HONEY EXTRACTION ROUND #1
We recently extracted honey from the farm’s two hives for the first time. Honey extraction can be a messy and complicated process – everything ends up sticky, literally everything. But more than that, the most challenging aspect stems from the fact that us farmers aren’t the ones who did the hard work to make that gorgeous golden liquid, the bees did. Sure, as beekeepers we periodically check on the hives, give them more room to grow when they need it, keep key diseases and pests in check – but the bees do 99.99% of the work.
In order for a hive to make 1 pound of honey, the bees need to tap approximately 2 million flowers, clocking in approximately 80,117km (that’s the equivalent to flying around the circumference of the earth…twice) to do so (http://honeycouncil.ca/archive/chc_poundofhoney.php). Fortunately for us beekeepers, the European honeybees are veracious producers, and a healthy hive can produce well above their own needs for winter stores. Bees depend entirely on honey stores to make it through the winter.
During the winter, the queen will stop laying and the hive will turn its intentions from growing and reproducing, to surviving the cold. In order to do so, the bees will form a moving ball of bees within the walls of the hive, and they will vibrate their bodies and wings in order to generate warmth. This allows them to keep the internal temperature of the hive up and to keep the queen warm enough to survive until spring when she can begin making more baby bees. In order to do this, they need energy, and that energy comes from honey. If a beekeeper leaves a hive without sufficient stores to survive the winter, it spells collapse for the colony. There are options for providing additional stores for your bees, should they start running low, namely feeding them sugar syrups, but I personally see this as a last resort and a sign that as a beekeeper have made a miscalculation – we all know that refined sugar dissolved in water is a far cry from the super-food that is honey. In our climate, a healthy hive needs anywhere from 75 to 100lb of honey to make it to spring. When beekeepers choose to extract from a hive, it is our responsibility to be sure that we aren’t taking more than is sustainable for the colony, leaving them enough honey to survive the winter.
So, once assessing that our bees are superstars and had produced much more honey than they would need, we decided to harvest some for ourselves. We keep our bees in Langstroth hives – these basically consist of wooden, stackable boxes each containing 10 frames. Our frames consist of a wooden rectangle surrounding a plastic, wax-coated base on which the bees build their comb. When extracting, we select frames from the hive that only contain capped honey and no brood (baby bees in the making), we check each frame to ensure the queen isn’t hanging out on it (the last thing any beekeeper wants to do is injure their queen). We then remove all the bees by tapping the frame on the hive box, knocking them off and into the rest of the hive, any that manage to hold on can then be gently brushed off with a tool called a bee brush (it resembles a handheld broom with very soft bristles). After the bees have been removed and we’ve taken the selected frames to a bee-free location, we use an uncapping tool (resembles a fork but with a couple dozen prongs) to scratch open the wax caps the bees have placed on the honey to store it for winter. Next, we place our frames, two at a time, into a hand-cranked extractor – this machine spins the frames around and around slowly pulling the honey out of the comb, down the sides of its stainless-steel walls and into the drum below. From there it can be drained into buckets, filtered (to remove bits of wax and other debris from the hive) and put into jars for future use.
As a farmer, the harvest is always my favourite part of the job because it’s when I get to see all of the fruits of my labour – it’s what makes the long days, early mornings and endless weeding worth it. It makes me feel grateful for the work I do, and that I get to spend my days helping nature work miracles to turn tiny seeds into beautiful tomatoes, squash and peppers. But the honey harvest is something next level awe-inspiring. I spend countless hours in my week just observing the bees, I love squatting down near their hives and watching them come and go, their little legs packed with pollen and stomachs full of nectar, and I love seeing them all over the flowers we’ve planted all over the farm – I find it difficult to walk by them without pausing. It astonishes me how hard they work and how ceaseless it all seems, and it’s all in the pursuit of honey. An abundance of honey tells me that I have done my job in helping to keep the colonies healthy and in providing them enough forage to supplement what can be found around us, and more importantly, that our bees and the farm-ecosystem in which they exist are healthy and thriving.
– Victoria Denney