Keeping Bees and Making Honey
By Mary Reilly, Photos by Dominic Perri
One of my first taste memories is a sweet one. Each summer we would visit my grandmother in a remote corner of Greece. I have no doubt that the food we ate was prepared with care and love, but the most vivid memory I have is of honey.
The honey from this region of Greece was thick and rich. It took ages to drizzle across my breakfast toast, but the flavor was worth the wait. Mouth-filling and decadent, it was Messina’s version of a pop-tart, and a sensory experience I will never forget.
With this introduction to honey, it was no surprise that when my husband, Dave, and I moved to a plot of land that was large enough, we got bees. Becoming a beekeeper is not difficult––there are so many resources: beekeepers’ club, countless websites, and farming friends. The beekeeping community is a welcoming one. Once one starts to keep bees, one can’t help but become an evangelist for the practice.
The first step when jumping into the world of beekeeping is a purely practical one: Where will your hives be located? Obviously, check with your local municipality first as there may be rules about where a hive can be sited. Then, look for an area on your property that gets sun and is located far enough from buildings and structures so the bees have room for their runway (more on that to follow).
Next you’ll need a hive. Hives are comprised of boxes and supers. The supers are where the bees build their comb. A few covers complete the setup. You can pop your hive on a stand if desired, but cinder blocks will do the job pretty well.
Protective equipment is a good idea too. You don’t need a full-on bee suit. Dave and I got along fine with heavy-weight (to deter stings) and light-colored (to keep from getting too warm in the sun) clothing, a hat with a bee veil, and thick leather gloves. A smoker is also a help; it’s a can attached to a bellows that you’ll use to puff smoke gently over the hives. The smoke slows bees down and also sends them into the bottom of the hive, giving the beekeeper a safe margin in which to work.
Then you need to acquire your bees. Most bees in our area are trucked up from Georgia. Order a box (about 10,000 bees plus a queen) per hive.
It’s a magical (and absolutely terrifying) day when the bees arrive. Your ladies (they will almost all be females) will be cranky and sluggish from their trip. With confidence and no hesitation, crack those boxes open, and firmly tap the bees out of their boxes. The bees will fly everywhere, but they are most keenly focused on their queen and finding food.
As you are the most hospitable of hosts, you will have provided them an endless buffet of rich sugar syrup. This gives them energy to start building comb and to explore their new habitat. As the hive strengthens, you’ll taper off the syrup and the bees will take care of themselves.
Leave It to the LADIES
Bees know what they’re up to. There is very little that we beekeepers need to do. When we watched our hives, it was clear that there was a plan in place. We used to joke that “the ladies know what to do.”
The bees create a “runway” in and out of the entrance of their hive. Every departure and return follows the same initial path down the runway––don’t get in the way!
A single queen is responsible for all reproduction in the hive. A queen flies about a mile from her hive on her “maiden” or “nuptial” flight to mate with up to 20 drones (male bees). She will only fly again if her hive swarms. Worker bees (all of which are female) fly as far as two miles to forage for nectar from flowers and trees. Drones fly only to mate with queens from other hives.
Worker bees produce honey as fuel for survival. They extract nectar from flowers, collecting pollen along the way, which is why they are such valuable pollinators. When they return to their hive, they regurgitate nectar into cells in the honeycomb. The nectar dehydrates and becomes what we know as honey.
The Sweet Stuff
Finally in the fall, you harvest. A healthy hive can produce up to 30 or more pounds of honey. A drier summer will result in a lower yield of richer, thicker honey. The weather doesn’t impact honey production directly, but it does impact what grows and flowers.
In general, honey can be substituted for maple syrup in recipes. I have also had great luck using honey in place of corn syrup in candy recipes. It changes up the flavor a little, but I haven’t had a recipe fail when making the change.
Substituting honey for sugar can be more challenging. Reduce the amount of sugar and the total liquid in the recipe by about 25% each. (For more everyday use, I use honey in my coffee instead of sugar.) Some trial and error may be needed to get to an ideal result but any experiments are likely to still be delicious.
Learn more about beekeeping and creating bee-friendly backyards from these local experts:
Franklin County Beekeepers Association
Hampden County Beekeepers Association Bee School
Warm Colors Apiary