Thursday, July 30, 2009

Harvesting Honey

There is no better hobby for isolate neighbors and going broke while doing it than Beekeeping. You need about 40 hives that you can take 10 frames full of honey from on a yearly basis, just to make the equivalent of a minimum wage paying job in a year. On the up side though, selling each jar at a rate of $5 each is about $10,000 for a single day's work. A full frame from a deep (as seen above, but it isn't full) can easily fill three 1lb jars.

On the down side, the moment you put a single beehive in your yard suddenly you'll find out who your friends are. People who have never been stung before will come forward claiming they're deadly allergic to bee stings! And they know this because they are not dead. Somehow what seems like 90% of the town next to me became allergic to bees over night. All it took was one person afraid of insects to petition the town into banning beekeeping.

True enough roughly 7 people in 1000 are born allergic to bees. That will never change for the course of their life. People with poor immune systems, usually meaning the young and the elderly, may also have an adverse reaction when stung by a bee. So you can develop an allergic reaction though you were not allergic before. A lot of beekeepers retire for this reason.

Thankfully honey bees, and bees in general, don't sting very often. You usually have to go well out of your way to get a bee sting. Probably the most common incident is when you step on some White Dutch Clover being worked by a bee, which proceeds to get pissed off. Other random stings come from people wearing something the bees don't like and consider offensive. Occasionally fabric softener is enough but beauty produces can also say the stinger of a bee. Usually you still need to be bothering the insect for this to happen though and the odor or substance merely sways the decision of sting or no sting.

So this women was trying to ban beekeeping a town over. And she nearly succeeded too. But then someone pointed out the fact that I live just 4 blocks down in the neighboring town an bees are known to travel 6 miles from the hive. So banning beekeeping in her town would only be a cosmetic tough. She seemed like an avid gardener too so I don't understand what she has against bees. This is a little off topic though.

I harvested honey a few days ago. Of four hives I was only able to take from two of them. You always try to leave the bees some excess honey and only when they have stores in the upper parts of the nest, away from the brood. Two of the hives just didn't have anything worth taking. I may harvest again at the end of August and see what's up then. In the picture above you see a medium sized frame which is way more manageable than a frame from a deep. I think it's called a shallow but the size for a medium frame has always confused me.

Here is a frame from a super, which is the smallest size. All of these frames are taken form the hives after the bees have been brushed off them. They were then brought into our kitchen where I had the Extractor, trays and pans all setup.

Each frame has to be uncapped. Some beekeepers use special heat knives but I don't think they're all that necessary. Controlling the heat is always an issue, and I never had any trouble using a regular kitchen knife.

Once uncapped they're put into the Honey Extractor. The one I have sells for $450 - $500. It holds 9 small or medium frames, or 3 large frames at a time. They're spun for about 15 minutes as fast as I can manage. And we pray the legs to the dinning room table don't break.

The honey flows out quickly as it all drains down to the bottom. It pours down into a strainer over a pan. This removes the majority of the wax. Everything that does get through is small enough that it doesn't really matter. People actually pay good money to buy the comb uncapped and chew on it raw. It is completely edible and still tastes like honey.

It's now able to be bottled. This process is repeated until every frame has been spun clean. This alone took the better half of the day.

As for the excess honey that spilled out when uncapping cells, that is strained through too but in a different way.

To prevent the strainer from clogging we use a wire cup (a simple pencil holder that is never used for holding pencils!) to catch most of the wax. Without this it would pool up in the clogged strainer below. This saves me a lot of time. The cup is emptied a number of times into a pan. Later we'll allow the bees outside to clean it off and the wax bits can be melted down into candles.

The end result is jars of honey. I sell these for $5 each and was able to fill 50 so far (not all are in the photo). They're all labeled with the year and as "Wildflower" Honey. The year helps people who don't use honey that often keep on top of their jars. Honey doesn't go bad but does ferment slowly. Usually long before fermenting though it crystallizes in the jar. Placing it in warm, not boiling, water will slowly melt it back into honey.

It's called Wildflower because I can't claim that 70% (I think) of the nectar all came from one plant, or plant family. Had the bees been working a farm of say Blueberries or Fire Weed, or Clover or Apple or something like that, it can be tested to see if 70% (I think) did in fact come from that crop. This is a good marketing way for a single beekeeper to sell "flavors" of honey. People like to have tastings of honey of all sorts. There are just as many factors with honey tasting as there are with fine wine. Wildflower is the default label for Honey in general, and there's nothing wrong with that. Depending on when you harvest wildflower honey the color, taste, and even smell of the end mix will be unique. This is sometimes good, and sometimes bad. Goldenrod Honey I've been told smells like a gym sock.

So this was a potential $250 pay check for me which is not bad for a day's work. The trouble now is selling it. usually I keep a few jars with me and sell to my coworkers neighbors, and various friends from all around. I always sell out every year but it does take time for this to happen.

The sales pitch is always a fun. I don't like to say "it helps with allergies," because there is absolutely no scientific proof that honey does anything one way or the other, but it's such a wide spread belief that I sort of nod to it. I just says something like "I do hear that a lot." Though I really don't think it's true at all. Yes, there are flakes of pollen in the honey, especially because there are partials of wax in it too. But why not just eat Pollen? It's sold in the herbal remedy area of your local drug store. Any sort of sneezing is usually attributed to a handful of plants blooming which is usually over after two weeks anyhow. I wonder how many head colds have gotten me a sale over the years.

The other thing that really sells it to people is telling them how to use it. Every time we grill pork chops we use regular spices and things that season the meat. The moment we harvest honey though, suddenly we're adding it to the mix. Take 1/3 to 1/2 of a 1lb jar and mix it in a bowl with whatever you like to season with. Mix it well and brush it on generously. Cook as normal and it will caramelize which gives it a real nice rich flavor. There are loads of recipes out there.

Honey is easily one of the most expensive "herbs" you can buy, and chefs pay good money to get something that wasn't imported from China. I always get compliments about how much better tasting the honey from my hives is compared to what's sold at most food stores.