BEEKEEPING IN THE NORTHEAST - An account of my beekeeping, not a treatise of expertise, but for friends & family who wish to keep bees vicariously through me, and for the occasional apiarist passer-by.

Monday, September 13, 2021

Raw Honey Always at Work

Fresh wildflower honey from Sandwich
Creamed wildflower, Spring Locust,
Summer crystalized wildflower
Although there are many tutorials on honey out there because it truly is a complex and varied substance, to answer some questions about raw honey from a beekeeper's perspective I've taken some photos and will try and share a little detail about what happens this time of year and why the honey you buy from one beekeeper in your neighborhood looks different from honey at another farm stand. 

It is remarkably hard keeping this simple so leaving out the many ways honey can be processed or bottled by the beekeeper, let's just look at the real "rawness" of honey gathered by honey bees in a given area:

Honey is Made with Flowers by Bees:

Honey is made by the bees. You can squeeze some kinds of flowers and taste the same sweet nectar that bees shop for, but nectar is not honey. A wide variety of trees and plants produce flowers bees love and in our area we have a VERY wide variety of trees and plants.

Honey Bees have a little biological factory in their bodies that take that nectar, inject it with enzymes from their bodies, and then they physically process it in beeswax combs back at the beehive in order to evaporate the moisture out down to about 16-18%. To keep it from absorbing more moisture and undoing their hard work, they cap it off.

Summer wildflower & Fall wildflower honey
Beekeepers strain out the large crystals
keeping the honey in a cool place to let it
"cream" or thicken with fine crystals.
(sometimes turns white from high glucose content)
Raw Honey is Hygroscopic

That means it wants to absorb moisture. If the bees did not cap the honey, it would ferment and although humans can enjoy eating fermented honey, bees can die if fed fermented honey. Always keep the lid tight on your honey purchase to keep it liquid the longest. 

Beekeepers never feed back frames of honey that are uncapped unless it is from a very fresh harvest and still maintains a low percentage of moisture. Beekeepers use a simple tool called a refractometer to help them know honey is safe for bees, for sale, or fermented for other uses like cooking or making mead.

Raw Honey is Constantly at Work

The bees enzymes are constantly at work converting moisture encountered within the honey into a chemical familiar to most of us as hydrogen peroxide. That is what gives honey its naturally antiseptic qualities. That constant activity of managing moisture is what has made it such a valuable medicine over the course of human history. It is also what leads to honey becoming thick and crystalized over time.

Different Flower Nectars Crystalize in Different Ways

When the moisture is converted it leaves behind various sizes of crystals depending on the glucose content of the original nectar. We just don't know every single flower blossom the bees are gathering that nectar from but in my experience flowering trees and plants growing around Tamworth and Sandwich produce nectars that result in very different kinds of honey once the bees have processed it. Some crystalize by the end of summer, some take a year or more to crystalize. The glucose content in crystalized honey can make it appear almost white when the bees enzymes have had their way with it.

Raw Honey Varieties at Farmers' Markets

Strained vs Crystalized
Creamed honey is a favorite offering this time of year by beekeepers. It is simply raw honey that has the largest crystals strained out of it and then left to thicken with the fine. Results vary but often you end up with a pale beige or a white, thick, smooth, creamy honey. Sometimes beekeepers whip creamed honey and you might see it called different things, but basically it is all raw honey unless...

Heating Honey

Many instructions for creamed honey exist that tell the beekeeper to save their harvest for customers that do not understand crystallization by melting the big chunk crystals with heat. Honey is not considered raw if heated because depending on the temperature and the duration of time, the enzymes will be eliminated to a great extent. 

On the other hand, don't worry. This does not happen at the temperature or in the brief time it takes for you to add honey to tea or hot coffee. It is also okay to make crystalized honey easier to spoon by mildly warming a jar under a hot water tap or pan of warm water in your sink (not on the stove - and, please, not in the microwave).


One of my girls thirsty for milkweed

We've talked here about the work that goes into making honey by bees and just some of the science they are dealing with in the process. Volumes have also been written for the beekeeper on honey harvesting techniques and ways to produce usable honey and other hive products for their customers. 

