by Jamie S.
This spring my significant other and I took a beekeeping class at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia.
Concurrent with the beginning of the class, we bought two packages of bees from a huge south Georgia apiary that shall remain nameless. Early on, we could tell something was amiss. It was peak nectar flow, and the hives were surrounded by blackberry and tulip poplar blossoms; yet we never saw the bees outside the hive. They languished, drinking copious amounts of the sugar water we fed them, yet failing to draw out any comb or (in the case of the queens) lay any eggs. So of course, when the bees came to the end of their natural lifespans--about 40 days--there were none to replace them. Whammo, we were out of business.
But we kept taking the class, and eventually we bought a nuc (sort of a "starter hive" of bees with honeycomb and brood) from our instructor. The new bees are unlike the old ones in pretty much every way. Their queen came from a captured feral hive, and all her followers are excellent foragers. They take practically no sugar water. I see them everywhere. I was going to cut down the six-foot-tall bolted collard plants in my garden until I realized the bees were drinking nectar from them. Most recently, I've seen the bees on the broad-leafed plantains in the yard. Mental note: Put off mowing a little longer.
The new bees are also mean as hell. Perhaps they thrive so well because they are so defensive? We may never know, but we're willing to go with whatever works.
So now we have a modicum of confidence. There is a good possibility that next year we will be harvesting honey of our own...which was, of course, the entire point of this exercise. Certainly we're not in it for the funny clothing, although the "space suits" do have a gratifying effect on passersby.
May 27 was our class's honey extraction workshop. We gathered together, exchanged news on our respective hives, and watched as our instructor showed us how to melt beeswax in a slow cooker and how to use the slow cooker to clarify honey that has solidified. These were just preliminaries--not really the reason we were there--although I confess I am excited about making our own candles.
Then the instructor showed us a box of honey-filled frames he'd stolen from one of his hives. How, you ask? Basically, you install a one-way door just below the box of frames you'd like to steal. Over the course of a day, bees leave in the course of their normal business. But none of them can get back in. It's yours for the taking.
The instructor demonstrated how to use an electric heated knife to cut the caps off the honeycomb. I should have gotten a photo, but I was distracted by my enthusiasm to participate. We all got in line and tried our hand at it. It's not hard, and as you can imagine, it smells amazingly good. The beeswax that you cut off goes into a bin with a wire rack in it, and any honey that comes off with it dribbles through. You can collect it from the bottom, filter it, and bottle it with all your other honey.
Then we all loaded our uncapped frames into an extractor (shown), and the instructor started turning the crank. It worked like a giant salad spinner, using centrifugal force to propel the honey out of the comb and onto the inner walls of the cylinder. Then it slowly dripped down and began coursing out of the spout into a bucket with a filter screen. We had nine frames, and they produced between two and three gallons--that's GALLONS--of honey.
It was at this point that we realized why we had been provided with bread and peanut butter. Can any pleasure equal that of eating brand-new, fragrant, un-tampered-with honey straight from the comb?
I won't pretend that beekeeping is all honey and no sting. From what I can tell so far, it's tricky and expensive to get started, and there's a lot of work involved. Sometimes inexplicable disasters happen; other times, explicable ones happen despite your best efforts to prevent them. But the rewards are so great. The bees pollinate your fruit trees and flowers, and they distill out the sweetness of your very own land so that you can drink it.
That's why I am so glad we have done this. I would recommend it to anyone. But if you can't manage it yourself, think about buying honey from the closest-by producer you can find. Then you, too, can know the taste of the flowers in your own neighborhood.
Jamie S. lives in rural Georgia and writes 10 Signs Like This, a blog that's part gardening journal, part cookbook, part sustainable lifestyle, and part short attention span.