Wednesday, October 24, 2012

How Sweet It Is... To Bee Loved By You

Oh, my beautiful bees, how do I love thee?  Let me count the ways...

First, you did a marvelous job pollinating my garden.  We had an outstanding first year with the garden, produce overflowing.  I credit you for our success.  You have more than earned your keep at Third Day Farms.

Second, my husband and I were humbled that you allowed us to work along side you all summer.  You permitted us to see the inner workings of your hive and taught us beautiful lessons about our amazing God and creator, a God of order and wonder, a God who cares deeply about even His tiny insects.

And third... you blessed us with 5 gallons of honey.  5 gallons!  We were told by other beekeepers that this was the worst year they could remember for beekeeping and not to expect much honey at all, if any.  Those 5 gallons will save us almost $200 on our food bills this year (we use a LOT of honey, mostly in baking as a substitute for sugar).  Never mind that we invested almost 4 times that much money buying the equipment we would need to get started beekeeping!  Most of those items were one time expenses that will soon pay for themselves. 

When we decided to embark on our beekeeping adventure this year, we had no idea what we were doing.  Some days I still feel like we have no idea!  I'm sure we made countless mistakes.  I can't tell you how many times I would read another beekeeping book and say to my husband "Oh no!  We forgot to  _________!  I hope we didn't kill the whole colony!"  Good grief, I could work myself into a tizzy worrying about what we did/failed to do. Oh well. We did our best, and I keep telling myself, we learn by making mistakes... and making sure we don't make the same mistake twice!

We were not sure if we would be able to harvest any honey at all this year, so we were delighted to discover that our bees did indeed have some to share with us.  In order for the bees to survive the winter, they need about 60 pounds of honey to eat.  Any surplus honey beyond that is available for the taking.  Each of our hives had 2 "brood boxes", which could be described as the living quarters for the bees - the queen lives here and lays her eggs.  The main food supply is also stored here. Stacked on top of these brood boxes, we had a "honey super", which is where the bees store their extra honey. A strong bee colony can fill 2-4 supers over the summer.  A brood box contains about 40-60 pounds of honey and the supers hold about 30 pounds. 

We left the brood boxes for the bees and took the supers for us.  Here is the tale of how honey makes it from the hive to your table!

1.  Remove frames.  John and I headed out to the bee yard with the smoker and a large lidded plastic storage container.  We gently smoked the bees (don't want to use too much smoke or it make the honey taste "smokey") to calm them, and then removed the lid of the hive.  The frames in the supers were full of honey... and bees.  We gently brushed the bees back into the hive and quickly transferred the frames to the lidded plastic container. 

Once we had all the frames we wanted, we closed up the hive and made a bee-line for the garage, where we had the honey equipment set up.  It's important to choose a bee-proof place, as the bees are drawn to the scent of honey!

Pulling the last frame out of the super

Frames in the plastic container, ready to be carried to the garage
2.  Cut off wax cappings.   The frames are held over a basin or container to catch the wax cappings.  A bread knife is dipped in boiling water and then used to quickly cut off the wax cappings, releasing the honey.  As you might imagine, this was a hot, sticky mess. 
 Cutting off the wax cappings with a hot bread knife
Wax cappings.  These are saved to be melted down into beeswax
3.  Place uncapped frames in the honey extractor.   Honey extractor are essentially centrifuges.  The frames are loaded into the holders and then you turn the crank, flinging the honey out of the frames and onto the wall of the extractor.  There are several different styles and models of extractors, but they all perform the same basic operation.  Some, like this one, hold 2 frames, some can hold up to 20!  Extractors are expensive, ranging from $300 - $1,500, depending on size, quality and capacity.  Thankfully, a friend had a extractor we could borrow.  It had been stored in a barn for the last 20 years or so, but it cleaned up nicely and worked like a charm!
 A peek into the 2 frame honey extractor

