Making a Beeline from Hive to Glass
Jon Hallberg, who runs the Smokehouse Winery in Sperryville, VA, has upwards of a million coworkers. Fortunately, they don’t demand health insurance, paid vacations or stock options. They live in two or three hives at the meadery and several dozen hives off premises. They’re honey bees.
Hallberg never kept bees before opening his business in 1999. “It was strictly OJT [on-the-job training],” he says. By producing 50 percent of his honey, however, he qualifies under state law as a Virginia farm winery and is allowed to self-distribute his Traditional Mead, Honeysuckle Metheglin, Juniper Berry Metheglin, Berry Melomel and other products.
Greg Fischer has been making meads for 15 years and raising honeybees for 35 years. He owns Bev Art Brewer and Winemaker Supply at 1035 S. Western Ave. in Chicago, and also keeps 60 hives in the dunes along Lake Michigan. Each hive, he estimates, contains as many as 80,000 bees, and in a good year produces 70 pounds of honey. That’s a lot for an amateur mead maker, but Fischer intends to turn pro in the near future. His Wild Blossom Meadery will specialize in dry and semi-dry meads, maybe doing a braggot as well.
“My uncle had a hive, and I started playing around with it when I was seven,” Fischer recalls. “He became allergic to bees, and he needed someone to take care of them.” The hive was in an apple orchard, so the bees could pollinate the trees. Even today, Fischer adds, beekeepers make most of their money not from honey but from renting their hives to farmers. About 70 percent of food crops depend upon bees for pollination and reproduction.
Honey making is a labor-intensive business. According to the Encyclopedia Americana, 550 bees have to make 2.5 million trips to produce 1 pound of honey. There is a specialization of bee labor, notes David Titus of Bee Folks, a Baltimore-based company that sells honey and other bee-related products over the Internet (www.beefolks.com).
Forager bees bring back the nectar to the hive, where it’s placed in cells. Other bees—Titus calls them “house bees”—seal the cells with wax and make sure the temperature remains in the 80 to 85 degree F range. This is necessary to reduce the water content of the nectar from 90 or 95 percent to 16 to 18 percent. Otherwise, adds Titus, the honey will ferment naturally, poisoning the hive. Honey bees don’t hibernate, and they sustain themselves with the honey during the winter.
An advantage of keeping hives is that they’re a plentiful source of unfiltered, unprocessed honey. One mead maker we questioned said he preferred raw honey to the supermarket stuff not only because the former is richer in sugar, but also because the impurities in the latter—wax, pieces of honeycomb, assorted bee parts—act as yeast nutrients, hastening fermentation.
Avoiding Bee Hazards
Bee stings are an inevitable consequence of beekeeping. In a typical day tending his hives, Fischer will come away with four or five welts.
The best time to handle bees may be in the cool of the morning when they’re still a bit sluggish. Hallberg uses a device called a “bee smoker” to stun the bees with a puff or two of pine needle smoke. Probably the worst time to invade the hive, says Fischer, is on an overcast or stormy day, when the bees tend to stick close to home, like sullen children cooped up inside the house on a rainy Saturday afternoon.
What about the aggressive Africanized bees we’ve read so much about in the press? “They probably won’t migrate here [to Illinois] because they can’t overwinter,” says an unworried Fischer. Titus believes they’re losing their aggressive tendencies as they interbreed more and more with American bees.
Of much greater concern to beekeepers are the Varroa and tracheal mites that live off bees in a parasitic relationship, sapping the life of the hive. “When I was younger, you had to be careful about stepping on clover because there were so many bees,” says Titus. “Now, the wild honeybee population has been pretty much wiped out.”
It’s ironic that just as meads are becoming popular, the source of the raw material should be endangered. But beekeepers have ways of dealing with the pests. One way to control the tracheal mites, says Titus, is to put out “grease patties”—a mixture of vegetable shortening and sugar that coats the bees’ mouths, preventing the mites from lodging inside. Other beekeepers line the hives with chemical treated strips that knock out the mites without harming the rightful tenants. “A flea collar for bees” is how Fischer describes them.