Alice’s son, Michael Foote, his wife, Rachel Brodie, and their little son, River, live on their mountain-side farm in northern Vermont. The upper part of their land is level with a vegetable garden, berry patch, and pasture for visiting horses. The property is wooded below that, falling to a stream that supported a beaver family until a neighbor shot them. Last Christmas, they gave jars of honey to friends and family with this letter. RJN
Dear Family and Friends,
Here is a jar of pure, unfiltered, naturally crystallized honey from my bees on Swamp Road to you.
Rachel thinks the rest of this letter makes me sound like an old Vermonter. I take that as a compliment, so here we go!
Then: my brother Jesse and I received a grant while undergrads to buy bees, and we started the hives at Dartmouth College. The next summer, we drove them to Scout camp to offer the bee-keeping merit badge as well as to continue our study.
Now: It’s been a fun little adventure to get to this point–from buying a box of bees to where I actually have honey in containers. This is my fourth year keeping bees. The first year was a disaster. I tried to be a little too creative, testing an alternative hive method before I knew enough to be doing that.
Top bar hive: My first hive, an alternative method, didn’t last the winter.
My first hive did not survive the winter, succumbing to an overwintering mouse. If a mouse gets into a hive in winter, it can exhaust the honey reserve. The mouse was cute, but seeing the pile of dead bees in spring was heartbreaking.
I started with the basics the second year, using a tried-and-true structure for raising bees. I purchased mail-order bees (Italian and Carniolan bees) and dumped them into a couple of hives I had built from kits. I was always worried about them. When it was cold out, I assumed they were cold. I wrapped them in insulation and anxiously pressed my ears up to the hives to hear the telltale buzz of life. When it rained for several days, I assumed they would be in need of food, so I fed them sugar water and a pollen substitute. I didn’t let them just be bees. Still, whether my parenting style had anything to do with it, my bees did thrive that year.
In my third year, I purchased a Vermont mongrel hive that had been bred to thrive in northern climates. I liked the Italian bees, but the Carniolan bees have been grumpy, so I was looking for a more docile, better adapted bee. I relaxed a bit, and still the hives did very well, each producing about 200 pounds of honey.
Apiary: A photo of three of my hives in the bee yard.
Going into my fourth, most recent year, I attempted to split some of my hives in two and start the summer with 8. All but one split thrived and I took about 150 pounds of honey in all. Not much, but a newly split hive must build its comb as well as store honey.
Splitting: I made two hives from one, simply be splitting it in two. The queenless hive made a new queen to become “queen right.”
Swarming is the process by which a new honey bee colony is formed when the queen bee leaves the colony with a large group of worker bees. In the prime swarm, about 60% of the worker bees leave the original hive location with the old queen.
· Swarm: One of my hives sent out a swarm, which I then caught and put in a new hive. Unfortunately it didn’t stay.
I tried to capture a couple of swarms this year. A swarm of bees lingers near its original hive for only a short period before moving to its new home. I was late.
Very active: A warm summer day, lots of food to collect.
Luckily, in this neck of the woods, I don’t have the problem of the well-publicized colony collapse disorder where hives oddly become active in the middle of winter, leave, and die. From my reading, I understand that saturation of the environment with pesticides and other chemicals, including neo-nicotinoids, is to blame. Neo-nicotinoids are a major factor in the decimation of pollinators everywhere and in the build-up of chemicals in our own bodies. Our nearby town of Richmond is aware of these chemicals and fairly progressive, to the benefit of my bees. Their honey is probably safer for us to eat than some produced elsewhere.
Future: I hope to try my hand at queen-rearing this coming spring to boost my hive numbers. (You grow a queen, give the queen a couple frames of bees, and your hive takes off.) I’m also hoping to plant a half-acre of Anise Hyssop for the bees to give their honey a hint of anise flavor.
I plan to pursue organic certification eventually, but, for the time being, I’m doing as much as I can to be environment- and health-conscious, as in buying hive wood from a responsible lumber yard down the road and using organic sugar feed when possible.
I should be clear–there’s no money in this business, but I love it. I love to work outside, and I find the bees fascinating: their complex social structure, their numbers (more than 50,000 in a hive), their communication systems (dancing, wiggling, pheromones, electric fields), and their ability to make wax, propolis, royal jelly and … honey! I could watch my bees all day long as they go back and forth with little baskets on their legs filled with pollen. I can’t wait until River is old enough to join me.
I rarely get stung, mostly because the bees are gentle. Still, when I’m opening their hives, I make sure to put on protective gear and use a smoker. Smoke makes the bees think a fire is coming and they move into the hive to eat honey in case they need to leave, After eating, the bees are pretty lazy and have a hard time bending their bodies to sting. I still run away when they get angry and have no shame doing the bee dance, an awkward combination of flailing, running, and yelling when a bee gets under my mask. When I do get stung I just bear it and feel tough.
Rachel supports my bee work and hasn’t complained about the cost of building an apiary. She grows a little tired of finding everything sticky in the kitchen. I try to protect life at home and at work from losing to the bees. I sneak out during River’s naps and get up early to do hive maintenance during the months March through October. In winter I can enjoy dreaming about what I will do with the bees the next year.
I aspire to sell honey on the roadside this spring and to guests in our rental unit to earn enough money to build a little bee shed so that I don’t have to do all my honey extraction in the house.
Let me know when you need more honey! Happy holidays. Bee well.
Note: My honey, like all honey, naturally crystalizes, preserving flavor and quality (considered premium quality because it is not blended with other substances), yielding richer taste in cooking, and spreading well enough Because I don’t filter or heat the honey, crystalization is quicker. Filtering honey removes a lot of the pollens and propolis that add to he nutritional value, and heating denatures the proteins,
To liquify honey, it is heated in a jar in a pot of hot water and stirred frequently until it is liquid. For storage, honey is best kept at 50 degrees prevent fermentation, though the very old alcoholic drink made with honey, mead, seems to gaining popularity.
Emphasis added, RJN