Wednesday, August 17, 2011

When Honey isn't Honey

You know what honey is. Of course you do. It's that stuff the bees make. It's amber and thick and sticky and comes in old fashioned glass jars with big bold letters: HONEY. It's the stuff that Winnie the Pooh loves.

It's pure and it's good and it's good for you.

Honey is honey.

And maple syrup is maple syrup.

And you can't take a bottle of colored corn syrup and call it maple syrup. After all, there are laws!

But in New York State and in many other states that same bottle of colored corn syrup might be labeled as honey and sitting on a shelf at your local supermarket. It's being done -- and worse.

A recent article in Food Safety News bore this disturbing headline: "Asian Honey, Banned in Europe, Is Flooding U.S. Grocery Shelves." It reported that a third or more of the honey consumed in the U.S. is likely to have been smuggled in from China and may be tainted with illegal antibiotics and heavy metals or concocted without the help of bees from artificial sweeteners.

The FDA claims it doesn't have the resources to adequately monitor the situation.

The problem is further exacerbated by the fact that most states, including New York State do not have a standard of identity for honey. So products adulterated with cheap concoctions of sweeteners are being labeled and sold as honey in New York State.

Surprised? So was I.

The Empire State Honey Producers Association has been lobbying the New York State Legislature to pass a Standard of Identity for honey. There are bills in both the Senate and the Assembly. Senator Joseph Griffo is a sponsor of the State Senate bill.

"The objective is to ensure that it's a quality product, it's a pure product with a standard that becomes associated with New York State so that it's a premier product that will be a benefit to the state of New York," said Griffo.

The bills in the Assembly and Senate are stalled. Apparently "pure honey" is something that is negotiable and the Senate and Assembly are still negotiating while New York State consumers are left unprotected from the most basic truth in labeling.

While the legislators fiddle, you might find yourself a local beekeeper who knows what honey is and where it comes from. There never was a better reason to buy local.

You can read more about the efforts of the Empire State Honey Producers Association to get a standard of identity established for honey sold in New York State by visiting

Monday, August 8, 2011

Moving the suitcase

Did you ever see the episode of "Everybody Loves Raymond" where Ray leaves a suitcase on the stairs and Debra decides she is not going to move it or say anything about it and just see what happens. So it sits. And sits. And sits. Kind of like this blog.

Anyway, a lot has happened over the course of the past 11 months. My bees made it through a very tough winter. I left them plenty of honey but I didn't wrap the hives or close the screened bottom boards. Rather, I simply put in metal entrance reducers to keep out the meadow mice and tilted the hives slightly forward so that any condensation would hopefully drip harmlessly to the front of the hive instead of straight down on the bees.

During the winter I checked the entrances a couple times to make sure they were not blocked by dead bees. I'm glad I did. Galway must have gone into the winter with too many bees because in January when I checked the entrance there were thousands of dead bees piling up on the bottom board. I thought I had lost the colony for sure. It was too cold to open the hive and check the cluster. I cleared the entrance using a long screwdriver and hoped for the best. I was relieved to see lots of bees making cleansing flights on the next (relatively) warm day.

As winter progressed I wondered if Clare wasn't leaning a bit. I thought it might be my imagination or perhaps the angle I was viewing it at from inside the house. I finally walked out into the deep snow in the yard and looked at it head on. It looked like it could topple at any moment. The 2x4 legs on the downhill side of the stand had sunk further into the soil, either before the ground had frozen, or as a result of a frost heave. In spring the clay soil would get spongy, those legs would sink further and the hive would certainly fall.

I bought some ratchet straps from Home Depot and put a pair of them around the hive and stand and ratcheted them tight. I then pushed on the side of the hive as hard as I could and managed to raise the legs a bit. I made a makeshift wall between the legs of the stand from a cinder block and a large, flat rock and rested the top rail of the hive stand on it. This would get me to spring.

