Honey is the only substance produced by an insect which humans consume, if you discount fecal matter left by pests and the occasional unlucky grub in the apple. To produce it the bees must first make a shopping list. The list contains only one product - nectar. They then make a lot of trips to the store. To produce the equivalent of one pound of honey a bee flies around the world. Twice. A bee will visit two million flowers (or one flower two million times). It will die in doing so, worn out in just a few weeks, and it will die happy.
Bees live on nectar. From day to day they eat nectar to keep going. It's a perfect fuel for an airborne insect, high in sugar and easily digested for conversion to flight power, heat, or to fuel growth. The key disadvantage of nectar is that it comes from flowers. Flowers of course have a nasty habit of dying in the winter when everything freezes.
Nectar does not keep. It spoils quite readily if allowed to, the sugar and liquid forming a perfect bacterial test bed for all sorts of bacterium. To handle this the bees have adapted and adopted a new strategy. In the summer they will live on nectar. Excess nectar will be converted into a form that lasts, a form nigh invulnerable to bacteria, a condensed fuel so potent that it can sustain the colony through months of winter or fuel a swarm on a quest to begin a new home. It will produce honey.
Bee colonies do not produce honey immediately, of course. When they first start out they don't have the manpower. That is, woman power. Workers are the only bees to produce honey. That means that the women do it all. Drones on the other hand are happy to consume it without contributing back. Not to worry - the drones get what is coming to them. When a bee colony reaches a critical mass it immediately begins to set aside nectar stores and produce honey.
The nectar comes in "flows", as the flowers bloom and fade the flows begin and taper off. The goal every colony strives for is to field a large workforce during a nectar flow. With good stores they can outlast six months of winter. Without them they will starve to death. During a nectar flow the colony is in as good a "mood" as it ever will be. The foragers begin their sorties at first light and don't stop until dusk ushers them inside. Even then the work goes on.
Nectar is not honey. To transform nectar into honey the bees transfer it into their crop, where enzymes break it down and change its structure. The nectar is then returned to the cell to repeat the process. Yes, that's correct. Honey is bee vomit. Next time you think you are better than a bee, drink a gallon of sugar water and stick your finger down your throat. If you aren't willing to eat what comes up with strawberries show some respect to the humble bee. The bees gather around their hexagonal hurl buckets, and since they're all roughly teenage females we know pretty much how the conversation goes -
"Ooohh, this is so tasty."
"Do I look fat with this much nectar in my crop?"
"Does anyone have a toothbrush I can borrow?"
As the nectar is converted it also is evaporated, resulting in an extremely low moisture content. This is the secret of honey's success. Honey is so dry that bacteria that land on its surface are torn apart for the moisture inside. There isn't much that can live on honey once it is properly condensed and that gives rise to many of its uses.
Our predecessors learned that honey helped prevent infection in wounds. Without a microscope or a concept of germs they could not imagine the destruction that honey wreaks on bacteria but they knew its benefits and used them.
These days honey is trumpeted as a health food that is easier to digest and better for you. These claims are mostly untrue. Honey is beneficial because it contains pollen from the area where it was gathered. It is beneficial because it is much sweeter than sugar. It's beneficial because it tastes good. Are there other benefits to it? Maybe. Probably not. The taste alone is reason to eat it. Honey is not the optimum food for bees. Nectar is. Honey serves as the compromise by which the bees can maintain their stores. Eating honey results in a build up of fecal matter in their gut, requiring them to take cleansing flights in the dead of winter. As I recounted in Voice of the Hive - Borrowed Warmth, the results can be fatal.
To get the honey from a hive the beekeeper has to pull the supers containing them off. Understandably the bees are not pleased when you do this. Calm bees who need little smoke can be extremely defensive of their handiwork. The suit is hot, the bees are everywhere and you stop counting stings ten minutes in. Honey is heavy, between eleven and thirteen pounds per gallon and you lift and carry it away, leaving a cloud of angry bees only to return in just a few minutes. When you are done and the bee hive is buttoned back up, when you are miles away and the stings stop throbbing, when the sweat is no longer pouring from you, that's when it is good. That's when you celebrate a harvest. And then it's time for more work.
When a beekeeper harvests honey from a hive it's a long way from where you will eat it. Beekeepers have come a ways from "robbing the hive" and today's harvest methods often involve calculating what you leave a hive and damaging the comb as little as possible. Leaving honey is a calculated act where the beekeeper tries to ensure that the colony will have the food it needs to survive the winter. Preserving the comb for re-use is the key to large harvests.
