Honey: The Sweetest Season

Written by David Green. Posted in Feature Stories

By JEFF PICKELL

There’s a lot of talk about how busy bees are, but who’s to know if this year’s workforce has truly been keeping their collective noses to the grindstone or if they’ve just been standing around flapping their wings?

Rollin Lauber is just the guy to ask. He spent a good part of last month harvesting honey from the hives he keeps north of Morenci. Honey may be sweet, but for him it’s also serious business.

bees Rollin, who also owns Mill Creek Bee Supply, supplements his income by breeding queen bees, but the bulk of his cash flow depends, literally, on the bulk of the honey flow. And in order to get the honey flowing, he has to wrestle it from the thousands of bees who spent the long, hot summer producing it, which makes harvesting honey a little more exciting than harvesting corn or soybeans.

“They can get angry,” explains Rollin, driving out to a cluster of his hives on a sunny and pleasant October morning. “In the summer, you can work with [the bees] in jeans and a T-shirt, but when it comes time to pull the honey, we wear the full protective suit.”

Jasper’s John Fankhauser, owner of the J & J Honey Farm, is waiting for Rollin as he arrives at the mowed patch of isolated field that holds around 30 of Rollin’s 100 or so hives. John’s already garbed in his protective wear—long boots, elbow-length gloves and a thick white coverall. Before the honey extraction begins, he’ll also don a plastic helmet and a fine net draping from his forehead to below his chin.

It’s an extensive assemblage to be sure, but Rollin says the bees have a nasty way of finding even the smallest chinks in the protective coating, and that there’s usually only one painful way to find out about it.

After pulling out his own suit from his truck, he takes a second to light his smoker. As the tasty smell of burning hickory filters into the silent, still morning air, it’s easy to forget that hundreds of thousands of bees are lying in wait less than a dozen yards away. In a few minutes time the field will be awash with the confused, clamorous, enraged roar of legions of displaced insects.

The displacement is what makes honey harvesting so exciting. Each hive is comprised of five or six stacked boxes. The two lowermost boxes are where the queen dwells—where eggs are laid and tended. The honey, and the general worker population, is housed in the rest of the boxes above. The trick for beekeepers is to take the honey and leave the bee.

There’s more than one way to separate the honey from the bee, says Rollin. Some beekeepers use a chemical that smells like vomit to ward the worker bees off, but harkening back to his career as an agricultural mechanic, Rollin has a more mechanized way of going about things. From the back of his truck, he and John pull down an odd-looking device that, at the base of which a leaf blower is mounted.

“We blow them right out of there,” says Rollin. 

It’s a speedy process. Each hive is first plied with a liberal amount of smoke, which makes the bees react as if there’s a nearby forest fire. After a few minutes, many of the bees migrate to the lower hive boxes to protect the queen and her eggs.

Then it’s time for the harvest to begin.

Alternating from hive to hive, one of the keepers pries the lids off the boxes containing the honeycombs then passes them to the man on the blower, who swiftly pulls the combs apart and blasts the remaining workers into the morning air. The bees careen out in hoards, rattling and ricocheting off the basin, pasting themselves onto the nearby hives or buzzing about in bewildered circles.

It takes Rollin and John less than two minutes to clear out a box, but it takes the resident workers less time than that to identify the source of the tumult. The beekeepers watch out for each other. It’s not uncommon to see a slathering of bees around the ankles—one of the most vulnerable regions of the beekeeper get-up. Occasionally, Rollin and John take the blower to each other, but aside from that, rarely pause. They are unimpressed by the ruckus.

They are impressed, though, when they open the top box of the sixth or seventh hive and are greeted by a veritable flood of workers.

“That’s a lot of activity,” Rollin says over the blower’s bellow. “That’s what we like to see.”

The honey combs in this hive are much fuller than the others. It indicates a queen well-adapted for the region, says Rollin.

Ideally, beekeepers want to see all of their hives displaying that kind of output. According to Rollin, the national average for honey output per hive is between 70 and 80 pounds, but his hives last year netted him about 114 pounds a piece. It’ll be hard for him to come up with a number for this year until all the hives are harvested, but he says that this past summer’s uncharacteristic dryness probably had a negative effect on honey output.

In less than two hours, the hives are clear, the combs ready to be carted off to the honey house.

HOUSE OF HONEY

”Some people fall in love with the smell right away, other people can’t stand it,” says Rollin of the rich, sweet scent hanging in the honey house.

Rollin and John have relocated to John’s J & J Honey Farm in Jasper, where a sophisticated set up aids them in converting the honey combs into pure honey.

The main task is to separate the honey from the wax in which it’s stored. To this end, the beekeepers employ what amounts to an amped-up spin drier.

Rollin’s partner, Lillian Warren begins the process by feeding the combs into an uncapping machine, which uses a broad blade to shear the wax caps off of the honey comb. This gets the wax flowing freely.

The combs are then lined up to be inserted into the extractor, which is an immense basin that can hold up to 48 combs. Inside the extractor, the combs are spun rapidly and the honey they contain is whipped against the walls of the basin. The honey then slowly makes its way through a comprehensive three stage filtration system aimed at ridding the fluid of any remaining wax sediment.

During one of the final filtration cycles, the honey is heated to 160 degrees fahrenheit in order to pasteurize it. After that, it’s straight to the barrel.

Rollin, John and Lillian work industriously, but one of the beauties of honey is that they could take however long they please—honey is one of the few foods that doesn’t spoil.

But then again, who wants to stand around? After all, for these folks, honey means money, honey.

  - Nov. 16, 2006 

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