How BEE17 and an EpiPen help bring honey to the masses
Imagine a red-hot sewing needle slowly pushed into your flesh. And staying there. That’s the sensation when you get a bee sting on the nose. This is not exaggeration. It is factual reporting. Which is how I got the sting in the first place; while doing this story on BEE17, the Village’s local beekeepers and honey sellers. But more on that pain later.
BEE17 came about four years ago when local Richard Smith met local Helen Lerner while doing community gardening. Both, it turned out, had an interest in bees, and before you could say buzz, they had bought their first colony and set up a hive in Helen’s back garden.
That one colony has multiplied and the pair are now responsible for several hives, hundreds of thousands of bees and the attendant honey that’s produced. Not only do they bring joy to people’s toast, porridge and glazed carrots, but profit from the enterprise also buys pollen and nectar-friendly plants that end up populating the Village.
Since buying those first colonies – which on average contain 60,000 to 70,000 bees – Richard and Helen have raised their own colonies, which includes raising queens. “You want the queen to be hard-working, and a prolific layer, and you also want the colony to be easy to manage and not too aggressive,” says Richard. “They’re not pussycats – at the end of the day they are going to protect their home and queen, but compared to the ones we had at the start, which were quite mardy, they are a lot better now.”
“In the middle of a neighbourhood there is no point in having aggressive bees that are going to sting people willy nilly,” adds Helen who needs to be particularly careful after going into anaphylactic shock after being stung. She now always has an EpiPen (an injector that gives a shock of adrenaline) at the ready when doing any bee duty.
Besides Richard, the entire operation is really run by women, or rather the female bees. The males are only there for mating or hanging around the hive begging for food. It’s the females that do all the work. “When they ‘get their end away’,” explains Richard, “it pulls their willy off and they die. At the end of the summer if they haven’t served their purpose, the women kick them out. Once the food supply is drying up, and they are useless mouths to feed, they force them out of the colony and the guard bees won’t let them back in.”
BEE17 now has one of the biggest assets a beekeeper can have; the frames – that sit inside the hives – with the empty comb still intact. “With new frames the bees have to construct the wax comb, so 25% of your yield goes into wax production. If you have old ones, all that energy goes into processing the nectar so you get more honey,” says Richard.
The whole operation is incredibly labour intensive. All the hives need to be checked on a weekly basis; to make sure the queen is laying eggs, that the bees are not swarming (when the queen leaves with a large number of worker bees to set up a new colony elsewhere) and determine if the queens are producing female offspring not drones (those males who are simply work-shy, hungry reproductive machines). Then there’s the collection of the honey.
“The supers (the boxes containing the frames of comb containing the honey) need to be taken out – there are 10 in each hive – and the comb needs to be uncapped of wax using a heat gun,” explains Helen. “Then it needs to go into the extractor, which acts like a centrifuge and then drained through a double sieve into buckets to settle.
“Then all the scum comes to the top. This is primarily foam – oxygen really – and needs to be taken off before the honey is put into sterilised jars,” says Richard.
This year the weather has been mostly cooperative, so the pair are looking at real quality honey. Spring honey is more light and floral while the summer’s is dark and treacly because of the nectar collected from chestnut blossoms, blackberries and hebes.
After learning all of this fascinating information, I wanted to get a closer look and take some photos, so Richard and Helen got me all kitted up; the full suit with fine netting around the face so you can see what you’re doing. Only my doing included holding the camera so close to my eye that the netting was pressed against my face, giving one of the dozens of bees covering the netting the perfect opportunity to sting my nose, a considerably sized target. Despite the pain and tears, I will still be buying the pesky beggars’ delicious honey…
Next honey sale: 18 June, 12 – 4pm, 6 Beulah Rd
This article first appeared in the Summer 2017 edition of “The Village” magazine.