I love the idea of beekeeping — of a happy, humming hive right there in my backyard, providing honey, beeswax, and busy pollinators not just for my garden but for my neighbors’ gardens, as well. But the natural processes of bees and honey production, I admit, have always been daunting and mysterious to me.
Until, that is, this autumn when my friend Patrick, a lifelong beekeeper who lives up in my native Rabun County, Georgia, invited my family (primarily my six-year-old niece and me) to help him extract honey from his hives. Avril has been apprenticing with Pat since last year. All suited up and looking like a gnome in hazmat, last fall she helped him smoke the hives in order to open them up and examine honey production levels for the year. Patrick made sure she understood exactly what she was doing, too. He gave her a beautifully illustrated book that explained the architecture and social order of the hive, the role each different type of bee plays, how a queen is made, how they make honey, and how we come along and harvest it. At the age of five, Avril knew more than I did about honeybees.
By the time we arrived at Pat’s house for the extraction party in late September, I had done a little bit of remedial work to catch up with Avril (Pat and I recently had spent several hours together on a driving trip, and he very patiently explained things to me and answered my questions). Pat had prepared us: wear old clothes, an apron, and a bandanna over your hair; bring some old shoes you can easily slip on and off; prepare to get sticky! He had already “robbed” the hives and brought the supers — those are the boxes that look like drawers — into his basement, the floor of which was covered with heavy plastic. Each one had a dozen frames full of honeycomb, and each cell of the comb was full of honey.
My task was to take a hot knife (sizzling hot! The electrically heated knife burned the wax and honey and filled the room with smoke if I moved too slowly) and slice the caps off each side of the honeycomb cell. Then I would help Avril load the frame of open, oozing comb into the extractor.
The extractor is a giant drum that contains a basket that holds the frames vertically within, so that they sit radially from the center point. A motor turns the basket inside the drum, and the idea is to use centrifugal force to sling the honey out of the comb. Pat told us that old-timers call this device (which used to be hand-cranked!) a “honeyslinger.”
Avril’s job was to run the extractor. Once we had loaded it full of frames, she’d start the motor turning slowly, then gradually crank it up until the drum was shaking with speed. I opened a tap at the bottom of the drum to allow the extracted honey to drain into a bucket.
The just-extracted honey was full of bee-parts, leaves, and other bits of nature that has found itself fixed in the gluey gold. So as it drained out of the extractor, Pat sent it through several layers of filters to catch the non-honey stuff.
Another tap on the bucket allowed Pat to fill the one-pound jars. Avril capped each one, and I wiped off any residual stickiness before placing the jars into a case. All told, Pat harvested honey from nine full hives this year.
Then we removed our sticky shoes (honeyslinging is a messy job!), washed our gooey hands, and sat down to label each jar. That’s when Patrick surprised us. He’d had a special label made up just for Avril, with her name. Because she had seen the process through from the very beginning last year, he said, this was her honey. Avril and I each left with a case of honey of our own — hers with her own special label!
A word about Pat’s honey: his bees gather the nectar of the sourwood tree, which only grows in sufficient quantities to produce honey in the southern Appalachians. The smooth flavor of sourwood honey is as prized as the famous Tupelo honey, and like Tupelo, sourwood does not crystallize. Avril and I (and indeed, my whole family) have been completely spoiled by the flavor of sourwood. I use it daily in my coffee; have mixed it in ice cream, salad dressings, and marinades; drizzled it on a big hunk of fresh homemade bread. Most other honeys simply are inferior.
And sourwood honey is part of Slow Food’s Ark of Taste, meaning that it is considered a “heritage” food—unique in flavor, sustainably produced by methods handed down over many generations, in danger of disappearing. The ranks of sourwood honey producers are dwindling, and Pat is keeping an important tradition alive. I remember as a child visiting Mr. Neville, a beekeeper in Rabun County, to buy his sourwood honey. After Mr. Neville died, I found out during our extraction party, Pat acquired much of his equipment.
Now that I, too, am an apiary apprentice of Patrick’s, I have plans to install a couple of hives in my own backyard in the next few years (I’m still learning first!). But in Decatur, I will never be able to achieve the flavor of the sourwood I so treasure.
I brought home an extra case or two of Mr. Pat’s sourwood honey and am selling it for him for $6 (plus shipping, if needed) a pound. Contact me if you are interested in purchasing some. And in case you need more persuading, here is a little video testimonial Avril and I filmed.