At long last, honey

They’ve been a slog, bees. You get a hive, you lose a hive. You get a hive, you lose a hive. And you’re never sure quite why, or how to do things differently next time.

This is our fifth colony of bees, in our third year of beekeeping, and, glory be, last week we harvested honey. Did you hear that? Let me repeat it. We harvested honey.

Our friends Claire and Paul, backbone of the Barnstable County Beekeepers Association, lent us their six-frame extractor, and Kevin and I suited up. We expected that taking all their honey away might make bees angry, so we made sure to tuck in sleeves and pants, and tie veils tightly.

We got a covered box big enough to hold all twenty frames from our two supers, set up a table about fifty feet from the hive, ran an extension cord for the leaf blower, and we were ready to go.

Kevin got the two supers and put them on the table. We tried to blow the bees out from between the frames, but we ended up having to take each frame out individually. I blew, Kevin brushed, and we got all sixteen honeyed frames (four were empty) into the box with only one or two bees.

We used the porch as a staging area, and brought six frames at a time into the kitchen, where we’d set up the extractor – a plastic garbage can with a rotating axle down the middle, a rack for the frames, and a spigot at the bottom.

And then we got to use the diabolical little tool that looks suspiciously like a flea comb to scrape the wax caps off the cells full of honey.

Let me pause here to ask a question. If you designed a tool to scrape wax caps off cells full of honey, what would you call it? Yes, that’s right. You’d call it a decapitator. But it isn’t called a decapitator. It’s called a cappings scratcher. Or a honey scraper. Or a cappings scraper. Since it seems to go by many names, perhaps it’s not too late to start a write-in campaign for decapitator. Just start calling it that and, eventually, the apian community will see sense.

Back to the story. Kevin and I each tried to scrape a frame without making a godawful mess. Predictably, Kevin had much more success, and helped me get the angle right so I wasn’t constantly piercing the frames with the tines.

Once we got the hang of it, you know what we found? Under those caps was actual, genuine honey. There was honey in those frames. Honey, made by our very own bees. Astonishing. Now I see why that song, “Cap Scratch Fever,” was such a hit!

We put the first six frames in the extractor, which is the kind that you use an electric drill to spin. Kevin, who is much better at any job that involves an electric drill than I am, did the spinning. He sustained a couple of minor injuries when he abruptly stopped the drill and his hand got spun around by the still-spinning extractor, but in all other regards the operation went smoothly.

We uncapped, we spun, we drained.

When the job was done, and the last drop of honey cleaned off the ceiling and the backs of our necks, we had twenty pounds of honey.

Twenty pounds, from one hive, is a small harvest; a really strong colony will yield five times that. But twenty pounds is, almost literally, infinitely better than zero.

But here’s the truly amazing thing. I know that, given the same pollen, all bees create more or less the same honey. That’s why, when you buy honey, you buy clover honey, or tupelo honey, or chestnut honey. It’s named for the source, not for the bees. So you will be amazed to find out that our bees, unique in human history, produce better-tasting honey than any other bees. Any other bees ever. Any other bees anywhere.

We have twenty pounds of the best-tasting honey that has ever graced the planet. I keep sticking my head in the bucket and smelling it. I put it on my pancakes and in my tea and revel in the sheer miraculousness of it. A hive of insects, in our care, made twenty pounds of honey.

It makes me absurdly happy.

31 people are having a conversation about “At long last, honey

  1. I am so very happy for you. And amazed that 20 pounds is considered a small harvest. Do you think it will last you the year? Is honey harvesting an annual event?

  2. What about the wax? Do you keep it, or does it go back in the hive?

    I like to rub beeswax into wooden tool handles by the fire. It forms a nice seal.
    You can also melt it with olive oil to make a balm (scent optional).

  3. Amanda and Kingsley — There was almost no wax, just a few scraps that came off when we decapitated. One of the reasons we extract this way is so the bees can re-use the wax. We put the frames, with little bits of honey, back in the hive so they can clean them out, and we’ll use them again next year.

    Alison — We don’t use that much honey, but I’m predicting we’ll use a lot more this year! It probably will last us a year, but we’re not banking on having another harvest then. This may be the only honey we ever see (but we hope not).

  4. I knew you’d get there. CONGRATULATIONS!!!!! I feel as excited for you guys as I do for the new beeks around here. Way to go.

