By Lisa Boonstoppel-Pot
This year’s honey harvest barely avoided becoming a sting operation once the bees started talking and came armed and ready.
The fact that bees communicate with dancing and pheromones has been well-documented by researchers keen to understand the language of bees. I just didn’t realize their nest-based communication would make a honey harvest operation blow up faster than a high school shed party on a Friday night.
It was, indeed, a Friday when conditions were right to harvest honey from honeybee hives I keep on in a small meadow created from a portion of my lawn. I’m new to beekeeping and have much to learn so experienced beekeepers will shake their heads reading this story but bear with me ... I’m learning as I go.
Truth is, I was a little rushed that day having packed too much in the schedule. I should have had the table, trays, pails and knives all ready to go so that when my helpers, Jason and Sam, arrived, I just had to get the honey frames from the hives. Instead, it was all a bit rushed and disorganized which was part of the problem. Also, it was hard to get the bees off the frames from the honey supers. In the Spring, I could give the frames a quick downward shake and all the bees would fall off. This fall, the bees stuck on and I had to gently brush the bees off the frames. Then by the time I placed one frame in the wheelbarrow to get another one, bees had found the first. A cover would have been smart. By the time I had collected eight frames, a few bees were tagging along but I figured we could handle them.
I pushed the wheelbarrow to the garage where our honey extraction operation was set up. It actually went pretty smoothly even with the half a dozen bees that were flying inside the garage. Most of them found the south-facing window so we decided to open the window and let them fly out. Forgetting to close that window was our big mistake.
We kept working away, using a heated knife to cut off the capped wax. This was collected in glass trays before inserting two frames into the manual extractor. One person held the extractor (boy, does it shake during spinning) while another spun the handle. Soon, golden honey was pouring out the bottom into a clean pail. Piles of it!! Last year was my first season with one beehive and I was only able to harvest five jars. I had four times that amount this year.
However, there seemed to be more and more bees. Soon I had to stop working to catch and remove bees from the garage. Still, things were still relatively under control until helper Sam noticed one frame (which had a section of capped brood) had bees emerging from the brood caps. Shaken by the spin they had just survived (or perhaps it was just time), we had the amazing experience of watching these new bees chewing through their caps and emerging from the cells. Now I was engrossed watching the process while all the spun frames, pails of honey and honey-covered wax were beckoning to any bee smart enough to fly in the window. And fly in the window they did.
Clearly, at least one Chatty Cathy honeybee had told her friends at the hive about the sweet bonanza awaiting them if they flew 75 metres south, took a right at the green wheelbarrow, then hung a sharp right into the window above the cold frame. As this was happening, I had donned my bee suit and was returning the empty frames to the hives, leaving Jason and Sam to spin the last two frames.
I was quite safe, returning the frames, and thrilled with the whole process. We had harvested so much honey! When I returned to the garage, Jason, Samantha and Maria were less pleased. Unprotected against the horde of hungry bees that had flown into the garage, the pair had wisely bailed. We decided to fling open all the doors and cart the equipment outside. I brushed bees off the honey pails and bowls of honey-covered wax and got them into the house. A little honey was left in the extractor so we closed it up and then ran inside, letting the bees harvest the honey on the tables and left in the wax trays. I figured once nighttime hit, I could safely drain the extractor and clean everything up.
So it went. When darkness fell, most of the bees had disappeared but caught out after hours, a layer of bees was hiding in the bottoms of the trays. I brought these trays to the hive, which was still buzzing. Hearing that sound, these cold bees immediately climbed out of the trays and into the hive.
In the end, all the honey was extracted and the only person who got stung was me when a bee found a hole in my shoe and got me right on the baby toe.
Honey Harvest 2021 was way too chaotic to be sure and I don’t blame Jason and Sam if they never want to help me again but honestly, the situation was fascinating. Reading about how bees communicate is one thing. Watching the results in real life is quite another. With the two hives, I rarely see more than a dozen bees together at one time as they gather pollen and nectar. Yet in less than 30 minutes, we had hundreds of bees in the garage due to their incredible communication process.
Before this harvest, I interviewed Colette Mesher of Miel Rebel honey (see story inside this issue) and she said her favourite thing about bees is that they have a story to tell. Our job, as beekeepers, is to learn how to interpret that story and give bees what they need.
Clearly, I have much to learn and didn’t realize how fast news flies in a bee colony because my Big Rock Bees were sharing a story I didn’t even know I’d written! This is part of the challenge, excitement and rush of working with bees. They are smart, efficient and very focused. Next year, I’ll make sure being organized and airtight is part of my story so that the bees don’t take over the narrative. ◊