We have all heard the expression “busy as a bee”, but until I went to Honeyrun Farm, I had no idea the simile we should utter is “busy as a female bee.”
A little ways South of Columbus, I met up with Isaac, full time teacher and part-time beekeeper. He and his wife, Jayne, moved from Montana a few years ago where he worked for a commercial bee keeper and dabbled in keeping a few of his own bee hives. A year after returning to Ohio, he turned his hobby and experience into his own honey-making business. He started with about 20 hives and today has 150; 100 of which are honey producing. Besides honey, Jayne makes heavenly smelling handmade soaps and cleverly molded beeswax candles. Isaac took me on a tour of where his honey is bottled and Jayne’s soaps are aging as he brought me up to speed with my local ingredient.
At Honeyrun Farm, they only sell raw honey. That means that they do not pasteurize or heat their honey, ensuring all of the good-for-you contents stay intact. Other commercial honey producers will heat their honey to above 120 degrees to keep it from granulating or crystallizing. During that heating process, the enzymes break down and all of the healthful reasons you eat honey in the first place are lost. Isaac mentioned to be leery of the really inexpensive honey on the shelf, as most likely that is cut with corn syrup, so read your labels! Don’t worry if your Honeyrun Farm or raw honey begins to crystallize, honey doesn’t spoil and all you need to do is place it in a pan of hot water for a few minutes to break up the natural forming crystals and it will be good to go. Raw honey is healthier for you and in my opinion tastes better too!
To collect all the delicious golden liquid, Isaac runs the collected honey combs through a capper to remove the protective wax layer covering the combs and then places them into a large centrifuge. This machine spins around and all the honey drips to the base. He then takes honey and filters it through a fine screen before bottling. While the process sounds fairly straightforward, we need to take a few steps back and go behind the scenes to see why the females truly rule the hive.
Honey bees originated in Europe and didn’t arrive in the states until the mid 1800s when they were introduced by European colonists. At Honeyrun, their bees are Italian – the three-banded species to be exact. In the world of bees, everyone has a part to play and each role, no matter how seemingly minimal, is essential for the survival of their colony. There are three main types of bees in each hive, the queen, the worker and the drone. The worker bees are non-fertile females and the drones are males. In any given hive, the male bees are way outnumbered; 9 to 1. Maybe it’s their lack of numbers that causes insecurity or maybe they are just smart and let the females do it all.
I didn’t realize that the overwhelming majority of the tasks at hand are completed by the female bees each day! The workers are foragers and travel to collect nectar, pollen and water; three elements needed for survival. They have been known to travel up to 5 miles away from their hive, but usually stick between 1-2 miles to find food. The pollen they discover collects in sacks on their tiny bee legs and is used as a protein source. After returning to the hive, the workers evaporate the water out of the collected nectar to make honey and are also responsible for creating the beautiful hexagonal pattern we know as honey comb. Honey is what the bees eat to survive, but don’t worry as they make an over abundance and don’t seem to mind sharing. There are also nurse worker bees that look after the brood (bee larvae). The larvae must remain a constant temperature, so if it is too hot the workers fan their wings to cool things down and if it is too cold they huddle together to create warmth. The most important role a worker plays is creating a queen bee. (I’ll explain this further when I talk about splitting hives below.) Besides doing all of this, the female bees are the only ones that posses a stinger. So, if you have been stung by a bee, it was a female that is in protection mode of her colony. Just to recap, the female bees collect and make all of the food, build the hive, watch over the young, protect the hive and most importantly create the queen. Pretty busy bees!
The drone on the other hand, is a fat and lazy baby maker. He can go from hive to hive, unlike the workers who remain in their original hives. He basically hangs out, eats honey, and mates with the queen. Besides not really doing much, the honey bee’s biggest predator, mites, are more attracted to the drones and are most likely brought into the hive by them. Having said all this, Isaac did mention that the hives with more drones seem to be happier. As a bit of revenge, after the first frost when the queen has used the drones for all they are good for, the workers board up the hives and won’t let them back in. You will see a pile of dead drones at the hive entrance and although this isn’t a good time to be a drone they had a great run and lived like kings for the season. The colony continues because the queen is pregnant with her future sons and produces more drones in the spring.