I watched it very closely as the spring thaw came and my cinder block "wall" did not shift. Clare made it through. But I knew I had to rethink my hive stands.

We had decided to expand the apiary to 4 hives in 2011 so it was a good time to reconsider the hive stands. Instead of individual hive stands, I thought a "table" arrangement might work well.

We ordered all the extra hive equipment in December to take advantage of a free shipping offer from Brushy Mountain. We also ordered three packages of bees from Brushy. Two for the new hives we were putting in and one just in case Clare or Galway didn't make it. I figured I could sell the extra one if I didn't need it -- at least that's how I sold the idea to Maureen. A 5th hive was in the back of my mind.

Maureen painted the new hive bodies and added splashes of color with butterfly, flower and bee drawings on them. I built and painted the new stands. We were ready for the bees. A couple days before we were to pick them up I got a call from Brushy Mountain. Their supplier could not deliver. The bees were honey bound. (Honey bound is a situation where the bees have filled the brood space with nectar/honey and there is not enough room to raise adequate brood.)

So we didn't get any bees. Galway came through the winter very strong despite the thousands of dead bees I had cleared from the bottom board during the winter. I could split Galway for one of the new colonies. Clare was doing ok but nowhere near the strength of Galway. It was not a candidate for splitting.

I decided I'd split Galway right after I finished a weekend beekeeping course at Cornell University in Ithaca. Great class. Lousy timing. Galway swarmed (half the colony left with the queen to form a new colony) while I was away at class.

I positioned the new hive stand directly in front of the old ones at the same height and then just moved each colony onto the new stand. This gave me additional clearance behind the hives. And the table arrangement works great for providing level work space.

So we still have only 2 hives but the good news is that both Clare and Galway are doing great. So far this year we have harvested over 80 pounds of honey and there is plenty more that is almost ready for harvest. And with the fall flow coming soon (the goldenrod is already blooming) I won't be surprised to get 300 pounds in total this year.

Monday, September 20, 2010

A Bottling Tip

I noticed a day or two after bottling my first batch of honey that a foam developed at the tops of the jars. In some instances a trail of bubbles could be noticed running up a shoulder of the jars.

I guessed that this was from air introduced to the honey as a consequence of the extraction process. The radial extractor I used spins the frames and centrifugal force throws the honey from the comb against the sides of the extractor. It seems logical that all this spinning and throwing would result in some air getting mixed in with the honey.

I let the second batch of honey settle in the bottling bucket for 2 days before attempting to bottle it. This resulted in a frothy layer developing on the surface of the honey in the bottling bucket but crystal clear honey flowing into the bottles. As we came to the end of the bottling, this froth was limited to the last couple of jars which we'll use ourselves.

This second pass, Maureen also processed the wax from uncapping the honey and from burr comb collected throughout the season. It started out as a very messy process but Maureen learned quite a bit along the way. You can see some of the processed wax on the left side of the photo above. Maureen has agreed to provide a guest posting this week with some insights on what she learned.


Saturday, September 18, 2010

Uncapping & Extracting Honey

I thought it might be fun to create a video showing the process. It was! I'm also creating my first blog post from my cell phone. Not fun! I hope you enjoy the video and find it instructive.

While I'm at it, here's some of the hive inspection we did at Clare before extracting the honey we pulled from Galway.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

First Harvest

It was Saturday afternoon and I was tired, having just driven three and a half hours from Lancaster, PA but the weather forecast dictated: get some honey now or wait several days. I decided to give it a go.

I loaded up the front end loader of my tractor with a couple hive bodies, a towel, fume boards, a bottle of Bee-Quick and the standard hive inspection tools and headed for the apiary.

The activity at the hives was amazing to behold. There was little doubt that these were two healthy bee colonies and the fall nectar was flowing.

It was upon viewing this busy scene that my anxiety level suddenly picked up. I was about to disrupt these perfectly happy bees on this perfectly beautiful afternoon. And I was going to take some of that honey they were working so tirelessly to create. And I had never done it before. I had read a great deal about it but I had also learned how different real life can be from what you read in the books.

