We’ve had our honey up for sale online for six weeks now, and so far, everything has been going extraordinarily well. Our customers are emailing/Instagramming rave reviews, and I haven’t yet made any major mistakes in the packing and shipping process (Whew!).
When I originally wrote the product descriptions for each varietal, I intentionally did not include any flavor descriptors because I simply don’t have a very discerning palate, and Henry didn’t feel comfortable describing the tastes on his own. If you look around, many honeys you might find online or at a grocery store are described with words like “luscious”, “robust”, and “intoxicating”, which are words that don’t really have much meaning, and we didn’t want to go that route. We also didn’t just want to come up with a bunch of pretentious sounding adjectives that weren’t relevant or helpful. The reality is, however, that people shopping for food online really need the retailer to guide them in choosing an appealing product by providing accurate flavor descriptions.
To remedy our lack of flavor vocabulary, Henry scheduled a honey tasting event at the Oregon State University Food Science lab with his friend Brian Yorgey and five of Brian’s flavor-nerd coworkers. In the Food Science Department, the professors, research assistants, and students regularly do to organized tastings of all sorts of foods from the latest cane berry varieties to fat-free cream cheese. Honey tastes a lot better than fat-free cream cheese, so the folks we met with were quite happy to help us out.
Henry has contracted with growers to do a handful of local crop pollinations this year (blueberries for Radke’s Blueberries and Gibson Farms plus raspberries, blackberries, and strawberries for Sunset Valley Organics), but the one crop pollination that he’s been most excited about is clary sage. Clary sage is known for its medicinal properties and for its usefulness in cosmetics, and the purple or white blooms can be seen in fields around the Willamette Valley.
Mike Hathaway is a young grass seed and filbert farmer in Corvallis, Oregon (more about Mike in this article in the local newspaper), and he’s growing a small field of clary sage for the first time this year. Henry knows Mike from their college days when they were both studying agriculture. They’ve crossed paths a few times over the years and have chatted about beekeeping, so when Mike needed bees for pollination for the first time (grass seed and filberts are both wind pollinated), he gave Henry a call.
Henry moved several pallets of bees to the edge of the field around Memorial Day just as the sage started to bloom. The photos in this post were taken on June 22 when the bloom was on the decline. In the month prior, the bees worked the clary sage pretty hard, but they also probably brought in nectar and pollen from nearby hairy vetch and blackberries.
Henry and I extracted nearly 40 gallons of honey on Sunday. The early honey varietals that the bees produced are quite different from main season flows in many ways. First off, they taste different. As you can see in the photo above, early season honey contains a significant amount of pollen that we don’t filter out of the final product. The bees have been nectaring on species such as maple, chittum, native trailing blackberry, and poison-oak plus the hives that have been out on farms for pollination purposes serviced blueberries and raspberries. The flavors and colors of our five varietals from different seasonal apiaries vary quite a bit because of the nectar resources available in each of the locations, but they are all intense and distinct. As we were working away in the extraction room, the air became thick with an earthy, herbal smell that made me feel like I was getting some kind of health benefits just by huffing the aroma. If you’re looking for real, raw honey made from the nectar (and pollen) of Pacific Northwest native plants, this is the stuff you want.
For the last four years, Henry has been adding to and selecting from his pool of honeybee genetics all originating from feral, Pacific Northwest-adapted colonies. In order to propagate those genetics as well as maintain and increase his hive numbers, he started grafting his own queens last year. Grafting queens takes a lot of time, effort, skill, and bees, so it’s not really an activity for hobby beekeepers. There are many other methods of creating new hives that work well on a smaller scale.
American foulbrood is a bacterial disease that has plagued domestic and feral honeybees around the world for centuries. Infected larvae die off and then begin to rot in the capped cells, and the disease spreads quickly within the hive and then to surrounding hives. Many beekeepers preemptively treat their bees with antibiotics and other chemicals to suppress American foulbrood, but those treatments can also have negative health effects on bees by messing with their digestive systems and making them more susceptible to other diseases. Treatments never completely cure American foulbrood, and bacteria can persist in the hives for a very long time. If beekeepers ever stop treating infected hives, the disease will roar back with devastating consequences for the whole apiary.
Some honeybee colonies can fight off American foulbrood infections on their own. In such cases, the disease will kill off some larvae, but workers will move in quickly to clean out the cells and cannibalize the dead larvae, reducing or eliminating the hive’s exposure to the disease. In that manner, the super organism can survive. This is called “hygienic” behavior and is a desirable trait for domestic honeybees.
Henry’s bees are finally home again after more than two months in California. (More about preparing them for almond pollination here and here.) Henry’s beekeeper/truck driver friend hauled them back north on Sunday, and Henry unloaded them in a local holding yard. Overall, they look really really good. Henry spent most of the day on Monday and Tuesday working his bees, taking necessary steps to prevent the robust colonies from swarming by pulling frames of brood and shaking out bees into nuc (pronounced “nuke”) boxes to form new colonies.
