Ain’t that the Bees Knees

One of my first days at Dig In Community Garden in North Carolina, I’m walking back to the farmhouse and find “for Katie” written on this brown bag that contains pretty much the best blueberry scone I’ve ever eaten. It was, of course, from Deborah! Deborah is one of Dig In’s board members who takes photos for Dig In (She ensures that all wwoofers head-shots are printed and archived on the main produce fridge the day after they arrive), writes Dig In’s newsletter, I’m sure does lots of other things at Dig In that I don’t even know about, and keeps bees as a hobby.

When she said I could go with her to harvest honey from her Honey Supers at Joe Capp’s place, I was super-pumped.  Joe Capps should probably have a blog post all his own. He’s the bee man in Yancey County and mentors Deborah in the art of keeping bees. A retired military man, former Swiss Alps ski instructor, and now beekeeper, Joe doesn’t say too much unless you’re talking about bees. Beekeeping is only a hobby for Joe, but he’s broke even with honey sales over the past few years.  This year he’ll actually probably make $1,000.  His wife will make a little bit more selling candles from the leftover beeswax.

Joe  is typically sold out of honey two weeks after harvesting.  Some buy it for health reasons, but most people just like it because it tastes good. I asked Joe if the demand for his honey was increasing since the known benefits of local honey are becoming more mainstream and if more customers preferred darker honey to lighter because of its antioxidants.  Joe laughed and said, “Well, people don’t really know all that much about honey.  They just like to eat it.” (:

It takes 7 lbs of Honey for a bee to make one pound of wax.  Joe’s fancy extractor saves him from destroying the comb. That way his bees don’t have to rebuild all of the comb every year–saving their energy for producing the best honey.  Beekeepers who don’t have fancy extractors like Joe’s use wooden presses, squeeze the comb with their hands (this is messy and destroys the comb), or they do what Deborah does and just use a friend’s extractor. After slicing the top layer off of the honey comb, you slide it into the extractor.  It then spins and spins, bringing all of the honey to the bottom, out the spout, and into the bucket.  You then filter the honey with some closely gridded cloth, just to ensure there are no bee parts or wax left, and funnel the honey into jars.  (You must have VERY dry hands and not allow any water into the jars of honey before they are sealed or else it will ferment into mead rather quickly.)

While Deborah was harvesting her honey, Joe gave me some protective bee gear, fired up his smoker, and took me up the hill to check out his supers.  He has a good many more supers than many at-home beekeepers (I think Deborah has 3 to 4).  The smoker works to make the bees calmer as we take their home apart. The smoke makes the bees think there’s a fire. They scurry down to the bottom of the hive and eat up a lot of honey since they think the hive’s burning down and they may not have food for quite some time.  Since the bees are so full on honey, they get slow and lethargic—less likely to sting you!  Since bees recognize people, Joe doesn’t always use the smoker because his bees know him. (Crazy huh?!)  They don’t know me, so I was thankful for the smoker!  Joe doesn’t harvest from the bottom two supers of every box but leaves them for the bees to lay eggs and to make their honey for winter.  An electric fence guards the hives from bears. Bears really do like honey I guess.
Heading back to the bee barn, Joe and Deborah talked about the bee downturn of the 1980s and how a combo of pesticide use, forced bee migration by honey manufacturers, etc. caused and are causing the downturn still today. It’s kind of a big deal. If you want to watch a movie about it, Joe and Deborah recommended “Queen of the Sun”  (I still haven’t seen it).  Had to be back at Dig In, so Joe’s wife gave me a ride.  They’re great people, and I enjoyed getting to learn from them.  Next time I live somewhere for more than two years…I’m totally keeping bees!!!

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