Bees and Honey
The well furnished home food garden has always and still should include at least one hive of honeybees. But this is easier said than done, so learning that bees were part of Bill’s dowry may have been the thing that clinched the deal, back when we were courting. Fast forward 16 honeyed years: I’m writing a N.Y. Times bee story and in the course of research discover – who knew? – that this little insect may well be the canary in the agricultural coal mine.
Honeybees don’t get much press compared to, say, petroleum, but their pollination services are just as crucial as fuel and fertilizer to about 15 billion dollars a year in crops, from almonds and alfalfa to sunflower seeds. More bees are needed in each place than any one place could provide, so tens of thousands of hives get loaded on trucks, taken to fields or orchards in bloom, then packed up again and hauled elsewhere.
These migratory honeybees are essential to agribusiness monocropping, which could not exist if it had to depend on local pollinators. That’s why the bees have been getting their 15 minutes of fame* – a mysterious affliction called CCD ( colony collapse disorder) has destroyed so many colonies it’s threatening a major industry. Farmers are paying much higher prices for hive rental while also worrying there may be shortages that can’t be overcome, even with expensive imports.
More than you really want to know is posted, with running updates at beeculture.com, but the very short version is:
*CCD probably isn’t new; reports of similar, albeit far smaller, epidemics go back at least as far as 1898.
* CCD is almost surely not one disease or pest or insecticide but rather some unknown combo thereof that exploits the weakness of bees stressed by profoundly unnatural ways of being kept and used. No study has yet revealed a single insult that is/was the tipping point. Each time a likely culprit is fingered, further investigation confirms that it is at best only part of the puzzle.
* Domestic honeybees are livestock: living creatures raised and used by humans. What do we know about them compared to what we know about chickens and cows? Zilch. What are we likely to learn soon? Also zilch, in part because there is no massive bee industry to lobby for public funds or undertake its own research.
The internet allows posts like this to go on at enormous length, but that doesn’t mean they should, so here are a few visuals from our own
Home Grown Honey Harvest, October 7, 2007
Bill checks to see if there’s any honey in the frame ( a pre-built foundation for the bees to start from).
I always thought smoke made the bees think the hive was on fire, so they were too busy worrying about the house to sting anybody. Beekeepers just say it calms them, with the same result.
They don’t stay calm long; you have to extract the honey someplace they can’t get to, in this case the barn.
This is Bill’s honey extractor, a galvanized antique called the Root Novice. Modern extractors are steel or plastic and this is probably the place to say that honey is more or less self-sterilizing. It’s so sweet bacteria can’t grow in it and so low in water content yeasts won’t grow either. The reason you can’t give it to babies is that it can contain spores of anaerobic bacteria like botulism. The acid in all human digestive systems that process solid food prevents those spores from growing, but new people who still drink all their nourishment don’t have that protection.
After each cell is filled with honey, the bees cap it with a wax lid. You have to slice off the lids (with a wicked sharp, thin-bladed knife) before you can extract the honey.
Bees gather honey from one source at a time. If you want to name the honey for its source – check out the list at honeylocator.com – you have to harvest it before the bees move on. The dark patch looks sort of like buckwheat but I’m sure it’s not. Doesn’t matter, whatever it is will just add complexity to this year’s vintage.
Frames are held upright by arms in the extractor. Turn the crank and the arms whirl around, flinging the honey out by centrifugal force, same as in a salad spinner.
Honey isn’t the only thing that gets flung; the colander catches things like stray bits of wax and the occasional unfortunate bee that didn’t respond to the smoke.
After collection, the honey is poured into sterilized jars. Over the next couple of weeks, any tiny impurities rise and form a thin layer at the top. For gift-giving, we take the layer off. For us, we just leave it as an extra seal until we want to use the honey.
Before the equipment is washed and stored, it’s put outdoors for the bees to clean. They will retrieve almost all of the honey to add to their winter stores.
* Fifteen minutes seems to be about right. Bees are as gone from the headlines as they are from all those dead hives. Tune in next February for a brief flare-up, when almond orchards will need a surge from an army so grievously depleted it may not have enough troops.