Spare a thought for the worker bee.
In summer she lives only 6-8 weeks, literally working until her wings give out, but in her entire lifetime she will produce only one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey. To make just one pound of honey, a group of bees must visit 2 million flowers, flying a total of over 55,000 miles.
And then in late summer, giants in white suits come and take all their honey away.
This Wednesday we were the giant marauders in white suits—it was honey harvest-time at LSE. This being probably the most important event in our calendar, here’s a blow-by-blow account for those who were not lucky enough to be present.
August 24 was the hottest day of the year. With our bee suits on it felt like we were being cooked alive, but no one wanted to miss the action. We opened our three hives one by one and checked the frames. On some of the frames, the bees had built comb but not yet filled them with honey: we left those untouched. But with the rest of the frames, the majority of cells were sealed with white wax—these are the ones we were after. Here’s a picture of one such frame:
As you can see, most of the cells are sealed, whereas some, like the ones at the near edge, are filled with glistening nectar but as yet unsealed. BeeManiacs has a good explanation of the difference between the two:
Uncapped Honey Cells: These open cells contain shiny wet nectar. The contents do not actually qualify as being honey yet, since the moisture of the liquid is above 18.6% (must be equal to or lower than to be honey). The bees leave the cell uncapped for the moisture to evaporate until it is the correct moisture level to be classified as honey.
Capped Honey Cells: Once the bees decide that the substance meets all the requirements as honey, they cap the cells with a thin film of beeswax to stop the evaporation process and to keep it sealed from predators. When bees need honey for food, they simply chew the wax capping to get to the honey. Sometimes the film is translucent enough to perceive the honey inside.
The frames we extracted had some bees still clinging on; these we brushed off gently with a bee brush (“Sorry guys,” I heard someone say, and it summed up the general mood):
The bee-free frames were then moved indoors into the shade (where bees do not venture, not even to recover stolen property) and put into empty supers for easy transportation.
Altogether we got about 13 frames of honey, which is a lower yield compared to last year. But as always, we harvested with a ‘light touch’, erring vastly on the side of caution to ensure that we did not take too much honey. As the Natural Beekeeping Trust puts it:
When we take honey, we enter into a contract with the bees: we are now responsible for insuring against future starvation.
Here is our last photo of the day: the two supers, wrapped in bin bags, waiting to be carted away. One whole year’s work of tending the beehives on our part—and infinitely more work on the part of our bees—culminates in two distinctly unglamorous packages in a corner of the ground floor of Connaught House.