How sweet it is
When Darrel Russon puts on his protective suit and veil to go out and gather honey, he says he feels a little like a thief.
"What I am basically doing is stealing the honey from the hives, from the bees who made it," he said, a couple of months ago, as he stood in the bright sun, near some hives he was harvesting near Farnum Road. "They make the honey to feed themselves for the winter and we take it away."
However, as any good beekeeper knows, the lower part of the hive where the queen lives contains a great deal of the life-giving sweet nectar, enough to get her and her attendants to survive through the cold season.
"A single honey bee produces only about a teaspoon of honey in its entire life span," explained Russon. "That's why it takes a lot of them to make honey in a hive. I figure this hive has about 50,000 bees in it."
Honeybees cover a lot of territory in their short lives of five to six weeks. Their travel can range up to two miles away from their hives. They are single-minded in their determination to provide food for the hive and their queen.
A month later, seated in a chair in his kitchen in his home on Coal Creek Road, Russon demonstrates how the honey is removed from the panels he took from the hive. The weather had become considerably cooler by that early October day. The bees from the hives around his house covered the porch and flew around the back door as if they were searching for life itself. And, in fact, they were.
"These guys are getting pretty aggressive out there," he said, as he turned the crank on a honey extractor set up on a small table. "They are looking for nectar, but there is little to be found now."
As Russon turned the crank, a slow drip of golden honey began to run out of the extractor's spout, through a filter on top of a five gallon pail, filling the lower reaches of the bucket with priceless sweetener.
The honey removal process, in one form or another, has continued for thousands of years as man removed what he saw as nectar of the gods from insects he still doesn't understand completely. Bees have been a part of mankind's history for a very long time; the ancient Egyptians saw their activity as almost sacred. Yet something is happening in many places that brings the fear of famine closer to home for many people. It's called colony collapse disorder. Russon says he hasn't seen any problem with it in his few hives in the local area. But some beekeepers are losing a lot of money and some agricultural operations could be in big trouble if the unexplained disaster continues.
Colony collapse disorder, or CCD as it is called for short, will affect food supplies if the cause is not found and if it cannot be stopped. While there are many kinds of insects that pollinate, about one third of the food on earth requires a honey bee for it to mature to an edible state. In some places, big agriculture is shipping in bees from foreign countries to make sure their crops are pollinated. No one knows for sure what causes CCD; some say that the change in the climate is acting upon the bee's lives. Others say that huge fields of similar crops resulting from agribusiness gives bees little variety, thereby robbing them of certain kinds of nutrition and providing little to eat once that particular crop stops flowering. Some even believe man's propensity for electronic devices, sending signals and still unproven kinds of energy through the air, is at fault. Still others say that pesticides, particularly new kinds of chemicals that have been introduced in the last few years, are the cause. Research goes on, but one thing is for sure; if bees are wiped out, the world's diet will change immensely and it would mean a reduction in crop yields that could result in more famine than already exists on the planet.
There are 20,000 species of bees at last count, but most biologists in the know say that many kinds have not yet been classified. They exist nearly everywhere on earth except in the extreme cold areas of the planet and on some remote islands far from other land masses.
For Russon, the bees provide a product that he can sell. The bottles of honey sitting on his kitchen counter top shows that different kinds of plants are the raw materials for various kinds of honey. The Mason jars are full of delectable colored liquids, each pertinent to various kinds of crops from which a hive had harvested the sweet nectar. As he finishes pulling the honey from one frame that he had previously removed from one of his hives, he replaces it with another.
"When you first put the frame in the extractor, you want to turn the crank gently," he says quietly. "Otherwise you will end up with a lot of beeswax in the honey."
Bee's wax is a material that is produced by bees to build their honeycombs in which they raise young, store honey and pollen. The human-made frames that are used in hives are scrapped before they are put in the extractor machine. But some wax remains. The wax, like the honey, also comes in various colors ranging from brown to white, depending on its use and what kind of plants its building block substance came from.
Commercial operations utilize bees wax as a product too. Uses for bees wax include lubricants, wood polish and, of course, for candles.
Honey from Russon's operation is called wild honey, pure from the hive, unlike commercial brands that are often pasteurized for stability. Some commercial operations also feed their bees sugar and water. Some connoisseurs of honey say that such honey lacks taste and uniqueness.
Russon's hives are currently dormant for the winter. The bees that are left are sleeping in the bottom of his hives with the queen. The drones (male bees that are only for breeding purposes) were kicked out of the hive and died weeks ago. A few workers (females) remain to take care of the queen. Next spring, the cycle of life will begin again and bees will spring from the hive ready to search for food once again.
And once again, too, Russon will place the frames in the hives, and his little helpers will once again store that sticky and sweet product of nature called honey.
Sources for this article include the USDA, food references.com and internet4classrooms.com.