You might have guessed, if you’ve been reading the blog, that we’re a little obsessed with bees. Mason bees! Leaf cutter bees! Bumblebees of all kinds! Who knew there were so many kinds of bees? They’re some of the main pollinators that keep our market garden and greenhouse humming along (forgive the pun).
This past summer, we began adding to the population with our first hives of honeybees. The girls, as we call them, have brought something special to Larch Grove Farm. Right from the start, these Italian honeybees proved themselves incredibly adaptable and docile, and we rapidly went from needing full protective gear when tending the hives as a couple of newbies to really only needing the smoker and perhaps a veil to keep the bees out of our ears when checking on the brood. As we got used to them, they got used to us, settling in happily in our market garden, drinking from the muddy banks of the pond, and pollinating everything in sight. We decided early on that we didn’t want to use chemicals in the hives that, if touched with our bare hands, would require a trip to the emergency room – who wants to eat honey that’s been in contact with such things? So, with the advice of our beekeeping mentor, we settled on a plan of weekly inspections for mites, foulbrood, and dysentery, and a series of dustings with powdered sugar to induce grooming amongst the bees. We figured that even if we couldn’t corral them into just foraging in our organic garden, we could at least provide them a pesticide- and travel-free home. (No, our bees don’t get moved from one crop to another, as most commercial hives get moved. They stay in one place in the market garden year-round.)
So far, the girls are thriving, even through our -35C and below winter, complete with windchill. They are certainly amazing little critters, and we’re deeply enthralled.
And let me tell you about the honey.
Oh, wow, the honey!
We left each hive 60 pounds of honey as food reserves for the winter, and we still managed to harvest countless jars for ourselves and to sell through our farm store. We’ve also kept four reserve frames for each hive so that the bees, come spring, can feast on their own honey again when they’ve run out, and not on the processed sugar water we’d otherwise have to give them. We’re trying to close the loop on inputs for beekeeping, just as we’re trying to close the loop on seeds for our garden.
The honey harvest was pretty interesting. (Read…messy?!) We didn’t have an extractor in our first year (not at $600 and up), so we harvested from each frame by hand. That meant that the comb wax and the honey came out together. After scraping off the capping wax, we heated the honey in a double boiler just long enough for the wax to rise to the surface for skimming.
Then we strained.
And strained. We wanted to get as much of the wax out of the honey as possible for clean and clear jars.
Lots of sticky cheesecloth and hot, sterilized jars – yowch!
After all that filtering, the clean honey was sealed up in the hot jars and labeled. We called it Pembina Gold – and boy, is it delicious! I can taste summer in our North Country garden in every bite of that honey on my morning toast.
We decided to write down the foraging history of our bees on the lid of every jar. Although we can’t guarantee that a bee hasn’t hoofed it five miles to find a canola flower somewhere, we’ve done our level best to make our market garden as bee-friendly as possible to lure them in where it’s safe and pesticide-free. The lids detail the plants that we noticed the bees foraging off most this summer. This winter, we’ll have an official pollen count done in a lab so that we can tell which kind of pollen appears most in our honey. Wonder what it will be?
And then there’s the beeswax. After loads of filtering and straining and washing, we’re left with beautiful, pale beeswax. Some of it will go to making lip balm and lotion and other body care goodies, and the darker wax will go into beeswax candles for our cabin, where we rely on their light through the still-long January nights.
Beekeeping has been an incredible adventure so far, and we’re excited for the girls to start flying again in the spring. The warm weather will bring a whole new array of experiences: swarming, dividing hives, and building from stronger second-year colonies, and we’re looking forward to every moment.
And we’ve got two fresh colonies of bees joining our girls in April…