One of the farming operations we undertook at Peeper Pond Farm was raising honey bees (as discussed in many earlier posts). We acquired two colonies, one of Italian bees and another of Carniolans. We placed our hives at the far end of our small fruit tree orchard so that our bees could pollinate the apple and peach trees we planted there as they collected pollen to produce honey. Bees typically begin harvesting pollen for the coming winter when daytime temperatures warm into the mid 50’s and 60’s and the spring wildflowers and trees begin to bloom. They collect pollen from the blooms, return it to their hive, convert it into honey, and store it in beeswax hive cells they have built and sealed for safe storage with a ‘cap.’ The honey they harvest during the spring and summer months will feed the colony during the long, cold, lifeless winter months.
We managed our two bee colonies for a little over a year and a half, until our bees were suddenly killed off in December 2017 by varroa mites that had invaded the hives. Varroa mites are tiny parasites that enter the hive via a host bee, then migrate into a brood cell when the host bee feeds its larvae. They then feed on the infected larvae as it matures and gradually spread through the hive when they emerge. They are one of many pests imported into America from Asia around 1960—a virtually unpreventable consequence (given the wide array of potential pests and diseases) of global trade. They are deadly to the bees and very difficult to exterminate. While there are a number of treatments that bee farmers can use, they tend to be quite expensive and they all pose some risk to the bees, which are very sensitive to chemicals and aggressive treatments. Many other bee farms throughout our Potomac Highlands region fell victim to varroa mites last winter, perhaps because of the prior warmer winter that allowed the mites to thrive. Although we could have rebuilt our hives this spring, we chose to wait for a year to see how the other bee farmers fared over the coming winter. It would be a major expense for us (living on a fixed retirement income) to order new bee colonies and the necessary varroa mite treatment, so we wanted to observe the larger bee farms and their treatment success before reinvesting. Besides, waiting for a year to rebuild our hives will allow the mites to die off naturally.
This is the time of the season, when the spring and early summer blooms have expired, that bee farmers (known in the industry as Apiarists) harvest excess honey the bees have stored in their hives. Harvesting honey from the top supers (boxes) in a hive (honey supers) during this period allows the bees to replenish their winter food stores from the pollen produced by late summer blooms, including goldenrod, wing stem, and Queen Anne’s lace. We had hoped to obtain our first honey harvest this month, but our run of bad luck during 2017 left us without both our dairy and honey operations. Instead, we used our time to help our nearby friends and neighbors, Jim and Donna Boyd, as they harvested honey from their rebuilt hives. Only a couple of their original colonies managed to survive the varroa mite onslaught, so honey production for them was very light this season.
Jim and Donna own and operate Middle Mountain Apiary from their home near the summit of Middle Mountain and a commercial building they own on South Mill Creek Road in Petersburg. Jim is an experienced Apiarist who sells bee farming equipment in addition to raising about 25 hives of bees. We bought our colonies and most of our own equipment from him in 2016, and he taught me most of what I have learned about raising bees. So, when Jim invited Barb and me (along with some of their other friends) to help him with his honey extraction again this season, we eagerly agreed.
When we arrived yesterday (July 22) at their beautiful Middle Mountain home, they had already removed all of the honey supers they could harvest from their rebuilt colonies this year. Although they harvested between 15 and 20 supers last year, their new hives produced only about 5 supers this season. Even within the honey supers they were able to harvest, many of the frames were only partially filled with honey. It was a very poor harvest for him, even though we had abundant rainfall and decent blooms.
The first step in the harvesting process is to remove the frames, one by one, from each super (a rectangular box frame in which the individual frames are hung) and remove the white beeswax storage ‘caps’ the bees created to seal each cell once they were filled with honey. This is done by holding each frame over a large bucket or container and scraping along the sides of the frame to remove the caps. The caps can be opened or removed using either a simple carving knife, a capping scratcher with a row of sharp prongs or an electrically heated knife. The beeswax caps are collected on a mesh screen in the container that allows any honey incidentally removed with the caps to drain off the scrapings and into the container to be recovered later. The caps can eventually be used to make beeswax candles.
Once all the honey cells on both sides of a frame are fully opened, the frame is placed into the cylindrical drum of an extractor. When the extractor drum is loaded with frames, it is sealed and rotated, either by a hand rank (as our own extractor is designed) or by an electric motor (as Jim’s larger commercial extractor is designed). The centrifugal force created by the rotating extractor drum removes the honey from the cells onto the sides of the drum, where it gradually drains to the bottom.
The emptied frames are then removed from the extractor and the honey drained into a bucket, where it is further strained to remove any debris. The honey is then stored in jars for sale or consumption. The beeswax scrapings can be heated so that the pure wax can be removed and used to make candles and other useful items. This is how candles and honey (a natural cooking sweetener) were made by all of our early ancestors. The honey you buy in a store is manufactured by the same general process, only at an industrial scale by larger machines.
Hopefully, in some future year, we can bring a couple of bee colonies back to Peeper Pond Farm. Harvesting honey in this way is a time-honored practice and an essential and integral component of our desired educational homesteading operation. Raising bees has been made very difficult these days, due to increased pesticide use and the introduction of pests and diseases from other continents through global trade. You must always bear in mind that both of these contamination sources must be addressed in order to encourage the healthy recovery of honey bees. It is the cumulative growth of these threats that causes colony collapse, not just one or the other. Simply encouraging people to raise bees or plant more pollinators may be a good thing, but it won’t ensure bee survival. Those approaches only treat the symptom, not the root causes.
The situation that bees face today is one of many unintended consequences of our modern, complex, global economy that I feel best illustrates the intrinsic benefits of our traditional lifestyle skills and folkways. We may need our massive global economy, technology, and industrial complex to sustain and fuel our exponential population growth, but if by satisfying that growth-induced need we ultimately destroy the environment that supports us, we will eventually cause our own extinction. That will be the hardest final lesson we will all inevitably learn.