Sunday, March 15, 2009

Why is our Honey so Damned Good?

Any real understanding of honey has to start with an understanding of the foraging habits of honey bees. Foragers leave the hive and go search for nectar. When they come upon a good nectar source that has a lot of flowers in bloom they will take up all the nectar they can and go back to the hive and let all the other bees that they meet there know where to go to get the nectar. It's a little like the commercial - one bee tells two friends and they tell two friends etc. Very soon every foraging bee in the hive will be working that nectar source.

Orange blossom, tupelo, and buckwheat are examples of honeys from a single source. A beekeeper can get a single source honey by placing hives near a very large bloom of any flower from which honey bees are known to take nectar. True single source honey comes from rural areas where many acres of one plant are available to the bees.

City bees don't have the opportunity to get honey from just one source. Like any good beekeeper, we keep track of what nectar sources are in bloom at any given time and can get a good idea of the major sources our bees are visiting. But there is always a portion of nectar collected about which we can only speculate.

Generally speaking we can say our honey is primarily from two major sources. Most people don't realize that trees can be a source of nectar for honey bees. There are thousands of linden trees growing in the parkways here and our bees start working them as soon as they start blooming. One of the most highly prized honeys is clover honey. Not dutch clover but white sweet clover. It was planted on the prairies as forage for cattle and still thrives in vacant lots and railroad rights of way. It also blooms in abundance. So it is these two nectars that form the foundation flavors for our honey. It is the rest of what the bees forage on that gives our honey depth and complexity of flavor.

The French have the term "terroir" which refers to flavor imparted to wine grapes by the soils in which the vines are grown. Something like that occurs with honey but it relates more to the locality of nectar sources and weather conditions that affect when and how long a source blooms. In fact honey from hives in other locations in Chicago tastes different from the honey from our apiary. It's all about where the bees go.

We know our bees visit two large nearby public parks which have many ornamental plantings that vary from year to year. We also can be sure that the bees are working the perennial plants that are planted in the street medians. In the last few years we have noticed large amounts of Nepeta racemosa (catmint) planted in medians which can add a slight flavor of mint to our honey.

What I'm leading to here is that our honey is a truly seasonal product which varies somewhat in flavor from year to year and even from week to week. It's flavor is unique to our location in the city and is very special because of that.

There is a lot more to tell about honey. Pease feel free to ask questions in the comment section.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Where do Bees Come From?

Having checked on the hives a beekeeper in the Midwest has an idea of how many have survived the Winter. With some cold weather still to come it isn't certain that the hives that were healthy in February will still be viable by the time of the first nectar flow. So a beekeeper has to make an estimate of how many hives will need to be replaced.

How does a beekeeper get new bees? Most beekeepers will get bees one of two ways. They can buy what are called package bees. These are bees that are collected from other hives and put into a screened box. Once about 2 or 3 pounds of bees are in the box, a small wooden cage is included inside. It holds a queen bee which was raised in a separate hive.

She is put in a cage for her own protection. Having just come from the hive they were raised in and being familiar with the queen from that hive, these bees need time to get used to the new queen. Until then, they are as likely to kill her as to take care of her.

Once the queen cage is inside, a can of sugar syrup is inserted into the top. It has tiny holes in the bottom which will let the bees feed during their trip to a new hive. Packages of bees like the ones in the picture are shipped from southern states and California to beekeepers all over the country. A hobby beekeeper with one or two hives can get packages sent through the mail.

The second way to get bees is by buying what is called a nucleus hive or"nuc". I pronounce it "nuke" some people pronounce it "nook". It is a half size version of a regular hive with a queen that has been accepted by the bees and has started laying eggs. Nucs are typically available closer to home for a beekeeper. A lot of hobby or small business beekeepers will raise nucs to sell to other local beekeepers.

Which brings me to a third way a beekeeper can get bees. That is to raise queens and start their own nucleus hives. That is what we at Chicago Honey Co-op are going to begin to do this year. We don't think that ordering packages of bees every year is very sustainable. We want to invest in raising our own bees so that we can not only avoid the cost of having bees shipped across country to us but develop bees that are hardy in winter and good honey producers. Bees that we can use ourselves and make available to local beekeepers here.