I haven’t gone and stolen my bees winter stores out from under (or over) them in the dead of winter, I have just been slow to write this up – the first honey harvest, done back at Easter. To be honest I didn’t actually know that I was going to harvest at the time – I was really just making the most of the fact that my neighbour, who unlike me actually has some beekeeping experience, was available to come over and give me a hand. I thought that at most we might perhaps grab a comb if possible, but there was more than expected and we are now stocked with honey to last right through until a hopeful future harvest next mid-summer.
With the pair of us kitted up, the hive opened and a little puff of smoke delivered, comb after comb was lifted with a few surprises:
- First that the entire top box was pretty much full of stored honey and no brood. They had had a rough start as a colony in the spring with a lot of their delicate founding comb destroyed driving the hive in on our horrendous track and I thought they might have struggled to even get themselves set up with stores for the winter – but they had clearly done some great catching up.
- Second was that our bees are calm according to my experienced neighbour, something that delights me in a way that I imagine it might to have a consistently well behaved child (the Boy is, let’s say, ‘strong-willed’, in a way that fills me with both admiration and exasperation).
- Third was the recurrent surprise to look down at myself all kitted up above an open buzzing hive looking for all the world like something I hadn’t yet quite come around to perceiving myself to be – a beekeeper.
- And finally, and very worryingly, I was surprised to learn that we have small hive beetle (Aethina tumida). I had hoped our remote highland setting might have saved us from this curse of lowland beekeeping, but I was wrong (in itself not a huge surprise from my position of some ignorance). With winter putting everything on hold in the hive, I can only wait with crossed fingers and hope that the beetle hasn’t destroyed the colony before it gets active again next spring and I can put some control plans into action.
But back to the honey, extracted in the ultimate low-tech way (see here for Malfroy’s Gold / Milkwood’s low-tech and mid-tech options; high-tech honey extraction apparently not an option with this foundationless Warré-style comb). It was simply squashed up by hand and dumped in a colander to drip through over hours. At the end we had jars of beautiful honey, our very first, and a messy pile of squished comb that still held honey that had neither squeezed nor dripped out. To this was added four litres of preservative-free apple juice and the whole thing boiled until the wax melted. Once cooled, the wax and attached gunk (‘slumgum’) was removed and frozen for future use as swarm bait, and the honey enriched juice used to make a ‘wine’ (loosely speaking) with the addition of elderberries (sugars + yeast = alcohol + CO2, the honey, apple and elderberry providing the character). Not a bad concoction as it turns out: 50% cider, 50% mead, 50% elderberry wine; totalling, against all mathematical possibility, 150% of home-made hooch. This was then fortified with vodka to make something potentially leg-wobbling, but which is actually more safely warming when diluted with soda water and lemon juice.
Beekeeping is one of those things where when you jump you find that there is only a deep end and the most pressing thing that you learn is about how much you have yet to learn. For this reason, I find the Warré style a little forgiving because of the way that it sets out to provide the bees an environment in which they can ideally do their thing naturally. You can at least go some way towards acquitting yourself of your responsibilities to them just by letting them be. But the beetle issue goes beyond this. With beetle I have to act; for the bees, for my future honey and for the rest of the beekeeping public – harbouring a serious pest, my hive is a threat to others. So onwards and upwards on the rather precipitous learning curve, comforted at least by the succour of my own amazing honey and four and a half litres of pretty serious booze.