I’ve been making the transition to Pennsylvania and to my new life here (I spoke of this transition in an earlier blog post). Sorry for the delay in a regular weekly post–I’m back on track now, and have many wonderful things to share with you in the coming weeks. Today I’m going to talk about bees and share photos of my first honey harvest.
I’ve now been a beekeeper for over a year, and I have begun to deeply resonate with the honeybee. Honeybees are the most amazing, gentle creatures–they make everything from the plants, are extremely hard working, and extremely fascinating.
One of the decisions I made, in my transition from my 3 acre homestead to small-town renting (renting until I find my new land) was to keep my two beehives. Moving two beehives across three states is no easy feat–it requires state inspections, paperwork, and a good friend with a truck willing to drive you there. It also requires overcoming some of your own fears. So in early May, a dear friend and I moved the bees–we move about 50,000 of them in two hives. They were moved to a friend’s farm in PA–an ideal spot, 70 acres, full of clover, flowers, and so much more. I’ve been regularly checking on them, and have been thrilled with their progress in their second year. Most new beekeepers don’t get any honey their first year, and certainly, my hives were no exception. But now in their second year, despite their 450 mile trip to their new home, the hives are strong and the nectar flow is steady. So in this post, I’ll talk a bit about my thoughts after a year of beekeeping and my experiences with the first honey harvest.
I’ve become very vigilant about the protection of bees. After seeing the magic of the hive, and visiting other hives who have not survived for various reasons, I’ve begun working to educate others about the bees–knowledge is power. So you can think about this in two ways: the choices that the beekeepers make and the choices that everyone else makes. Let’s start with the beekeepers.
Beekeepers are faced with a lot of choices and the “standard” approach advocated in many books is not the best–its very similar to the choices one faces with other kinds of farming or animal husbandry. You can farm industrially on a large scale with chemicals and destructive practices, or you can farm organically and holistically. You can keep chickens locked up in a building suffering, or you can let them free range to eat bugs. This is all a matter of choice. Beekeeping is the same way–you can engage in industrial beekeeping with plastic foundations (which the bees do not like) and add tons of chemicals to the hive to prevent various diseases and cart them all over the country to pollinate monocrops, or you can work in partnership with the bees using organic approaches and holistic systems design. Similarly, you can choose to harvest ALL the honey from a hive prior to the winter, letting your bees starve and installing a new package of bees in the spring–which brings you a ton of profit. Or, you can harvest only the excess honey and ensure that the bees make it through the winter unharmed. You can choose to kill the queen and put a new one in there the bees are not familiar with at the first sign of trouble (called re-queening) or you can let the bees raise their own queens. The list goes on and on.
I see beekeeping as a partnership–I wouldn’t do anything to them that I wouldn’t do for myself or to my land. This means no plastic in the hive, no chemicals in the hive, and ensuring that the hive health is the top priority (rather than my own desire for honey). I mainly use an approach advocated by Ross Conrad in his book called Natural Beekeeping: Organic Approaches to Modern Apiculture. I use this approach with a few modifications, including letting bees build their own comb for their hive bodies rather than giving them pre-stamped wax foundation–this allows them to build cells to fit their needs rather than build cells to fit a beekeeper’s desires. (This is why I take issue with the “flow hive” that everyone is talking about–its very beekeeper centric and not good for the bees themselves). The way that we treat the bees has energetic outcomes: as I’ve argued elsewhere about food, the better we can treat the land and those animals or insects helping to produce our food, the better we feel when we eat it. But more than that, the bees are such a wonderful blessing to the land–its important we treat them as sacred partners.
Protecting Bees more Broadly
The problems don’t just reside with the beekeeping practices. Bees, and other pollinating insects like Monarch Butterflies, are in serious trouble on a larger scale. Modern land use–from industrialized farming to maintenance of the lawn–are destroying habitats and exposing bees to destructive chemicals. At some point, I’ll break down these practices in more detail, but for now, suffice to say that pesticides (especially neonicatonids), chemicals, GMOs, all the nasty things so many of us who have a spiritual relationship with the land are trying to avoid–are destructive to the bee. When bees go out into the world foraging, they bring back to the hive whatever they pickup. Pesticides and chemicals build up in the hive over time, weakening the hive and eventually leading to a crash. I’ve seen this firsthand–dead hives of dead bees because of “mosquito spraying” in Michigan. Its a horrible sight. To add insult to injury, companies producing and marketing these pesticides have “greenwashing” sites that make it sound like they care about the bees: no Bayer and Monsanto, I’m not buying it.
There are so many things we could be doing differently with regards to our land use. I look at all the places unnecessarily mowed–I look at the swaths of green lawns and the chemicals used. Those could be instead planted with wildflowers and kept without chemicals (or fossil fuels). Keep the dandelions in the ground, plant other kinds of flowers and trees that produce abundance for all–there is a better way! Of course, companies who sell flowers are going to have to stop spraying them with neonicatonoid pesticides first :(. Its going to require a paradigm shift, but believe me, the bees–and everything else–are worth it!
