parts like a stray wing or leg, from the honey.  BeeMan does not pasteurize his honey, since heating reduces the nutritional value of honey, so his honey is considered “raw filtered.”  Unfiltered honey, due to the unwanted bee parts, cannot be considered kosher, since we are not allowed to consume insects, intentionally or otherwise.

Here’s what honeycomb looks like fresh out of the super, still in its frame.

This comb-like tool punctures the honeycombs and allows the honey to seep out

Here are a stack of honeycomb-filled frames taken from the super. They are placed over a stainless steel trough. The honeycombs are roughly abraded with the tool, to help release the honey from the sealed combs.

Next a propane-heated scraper tool softens the honeycomb and peels it off the frame.

The honeycomb drops into the trough. Because the room temperature of the Honey House is sweltering, the honey drips and drains through the holes in the trough where it collects in a bucket below.  The waxy honeycomb itself is saved and used for bee feed, as well as made into hand cream. It can also be made into candles.

Sometimes a frame’s honeycomb will contain bee larvae, if it’s in the “brood box” section of the hive

I’m not sure if my technical terminology is correct, but I believe this bee larva is in the “pupa” stage of development

Next the honeycomb is dumped into this electric extractor, which has a powerful motor. Centrifugal force further separates the honey from the honeycomb. The honey drips into a bucket below, where it is double filtered to ensure no stray bee parts such as wings or legs get into the honey. The wax from the honeycomb is saved and used as bee feed, or as a hand cream ingredient. It can also be used to make candles.

Honey drips into a filtered bucket. Non-electric hand-cranked honey extractors are much cheaper and may be used by small-scale honey producers, but they take much more time and physical effort.

Honey’s viscosity is determined by temperature.  The warmer the temperature, the thinner the honey and better flow.  In order for the honey to be able to pass easily through the filters, it must be “thin.”  So the Honey House where the extraction and filtering takes place is sweltering!  It was at least 100 degrees inside when I went to learn about and photograph the extraction process.  BeeMan spends about 8 hours non-stop doing honey extraction, and loses about 5 lbs a day in water weight.  Call it the “Honey Diet” but I don’t recommend it!  By the time he retires for the night, he’s put in a 12- to 13-hour day, and he does this for an entire week.

Honey made from goldenrod is especially prized by apiarists.

The taste of the honey is determined by what the bees forage on – – apple or blueberry blossoms, goldenrod, clover, or wildflowers here in the White Mountains.  Bees usually forage about 2 miles from the hive, but they can travel as far as a 5-mile radius in search of pollen.  It takes them 5 – 8 minutes, traveling 30 – 40 mph, to reach their destination.  Since beekeepers cannot control where the bees forage, it is difficult to call any honey “organic.”  Although I do not use pesticides,  bees from the hives on my property could theoretically pollinate someone’s plants from their garden or farm where pesticides are used if they live within 5 miles of my home.  So if you see any honey labeled “organic,” you should react with skepticism.

Of his 35 hives spread over the White Mountains on both the New Hampshire and Maine sides,  bees from the hives on my property were “babies” and didn’t really produce enough honey to warrant extraction, but BeeMan said that by next year the colony should be built up enough to be a strong producer.  For next year, he wants to cut down 3 trees (oak, beech and birch) which produced too much shade over the hives (I gave BeeMan the okay to do so); bees are less active in shade.  To strengthen the smallest of my three hives so that it might better survive the winter, BeeMan left a “feed bucket” of honey-encrusted beeswax shavings that he extracted from other hives during his honey harvesting week, which he placed over the top of the hive.  It will take about 2 weeks for the bees to consume the feed, after which BeeMan will be back to replace the regular, sturdier top to the hive.

A feed bucket rests on a hole at the top of the hive. This will give young bees a nutritional boost to help them survive the winter ahead.

Three of his  hives on another person’s property were molested by a bear – – one hive was completely destroyed and two were damaged, but he was still able to extract a reduced amount of honey from those two hives after he shot and killed the bear. Skunks and raccoons can also molest and damage hives (he catches these critters in live traps and removes them to other areas).  In the end, he was able to harvest 1700 pounds of honey, or approximately 55 lbs of honey per hive! (The yield is more typically  30 – 40 lbs per hive.)  BeeMan sells his honey for $6 per pound or $23 for 5 lbs, so it’s a nice source of extra income for him.  He also uses the beeswax for a hand cream that he makes and sells. (He also grows all his own vegetables and keeps chickens for eggs and meat and is pretty much self-sufficient).

I am so glad I was able to offer our land as a “bee yard.”  With no investment on my part, I learned a lot about beekeeping without any of the travails.  And one thing I learned is that I do not want to get into beekeeping!  The initial investment in equipment is high –  – about $1000 for hives, frames, supers, smoker, bee suit, scrapers, and extractor, solar-powered electric fence, bees and queens.  Because I would do it on a very small scale, it would be difficult to recoup my investment.  I don’t think I’m up to lugging the heavy 30 – 50 lb. frames of honey from their boxes (called “supers.”)

And that’s if things go right.  A very hard winter can kill off a bee colony.  I’m not sure I’m ready to contend with trapping or killing bears, skunks and raccoons or the damage they can do with the resulting losses.  Disease and colony collapse might also strike.  I spoke to one unfortunate beekeeper who lives 30 miles away.  Last year he had an amazing and profitable harvest from 30 hives, so he set up an additional 50 hives for a total of 80 hives.  He imported good bee stock and queens from California.  Things started out okay, but when he checked at the beginning of summer, the hives weren’t producing so well and there weren’t as many bees as he had hoped.  When he returned 3 weeks later, almost all his bees were dead, victims of Colony Collapse Syndrome, a condition affecting bees worldwide but whose cause is unknown (although recent evidence points to pesticides as a possible villain).  He is now down to only 3 hives, and is too discouraged (and broke) to start over again.

Beekeeping, like most farming, agronomy, and the raising of livestock, takes knowledge, physical strength, courage and prayer.  Getting up close and personal to the growing process has given me a new-found respect and appreciation for farmers and faith, for the miracles of G-d’s creations and orderliness and chaos of His world, and the realization that the sometimes-high prices of local small farm products are not the result of greed, but compensation for the blood, sweat and tears involved in making an honest living, providing us with quality food on our table, so that we may live.

No small thing, indeed.

The lid on BeeMan’s 5lb bucket of honey. (Click to enlarge)

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