My husband and my dad spinning the extractor

Honey flinging onto the walls of the extractor

My son sneaking some honey - it was irresistible!!!  Notice some of the combs look a little funky. We're not sure why they built some of them that way...
4.  Strain the honey. Once we had uncapped and extracted all 20 frames, we were ready to strain the honey.  First, we picked up the extractor and set in on a low table.  After that, we simply stuck a 3 gallon water cooler under the spout at the bottom of the extractor and allowed the honey to flow down, using a fine mesh sieve to strain out any pieces of wax.  Easy peasy.  Unfortunately, the weather turned on us during our extracting time and dipped down into the 50 during the day and 30's at night.  Let me tell you, cold honey drains sloooooooooooooooow.  The whole process of draining the honey from the extractor took us a few days.  Next time, we'll pay closer attention to the weather and choose a warm spell.
Straining honey into the water cooler
 5.  Bottle the honey.  We could have bottled the honey directly from the extractor, but since it was so cold, we found it easier to drain into the water cooler, then bring it into the house to warm up.  Again, this process took a few days, but we end up filling 3 gallon containers, 5 quarts and 4 pints - just shy of 5 gallons total!
Filling the bottles
6.  Reserve wax cappings for use.  After straining all the honey out of the wax cappings container ( I placed them in a colander lined with clean cheese cloth), I was left with about 3-4 pounds of wax bits, enough to fill a shoe box sized container.  They have been washed and strained again.  Now I need to figure out how to melt the wax and what I want to do with it.  So many options!  Candles, lip balm, furniture polish, mustache wax (wait, what?), base for lotions and cosmetics...  I predict that my friends and family may be receiving some homemade lip balm, solid perfumes or candles for Christmas, seeing as how we spent all our money on the farm endeavors this year.  Put in your requests for lip balm flavors now! 

Straining the honey from the wax cappings

There!  That wasn't so hard, was it?  We found it just takes time.  It's not very much hands on work, just many hours waiting for honey to drain and refilling bottles.  We are excited to have this honey on hand and look forward to expanding our operation little by little so that we will have honey to sell someday (sorry, folks, we're going to use all this year's harvest).

 How do we use so much honey, you ask? Well, I use it in many of my baking recipes, such as granola, bread and muffins.  We try our best to limit our intake of cane/beet sugar and use honey and maple syrup as a substitute whenever possible.    We also use honey as medicine for sore throats, coughs and colds.  For a nagging cough and sore throat, there is nothing better than a spoonful of honey and some hot tea.  Honey coats and soothes the throat wonderfully.

My husband eats raw honey (honey that has not been heated) on bread or toast to combat allergies.  I have shared this before, but since we started buying raw honey and cut out processed foods, my husband's seasonal allergies have disappeared.  Completely.  We gladly threw away all the allergy pills that he had been popping like candy.  He still struggles with asthma in the winter time (the dust bothers him), but no more hayfever!  My sister who is in med school told me consuming raw honey is like getting a vaccine for potential allergens.  Ingesting a small amount of local, raw honey might help you too!  Look for honey harvested as close to your home as possible (so that it contains pollen from the plants that bother you) and make sure it's raw (direct from the extractor, not heated).  Sure beats popping pills!

We also use honey on minor cuts and scrapes.  Honey has natural antimicrobial properties (bacteria cannot survive in honey) and can be used to heal and protect small wounds.  I peeled a few cloves of garlic and let them steep in a small jar of honey for few months.  When it was ready, I pulled out the garlic and now I have garlic infused honey that I use on our cuts and scrapes (garlic is great for fighting bacteria, fungus and viral infections).  Not only does it work great, but it also tastes good :)  In fact, I think it would be a great topping for chicken breasts or pork chops!  You could also use this garlic infused honey as a sore throat remedy.  Goodness, I love finding multiple purposes for items! 

When I think of all the uses and purposes for honey and it's byproducts, I become overwhelmed by God's goodness and creativity.  What a gift He has given to us!  Insects that make good things for us to eat... and heal us?!?.  Absolutely brilliant.  You surely outdid yourself on this one, God!    How sweet it is...

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