Bees as Alchemists
Even with the challenges that we face regarding land use, beekeeping practices, and bee safety–there is so much to learn from the hive. Bees are truly spagyric alchemists, beginning with materials from plants: netcar, pollen, and resin, and making amazing things: beeswax, propolis, and honey. Bees begin making honey by foraging for nectar from whatever plants are blooming–they drink up the nectar and it goes into a special stomach where they add enzymes to begin to break down the complex sugars into simple ones. They bring this back to the hive, where it is further cured to reduce the water content and eventually capped into honey. One pound of honey requires approximately 100,000 visits to plants on the part of bees.
The wax comes forth literally from their own bodies. They have wax producing glands that create small wax flakes that they use to build comb. Since the wax also derives from honey, it has the same awesome smell. Even in my first year, I was surprised about how much wax I got from the hive–a lot of it was when they built comb somewhere that they shouldn’t have, or had built cross comb that I had to remove. I’m excited to process this wax and make candles, creams, soaps, and salves with it!
Propolis is “bee glue” and is collected by the bees from plants. Its essentially plant resins, and forms a sticky glue where the bees need to seal something up. It has incredible medicinal qualities, including as a contact antimicrobial and great for surface issues, like burns. I took a whole class just on the medicinal uses of propolis–its incredible stuff.
Bees are also masters of sacred geometry, producing a lattice of hexagrams. The Beelore blog has a nice discussion of some of the other geometric connections to bees.
Visiting the Hive
When you up the hive, the first thing that greets you is the amazing smell–its hard to explain what it smells like, but its kind of a combination of propolis, beeswax, honey, and something else–maybe the bees themselves. Its rich. Then you hear the hive– hive has a very low buzzing as the bees go about their work; if you disturb them too much the buzzing increases in volume as the bees buzz louder to sound the alarm. They also buzz louder to fan the hive on a hot day and help regulate the temperature.
I am amazed by how gentle the bees are. If you are a careful beekeeper, you can open up the hive and look at the bees and they are quite calm and happy. I don’t smoke my bees, even though most books suggest to do so–I find it just fires them up and I’d rather work with a calm hive. I still have yet to be stung–and if I’m stung, its not due to aggression on the part of the hive but due to my own stupidity.
My First Honey Harvest
A visit to the two hives yesterday revealed that the hives are doing tremendously well. They have a full hive of honey and brood, and the “supers,” which are the excess honey stores that we can harvest from, are about half full of honey and wax. While much of the honey not yet ready to harvest (it is not yet cured, which is necessary for long-term storage), we were able to harvest a few frames from the early spring nectar flows. These frames were a beautiful, light colored and flavored spring honey consisting mostly of autumn olive and honeysuckle. Here we are at the hives:
We gently brushed the bees off the comb and replaced it with new frames for them to build.
Straining the Honey
We were left with five beautiful frames of honey, the best we had ever tasted:
Because honey extractor equipment can run upwards of $700 or more (and depends primarily on plastic foundation we would rather avoid in our hives), we opted for the “crush and strain” approach, which is an old and effective method that yields wax and honey. To do this, we used Joe Lydeck’s instructions on Youtube for a simple crush and strain bucket (the second version in his video). This cost about $30 total and was super easy to construct.
Here we begin by cutting the comb off of the frames. The smell is amazing, the sticky and gooey honey comes right off the comb.
Next, we cut some of it up for comb honey. We also added some comb honey to the jars for our strained honey so that the jar would have a bit of honeycomb in the middle–I saw this kind of presentation in an upscale shop, and thought that we could do it with our own honey.
After cutting up the comb, the fun part begins–crushing! You can use different methods for crushing (most use a potato masher, which we couldn’t find). So we opted for crushing it with our clean hands. This was a lot of sticky, gooey fun!
After crushing it up and keeping what comb we wanted, we put the bucket out in the sun for a few hours. This helped warm the honey up so that it would extract from the crushed up comb a bit more easily. After we put it out in the sun for a while, I lifted up the bucket to see what was going on–here is the honey dripping out freely into the lower bottling bucket!
After the wait, we strained the last of the honey and ended up with about 20 lbs of honey–which was incredible given we only had five frames. At this point, we began to bottle. We used sterilized mason jars and other assorted fun jars for the honey. As I mentioned before, we added honeycomb to the center of some jars, and other jars just were straight honey–you can see this in the photo below.
We bottled up the honey and were so pleased with the harvest! I have to make some nice labels for the jars still, but look at all that honey!
The best part about all of this work is that the equipment needs to be licked clean!