In the last few years or even the last few months, you’ve probably heard about the troubles plaguing the both commercial beekeeping and hobby beekeeping alike. Many of the dire statistics and stories behind them are true, but some of the explanations are grossly oversimplified. We’ve gotten a lot of questions lately about the health of Henry’s bees. While he has had some managed losses, most of his hives are not only surviving but thriving without using any chemical treatments or miticides for three years. Regular miticide applications are a practice that is standard for the vast majority of commercial beekeepers.
The holding yard on private property where the bees were dropped off is ideal because it’s easily accessible with a large truck, and it’s right off the highway. The problem is that, for a brief time at least, there are more bees in one area than the surrounding environment and resources can support, so the bees are having to compete for food and are under extra stress. Except for short transition periods, Henry never keeps more than 24 hives in one yard.
As he finishes working the bees, he’s been dispersing the pallets of hives to nine different smaller yards and pollination areas (1-40 hives each) in Benton and Lincoln Counties. By the end of the weekend, they’ll all be in place to take advantage of spring nectar and pollen flows including maple, madrone, trailing blackberry, poison-oak, etc.
For most of the year, Henry maintains apiaries of 20 to 30 hives in relatively remote locations in the Coast Range. He decides on ecologically appropriate numbers for each yard by assessing the nectar and pollen resources available at any given time, and he’s careful not to exceed the carrying capacity of the area, especially late in the season. Keeping bees in such low to moderate-density clusters allows bees to fulfill their needs with natural forage (plus seasonal supplements) and discourages robbing. Because Henry is breeding his own lines of bees, he also tries to keep virgin queens away from other people’s maintained hives, so he can incorporate genetics of local, feral-derived bees into his managed colonies.
There are downsides to keeping hives in remote locations. The travel times and fuel expenses associated with maintaining hives in far-flung areas are much greater than keeping larger groups of bees closer to home. There are bears and yahoos out in the boonies that might mess with hives. The roads are rougher and often less accessible, increasing the amount of loading and unloading that must be done by hand. (Each hive weighs about 100 pounds and must be lifted using a crazy amount of finger muscles onto a truck bed that’s 43 inches high.)
In contrast, there are resident beekeepers in parts of the Central Valley in California who keep yards of up to 120 hives. The only way to sustain these hives is by feeding corn syrup and pollen supplements in place of natural flows almost year round. This approach to beekeeping is super cost intensive, and hives in this situation are never able to store honey, let alone produce enough for the beekeepers to harvest any substantial quantity. It’s kind of the cattle feedlot equivalent in beekeeping.
In late summer when many humans are beginning to reap the bounty of their gardens and to make plans for the harvest season, honeybee colonies already have their honey stores tucked away, and they’re starting to shut down in preparation for the winter. In September, workers will still have access to pollen, but the nectar flow will wane to a trickle. It will be time for a productive queen to lay the eggs for the colony’s overwintering population. After new brood emerges in October, the busy season’s workers will die off, and the young bees will start to cluster up during cooler weather.
Because Henry knew he was going to take all his full-size hives to California for almond pollination, he, like other commercial beekeepers, stimulated his bees from late summer into fall to increase the number of overwintering bees in each hive. He offered each colony three to four gallons of sugar syrup and five pounds of pollen substitute in three feedings to simulate a nectar flow and allow the bees to rear more brood when natural resources were scarce.
You should listen to this clip from The Splendid Table in which Marina Marchese makes a case for buying honey directly from beekeepers. It’s a little highbrow and maybe not quite 100% technically accurate, but it covers pretty much everything Henry and I have been saying (and doing) for a while.
This is an event for sampling our honey, tasting our oranges, admiring our cutting boards, and chatting about homestead activities. Come see us, eh?
If you need a reminder or want us to know that you’ll be there, you can RSVP via Facebook here.
It’s honey harvest time around these parts. In the Oregon Coast Range where Henry (doing business under the name Old Blue) has his remote apiaries, the nectar flow has pretty much dried up to a trickle even though there’s still plenty of pollen to be had. Henry is now working on preparing hives for the long winter by equalizing colonies, requeening if necessary, and beginning to feed syrup and pollen substitute. Most other commercial beekeepers are treating for mites right now, but Henry has chosen to manage his hives without standard miticide applications for the third season in a row. Without pesticides, there is more at stake, but Henry feels that natural mite loads put selection pressure on his colonies, and the resulting survivors express resistant traits reflected in the wild bee population.
This year, Henry worked hard to increase his number of hives by splitting stronger colonies, grafting queens, doing removals, and catching swarms, so honey production was not his primary focus. He also planned on leaving 60-70 pounds of honey in each full-size hive, more than the recommended 40-60 pounds, which should translate to a stronger colony buildup in the spring of 2014.