In order to control the mite population at Honeyrun, they split their hives – basically moving bees from an existing hive to a new location to start a hive of their own. Splitting hives is a more environmentally responsible way of controlling the bee’s biggest predator. They could use chemicals, like a majority of commercial farms, but decide to take the greener and healthier route. I tagged along with Isaac as he went to work splitting the bee hives. Before heading out we both put on the infamous bee suit complete with the mesh helmet and gloves caked in beeswax. Honeyrun rents fields from local farmers and has their hives spread out over 14 locations. They pay the farmer “honey rent” which equates to about 2 gallons of honey for the year depending on the number of hives. Sounds like a pretty sweet deal for the farmers, who let the beekeeper take over portions of unusable land.
We arrived to our location and began splitting a hive. There are 60-70 thousand, yes I said THOUSAND, bees per hive. Isaac attempts to take 20-30 thousand in a split. Only 50% of his original hives will survive from year to year, but he is more successful with his splits and 90% of those endure the tough Ohio winters. He tries to introduce mainly nurse bees and brood in the splits. The bees do possess a natural instinct to return to their original hive, but they also have a maternal instinct to take care of the brood and will not leave them. Within 15-20 minutes after bees are split from their original hives they know something isn’t quite right and figure out through their pheromones and communication system they are without a queen. Alarms go off and they go into survival mode because without a queen they know they are goners. Worker bees make a new queen out of larvae that is less than 3 days old. They do this by feeding it royal jelly (a highly nutritious milky substance that develops the ovaries in the queen). It takes roughly two weeks before the queen hatches and then the workers can take a sigh of relief and go back to their hundreds of other responsibilities like standing guard at their hive.
Isaac warned that female bees are aggressive protectors and the further we dug into the hives the angrier they became. It is true that the bee sacrifices her life for that of the colony and essentially rips out her guts when she stings. The bees were anything but placid that evening and as I was trying to get close to take an essential photograph one decided that I was close enough and got me square on the chin through the mask! Getting stung was not a fortuitous encounter, but luckily I’m not allergic. Isaac began pumping the hive with smoke to calm the bees. The smoke interferes with their communication, they think their tree might be on fire and it triggers their natural instinct to eat honey to survive until they have time to relocate and make more. They eat until they are lethargic, fat, happy bees and are not so aggressive. Unfortunately, a little too late for me! After a few more splits and some pollen collecting, we took the hives down the road to their new location and called it a night. As I pulled down the drive, I tried to not let the fact that my chin was still stinging be a buzz kill to a great evening.
You can purchase Honeyrun Farm Honey at Greener Grocer and the Dublin Whole Foods location as well as both North Market and Worthington Farmers Markets. Isaac’s goal is to expand from 150 to 300 hives so he can also support the Lane Avenue Whole Foods. Besides honey, they also sell homemade soaps, beeswax candles and bee pollen on Etsy.
The Honeyrun Farm Honey (pictured left) traveled 37 miles to Columbus. While, the only raw honey sold at the commercial grocery chains traveled from Sioux City, Iowa, roughly 845 miles to Columbus.
Honey varies in taste and color depending on the season. Listed below are the different types produced and sold by Honeyrun Farm.
Spring – The black locust flower produced Spring locust honey. This is Isaac’s “pride and joy” and in his opinion the best honey he produces. It is lightest in color with a mildly sweet light flavor.
Summer – Clover, thistle and summer wildflowers produce the Summer honey. Clover honey is 99% of what you see on the traditional grocery store shelves and is medium in color.
Fall – Goldenrod and aster produce honey sold in the Fall. It is the darkest in color with a rich deep honey flavor.
Lavender Infused - Honey infused with their home grown lavender. All the beautiful honey flavor with a bright floral component.
ReferencesEverything About the Honey Bee
Honey and Sweet Corn Cornbread with Lavender Honey Butter
*This recipe is not only an opportunity to make honey your local choice, as you can choose local Ohio Sweet Corn as another great seasonal ingredient!
Ingredients – Honey and Sweet Corn Cornbread
- 1 cup yellow cornmeal
- ½ cup flour
- 1 cup fresh sweet corn, cut off the cob (about one large ear)
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- ¾ teaspoon salt
- 1 cup milk
- ¼ cup unsalted butter, melted
- 4 tablespoons Honeyrun Farm Honey
- 1 large egg, beaten
- Preheat oven to 400°F
- In a large bowl, mix together cornmeal, flour, corn, baking powder and salt
- In a small bowl, whisk together milk, melted butter, honey and egg until fully blended
- Pour wet ingredients into dry ingredients and mix until blended
- Pour into an 8” square baking dish
- Bake until golden brown, about 20 minutes
- Serve with Lavender Honey Butter (recipe follows)
Ingredients – Lavender Honey Butter
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
- 2 tablespoons Honeyrun Farm Lavender Honey
- Blend butter and honey with spoon until fully incorporated