Honey on tap: Beekeeping innovation for a modern age

bees cleaning up honey

A couple of the ladies from our hive clean up some spilled honey on top of the bars. Inside, brand new comb shines brilliant white while other bees build even more.

My dad and I have been beekeeping for about two years.  It’s been immensely rewarding, and not just for the sweet liquid gold the ladies under our care produce.  Bees are incredible creatures, and the more I learn about them, the more I admire them (and the less I fear them).  Here are just a few examples of the marvels of bee-life, and their bizarre, wonderful, occasionally adorable habits:

-They utilize complex forms of communication, from pheromones to the “waggle dance,” which employs the sun’s position, and the angle of the bee’s trajectory over the comb as she dances to show her sisters that she’s found a plentiful patch of flowers, how to get there, how far from the hive it lies, and how abundant their harvest will be; the more energetically she dances, the more bountiful her discovery.

-Bees employ an entirely democratic decision-making process to find and choose a suitable new home for the colony.  Hundreds of scouts are sent out, and each of them reports back to the colony with data in the form of dance: location, size, defensibility, and overall desirability.  The scouts then check each other’s proposed locations, and, if one scout decides that another bee’s location is better than the one she already saw, she’ll vote for it by adopting the dance for that location.  This continues until all the scouts vote (usually) unanimously for the same location by doing the same dance.

-Every honeybee you’ve ever seen peeking out from a flower is female; males only make up 15% of the colony’s population at their peak numbers in the Spring, and in areas that experience harsh winters, get forcibly ejected from the hive in Autumn in order to preserve resources for the rest (at that point, more valuable members) of the colony.  Come Spring, their numbers are back up.  How, you might ask?  The queen bee actively selects the gender of her offspring, and therefore chooses when to create males.

Honey never spoils; it has a potentially infinite shelf life due to its chemical makeup.  In fact, jars of honey found in Egyptian tombs have been tested, and determined edible even now, 3,000 years later (some 5,500 year-old honey was discovered in Georgia in 2012).  If you have honey at home that has hardened or crystallized, just warm it double-boiler style, and you’re back in business.

-The rule really is true: if you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you.  While Africanized honeybees are known to be more aggressive than European honeybees (the most common kind you’ll find in the United States), they’re not as scary as you’ve been led to believe, and have already been breeding with local European bees for quite some time.  Beekeeper Ruth Askren, who tends nearly two dozen hives for clients all over Los Angeles, said it best: “If we really had serious Africanized bees in LA, people would be chased down the street every day.”  You can get inches away from a worker harvesting nectar and pollen from flowers, and she generally won’t mind.  Get some nice close-up photos while you’re at it.  Impress your hipster friends on Instabrag.  If you’re unlucky (read: stupid) enough to upset a hive, just run away.  Eventually they’ll stop chasing you since it makes less sense to leave the hive undefended to pursue a single threat (that’s you, you’re the threat, you giant, hulking, honey-eating mammal).  Don’t bother taking a few steps to jump into a nearby pool, though; the water won’t protect you forever, and they’ll wait for you to surface.  Distance is the key.  If you happen upon a hive, I recommend at least 4-5 meters of distance between yourself and the hive, and try to stay out of their flight path while they enter and exit.  Bonus: Try to stand downwind from the hive so you can catch the sweet, heady scent of the pollen and honey inside.

