|Members of my honeybee school checking on a hive in May.|
How do honeybees produce honey?
Honey production is a multi-step process, which the honeybees carry out naturally. First, certain ‘forager’ bees leave the colony to find flowers. At a flower, they extract nectar (essentially sugar water) and bring it back to the hive. There, they store the nectar in their comb and process it into honey. They do this by adding enzymes to the nectar and evaporating the water out of it. Initially, nectar is roughly 80% water. In the end, honey is roughly 18% water – the rest was removed by evaporation. Once the honey reaches the right concentration, the bees ‘cap’ the part of the comb that it is in. Capped honeycomb means finished honey!
|Capped (left) and uncapped (right) honey comb. The bees cap the honey when it reaches the right sugar concentration. It is from this capped form that we harvest the honey.|
|Honey harvest at honeybee school. The class used a hot blade to cut open the tops of the comb. From here, the comb was centrifuged and the honey was released.|
Why would bees go to so much trouble just to make honey?
To the honeybee, honey represents food for the winter. It’s a simple cycle – honeybees make honey during the growing season, store it in their comb and eat it during the winter. Without this winter food the bees would starve to death.
Does extracting honey necessarily mean the death of the colony?
Nope. The point of beekeeping is to keep the bees alive (hence, beekeeping). If your bees die, you are out bees, honey and your investment. Therefore, it is important to leave enough honey in the hive to support your bees all winter long. If done carefully and correctly, beekeeping can result in honey for our consumption and the long-term health of the colony. It's a win-win situation.
Isn’t it a whole lot easier to just go to the store and buy honey?
It is certainly easier, but it is a lot less fun and rewarding. Keeping your own colony of bees connects you with nature and provides deep insight into another creature’s life. Plus, much of the honey for sale at your supermarket is tied to industrial agricultural. How? Large-scale honey producers truck their bees around the country to collect nectar from large monocultures of crops such as almonds, cranberries and blueberries. Local honey is usually made from nectar from small, diversified farms, and the bees are able to provide pollination to the area's wild plants throughout the growing season as well. Lastly, making honey at home or buying it locally reduces the need to truck honey in from distant corners of the world. Much of the world’s honey is made in China and Argentina; shipping it from across the planet is obviously unnecessary.
|A blooming almond grove in California. Most of the world's almonds come from this type of monoculture farming. Hundreds of thousands of honeybees are trucked in to pollinate the trees.|
Honeybees and your vegetable garden
In the process of extracting nectar from flowers, honeybees carry pollen from one plant to the next. This pollination is crucial to the plant, for without it, the plant can't produce its fruit. The best way to ensure that your garden is fully pollinated (aka, fully productive) is to recruit the help of a workaholic pollinator like the honeybee. With their help, every flower the garden produces has the best chance of being pollinated and turning into a future piece of food – maybe a tomato or a snap pea.
How do I get my own honeybees?
There are many options for buying honeybees and beekeeping equipment: websites, paper catalogues, local beekeeping services, etc. The honeybees at the Armstrong House Education Center were purchased from Bedford Bee Honey Bee Service of Bedford, NY. Its proprietor, DJ Haverkamp, has been keeping bees for over twenty years and is currently teaching beekeeping classes at John Jay Homestead in Bedford, NY and Teatown Reservation, Ossining, NY.
|Bedford Bee Honeybee Service is a company based in Bedford, NY that provides great honeybee services, including an April-October honeybee school, queens for sale and private hive maintenance.|
I want to keep bees in my backyard, but I don’t want to spend the time taking care of them. Can I still keep bees?
Yes, companies like the Bedford Honey Bee Service provide a honeybee care service. Much like a pool service, Bedford Honeybee service will ‘open’ the hive in the spring, provide any maintenance or care throughout the season and ‘close’ the hive in late autumn.
What does keeping bees have to do with Living Lighter on the Land?
The best backyard food producers are dedicated land stewards; they work to retain their property's natural resources such as rich soil and clean, abundant water and biodiversity. Remember, in these types of partnerships with nature, the energy you put in is rewarded.
Also backyard food production is an ecologically responsible alternative to the large scale, industrial farming that has become common in the United States. For an awesome primer on agricultural trends of the last 50 years, see this. Lastly, producing food in your backyard – be it honey from bees, eggplant, basil or goat milk – cuts out the fossil fuels used in its transportation.