  5. Yummy honey. Now, if you take some honey and boil it until it forms a firm ball, then stir in plenty of butter, you wind up with some of the best candy in the world. I am sure if it is made with the best honey in the world that it would be a religious experience that would convert all of the atheists in the world to believe in a benign bee god. My grandmother used to make honey candy, and to this day when I taste honey I think of her.

  6. If a good batch of mead (say, 5 gallons or so) wouldn’t take most or all of that 20 pounds, I’d second the recommendation! If nothing else, it should be incentive to try for a bigger harvest next year. Homemade mead is SO worth the effort!

  7. Hank Rupprecht says:

    Congrats! There is nothing like the honey from your first harvest. If you don’t want to splurge for an electric uncapping knife, a bread knife works really well. I use my scratcher just to get the cells my knife missed.

  8. Well done! You are officially successful colony curators. How many calories in twenty pounds of honey?!

    If you could translate “We uncapped, We spun, We drained” into Latin, I think it would make a perfect motto for the Barnstaple Beekeepers Association.

  9. Thanks for the good wishes, all. So much goes wrong around here that it’s very satisfying to have a small success to share.

    We’d love to try mead, but we have so little honey, and no certainty of getting any more ever, that we’ll probably dole it out by the teaspoonful and not try anything that uses quantity. But if we get another harvest, bigger, next year, it’s definitely on our list.

    As for calories, it’s nice to start September with almost the full month’s quota in the bag!

  10. So very, very pleased at your success, my friend. This is one you can’t chalk up to beginner’s luck, so it’s very deserved.

    May your honey harvests grow in size and quality!

  11. It just occured to me that most non-beekeepers would not know how much honey by volume is 20 pounds by weight. Folks, a liquid pint weighs 22 ounces (1 3/8 lbs.), and a quart 44 ounces (2 3/4 lbs.) So, 20 pounds is only about 14 or 15 pints, a bit more than 7 quarts. My current favorite mead recipe calls for about 11 quarts or honey to make 5 gallons for racking. 🙁 Next year will be bigger and better, Tamar. People who say farmers, ranchers, beekeepers and other food producers are pessimists are simply not paying attention. Our hope springs eternally and optimism is non-stop, or we might be as masochistic and crazy as some folks think we are.

  12. Great work! I was afraid you might have to dip Kevin in mud, point him at a hive, and sing the I’m just a little black rain cloud song to get at Somme honey.
    Pooh power to you guys.

  13. I have to thank you; when we first got bees, we were given this weird homemade 2 frame extractor without a handle. Tried to manufacture one with no success. Had totally forgot it’s existence. While standing outside this morning I spotted it sitting sadly in the corner we stashed it in, and the LIGHT dawned!!!!! Made for a drill!!!!! Never heard of such a thing till your post! Now will save the cost of renting one. THANK YOU< THANK YOU!!!

  14. Clarke Sabine says:

    Hallo Tamar,

    You know that you can save all the hassel with the leafblower if you use a “Bienenflucht”Sorry I can not find the translation at the moment. It is a little round plastic thing with holes, so the bees can go only from the the honey area to the breeding frames but not back. that goes in the hive 24 hours before you want to harvest your honey. It`s cheap and easy.

    Love your blog

    • The device called a “Bienenflucht” in Germany is a bee escape, very similar to either the Porter Bee Escape, or in some cases the “Conical” or “Triangular” escape boards. They all act as checks on bee travel, allowing the bees to go through only in one direction. If using these, be very careful to mind which travel direction is blocked. I like them a lot more than I like the blower method.

      • Sabine and Greg — I’ve seen those! Sounds like it would be easier than the leaf-blower method. Here’s to hoping there’s a next harvest for which we can use one.

  15. I just want all you well-wishers to know that, as I write this, I am drinking a cup of tea with honey. And gloating.

    • Gloating is one of the “intangible” yet extremely valuable rewards of this game. Enjoy, and I will put on some water and loin you, from afar, shortly.

  16. Congrats!! I remember my first ever honey harvest fondly… I’m hoping this year is comparable, but its been several bum years in a row! I’ll find out next weekend! Enjoy and be sure to keep some for yourself (learn from my mistake: don’t give it all away thinking you’ve got the hang of this and you’ll now be rolling in honey forever).

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