George McAllister has the best-smelling basement in all of Charlotte. That’s where he extracts honey from his backyard hives – and invites other beekeepers to join him – on his annual honey harvest day each summer. It’s an awfully sticky business with a pretty sweet result, which we’ll describe in a moment. Until then, just imagine breathing in soft air that’s scented with candles made of sugar and the fragrance of a million flowers.
First, a quick catch-up: As we’ve shared with you in recent stories here at WFAEats, bees and the honey they produce have been part of recorded human culture for at least 8,000 years. For this wrap-up, we’ll explain exactly how that honey gets from a hive and into a jar on your table. Then we’ll give you a taste of what’s happening with bees locally and globally, and look ahead to the future.
- Now, back to our bees. Once they’ve completed their work of making the honey and packing it into the combs, suit up in protective gear to prevent stings from irritated insects.
- In the old days, honey-hunters would simply smash the hive, kill the bees, and strain the debris from the liquid. A modern beehive often resembles a chest of drawers, with flat, removable frames you slide out separately.
- Carefully remove the frames from the hive while keeping the bees at bay. Using a special device to blow gentle puffs of smoke in their direction will distract most of them, at least temporarily.
- Take the frames far away from the hive.
- Next, uncap each frame to remove the wax with which the bees have sealed it. An electric hot knife is fastest but you can also use a spiked roller. If you melt the cap off, you’ll smell two things right away: the pure beeswax used to make artisanal candles, and the warm honey that will begin to drip out of the frame.
- The mass of melted wax and honey is a mess, but this is actually the best part of the process: Grab a gob of the stuff and put it in your mouth. Chew until there’s no more honey flavor left, then spit out the wax. Repeat!
- Now, to extract the honey, place each uncapped frame in a special metal drum and turn a hand crank to spin the honey out (think of a washer spinning water out of clothes). Electric honey extractors are more expensive and more efficient but the process is the same. The honey will collect at the bottom of the drum, which has a spigot that lets it flow into a bucket below.
- Strain and filter if desired, and pour into jars. Do not refrigerate.
Back at George McAllister’s place, just a few miles from downtown Charlotte, P.J. Fronapfel is processing honey from his own backyard hives for the first time. The pediatric anesthesiologist and outdoor enthusiast took a series of “Bee School” classes from McAllister at the Mecklenburg County Beekeepers Association. Fronapfel uncaps each honey-laden frame with the expected surgical precision before he loads it into the mechanized extractor.
McAllister jokes, “I get free labor,” from the friends who swarm to help out at his annual event. But the truth is that everyone learns something new from this accomplished teacher and mentor. He’s organized and precise in his practice, keeping logs of weights and dates. Yields will vary but he estimates each of his five hives produces an average of 100 pounds every year. He bottles his product under his own Charlotte Honey label but doesn’t actually eat honey. “Why eat your inventory?” he asks wryly.
At age 17, Katie Soden already has six years of beekeeping under her belt. Back as a pre-teen, she balked at attending Promenade, so her parents allowed her to take on an additional activity of her own choice. She chose “Bee School.” After some stings led to anaphylaxis, she landed in the allergist’s office for treatment. But that didn’t dissuade her from learning to give bee talks with a portable observation hive she takes to schools and clubs.
She read about the Eastern Congo Initiative, spearheaded by Ben Affleck. In eighth grade, she wrote the actor-director a letter. “Since they do grants to local organizations in Eastern Congo, I suggested to him that he do a beekeeping initiative. Bees can double crop production because of pollination, and African honey sells well on the world market.” To her astonishment, Affleck wrote her back a long reply, told her the idea was great and promised to pass it along.
Bees aren’t just an engrossing hobby, they’re part of a global industry and ecosystem. It’s estimated that bees and related insects pollinate up to 70 percent of the food we eat. But bee populations are declining dangerously, due to habitat loss, parasites, and pesticides. A February 2016, article in Fortune examined the threats from bee loss on this estimated $577 billion sector of the world’s food supply.
An infestation of the varroa mite can kill an entire colony. Beekeepers make a controversial decision if they choose not treat their hives because bees from an infected hive can transmit the parasite to neighboring hives.
Pesticides such as neonicotinoids cause bee death. These are under intense scrutiny, and rightly so. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has extensive resources on assessing risk and protecting pollinators. In 2014, President Obama established a Pollinator Health Task Force.
In July 2016, as a rising high school senior, Soden was accepted to the accelerated Summer Ventures in Science and Mathematics program at East Carolina University. She decided to research the effects of pesticides on honeybee gut flora. Like humans, bees depend on healthy bacteria as part of their immune systems. Soden dissected the bees’ stomachs, gathered and grew bacteria, then exposed them to the pesticides. She observed the changes that confirmed the chemicals destroyed the good bacteria that are needed to maintain health.
The news isn’t completely dire, though. Fronapfel is a fan of the revolutionary “Flow Hive,” developed in Australia. Father and son Stuart and Cedar Anderson invented a self-contained hive with sliding frames. It allows beekeepers to harvest the honey – without removing the frames or releasing the bees. The pair set out to crowd-fund $70,000 to launch the project in February 2015. At last count in August 2016, they’d received more than $4.2 million, and more orders than they could immediately fill.
Whether or not we ourselves care to keep bees, everyone ought to care about their well-being.
Soden explains, “People do a lot of things that hurt bees without knowing.”
Along with hobbyists, advocates, inventors, and scientists, this budding environmentalist is helping to assure bees will survive in the millennia yet to come. Not simply for the sweetness they give us – but for their role in our survival.