Laura Saxton Heiman (among many other things co-editor of the Loomis House Press edition of the Child Ballads) allowed me to follow her around as she harvested honey this year.
There are fewer bee references in the Child Ballads than I expected.
For there was hot venison, and warden pies cold,
Cream clouted, with honey-combs plenty;
And the sarvitors they were, beside Little John,
Good yeomen at least four and twenty.
- Child Ballad 149: Robin Hood's Birth, Breeding, Valor and Marriage
I like the juxtaposition of venison and warden pies. Any time you serve game, you should also serve wardens (ideally, poached).
Step 1: Simple Harvest Farm
Laura keeps her bees at Kathy and Nick Zeman's Simple Harvest Farm.
Nick's free-range flock provides the eggs my family eats every day, and we have bought ducks and geese from Kathy for sous vide confit and duck fat roast potatoes. We're lucky to be able to buy so much of our food from friends and friends-of-friends.
Step 2: Meet the Bees
Each stack is a hive. Each box is called a super. The supers are full of hanging frames. The frames are full of comb.
The bees glue absolutely everything together with propolis, which resembles resin more than wax. You have to pry everything apart.
Step 3: Smoke
Laura says this step will generate hate mail. There is only one correct way to smoke, but no two beekeepers agree what that is. Laura's smoker is filled with straw. She lit a punk, blew it out, and dropped it in. As it happened, the bees were unusually calm even before they were smoked.
Step 4: Harvest
Laura had already removed a super full of honey earlier in the week, so this trip was mostly for show. She removed a couple of frames and brushed off the bees with a bee brush.
Step 5: Meet the Extractor
This is Laura's grandma's extractor. It works by centrifugal force. You turn the wooden handle and the cage in the middle spins around and throws honey against the sides of the pail, where it runs down and you let it out by opening the honey gate in the lower-right-hand corner.
The reason you extract honey with centrifugal force rather than by smushing the comb somehow is because you want to preserve the cell structure so you can give it back to the bees. They can repair and reuse the comb, which saves them the trouble of rebuilding it from scratch. Then they have more time and energy to make honey.
The thing up and to the right of the extractor is a bowl with a high-tech filter stretched over the top. I'll explain that after a couple of steps.
Step 6: De-cap
After the bees fill a honeycomb cell with honey, they put a wax cap over the top of it. Before you can extract the honey, you have to cut the caps off the cells. The picture shows Nick de-capping a frame with an electric hot knife.
Step 7: Extract
The flipping helps keep the comb from deforming too much.
Step 8: Filter
The high-tech honey filters are the cheapest-possible nylon stockings from Walgreens, which come packed in a gumball-machine egg.
Stretch a filter over the rim of a bowl or Mason jar and pour the honey from the extractor into the filter. The filter fills up with beeswax scraps for you to render. (Most of the wax you'll render is from de-capping, but the filters yield lots too.)
Step 9: Admire
Well done, bees.