Bees work very hard to produce comb. Some people claim seven pounds of honey produces one pound of wax. The bees don't reclaim wax often so I doubt it's that valuable but no one disputes that a colony with drawn comb, that is with some place to store honey ready, produces far more. The bees will draw comb at a fantastic rate during a nectar flow. That time could have been spent better storing honey in frames drawn last year. To that end many beekeepers use a system that attempts to preserve comb for later reuse. Here's how it works:
The drawn frame is first uncapped, a task that involves cutting off the thinnest layer possible of the top of the cells in the comb. Usually a pass with the uncapping knife is followed by a capping scratcher, which looks like a hairbrush on steroids and which punctures the cappings that remain.
Once a frame is uncapped it is loaded into an extractor, which looks a lot like a very large turkey fryer. The extractor can spin the frames in a circle so that centrifugal force flings the honey from the cells, allowing it to collect in the bottom and pool into a bucket. Once emptied the "wet" frames are removed and later stacked on a colony for the night. The bees will hurry to slurp the frames clean and store it away.
Meanwhile in the honey house the beekeeper repeats this process dozens, even hundreds of times. The rewards can be huge. A single capped frame of honey can weigh ten to twelve pounds. With a typical box holding ten frames that's over one hundred pounds the beekeeper moved just in honey, just one box. When the extracting is done the work is just beginning for the beekeeper.
The honey in the bucket must be allowed to settle. There's usually nothing wrong with it except that it contains bubbles and larger flecks of wax. Once a few days have gone by the slurm on the top is spooned off (and eaten or sold at a slightly lower price). The remaining honey is now filtered again and then bottled into smaller bottles. Particularly popular are plastic honeybears (of which I have an army on my kitchen counter).
I use a different harvesting method because I have few hives. My daughters and I cut the comb whole from the frame and crush it, straining the honey out and leaving the wax behind. It's sticky, gooey and delicious. I then wash the wax and melt it into a brick that will serve me next spring making starter guides for more comb. I won't get as much honey but I don't have to buy a huge extractor and store and clean and maintain it. Such are the tradeoffs. On my kitchen counter is a five gallon bucket with four gallons of fireweed honey.
This honey is raw. It contains pollen and tiny flecks of wax. It is delicious despite its appearance. To those raised on clover honey the sight of knotweed, fireweed or other wild honeys is one of shock - You want me to eat that? You'll be glad you did though. Local honey is always better.
When you buy honey from a beekeeper you can get a number of different products. The most common is extracted honey. This is the liquid in the honeybears that people are familiar with. Next up from that we have chunk honey, which is a jar with chunks of honey still in the comb, covered in extracted honey. You pour out the extracted honey and cut pieces from the chunk to go along. Comb honey is precisely that - honey still in the comb. Comb honey is expensive because selling it that way means sacrificing the comb instead of re-using it. In addition, comb honey production requires conditions that can be difficult to maintain - a strong honey flow and a very strong colony. Creamed honey may actually be two different products and it helps to know which you are getting. One is a sort of honey butter/cream mixture which must be refridgerated. The other is regular honey seeded with tiny crystals to promote a low level of granulation. The goal is not to produce large crystals but a consistent level of small crystals. This type is also called whipped honey. Creamed or whipped honey is also expensive because of the additional labor and time investment. Color wise the tint will often tell you the taste. Dark honey normally packs a strong flavor (like buckwheat), light honey is often mild. In theory they should sell for the same but light colored honey often sells for more to people who value looks over taste.
You can get your honey from just about anywhere. The place I recommend personally is a farmer's market. Develop a relationship with the local keeper and you'll get better prices and fresher honey. The pollen in it will match what blooms near you so that it benefits your allergies. The beekeeper would only get about .75 to 1.00 per pound selling in bulk so even a pint jar at six dollars is a good deal. The store would tack on a profit as well so you get more bang for your buck. With local honey everyone wins.
Now it is time for me to go back to work. The honey won't bottle itself. I'll take a frame of fresh honey to school for my daughters and their classes to enjoy and I'll give away honey to my family and friends. I'll eat a lot of it too over the next year.
"You should have three hives next year," said my wife as we finished straining a batch.
"What for?" I asked.
"More honey," she replied.
I have to agree.