My husband has dreams of making enough money at his day job to retire and be a full-time farmer. In the meantime, he has us raising chickens in our tiny backyard (at one point we had 40-something, but now we're down to 2!) and planting "crops" along every spare inch of fence. I used to be really squeamish about all of this living off the land business--the thought of eating an egg from an actual chicken was crazy! But at some point along the way, I guess a switch was flipped, because now I'm all in. And I mean all in. Our friends used to laugh when we'd get together because no matter how recently we had seen them, we had some new farm-ish purchase to talk about.
"Oh hey, we bought a couple of cows this morning."
"We just ordered 46 chicks from the mail-order catalog. They're in our garage."
Luckily, my in-laws have 16 acres outside of town, and they very generously and graciously allow us to pretend to be farmers on their land while we save toward a farm of our own. Last week, it was time to harvest honey from the three beehives that sit next to the garden. I thought you might like to see how beekeeping and honey-harvesting go down!
Anatomy of a Beehive
On top of the beehive, you have the outside cover; there's an inside cover under that, which you can't see from the outside because the outside cover does a very good job of covering everything.
The top box is called a super, and it is filled with frames where the bees store excess honey. Our frames have a piece of plastic with little hexagons stamped on them; this gives the bees a pattern to work from when they build their honeycomb. You can slip up to 10 frames in the box, and the bees will build honey comb on both sides of each frame and fill the little cells with honey. Once all of the frames in your super are filled with honeycomb, you can put another super on top of it and the bees will start again!
The next 2 boxes are just like the super, except they are where the bees live, store their food, and raise their young. They're called brood boxes. So how do you keep the queen from laying eggs in your honeycomb? There's a piece of metal called a Queen Excluder that you put in between the supers and the brood boxes. It allows the worker bees to get into the super to fill the honeycomb cells with honey, but the queen can't fit because she's too big.
And on the very bottom is the...bottom!
Getting the Honey Out of the Hive
Honey is ready to be harvested when the honeycomb in the super has been capped off with wax. Before you can go near the hive, unless you are very zen and don't care about getting stung, you have to don some bee-proof gear, like a hat with a mesh veil, thick leather gloves, and long sleeves, preferably not waffle knit.
Lesson #5 in Backyard Farming: Waffle knit shirts, aka Thermals, don't stop bees from stinging your arms. I learned this the hard way. Actually it was the easy way for me, but the hard way for my husband. Which takes us to...
Lesson #6 in Backyard Farming: If you can, avoid doing any actual work on the farm. If you are documenting the day for posterity by snapping a few photos from the safety of the golf cart, you can't possibly be expected to help, right?!
Once your safety gear is donned, you get the bees nice and woozy by pumping smoke from a lovely silver smoker into the air all around the hive. Then, you use a hive tool, which is not so creatively named, to pry the frames out of the super one at a time. As you lift each frame out of the super, you very gently brush the bees off with a bee brush (another completely uncreative name). Then you put the bee-free frame in a large container with a lid (like a clear, plastic storage tub) and move on to the next frame.
Stay tuned for The Honey Harvest, part 2 next week; we'll learn how all that beautiful liquid gold gets from the frames into lovely little jars ready for storing and gifting, and I actually participated in this part! update: you can find The Honey Harvest, part 2 right here!