The leaves crunched under the weight of their feet, while a honeybee flitted from leaf to leaf, stopping in a near-motionless hover while collecting water from the leaf’s early morning dew. She looks as if her wings are not moving at all, but they’re actually flapping 11,000 times per second. This was the scene in which my husband and Center Grove resident Emet Talley joined his brother John for harvesting his honey.
“Backyard beekeeping is not difficult. It doesn’t take any more time than say a garden or a pet,” John said. “It’s a great hobby for those who enjoy nature, science and agriculture. And the honey is a bonus.”
To locate their food or the nectar source for making honey, honeybees have one of the most interesting communication systems. They communicate through an excreted chemical substance called pheromone. “It is quite a sight to observe,” Emet said in awe.
In late summer when harvest season is at its peak, so is the population of a typical beehive. By now, each hive has anywhere from 40,000 to 60,000 bees, which can increase the probability of being stung. “Even though bees are small, they are very good team players,” Emet said with a chuckle.
While knowledge of the bees is the first line of offense, most beekeepers also wear some protective clothing . “At a minimum, beekeepers should wear a veil to protect against stings on the face,” said John. “Many experienced beekeepers don’t wear gloves or a covered suit, but doing so can help minimize stings.”
A third defense against stings when opening a hive is smoke. Most bees duck into an open cell and engorge on nectar or honey when exposed to the smoke. Bees filled with honey are more docile; they are far less likely to sting. Thus, a smoker is used every time a hive is opened.
Many beekeepers harvest in June, August and September extracting the purest honey from the different pollination seasons. Careful attention is made in the amount of honey taken within the fall months. “Bees need enough honey left for them in the fall to keep them fed during the winter. They usually need 50-80 pounds of honey,” Mike Seib, 42-year beekeeping veteran, said. “Because of the heat this summer the bees have had to work harder keeping their hives cool. If they do not produce enough honey for the winter, sugar water will need to be used to feed the bees. Once the temperature drops below 40 degrees, raw sugar is used.”
Understanding the harvest process is easier when you can visualize how the hive is set up. The super or hive looks like boxes sitting on top of each other. In the bottom box the queen busies herself with laying her eggs. If the top boxes were opened, each box would remind you of a filing cabinet drawer. As a cabinet drawer would have files hanging downward and hinged on two-sides of the drawer, the bee boxes have 8-10 frames hinged on two-sides of the box that hang down. Here is where the bees build their honeycomb, produce the nectar and cap it off with wax.
Crops, we all know, are harvested whenever the vegetables, fruits and grains are ripe. Honey is no different. But since bees make the honey, how do we know when it is “ripe” and ready to harvest? “Easy,” said Mike. “Honeybees ripen nectar by drawing moisture from the syrupy mixture. Once the moisture level is to their satisfaction the worker bees will seal it with wax. They do this cell-by-cell until the entire frame is capped.”
For a frame to be ready for harvest, it must be at least 90 percent capped. “While pulling the honey frames out of the hives is easy to do, removing the bees from the frames is a different story,” John said. “There are several ways to remove bees from the frames to get to the honey. Many people, including myself, use a brush. Others with a bigger operation employ air compressors, leaf blowers or bee escapes.” Using a brush, a beekeeper will take a frame at a time and gently brush the bees from the frame. After each frame is completed, new frames are placed in the super.
Utilizing a scraper or an electric uncapping knife, the capped wax is removed from the frame to uncover the honey underneath. Newly made wax will be a bright white. As it ages through the years, the wax becomes darker.
Multiple frames can be placed in the extractor to spin the honey out. Once the honey is extracted from the comb, it collects in the bottom of the extractor, which has a valve on the bottom. “At this point, you can bottle the honey, but I suggest the honey be strained for particles that may have come off the frames,” said John.
If you are interested in beekeeping, now is the time to plan for it. You can purchase your boxes and get them made and painted for the weather. “In February the Indiana Beekeepers Association (www.indianabeekeeper.com) has a class for beginners,” John said.
For those wanting to have a backyard beehive, Mike recommends starting slowly. “Start out with two hives so you can compare. If one hive is not doing well, you should be able to recognize it by the activity of your other hive.”
Mike, a volunteer with the White Lick Beekeepers Association, suggests coming to a meeting and socializing with beekeepers of all levels of expertise. The meetings are at the Mooresville Library, 220 West Harrison Street, on the second Wednesday of each month at 6:30 p.m. cg
Tonja Talley has called Center Grove home since 1993. An 11-year bi-lateral lung transplant survivor, Tonja enjoys speaking on behalf of the Indiana Organ Procurement Organization. She also volunteers for the CF Foundation, byTavi, and her church.