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Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Valley of Milk and Honey…

Got Milk!

Yes, a virtual Canaan is the Valley Tualco. I would say the colors green, black, and white dominate the Valley landscape. No telling how much sweet milk is Milkin' the Valley produced here per annum, how many hundred Valley Knotweedweight roll out of the Valley in big stainless steel tankers. I guess the Decks, Van Hulles, Werkhovens, and Frohnings, the Valley dairymen, could give you an estimate. And that is as it should be: they are the masters of milk and cream. But in my case, as in the wordplay game: “I wanted to…but…,” I wanted to become a dairyman but didn’t want to get left holding the bag. Instead, I decided to farm an entirely different crop: bees and honey.

This year’s honey crop is in. I “robbed” my three honey producing colonies of about sixteen gallons of Valley honey last week, an average of sixty-four pounds per hive. Not impressive, by any means, but a crop anyway: last year’s yield was O, zip, nada. I estimateHoney crop '10 this summer’s honey flow to have lasted a brief nine days-- certainly less than two weeks. Remember those hot days in early July? That’s when the bees gathered the little blackberry nectar they did this summer. July 12th it rained, and Mother Nature slammed the door on much more honey from the Valley blackberries.

Years ago I had a thriving, little honey business here in the Valley. T-n-T Apiaries, the name of my enterprise--the T’s from the first letters of our first names: Terry and Trecia. Clever, huh? A dynamite name?  Those years I bottled and sold close to a ton of honey from the back of my truck out in front of the house.1979 T n T's house honey6 Now T-n-T Apiaries is just a shadow of its former self, hardly worth even one of the T’s in the business: from 2,000 pounds to 200. Quite a decline. I attribute the downsizing to a variety of factors: daughter’s bee venom allergy, the invasion of the Varroa mite, virulent strains of bee dysentery (Nosema), other stressors now present in the Valley (pesticide and herbicides). But the simple fact of the matter is: beekeeping is just a lot of darned hard work. If you enjoy constant monitoring, management, heavy lifting( sometimes at night), and sweating over an extractor crank, beekeeping is just the thing. I have no idea what folks think about honey production, but  suffice it to say you don’t just set out a bucket by a hive and tell the little ladies to “Fill ‘er up, please.”

Color grade in Valley honey varies from one year to the next. This year’s vintage has a swarthier complexion than the ‘08 crop. Instead of a champagne-yellow pure blackberry, honey 2010 has a “touch of the tarbrush,” telling me the bees have gathered a deal of Japanese knotweed nectar from somewhere in the Valley. Japanese KnotweedMy old beekeeping mentor Lester Broughton was in the habit of saving a baby food jar of honey from each crop; his collection  spanned at least two decades. Wish I had thought to record the vintages of my thirty some years of beekeeping efforts here in the Valley. The general rule of thumb about honey is the lighter the color, the milder the flavor. Dark honeys like buckwheat and mint have quite a bite to them; fireweed honey, nearly corn syrup color, is extremely mild. Knotweed honey is an anomaly: dark honey, flavorful but surprisingly mild. Knotweed is considered an invasive species, a class C noxious weed in our area. Like so many other invasive species, it was introduced innocently enough. In knotweed’s case because of its lush foliage mainly as a landscaping enhancement. My first experience with this nectar source in the Valley was seven or eight years ago. At first I thought it was some kind of blackberry juice the bees had resorted to and distilled because of a dearth of blackberry nectar. My first crop yielded four quarts of what looked like crankcase oil, so dark sunlight wouldn’t pass through the jars. I was about to feed it back to the original owners when I asked Jean Bassett at the Beez Kneez Apiary supply about this strange ambrosia. “It’s knotweed,” she said, “a gourmet honey.” Eureka! I quickly rebottled the four quarts in 8 ounce jars and jacked up the price. And it all sold, too!

These days I mainly keep bees for their pollination services in the garden. After all, there’s nothing like a hive of bees to provide a thermometer on the season, keep tabs on what Mother Nature is up to at any given time. The surplus honey my bees produce— after, that is, I set aside enough for the year’s cornbread and biscuits and my favorite: peanut butter and honey chilled in the freezer for a couple of hours—I peddle from the house here. Proceeds mainly go to replace old equipment, purchase sugar for supplement feeding, medicines for their spring and fall tonic, and more often, sadly, replacing the bees themselves. The bees have always paid their own way. My reward is exercise and the satisfaction that comes from working with this industrious, fascinating insect. Each season they always teach me something new. I just enjoy having them on the place.

What goes on inside a hive of honeybees during the offseason and the summer’s honey flow is unfamiliar territory to non-beekeepers, and I’ll not use this post to trouble you with that. However before you are tempted by the lure of Nature’s sweetness to rush off and purchase a bee hive for yourself, let me share with you the beekeeper’s role after the bees finish theirs:

Ready for the knifeA surplus frame of honey from a honey super. Uncapping

Removing wax caps with an electric knife, unsealing honey cells so honey will spin out.Uncapped honey frameBoth sides of honey comb uncapped.loading extractor  

Loading honey extractor, a two frame reversible basket model. Muscle power and centrifugal force spin honey to sides of tank.Ready to spinBasket is at first spun slowly so as not to break the honeycomb. After honey is spun from outer side, extractor is stopped, the baskets reversed, and spinning continues, allowing the inner side to spin out.

Filling holding tank

Pouring extracted honey through hardware cloth into 500 pound stainless steel holding tank.

bottling the productExtracted honey remains in the holding tank in a warm room for several days, allowing wax particles to float to the surface. Then the pure honey is bottled from the bottom of tank. (Don’t much like the term “raw” honey; “pure” seems a much better descriptor for my product.)Valley sweets

A little bit more to it than one might think, right? But there you have it—finally--pure, unheated, unprocessed sweetness: honey at its finest—brought by the bees straight from the Valley to you.

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  1. What fun! What sweat inducing fun! It was great extracting a bit with you this year. Hopefully, after a couple more years, I will make the cap removal look as effortless as you do. Great post Dad & great product! :)

  2. Yes, we had a cranking good time, didn't we? Thanks! Next time you're out this way,come pick up the fruits of your sweat equity.Dad