Thursday, July 21, 2011

Honey Harvest!

This field of winter cress came into bloom about two weeks before we started to harvest. It's several acres big and alive with bees. The day we took honey the bees were so concerned with flying here that they barely bothered us. A situation like this is called a honey run. July 2011 honey will contain winter cress, sumac, dandelion, fruit tree, catapula, basswood, and garden flowers. Since both bee yards have good access to Smith College there'll also be some gingko honey in there!

Priscilla gears up by clothes-pinning her pants shut. Beekeepers know something running down your legs is sweat, something running up is trouble.

Priscilla takes the first super of honey from me. A super is the box the bees put the honey in. A hive body is the box bees raise brood in. This box weighs about 40+ pounds. Note the lack of veils and gloves. The bees were really mellow throughout. We did put them on later but after disturbing all the hives in the yard the bees are bound to get a little testy.

Priscilla holds up a perfect frame of honey. This frame is so perfect we should have saved it for a county fair entry. That is what success looks like. A frame like this will only be drawn by a strong hive with good nectar foraging options.

Priscilla, Erin and I inspect a hive for removable frames with well-capped honey. Erin is our bee "intern". The relationship is pretty informal but Erin helps out around the bee yard learning about how to keep bees. She's a sustainable agriculture grad student at UMass and a Smith grad. She helped set up Smith College's community garden program. We're confident Erin will put her education to good use. She's super smart and fun to be around.

We use an herbal substance called Bee Quick to clear supers of bees. It was made by a company called Fisher's, and contains a blend of herbs that bees don't like to smell, so most move out of the super. It's sprayed on a board that is positioned above the hive and the bees just move down into the lower parts of the hive. A few stragglers are always left. Priscilla uses a leaf blower I had laying around to clear the rest of the bees off. It works amazingly well. The bees just get blown out of the top and don't even seem mad - maybe a bit confused. They just sail back to their hive. This is common practice but we had never used it before. I feel that it's less disruptive to the hive and way fewer bees are harmed than the older process where bees are brushed off each frame.

This little mini hive is called a nuc, short for nucleus Colony. It contains a queen and some workers and a little bit of brood. We use them as a back-up in case a hive goes queenless. The laying queen with consort is accepted quickly by the hives and things go back to normal quick. While we were working in the yard we looked into all the hives to see that things were going well.

The queen in this hive is from a USDA breeding program that uses stock from the Siberian region of Russia.

During the hot day we took several swims in the Mill River to cool off. Priscilla is seen here after harvest and before extracting, the process by which honey is removed from the comb. She's standing in front of the greenhouse we use as a honey house. The very warm temperatures in there help the honey flow out of combs and eventually into bottles with a minimum of trouble. I love the fact that it's surrounded by bee-friendly flowers.

Here is the final haul of supers stacked in the honey house. We left plenty of honey on the hives for the bees to use and they are still flying strongly to plants in the field. It's best practice to always leave enough honey for a hive to winter over successfully.

We started to process the honey after dark, so the bees would stay back in their hive. We tried to process during the day once before and it was like the house was under attack by bees. I guess that's because it was under attack by bees.

Priscilla cuts the caps off the honey so we can put it in the extractor to be spun out. She has a great touch with this. When done just right the cappings come off in roll like this. She uses a heated electric knife to do this. It's just warm to the touch, not hot.

The honey-containing frames are then spun in our Maxant extractor, made in Ayer MA. The spinning action slings the honey onto the inside of the extractor where it collects at the bottom and...

...finally pours out the bottom through a course strainer, and passes into the stainless steel bottling tank. All our equipment is stainless including the strainer. The strainer is course and frequently overflows so a lot of wax, pollen and propolis wind up in the honey. These are all safe and natural hive products. Pollen in honey is reputed to help with allergies and loaded with protein and amino acids. Propolis has a lot of medicinal properties including being an antibiotic capable of killing MRSA, the super bacteria found in hospitals. Our honey practically defines raw unfiltered.

We worked until 2 AM processing, as we didn't want to leave a lot of honey in the house to attract bees. We finally gave up and went home to bed.

We returned the next day to to bottle our liquid sunshine.

We placed the used equipment in the back of this field for the bees to clean off. They harvest a surprising amount of honey from the equipment.

The bees then cleaned out any honey spilled in the bed of our pickup.

And finally everyone went home and back to their regular jobs.