"Get in there." I told myself.

I set the fume boards out in the sun to heat them and I lit the smoker. I opened Galway hoping to find capped honey in the top super. If the honey was ready, the plan was to use a fume board to drive the bees out of the super and then pull the entire super for harvesting.

I pulled the first frame and took a look. It was about 70% capped. Not good enough. I set it on the frame rest and pulled a second frame. It was fully capped. I made an instant decision. I wasn't going to pull entire supers. I was going to pull frames and I was starting with this one.

I gave the frame a shake downward toward the hive entrance to clear some of the bees. Then I reached for the bee brush and gently brushed the remaining bees from the frame. Once clear, I walked it over to the tractor and set it in one of the hive bodies in the loader. I then covered it with a towel.

The die had been cast. I was into it now and my anxiety went up. As I checked the remaining frames in the top super I was disappointed to find that they were not quite sufficiently capped to harvest. A frame doesn't have to be 100% capped but it should be at least 80% capped; otherwise, the honey might have too high a water content and would be more susceptible to granulation, or worse, fermentation.

I replaced the first frame and then pulled the top super and set it aside while I examined the 5th story. The first frame of the fifth story was fully capped. I shook and brushed the bees from it and deposited the frame in the towel draped hive body in the front end loader. The second frame was also fully capped and I repeated the process. The third frame was also fully capped. As I finished clearing it of bees and depositing it with the others in the loader I took a look around to assess the overall situation in the apiary.

Bees were out of the frames and all over the outside of the top super that I had set aside. And as I peered into the hive I could see clumps of bees covering oozing honey from honeycomb built on top of the top bars of the 4th story. That comb was probably attached to the sides or the bottoms of the frames that I had removed from the 5th story and as I pulled the frames it tore the comb and released the honey.

I thought about removing the entire fifth story and smoking the bees down into the 4th and clearing the top bars of the oozing comb. But where would I put the 5th story? The bees were all over the outside of the 6th story so not on top of that.

As I considered my options a thought came to mind: "No hive visit should be over twenty minutes." It occurred to me that in all my slow and deliberate work that the clock had run out on my visit. My anxiety kicked up a notch. I still had to get the hive back together.

I decided to stop at just 4 frames. I replaced the frames I pulled with new frames and foundation so the bees wouldn't be building burr comb all over the place. I set them in gently so that the bees on the 4th story top bars didn't get crushed. I then smoked the bees down into the 5th story and smoked the bees back in to the 6th story that lay beside the hive. I put the 6th story back in place; shook the bees off of the inner cover and put it back in place and finally placed the telescoping cover back on the hive.

I then took a number of long, slow, deep breaths. I commented to Maureen that my lack of experience caused me some heightened anxiety. She responded that it really looked like I knew what I was doing. Maybe it was a combination of inexperience and being tired that caused me to feel anxious. Whatever the reason, I was happy to have order restored. I thought about going in Clare and checking for a couple more frames but I looked inside the smoker to check the fuel and it was about gone. Truth be told, I was glad the smoker was about out.

By the way, the bees were well behaved throughout my visit. They did not seem overly defensive as I had read they can get as the days get shorter and their honey stores grow. I worked without gloves, wearing a veil as my only protective gear and was never stung.

We took the 4 frames back to the house and immediately began the extraction process. I'll fill you in on the details of that much less stressful process in my next post.


Monday, September 6, 2010

On honey labels and where our food comes from

I did get some feedback from a fellow beekeeper regarding the new honey label I'm planning on using. She cautioned: Beware. Cornell says consumer research says people don’t want to be reminded where the honey comes from. Bees on labels are not recommended.

I appreciated the feedback but at the same time I was flabbergasted. It must have been the Cornell School of Business that was giving that advice. Or perhaps, Cornell's School of Pragmatism. But not Cornell's School of Agriculture or their community outreach program, Cooperative Extension, which educates many in our communities throughout New York State.