-Most beekeepers are gentle folk with an enormous respect for Mother Nature borne from the patient observation of some of her most misunderstood creatures, but bring up the topic of wasps at a beekeeper’s meeting, and get ready to tell your kid to cover his ears if he wants to enter his teen years with his innocence intact.  Bees produce honey for food, and generally mind their own business.  Wasps do not; they invade hives, kill all the bees, then eat the baby bees (brood), and the honey their dead sisters worked so hard to make.  They produce nothing but pain and fear, and we hate them with the fire of a thousand suns (and so should you if you ever want to be my friend).  The problem is that wasps can sting more than once without dying, while honeybees cannot.  Plus, bees’ stingers aren’t strong enough or long enough to do any damage to wasps, so they’re basically defenseless.  Having said all that, leave it to the Japanese (bees) to figure out a strategy that involves a self-sacrificial approach to defeat their dreaded enemy, the wasp.  When attacked by wasps, Japanese bees surround each wasp, forming a tight ball around it, and flex their wing muscles rapidly to raise the temperature of the center of their bundle, literally cooking the wasp alive, and killing it.  Unfortunately, this also kills a few bees next to the wasp, but a 20% mortality rate is better than a 100% mortality rate, so the bees take one for the team, and the colony survives to fight another day.  IFLS featured a video of this incredible behavior last year (check out the queen bee taking a walk at 0:50).

A colony sets up a feral hive in a neglected bucket

Getting into beekeeping is easy and fun, but not everyone is enthused about the prospect of a beehive in their neighbor’s back yard.  A close friend of mine decided to inform his neighbors that he had recently taken up beekeeping, and had just placed a hive in his back yard.  One neighbor replied that this was fine, but if his bees stung her dog, she would sue him (insert giant eye-roll here).  Fortunately, the sheer multitude of feral hives (roughly 10 per square mile in Los Angeles, for example) makes threats like this beyond absurd.  The fact is, bees are everywhere, and they should be.  There are still laws restricting beekeeping, but they’re all but unenforceable for obvious reasons.  The running joke about laws against beekeeping is: Some cops show up to tell a beekeeper she can’t have a hive in her back yard.  She replies, “Ok, no problem, go ahead and take it.”  *cue cricket chirp*

Fortunately, beekeepers are coming together with groups like HoneyLove to advocate for their right to keep hives in their back yards, on their balconies, even their rooftops, and working hard to change the oddly restrictive laws currently in place.  In Los Angeles, an ordinance has been proposed to allow single-family residences to keep bees, thereby adding beekeeper oversight to what would otherwise be feral hives.  What people seem to forget is that the bees will be there anyway, so putting them under the watchful eye of a beekeeper is an improvement to a feral colony setting up a hive in a BBQ, under the hood of an old car, in a trash can, or anywhere else they might find suitable.

Urban beekeeping is an increasingly popular hobby, and with demand comes supply: a new way to harvest honey has been proposed by a father-and-son team from Australia that might very well revolutionize how we extract honey from our hives.  To understand how incredible their invention is, here’s a quick rundown of how honey is typically harvested:

First, put on your bee suit.  Next, prep your smoker, a small metal can with a spout and bellows that contains smoldering material (I like to use egg cartons or cardboard) to produce smoke that you can blow into the hive before you open it to begin robbing the bees of their honey (this is an actual term beekeepers use, as in, “I robbed the hive yesterday,” or “I’ll raid the hive tomorrow.”).  The smoke calms the bees; why that is has been a subject of debate.*

This comb is upside down (see the wooden bar below the comb).  This comb contains honey (closest to the bar), then brood (baby bees), then empty comb.

This comb is upside down (see the wooden bar below the comb). This comb contains honey (closest to the bar), then brood (baby bees), then empty comb.

Once you’ve smoked them for about ten or 15 minutes, you can open the hive and start pulling up the strips of wood across the top of the hive, called frames (if they’re attached to a square frame in which the bees build comb), or bars (if each of them is just one strip of wood from which the bees build their comb downward).  Remove the bars or frames that contain honeycomb only (no brood comb where the baby bees are adorably growing), and set them aside.  Beekeepers use various methods to get the bees to leave the honeycomb: a gentle brush, a leaf blower, an air compressor, or a small trap hive that allows bees to leave, but not enter (this is the method my dad and I employ, as it seems the most humane).

