Saturday, August 27, 2011

Little honey harvest

Locally-queened hive at set-up
We have three hives going this year, two that we purchased as packages from Beekind in Sebastopol, another that is the result of a swarm taken at our friend Rebecca's house. The purchased packages (which means we bought a little box with a queen + 10,000 workers in it) had different queens: one was Italian, the other Local, reared in Sebastopol.  Who knows what kind of queen the swarm bees have -- all we know is they are some ornery bitches, dark and short-tempered.

This is our third year of beekeeping and probably our best yet.  In 2009, when we started, we bought one package and caught two swarms, one of which landed in our apple tree on Mother's Day.  To see our keystone cops-style antics to catch this enormous swarm when we only have maybe two weeks of experience under our belts, click here.  The second swarm was much smaller, and didn't survive the turn into winter, leaving a full box of honey.   The package bees survived the winter, as did Swarm 1.  We were learning, bumbling along, making mistakes, getting stung and learning, and feeling pretty good about our survival rate, all things considered.

We came into 2010 with those two hives, then both queens perished simultaneously in July -- when the hives had been going strong til then.  We think they were victims of the poisoning of a wild hive two doors over.  Because the queens had died and we didn't catch it soon enough, some of the workers had already deludedly decided that they were queens, laying drone eggs.  Any effort to introduce a true queen at that point would have ended in murder and failure.  So we were stuck with watching their populations slowly dwindle and die.  We had no choice but to let it go and wait til spring to start again.

The point of all of this is to say that to date, we have never had an actual honey harvest.  OK, in fall of 2009 when Swarm 2 died off and left us a box of honey, we did crush the comb, strain and bottle the honey.  But it wasn't a managed, sustainable harvest, you know?  It was just making lemonade out of lemons.  

This weekend, though, we managed, finally, to have a harvest, albeit a little one.  Which felt really good.  

On Friday Joe pulled three full frames of capped honey off our most successful hive -- interestingly, the hive with the Locally-reared queen -- replacing them with three empty frames with beeswax foundation.  He left plenty-plenty of honey stores in the hive and, by taking off frames, ensured that the bees have space and don't decide that abundance = time to split.  Sadly, I was unable to participate in that particular operation, since I was chained to a spreadsheet at work until 6 yesterday afternoon.  :(

Leaving us with three frames of honey to process. Here is just one of those frames, weighing in at between 5-6 pounds.

We used a very old-school harvest technique that consists of breaking the comb out of the frame into a nylon sieve placed in a special 5-gallon bucket with a tap and shut-off valve. Here's that same frame about to be crushed into the waiting bucket.

I don't have photos of the actual crush so you'll just have to imagine Joe and me sitting in the garage on little folding metal chairs left over from when The Kid was really a kid, knees wide and scootched up as close to the harvest bucket as possible, while we crushed comb and honey between our fingers into as uniform a mash as possible.  It's a super-gooey experience, drippy, honey to your elbows, honey on whatever clothes you're wearing, honey on the floor, honey in your hair.

And naturally, into your mouth, in as sanitary a fashion as possible, always conscious that the product of this harvest will feed us and others.  It never ceases to taste miraculous, but I think I like it best when it's closest to its origin, when it's still mixed with wax, still recognizable as the work of our bees, little alchemists transmuting flowers into liquid gold.

Once the crush was done, then Joe squeezed and squeezed the nylon sieve, honey pouring out.  Right now the ball of wax and honey is sitting atop the bucket, the remaining honey draining out slowly.  We think those three frames will yield a neat gallon of honey.  

Sometime tomorrow we'll check again as the day warms up, and see where things stand.  And then open the tap and start filling bottles!  Yay!!  

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