I didn’t think we’d get a honey crop this year. My bees swarmed three times (that I know of) and I’m sure several more times that I was blissfully ignorant of. Don’t they know they’re supposed to give their landlord (me) notice when they move out??? Of the three swarms I knew about I caught only one, thanks to a helpful iPhone video my husband sent me showing me which tree the swarm had landed in, and with the much appreciated assistance of my bee savvy neighbor Jeff who came over to help capture them.
What keeps me from getting an annually consistent honey crop? Well I could blame it on the weather. We’ve had some rainy summers and cold winters. I could also say it’s the Russian bees I keep, who do so love to swarm. But to be humbly honest, my lack of an annual honey crop may have more to do with my mediocrity as a beekeeper than factors like mother nature and the million year old instincts of Apis mellifera. Many beekeeping books write about how people get into beekeeping because they’re intrigued by bees, but leave the hobby after they’ve been overwhelmed by the honey. Eight years in and I’m still waiting to be overwhelmed by a honey crop. Despite the swarms, rain, hurricane, and loving neglect my bees have suffered through this summer I still had one hive that produced for me.
Ideally you harvest honey sometime before or during August in New England so that the bees still have time to store up enough goldenrod honey to see them through the winter. That is unless you’re a procrastinator like me. So it was in September that I put on a bee escape. The worker bees dutifully left the honey supers for a night so they could go down and nestle in the brood supers with the queen and larvae, but come the dawn when they went to return to their work of ripening honey they were confounded by the maize. One of the joys of beekeeping is using the bees own instincts (in this case the instinct to huddle up in the evenings with the brood and queen) against them. Sneaky, yet satisfying.
I borrowed an extractor from a guy in my beekeeper’s club, then waited for a day when the kids could help. Honey extracting is more fun to do with other people. In the past I’ve borrowed extractors that were so big you had to sit on them to keep them from dancing around the room. This extractor was a two framer which Shawn screwed to a couple of boards he had lying around. The set up allowed us to stand on the boards and hold the extractor in place while we whizzed the frames around and around letting centrifugal force draw the honey from the comb.
First we removed the cappings with a thin knife dipped in hot water. It slid right through the wax and exposed the ripened honey underneath. When bees collect nectar it is anywhere from 90-97% liquid. In order for nectar to turn into honey bees add some enzymes and amino acids from their bodies then “ripen” the nectar until the moisture content is 15-17%. The ripening process has two stages–an active stage and a passive stage. The active ripening occurs as the bees blow bubbles with the nectar, much like you would blow little bubbles of saliva with your mouth (babies are very good at spit bubbles, though they have a tendency to drool). After 30-50 minutes of bubble blowing the tiny drop of nectar is placed in a cell and other bees fan their wings to facilitate additional evaporation. This is the passive stage. Once the nectar has had enough moisture removed so that it will keep without spoiling the bees put a cap of beeswax on top (which is also created from nectar, but I’ll save that story for another day).
Then we place the uncapped frames two at at time into the extractor. Then comes the spinning. For a successful extraction you want to spin the frames as fast as you can. It reminds me a little of the tea cup rides at the New York State Fair my brother and I loved to go on because we could make the teacups whirl so fast you thought your head was going to snap off. The liquid honey is ejected out of the cells and onto the side wall of the extractor, where it then starts oozing down the walls and gathering in the bottom of the extracting tank. When we can’t spin any more frames because there is so much honey the spinner can’t move we open the gate and watch the honey glug out. I strain it through a couple of sieves to catch little bits of wax, propolis, and pollen which come off during the extraction. After the honey has had a few days to settle in the bucket it’s time to bottle it up.
This year’s crop tastes amazing. It’s a fragrant mix of nectars from within a two and a half mile radius of our house in Whately, which is why we usually call it Whately Wildflower. I wish I had more so I could share some, but we love honey in this house too much to give it all away.
Which brings me to my blog giveaway. I’m going to set aside two jars of honey to give to two of my readers who post a comment (are you listening family–this means you too!). All you have to do to qualify is leave a comment below. Tell me about your favorite recipe using honey. You can also write “count me in” or “I want to win” or something else to let me know you want to be entered into the giveaway. Your choice. You will have until midnight on Wednesday, September 28 to enter a comment. I will then randomly choose the two winners and notify them by email. Good luck everyone!