Welcome to the story of the latest chapter in my farm-to-table education: beekeeping! For real!! A couple of weeks ago I made the cross-country trek to visit my family back in Florida, where my mom has been experimenting with caring for a colony of honeybees. Since we’re both nature-lovers and food-tinkerers, we had been scheming to share a honey-gathering adventure together ever since she started her crash course in self-taught beekeeping, after a neighbor gave her the hive last year.
Looking back, maybe I should have been more apprehensive about breaking into a bee colony to steal their hard-earned honey, but I knew mom had been through a successful harvest already, and I figured humans must have learned a thing or two about dealing with bees in the last ~9000 documented years of apiculture. So I was all in!
The first step was suiting up – at the time we had yet to invest in proper beekeepers’ garb, so we improvised with some rather goofy outfits. Mosquito netting protected my face, and I tucked sleeves-into-gloves and pants-into-socks to keep unwanted intruders out of my business – it got the job done! It was comforting to be covered, but I was surprised to learn that many beekeepers are able to manage their bees’ defensive behaviors so well that they’re able to forgo the bulky outfit!
We rolled up to the hive, armed with the first line of defense for encouraging gentle bees: smoke. Ever wonder what makes smoke the beekeepers’ secret weapon? Interestingly, smoke initiates the bees’ feeding response, triggering them to settle down and eat honey in anticipation of hive abandonment due to fire! It also masks their alarm pheromones, quelling the collective freakout and making it safer to reach into their box for some honey!
Check out those bees! My mom says there are probably about 10,000 in there!!! There are different types of hives with their own pros and cons, but this traditional movable-frame hive is what my mom was given to get started. Each wooden “frame” in the box can be lifted to reveal a solid slab of honeycomb. After prying out each frame and brushing off the clinging bees, mom passed them off to me to run back to the house.
We loaded four frames into another special tool, the extractor: it’s a large, stainless steel, manual centrifuge. We took turns cranking and spinning our hearts out, and ended up with 9 full pints of honey, plus a few other odd sizes once we ran out of canning jars. It was the coolest thing!!! The honey is mindblowing – raw, golden, and studded with a galaxy of pollen visibly suspended in its sticky sweetness.
I couldn’t help but get smitten with honeybees, and my someday-dream-house plans now include a hive in the backyard. Tending a colony just appeals to all of my sensibilities:
- The bees’ mysterious habits and complex behaviors pique my biological curiosity.
- I’m in awe of the ancient knowledge surrounding beekeeping; humans have been accumulating a profound base of understanding over thousands of years of bee domestication, just waiting to be tapped into.
- It’s a beautiful thing to look at the big picture and watch them do their thing, participating in nature and playing their part in our holistic world.
Speaking of which, supporting healthy bee populations is a good deed! Life on Earth depends on, well, life on Earth. Bees play a crucial role, and their populations have been in an alarming decline in recent years. Tending a big family of happy, healthy honeybees using sustainable methods can help turn things around in your community and beyond.
Not ready to invite a few thousand bees into your yard? Maybe instead, start by just checking out this article on 10 Things You Can Do to Help Bees. Happy Earth Day!