We have just harvested this year’s wonderful spring and summer honey. This day is an important one in my annual calendar. During the year so much work is done by both bees and beekeeper that this is the climax, it has to go well! I am always excited to taste the sweet results as the first drops of new delicious raw, unfiltered honey drips onto your fingers.
The diversity of flowers foraged by our bees in Quinta de Sant’Ana is incredible, each year we are growing more varieties of blooms in the organically farmed cut flower field. With the old apiary becoming too shaded, this year we made a new home for our colonies out in the open, with the flower field on its doorstep, it couldn’t be closer for the bees to forage.
However, even before we started flower farming the Quinta has always been a bee paradise with autumn and winter pollen from eucalyptus, loquat, citrus, ivy and many more plants flowering during these months. And since we are organic in all that we do, the honey is pure and original too. I enjoy a certain amount of ritual, so the dressing into the bee suit and making smoke is not only one of those unusual and satisfying rituals but also an important one. A small opening in your suit is a chink in your armor, bees will certainly find their way in and punish you, especially when you are taking their hard worked for honey.
I burn straw and paper to light the smoker, I then keep it going with eucalyptus bark and pine needles, or whatever else is about in the country – the smoke smells delicious to me and makes the bees calmer, so it is safer for us and less of an upset to them.
The transition into suit and is like stepping into Narnia, I love to be close to the bees, to escape to their special world and marvel at their work and beauty, my visits to the apiary during the year are therapeutic, my thick gloves don’t allow me to answer the phone, I am cut off, a true luxury nowadays!
When I take the honey storage frames away I gently brush all the bees from each frame, careful not to disturb the brood chamber (bottom box) where the queen will be laying eggs. This is where the workers are looking after the brood and queen, so quite a delicate operation. The brood chamber has enough honey reserves for the swarm to survive and enough pollen to feed the queen during the sparse summer months that follow.
Because after harvest is the time of year with least nectar and pollen. Not what you would expect, but I have left the harvest till August before and realized with surprise that the bees had already tucked into quite a lot of the honey! I therefore try to do the harvest before mid July, also to allow the colonies to stock up before winter.
We now cart the honey away on a tractor to the cool, clean and calm of the small barrel room, where we ferment our top white wines. The door is closed, hoping that the foragers don’t follow us too soon. We immediately get to work cutting off the honey cap and spin out the honey in our manual centrifugal extractor, a tiring job, it’s advisable to involve the family! The wax caps are pressed in our small steel press, it’s always surprising how much honey comes out over the next 24 hours. The wax and empty frames go outside for the bees to clean them up. The wax is reused to make base sheets for the bees to build on next year, zero waste.
After a few days the honey has settled, and we can fill the jars. It is the traditional task of Ann’s old nanny Virginia. We set her up in the cellar where she fills jar after jar with the golden liquid, not wasting a single drop! At this stage I must look after the bees carefully, treat them against varroa and ensure that they have enough reserves and space to store new honey that, weather permitting, will be produced through the winter. I am lucky to be keeping bees in the amazing biotope that we have in Quinta de Sant’Ana.
– James Frost