The goal should be to offer honey at the farmers market while providing these hard working, intelligent animals with a bountiful, nutritional harvest of their own and making sure we as beekeepers are not over-harvesting. When a beekeeper is low on honey, be grateful they are looking out for their bees. The abundant plant life growing around us in this part of the state fits the bill for bees as well as beekeepers and proves well worth the effort to make sure you are getting the best possible honey our bees can make from our beautifully wild surroundings.

If you'd like to learn more about what honey bees do with honey and how valuable it is for their own immune systems, please visit this BBC article: "Bee Gold: Why honey is an insect superfood."

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Honoring the Wildness - Swarming

Swarming never gets boring. Such a thrill to witness this remarkably well-choreographed event. I could feel it happening Sunday morning at 11:30 am. Something in my being picked up on a need to run to the window and there they went... off into the sky to land in a grand old ash tree settling precariously, it seemed, on a branch just high enough out of reach for them to wave "Goodbye!"

I knew I had failed to take seriously this robust over-wintered nuc. I was busy working with moving and splitting an over-wintered colony hoping if I piled enough boxes on the nuc all would be well. Now I realized I gave them too much drawn comb. Maybe more foundation frames? We've been relocating onto a recently purchased property where I hoped to contain and control any antics my bees may throw our way, but we were exhausted with all that began to entail. Now this.

Okay, girls, I thought, "Goodby & Goodluck!" Maybe they would be out there in the woods someday as proven survivors, mating with my colonies of the future.

My husband said, "This is a call to action!" He so wanted to have the experience of "catching" a swarm and broke open the hive box storage shed, setting up mock hives all over the property. A ladder appeared. I reluctantly filled in the gaps in his knowledge of honey bee biology recalling tidbits as I could from "Honey Bee Democracy" which resulted in his placing one hive box high off the ground on top of our storage barn.

This land has been an exciting surprise this spring with successional tree and wildflower blooms into one humid, hot, dry summer. My colonies have been so occupied and content despite New Hampshire moving toward a moderate drought situation for most of June, but rain was on its way!

My nuc apparently did not pick up on a weather forecast of several days of thunderstorms moving our way. She spent two full rainy, windy nights in that grand old ash tree.

I spent the 48 hours keeping vigil, sleeplessly imagining climbing on our metal ladder in these summer thunderstorms, the only ladder with a chance of reaching them, pulling the van up under the branches, bravely rescuing my drowning darlings; but deep inside, I really want my colonies to finish what they start and plan for. If I miss my chance to manage their need to swarm, it's on me.

Yes, those bees put a lot of planning into this event. Scouts were out in rain and wind investigating all their family's options for travel to a safe haven, with just the right volume - they pace it out! - and just the right height off the ground - just the right opening - just the right smells. If you haven't read Seeley's "Honey Bee Democracy" this may seem crazy, but knowing all that goes into it I so wanted them to be successful for all their work and sacrifices to leave behind the cozy protection and resources of the parent hive.

Tuesday, 11 am with shower after shower passing through, I couldn't contain my anxiety and decided if they did not swarm out of that tree by 11:30, by ladder or by van I was getting them down! I went out to watch and it seemed they were suddenly all alive! There was waving, there was flying, there were dances! Dances all moving in the same direction! And then, at 11:16 thunder rolled, wind blew... but we had lift off!

I ducked as they flew overhead and followed them with the only camera that worked in the house, my smartphone. It was... surreal... just amazing... beyond amazing. I was certain they headed for the woods across the street... but WAIT! The hive on top of the barn came into view. They hovered... they settled... they were home!

This is the way I want to "catch" every swarm, but understanding the needs of a colony is so important for the beekeeper. Prevention and Control are principles I teach but sometimes we just can't do it all. When we can't we can usually trust the girls to know what to do. They've been doing it for millions of years, after all. My hope is that since they took two days to decide on this location, they'll stay. Once they have brood happening, maybe in five to seven days, I'll move them to the apiary.

Understanding their biology in such situations I believe is the key to honoring their wildness and it sure worked for us this time. Here is a link to Paul Kelly at Guelph University explaining some important principles of managing swarm behavior in honey bees.