Don't remind people that bees make honey? Don't remind people that chickens make eggs? Don't remind people that cows make milk? An ignorant public is in the best interest of business? It is hard to believe that educational institutions are espousing this, especially leading educational institutions like Cornell.

New York State has been working to define a Standard of Identity(SOI) for Honey. This is because of adulterated products entering the market. It seems that not everything being sold as "honey" comes from the honeybees. I wonder how many consumers are aware of this?

The Empire State Honey Producers Association has a resolution endorsing the efforts of New York State to arrive at a Standard of Identity for honey. The very first item in section 1 of the proposed SOI states: “Honey” means the natural sweet substance produced by honeybees from the nectar of plants or excretions of plant sucking insects on the living parts of plants, which the bees collect, transform by combining with specific substances of their own, deposit, dehydrate, store, and leave in the honeycomb to ripen and mature.

I like the idea of reminding the public about where my honey comes from. The beauty of the honeybee is to me the best part of the honey. It enhances the flavor. My labels will always have pictures of the lovely creatures who created the sweet, healthy product within.


Thursday, September 2, 2010

My plan versus the bee plan

It seems the bees and I are not on the same page. I guess we're not reading the same books. Unbeknownst to me, my plan began unraveling when I reduced from 8 to 7 the number of frames in the 4th story of Galway.

By reducing the frames and spreading them equidistantly the bees were supposed to draw out the comb further in each frame to close the distance back to within 1/4 to 1/8 of an inch between frames. Bee space -- remember?

Well, I spread them and added a 5th story and when the bees drew most of that I reduced the frames in the 5th story and added a 6th story. It wasn't until a couple of weeks ago as I was readying for harvest that I went down in the hive and discovered the bees were operating with their own plans.

I had decided that I wanted to harvest the 4th story first -- it was the early summer honey that was produced from the millions of Bachelor Buttons in the meadow. From what I had read, Bachelor Button honey is a pinkish white honey and I really wanted to harvest some. So my plan was to bring the 4th story to the top of the hive and put the 6th story which had yet to be drawn into the 4th position -- a simple swap. That would make it easy to monitor the Bachelor Button honey and harvest it as soon as it was capped. Brilliant!

A couple of weeks ago I initiated the swap. When merely looking down into the 4th story from above everything looked good. The comb had been drawn out further just as my plan had called for. But when I removed the 4th story, there was brood comb and exposed brood all over the top bars of the 3rd story.

It seems the bees had drawn out the comb at the very top of the frames but they also built brood comb up in between the frames from the top bars of the 3rd story. Perhaps the 4th story frames were not hanging straight up and down in the hive body and there was more space in between the middle frames that allowed them to do this.

However they managed it, the lesson was not lost on me. I need to get down into the hive and examine individual frames and not just look down from above. I proceeded with my basic plan of swapping the 6th and 4th stories. And today I got back in the hive to see how things were going. Once again, the bees surprised me.

Much of the 6th story is full of capped honey but the center frames also have capped brood in the centers of each frame just as if they were down in the brood chamber. There must have been brood comb remaining in the 4th story when I moved it to the 6th story. So I'm giving up on my plan of harvesting supers full of honey and I will focus on harvesting frame by frame.

I may add a queen excluder between the 5th and 6th stories to let the brood hatch out and not have to worry about the queen continuing to use it for new brood.

Oh, and Clare. I decided a couple weeks ago to let Clare build its strength in preparation for winter. I put a feeder on it and have been feeding 1:1 syrup for the last few weeks. I'll change it to 2:1 in a few weeks. Its doing good but I've decided not to try and harvest anything from it this year.

Lastly, just in case you think I've been goofing off all of August, here's a sneak peek at the new website for selling honey that I may actually harvest someday: If you look closely you'll also get a sneak peek at the label for that yet to be bottled honey.