Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Beautiful baffling bee barf

by Jane Davis
Antiquity Oaks apprentice

I thought I had bees all figured out. I knew a little bit about their social structure, their lifecycle, and their care. I had gotten dressed up in a bee suit and taken peeks into their home. For some reason I assumed I was familiar with everything I cared to know about bees; I was happy just enjoying the fruits of their labors and appreciating them from afar.

When Mike announced that it was time to harvest the honey, I was intrigued but not overly zealous. Deborah seemed the most excited, which made sense considering she had stood by for a year and a half while the bees did their work. However, after much patience, the wait was finally over. Mike donned his bee-keeping outfit, slid on his helmet and gloves, and lit his smoker. We headed out, unsure what to expect. The two hives sit nestled back into a thicket of brush. Bees buzz lazily in and out of the hive and crawl around the entrance. With immense patience and placidity (and a little help from the smoker) Mike disassembled the first hive with little incident. To our great disappointment as soon as he lifted the lid we saw ants swarming and mingling with a few other mysterious bugs. We let the first hive be; simply hoping they will make it through the winter. While it was not a great start to the investigation, we were not disheartened knowing we still had a whole second hive to investigate.

As soon as Mike pulled the first frame out of the super we knew we had struck gold. Even the frames closest to the edges (the last to get filled) were bursting to the brim with honey. Happily, he continued to pull frames out, smoking and brushing bees off as he went. As Mike pulled frames out I became more and more captivated by the project. I was in awe that those little bees had created something so big. I was entirely fascinated by the process and would only become more so as the day wore on.

When Mike was done, he had pulled nine frames out of the top super –he left the last because it was not yet full. The hardest part was over, and Mike had braved only three stings. I was surprised by how tranquil the bees were considering we were taking the hard earned fruits of their labor. When we got everything inside (carefully checking for stragglers and hitchhikers first) we could only wait long enough for Mike to change before we dove into the next steps.

The first phase of the process was to remove the caps from the comb. Using a tool that was something along the lines of a cross between a spatula and a double sided, serrated knife and a little comb we separated as many caps as possible.

The frame was then put into a metal drum with a crank on the side that spins two frames at a time. This machine is great for two reasons. First, it saves the comb for the bees, creating less of an impact on their hive. Second, it does an astonishing job cleaning every last drop of honey out of the comb. When all the frames had been cleaned they were ready to be returned to the hive and filled again. As we were processing the honey I couldn’t help but become progressively more excited about bees. I was astonished. These teeny tiny creatures had built thousands of perfect little cells and filled it with their magical barf. How could insects make something that works as a disinfectant, a preservative, a sweetener, and an allergy aid? Nobody really understands everything about bees, which is part of the reason they are so intriguing.

The next step took a little more patience. The honey is poured through a set of three, progressively smaller strainers to trap all the little pieces of wax and any other impurities. We ended up having to let it sit overnight to allow all the honey to drain through. The honey was collected in a five gallon bucket and I was astonished by how much we had. With just a little work on our part and a lot of work on the bee’s part, we collected almost two and a half gallons of honey! This is especially astounding when you consider that each worker bee creates just 1/10th of a teaspoon of honey in her lifetime. For a first harvest I was very impressed by the results.

As I surveyed the finished product I realized I am beginning to understand the allure of bees. It’s simply dumbfounding that those little tiny insects, through an immense display of teamwork, can create something as gorgeous as honey. It’s easy to forget where honey in the store comes from. (Little plastic bears make it, right?) To stand at the window looking out at the hives where it was created, the plants that it was made from, and the bees that had worked so hard made me realize how precious honey really is. The process of gathering the honey was a fantastic reminder to be thankful for the hard work of the plants and the bees that made it.


Mary Ann said...

Loved this blog post, and I'm in awe of the bee's prowess, too!

Kelly said...

Neat post! Congrats on your first harvest! I want bees but my husband doesn't. I will eventually win that battle ☺

Deborah Niemann said...

Don't give up, Kelly! I was also the one who wanted bees, and I finally talked him into it. Okay, maybe I just ordered two hives and told him they were coming last year. :)

Michelle said...

That last photo is ART!


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