“How bad could it be (or bee!)?” were my husband, PK’s, words to me as we drove home from the gym and were getting psyched to harvest honey from our hives. This had been my worry since mid-summer and the time I wrote my last bee blog, when I had realized that my bees were really successful and storing a lot of honey. How was I going to harvest it? I don’t own either the equipment or a building detached from my house to enclose the operation and keep the angry bees out of our living space. Last year, I piggybacked on my neighbor Chris’s, harvest and came out with one 5 gallon container.
Chris has been a beekeeper for a long time, and he has the harvest operation down. He has a shed with power, a honey extractor, and the electric knife needed for cutting the caps off the hives. This year, he said that he would keep me in the loop on his harvesting plans, and that he would likely do it over an August weekend. I worried for a solid month. Particularly because I went away for two weeks in August, I worried that I might have missed the event, and more importantly to my mooch-y self, missed out on the equipment, helping hands, and the know-how.
I finally snapped out of my worry and reliance on my neighbor when PK gave me the OK to harvest the honey in our kitchen, and I got access to all of the needed equipment through one of my good friends and bee mentor, Laura. She had an extractor, hot knife, and a really cool multi-layer container that you throw your honey caps into and strain the honey off the wax. I had already purchased a fume board, sweet-smelling bee repellent, food grade storage pails, and lots of cases of jars.
But, back to the main question, how bad could it bee?
Step one of harvesting is getting the honey away from the bees. I was feeling fairly confident going into this step. We picked a warm, sunny day. I had a new fume board and some almond/cherry bee repellent called Fischer Bee Quick, which was different from the past when I had vomit smelling bee repellent. Via YouTube, I had watched many people using a procedure for getting the bees out where they heat up the fume board in the sun, squirt bee repellent on the inner cloth side of the board, and lay it over the top bars of the open hive. In the videos, the bees immediately get repulsed and dive deeper into the hive, at which point, you wait 5 minutes and then take the top super off. Then, you repeat the process for the next layer, then the next, etc., until you have taken off all of the supers that you are harvesting.
So, with my head full of second-hand information, PK and I headed to the hive with all of our supplies. We peeled off the cover to start the process and added the fume board, and the bees went berserk. Within the first 15 seconds, I got stung on the tip of my nose through the bee veil. PK retreated quickly into the house to get on another layer of pants, and I followed after him to do the same thing. My 13-year-old daughter Hannah joined us in her bright pink raincoat with face exposed. We told her that she might ruin her face and to wait for the next step of the process, the extraction. We came back outside with many more clothing layers. We lifted the fume board, and finally, the process settled into what I had seen and read on the internet.
We bagged each honey super as it came off the stack and walked it into our house. The bag was to help to methodically control and limit the loose bees in the house. The girls had been working hard this summer and the boxes were heavy. We got to the last super in the pile and decided to leave it. Although the frames had honey in them, they were not capped. I learned from the internet forums that the honey is not really ripe when it is uncapped.
We moved on to our second hive, and following the same steps, we moved the boxes off even quicker. However, this hive is situated deeper in the woods, and I think the shade kept the fume board from working as well. We could hear the bees buzzing as we bagged each super and hauled it into our house with the open floor plan.
It was now time for step two, which is extracting the honey from the hives. In our kitchen, we unbagged one super at a time and realized that the fume method isn’t perfect, despite what I saw in the YouTube videos. We had lots of bees loose in the house. Nevertheless, our family came together and really acted as a team. Our roles just fell into place. PK was the bee catcher and frame mover. Hannah was the hot knife, honeycomb uncapper, and I was the frame spinner for the extractor.
We stayed focused on our roles for over two hours, getting delirious and sticky at the same time. PK was walking the spun frames and supers out into the backyard in his bee outfit so that the bees could lick and help clean up the work. He continually gave progress reports on frames left to complete. The backyard was like a summer carnival for bees, and bees from all over were joining the festivities.
We ended this year’s harvest with four 5 gallon pails filled with honey, four times last year’s production, and a big vat filled with wax clippings and slough. Honey, filth, and bees filled our house. Bayou, our dog, even got into the action and threw up his dinner next to the operation. I think that he wanted some attention, but he did eat a lot of bees and may have just gotten sick.
Since our harvest, we have been cleaning our house continuously and are on day two now. The floor still feels sticky, and pieces of the operation are still scattered about, but at least, the house is free of bees. We seem to have traded bees for ants, though.
I’m feeling productive and accomplished this evening and still hear buzzing and see the honey harvest operation when I close my eyes. But, like everything bee-related, the ever-present worry about my bees continues. Will wax moths destroy my frames and infest my house? I have bagged them and am storing the supers with drawn comb in my basement. I may put them out to freeze in the first frost, but that could be too late. Do any of my friends own a walk-in freezer?
Harvesting honey is tiresome work, just like laboring a baby. I hope that it is similar to labor in that I forget all of the hard work, pain, and effort and just relish the results, so that next year, I can be energetically ready to harvest all over again. That is, if my bees produce.
Janice Fisher is a physical therapist and beekeeper in Annapolis.
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