Once you’ve extracted the bar or frame with honeycomb attached, you can either mash it up and pass it through a series of cheesecloth filters, or, if you have a frame around the comb, cut off the caps the bees have placed on each cell, put it in a centrifuge, and whip the honey out.  Then you can put the empty comb back in the hive for the bees to reuse.  This way they don’t have to rebuild the comb the way they do with the mashing method.

Stuart and Cedar Anderson of Australia have created a system they call a Flow Hive that allows you to simply turn a lever to harvest honey from your hive safely and humanely.  You can watch the video to see exactly how it works, but basically, the comb is made of plastic, and all the cells can be opened by shifting the alignment of the cell walls to create a continuous opening from the top of the frame to the bottom, allowing the contents (honey) to flow into a trough at the bottom, and out a tube at the end of the hive into conveniently placed jars.

This would obviously revolutionize the way we harvest honey.  You might think this sounds intuative, but there are a few obvious challenges to overcome, and some conditions that must be met for this innovation to work:

1-The bees must use these cells EXCLUSIVELY for honey, and not brood.
I couldn’t figure out how they would manage this until my dad lent his wisdom: “You could put these frames in a hive box that is separate from the main hive with a queen excluder mesh between the main hive and this separate box.  In that way the queen will not have access to these frames and no eggs would be laid in these separated frames.”  Problem solved!  And in fact, such a mesh can be seen very briefly in the video they have up on their Indiegogo campaign page. Naturally, if you were to break open the comb like it shows in the video while it contained both brood AND honey, you’d end up killing hundreds of brood and wiping out an entire generation of bees, potentially crippling the hive.  However, as dad explained, this can be avoided simply by adding a queen excluder mesh.

2-Bees are more disturbed when a bar is removed than during a regular inspection, thereby making this product attractive by removing a high-stress event for the bees.
A responsible beekeeper inspects her hive now and then, which entails the same practices as honey extraction, minus the extraction (suit, smoke, opening the hive, pulling up bars). If this was really so stressful, the bees would just leave! Still, I like the idea of not disturbing and crushing bees when replacing bars and the hive lid, so I actually like this part, especially if the bees are producing a lot of honey.  More honey equals more robbing the hive, and the fewer disturbances while doing so, the better.

3-The honey-extraction process is laborious and tiresome for beekeepers, who would rather avoid it.
Once the honeycomb is extracted from the hive, the labor involved in the actual harvest can be time-consuming.  It can also be expensive if you use a centrifuge like the video shows. Commercial beekeepers would appreciate this part of the process most, it seems, and if it works, go for it! Non-commercial beekeepers with just a hive or two (or even six or seven) tend to agree that the honey tastes sweeter after all the work we put into cutting and mashing the comb, filtering and pouring it into jars, and so on.  It also makes the little jars of honey my dad and I collect into more personal gifts.  Regardless of how many hives you might have, and whether you’re selling your honey commercially or giving it away to friends, this invention has appeal: it saves a TON of time, it’s much less labor intensive, more humane to your precious bees, and for commercial beekeepers, it would pay for itself many times over.

I’m left to conclude that if it makes honey extraction easy, and doesn’t disturb bees, I’m all for it.  It’s simply an incredible idea.  It sounds like these Aussies did their homework, so I’m very optimistic, and I’m itching to see one in action.  If I end up with one, I’ll update with results.  Until then, keep your beesuit handy, and go start a hive of your own, you thieving, lumbering beast, you.

*Regarding the use of smoke to calm bees:
It’s generally accepted that smoke acts in one of two ways: it blocks the bees’ pheromones from reaching the other bees, thus disabling them from starting a panic when the hive is opened, invaded, and eventually robbed (by you, you hairless bear-thief).  If the bees don’t sense the others panicking, they won’t panic themselves, and remain calm instead of attacking.  The other function the smoke serves is to trick the bees into thinking the hive is on fire.  They’ll think their home is about to be destroyed, and gorge themselves on honey to make the most of their hard work before disaster wipes out their home, and with it all their food.  Then a food coma sets in, and they get groggy, and won’t attack (which is adorable).


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