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My uncle Elzie kept his bee hives in amongst the wrecked cars and other metal debris behind his house on the Highway 160 outside of Smackover. He was a big friendly man, always in blue overalls and smelling of sweat, burlap smoke and honey. He had a honey stand in front of his unpainted house on the highway where my cousins and I would sell his mason jars full of honey along with petrified wood they had found in the bottoms. It was always an exciting event when a car pulled into the swept yard and suddenly our stand was filled with customers.
A few weeks ago I found myself channeling uncle Elzie, sweating under two shirts and a bee veil. This is honey season. The air was filled with the intoxicating smell of smoke and honey while thousands of bees swarmed around me. Though I had raised the bees for three years, I had never robbed them out of fear of starving the hive in the winter. But last fall I added two supers to my hives giving me a super (box) for brood, a super for capped honey for the bee’s coming winter and two more supers of honey frames for me. Each super holds ten frames of comb which the bees fill with brood, pollen or honey with the honey in the upper supers.
My smoker was filled with burlap and pine needles which I first aimed at the opening of the hive. Some beekeepers say the smoke calms the bees, others that they move to protect the brood thinking the hive is on fire. Either way the bees are distracted to some degree and are a little less determined to find a way to sting me. I set aside the smoker and used a hive tool to pop the top off the hive and pried up my first frame which was filled with golden capped honey. Bees covered the comb and I used the smoker and a soft bee brush to brush them off. After placing the honey filled frame in an empty ice chest, I returned to the hive and repeated this about 25 or 30 times on my two hives.
When I inspect my hives during the year, the bees are amazingly docile until I start popping off supers and essentially dismantling the hive. Then they are on me. I can really tell the difference in the sound of the bees and the number of bees hitting me. When that happens I know sooner or later I’ll get stung. This spring I was not wearing boots and six or seven got me on the ankle.
I’m always trying to find the queen, a bee twice the length of the other female worker bees, both to confirm she is alive and for just the pleasure of seeing her. Of the 30,000 or so bees in my hive, they are all female with the exception of a few hundred males or drones whose only mission is to lay about and fertilize the queen. Those who are successful disembowel themselves when they withdraw from the queen after mating in the air. Those who are unsuccessful might live through the summer but are either expelled from the hive or killed by the female workers as winter and a potential lack of food approaches.
A screened in porch is a blessing when extracting the honey from the hive. As soon as the bees find where you have taken the honey, they will come to take it back. If you go into an air conditioned area, the honey becomes like molasses and won’t flow. This year the bees covered my screens like some insect version of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. Last year I had taken just two frames of capped honey, opened the honey capsules with a knife and left them to drip into a bucket. Late the next morning I went out to find all of the honey gone with just a few unfortunate bees stuck in the dregs.
This year I had a simple honey extractor which after puncturing the honey capsules with a spiked roller, I spin, emptying the combs of honey by centrifigual force.
By late that night I had extracted over 100 lbs of honey, filtered it of wings and comb wax and filled dozens of sterilized mason jars. Some will be gifts but most will be added to the inventory of cut flowers and heirloom tomatoes at next year’s farmers market.