Following a quick inspection of the conventional hives, which are doing fine, although not yet producing any surplus honey, we moved on to take our first honey from the long deep hive. This is a rather odd looking hive of my dad’s design, but similar to others of its kind. It takes deep frames, and offers a very large brood area all on one level, making inspection a little easier. It also has entrances at both ends, allowing colonies to be split and merged more readily than with a conventional hive.
The colony of gold bees began last year with an Italian virgin queen; it is rather difficult to know what she might be mated with, but it could well be the Buckfast bees that we kept on the site at the time. In any event, she has produced the most wonderful bees; healthy, gentle, and productive.
We like to give our bees plenty of brood space which, at this time of the year, is being packed with stores for the winter. We leave these stores for the bees; we get more honey than we need anyway, and it is no doubt better for the bees to have an abundance of their natural food rather than feeding excessive amounts of sugar syrup or fondant. This seems a rather poor substitute for honey with its far more complex composition. We still provide a little extra feed in case they need it, but they really need very little when there is 40lbs or more of honey in the brood boxes as they go into winter.
The bees in the long deep hive have packed a good number of frames with solid honey. They are a huge colony, though, and since we have given them plenty of space they are still maintaining a large brood nest, yet have shown no inclination to swarm. As well as packing their own stores away for the winter, they have been storing surplus in the supers. We have 40 super frames on the hive at the moment, so to make sure they have plenty of space, we swapped out 10 frames packed with sealed honey for new frames. Those frames will provide between 20 and 25 lbs of honey. This is one area where the imperial measures will just not go away, which suits me, but for those who prefer metric, 1 lb is approximately 454g, and is the standard size jar. It is incredible to think that 1lb of honey involves, according to oft quoted figures from various sources, the harvesting of something in the order of 4lbs of nectar from two million flowers and a combined journey of 55,000 miles.
Unlike a recent article that described the pressing of heather honey, these frames can be extracted in the normal way, using a centrifuge. Nonetheless, it is still rather a troublesome process; equipment has to be prepared and cleaned, the frames prepared by removing the wax cappings, the honey extracted, then filtered and bottled, and the equipment cleaned once again and packed away. The frames we took today were therefore put in a large plastic box to be stored until we have a larger batch to extract. Unlike more northerly or exposed locales, we have the benefit of a long season during which various honey flows can be exploited. Our bees, in their sheltered southerly environment, will still be gathering long after many colonies are tucked up for the winter. Thus, we are quite confident of getting further harvests later in the year.
Of course, there was no way these were going to be put away without a little tasting first. Straight from the comb, the honey is rather special – intensely floral and aromatic, yet this sample was also especially rich, with a long lasting flavour. For some reason, the honey we produce here, and also that which Dad has produced for many years elsewhere, has a completely different flavour from anything I have bought, regardless of price, whether from supermarkets or specialist shops and farmers’ markets. Typical shop bought honey, to my taste, almost entirely lacks the distinctive floral properties of the raw product.
We have often wondered what the reason might be, but heating during processing is a likely culprit. Commercial honey processing seems to involve heating the honey for extended periods and at temperatures that are known to be detrimental to various properties of the honey, pertaining both to health and flavour. The small scale beekeeper is less likely to heat their honey, and although it is typically filtered to remove excess wax and debris, it retains much of the volatile flavour and aroma of the raw product. The difference is so marked, that there really is no comparison with processed honey.