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A sweetness worth the stings 

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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.

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