Saturday, July 16, 2011


My Mom, Philomena, paints all our bee keeping equipment. To say that my mom does a good job is a real understatement. She's over 80 years old but can outwork people of 1/4 her age. She's seen here in the backyard painting bee hives on the picnic table. My 85 year old dad sits to the left "supervising" her.

Most of our bee keeping equipment comes from an outfit called Brushy Mountain. It's a family-owned business with wood working shops in North Carolina and Pennsylvania. I guess we're just keeping on with the "family" theme here because my mom has painted well over 100 hive bodies.

She paints on primer and two coats of paint, sanding between coats for a perfect finish. The hives come out beautiful. It also ensures a very long life for every hive.

When we assemble the hives we use coated nails and also glue both surfaces of each joint. This makes the hives super strong.

We make sure every hive body is square using a tool called a speed square. When we have time we coat the mating surfaces of the hive with bees wax so they don't stick together.

The bees themselves finish the process coating the inner surfaces with a substance called propolis. It's made from the sap of the wounds of trees and plants. The trees secrete special substances to prevent from getting infected. It's been shown that hives with lots of propolis inside are healthier. The wood inside can have the look of a fine resin-coated antique.

In all when we think about sustainability we often think about where materials came from and the like. But it's important to also think about how long something will last. We try and buy the best, longest lasting equipment we can. We build it the best way we can and try and treat it well thereafter. I am confident many of the hive bodies we have will last into the next decade and I have special reason to want them to.

Quite apart from Yankee frugality, good business sense and sustainability my own mom helped me out by doing a wonderful job painting these hives. She's going great but at an age when her friends and family are starting to pass on, so it can be on my mind that she will too in a time not too far distant.

I am glad to have something that I can work work with that she's had her hand on. I'll think of her and my dad sitting in the back yard and all her crazy shims and methods for getting the paint just right.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Maxant 3100H

We recently purchased a Maxant 3100H extractor. An extractor is machine that spins combs of honey like a centrifuge. It separates the honey from the comb in a way that we can give it back to the bees so they don't have to build it all over again. For us, this single piece of equipment was a large expense.

We drove out to Ayer, MA to get it. We could have bought a similarly specified extractor for less elsewhere, but this one is made in Massachusetts. By this I don't mean it's assembled from parts in MA but it's made "whole cloth" right here in the greatest state in America. Let me point out that we have marriage equality and we also invented the truly public library. The American Revolution was born here and Aerosmith is from Boston. Really, what more can you ask for? It's important for us to support people with similar values to ours and to support businesses that deliver good lives for the families of their workers.

The drum of the extractor comes there as sheets and is bent and welded right in Ayer by third generation metal workers that get paid a living wage. The baskets that hold the frames are made in Worcester, even the nuts and bolts are sourced from American companies. The motor and motor control were foreign made, from England and Taiwan respectively but when we spoke the to the owner of Maxant he said he tried to source American components but couldn't find any parts domestically that would work as well.

As much as we are able to, we like to know that our money goes to people who are able to earn a decent wage and live a good life. The purchase of our Maxant extractor is one way of making sure that happens.

It was also important for us to meet the people that made our extractor. We now have a relationship with our supplier, which is something I cannot get from an online catalog. Yeah, so it would have been cheaper and easier not to drive to Ayer and just to have had a Chinese made extractor delivered to our door, but we didn't.

We don't ever plan to get huge and be some giant company. We just want to do what we enjoy doing, keeping bees healthy and productive and learning about the world in the process. Sometimes that means identifying flowers and sometimes that means driving to Ayer to meet the people that made something we need. I think this extractor is made better than the than most I have seen and I think it will handle our needs forever. So, for the rest of my life I can look at this piece of equipment and know I have done right by someone.

All our equipment is American made. Out hives are made either in Pennsylvania or Maine and out foundation and frames are made in California or here on the east coast. We recently switched to the California supplier of foundation, the wax the bees are given to start drawing comb on, because they used domestically sourced bees wax that tests as chemical free. We also feel the product is more durable and longer lasting.

Our glass jars come from Andler Packaging whose Springfield MA office has served generations of Pioneer Valley folks. Yes, the glass jars are American made. Do you get it yet? We're serious about this.

Whenever we can we choose American made, and the more local the better. I'm not a patriot, not in the sense of a flag waving, but we do believe that our money should flow to companies that support their workers. American Made helps us know that's true, but there's nothing like meeting people face to face to know we got it right.

Bye the way, it's also why we're proud that our honey is availble exclusively through River Valley Market.

Massachusetts, rock on.