Photo courtesy of Kamil Porembinski.
Editor’s Note: We’ve gone on a search-and-rescue mission to find amazing stories and essays published in earlier print editions of Rootstock. Today’s throwback, “The Bees” was written by David Kline for the Fall 2007 edition of Rootstock.
I had a pleasant surprise the other week. I opened the bee hive and discovered every frame filled to the edges with clover and locust blossom honey. Likewise, the brood chamber frames were overflowing with young bees—from eggs to sealed brood—an indication of an excellent queen along with plenty of pollen and nectar. Amid all the bad news on disappearing bees worldwide, I was hesitant to check the bees in fear of what I would find. With joy I gave the bees another super of drawn comb to fill with clover nectar.
Because of the early summer drought, we grazed all of our second cutting hay and I had some time on my hands. So the following week I set up the archaic two-frame A. I. Root honey extractor in the basement, fired up the capping melter, and set out to steal the two supers of honey from the bees. Stuffing the bee smoker with baler twine and lighting it, I cracked the hive lid and gave the bees a few puffs of sisal smoke. Waiting a few moments for the bees to move lower into the hive, I removed the cover and inner cover and to my amazement found the bees had already filled the new super with 30 pounds of white clover honey. All in a week’s time!
While I “manage” the honeybees to work for us, they still are not domesticated and remain wild animals. (Our Jersey bull sometimes pretends he’s a wild animal, but he’s not). When the bees bring the nectar into the hive it is too high in water content to be honey. The bees then have to evaporate the moisture from the nectar to turn it into honey. This is done by a number of bees, maybe a hundred, fanning their wings at 250 beats per second at the hive entrance, which forces air up through the frames and the nectar becomes honey.
But honey is more than nectar alone. The naturalist John Burroughs wrote in Wake-robin in 1895, “Most persons think the bee gets honey from the flowers, but she does not: honey is a product of the bee; it is nectar of the flowers with the bee added. What the bee gets from the flower is sweet water; this she puts through a process of her own and imparts to it her quality; she reduces the water and adds to it a minute drop of formic acid. It is this drop of herself that gives the delicious sting to her sweet. The bee is therefore the type of the poet, the true artist. Her product always reflects her environment, and it reflects something her environment knows not of. We taste the clover, the thyme, the linden, the sumac, and we also taste something that has its source in none of these flowers.”
Once the honey is “right,” the hive bees cap and seal it with wax.
The Pedigree of Honey
Does not concern the Bee–
A Clover, any time, to him,
– Emily Dickinson
Now instead of two supers, my daughter Ann and I spun out three supers and eight gallons of likely the finest honey I’ve seen in my 30-some years of keeping honeybees. I do know that I have never extracted fresher honey—from nectar to table in eight days. The nice part is that we now have eight gallons of food that will never spoil using almost no fossil fuel—perhaps a pint of camping gas in the old Coleman camp stove to heat the water in the capping melter. The Coleman I picked up free from the no-sale wagon following the spring Mt. Hope Machinery Auction. Renita usually charges a dollar for those unsold items, but in her kindness she gave me the heater. I will give her honey in exchange. My wife will use the beeswax from the cappings to make Christmas candles for the family and the faint aroma of the bee and summer will linger all the way through the holiday season.
I returned the three extracted supers to the hive giving what I hoped was ample space for honey storage for the next six weeks, or until the fall honey flow. The fall honey from goldenrod and aster tends to be dark and of a stronger flavor. The bees don’t mind eating that honey during the cold months. Yesterday Joseph the bee inspector stopped to check the colony for foulbrood, mites, hive beetles, or problems bees encounter. He told me that the bees are in excellent condition. He added that the top super is already filled with new honey and that the queen is doing her job too well and has moved into the other two honey supers and is filling them with brood.
That means I have to smoke her down into the brood chambers and place a queen excluder between her and the honey supers. The bees would eventually force her down and fill the frames, after the brood has hatched, with fall honey. I don’t want to wait for that and miss all the white clover honey. The good queen in the hive, along with several frames of sealed brood and honey, was brought to me by Joseph a year ago when he inspected our colony and found them queenless. The bees had swarmed and apparently something happened to the young queen. A colony of bees without a queen is doomed.
For $75 Joseph rescued our colony. A bargain. He told me the other day that the queen was from a wild swarm. For many centuries beekeepers thought the queen was king of the colony. It wasn’t until the 1600s that it was discovered the “king” had ovaries and is the mother of all the bees. So thanks to the queen and her court, we have honey and, because of their pollination efforts, Macintosh apple sauce for the winter months.
Few things can compare with a piece of fresh wheat bread still warm from the oven spread with Organic Valley butter and covered with white clover honey dripping off the sides. What I then like to add is a slice of sun-ripened tomato zaftig with the goodness of summer, a touch of salt, and I’ve got a feast that the upscale New York eateries have a tough time to match.