You be the judge

Yesterday I began to read Mark L. Winston’s new book, Bee Time: Lessons from the Hive. Winston is a gifted writer who could make mucking a horse stall sound romantic. But not far into the book, he pulled me up short with his description of honey judging. His words disturbed me so much, I put my Kindle on the charger and walked off.

I don’t know anything about honey judging, but because this is the Mark Winston, I’m sure it’s accurate. He says that honey judging is based on “subtle deviations from perfect.” The judges look for moisture levels, debris, bubbles, wax flakes, and foam. They taste the honey looking for odd flavors picked up during processing, and they look at the jars for dirt and fingerprints. All departures from perfect are deducts.

Now, I understand this, and I see why it might be fun to enter your honey in a contest and learn how you stack up, as long as you don’t take it personally. But being the judge? No, no, no, no.

Once upon a time I was an artistic roller skating judge. If you are unfamiliar with this sport, it is very much like ice skating. The skaters do figures, set dances, and freestyle, only they do it on eight wheels instead of two blades.

I used to adore watching both ice skating and roller skating, and never missed a televised or live performance. I became a judge because I loved the sport and because I was a competitor myself.

After my training I judged many events, but after a while I couldn’t see the beauty. Everything I saw was a “deviation from perfect.” Things that the casual observer would never see, glared at me. Deduct. Deduct. I actually gave up skating not long after I became a judge—it was just too depressing—and I never watch it nowadays.

The same thing happened later when my husband and I belonged to the Oregon Daffodil Society. We often made the trek down to the Willamette Valley for the daffodil shows. We never became judges, but we went through the training, learning about the various classes of daffodils, and learning to “spot the defects.”

Before the training, I was a nut case over daffodils. I had them planted everywhere, and in spring my house was full of dozens of vases containing all shapes and sizes and colors. My husband took them to work, too, and passed them around the office. Daffodils were so cheerful they made me infinitely happy.

But what was stunning before, now fails some man-made and arbitrary definition of perfect. Where I used to see beauty, I now see flaws. Deduct. Deduct. Many of those daffodils still reappear every spring, but I hardly pay attention. Once again, judging ruined a passion.

So when I began reading about honey judging, I stiffened up like a dirty sock. I adore honey, the sublime flavors, the subtle colors, the heavenly aromas. It is magical, mystical, and mysterious. No way, no how, will I ever become a honey judge and have that all taken away. Never. Some things are better left alone.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Read the book: *Bee Time: Lessons from the Hive

Honey of many colors. Pixabay photo
Honey of many colors. Pixabay photo.

*This post contains an affiliate link.

Joe’s mysterious honey

About two weeks ago, Joe Caracausa from east Texas said he harvested some honey with a very strong pine flavor. He wondered if the flavor might be due to the many pine trees in the area of his hives. He reported seeing yellow-green clouds of pollen in early spring, and he wondered if pine pollen could flavor the honey. Joe and his wife weren’t sure they liked the taste of the honey and didn’t know what to do with it. One of Joe’s friends said the honey tasted like a Northwest IPA, very hoppy.

Well, that last comment caught may attention, because there’s nothing I like better than a bitter IPA. Honey that tasted like hops would suit me just fine, so I suggested he could send it my way.

I didn’t think pine pollen would give the honey a pine flavor, but I wondered if it could be honeydew honey collected from pine aphids. I don’t know much about pine-eating aphids, but it seemed to me that pine sap that was eaten by aphids and then collected by honey bees could be the source of the flavor.

If you are not familiar with honeydew honey, it occurs when aphids gorge themselves on sap. They eat so much that the sap leaves their bodies more-or-less in the form it entered. It remains on the tree and then the honey bees come along and collect it. Although it sounds a bit bizarre, honeydew honey is very popular in some places and often commands a high price.

A week later, a sample of the honey showed up in my mailbox. Joe’s honey is a gorgeous amber color, and both my husband and I tucked into the jar as soon as it arrived. We both love it. My husband tastes the hoppiness (which I don’t) but we both detect a bitter aftertaste that is very reminiscent of an IPA. Neither of us tasted a pine flavor, but both Joe and his wife say the piney component has indeed mellowed since they first extracted.

The honey has that ultra-smooth characteristic that is so common in tree honeys that are high in fructose—a velvety, creamy texture that honeys higher in glucose seem to lack. Yes, I may be crazy, but this honey feels like tree honey. I asked Joe what else grows in the area, and he wrote:

There are a lot of woods around, we have substantial amounts of hickory trees, sweet gum, dogwood, many different oaks, willows, locust, bois d’arc, hawthorn, American beauty berry, farkleberry (look it up, it exists), woolly croton, several Narcissi, daffodils. Probably many others. The native pines are long needle varieties, mostly loblolly and slash pine. We also have ‘cedars’, actually juniper trees.

But now the story gets weird. I decided to look at Joe’s honey under the microscope to see how much of that pine pollen actually got into the honey. But what’s going on? I can’t find any pollen. My microscope only goes to 400x but I should see some pollen, even if I can’t see it well. I searched and searched, perplexed.

I wondered if I was doing something wrong. So I got a drop of my own honey from the cupboard, put it on a slide and OMG! Pollen of all shapes and sizes, even at only 40x. I went back to Joe’s honey and tried two more samples. Nothing. Even if pine pollen is really small, I should have seen something in there. Instead, I saw a few pieces of debris and couple of things that, with a good imagination, might have been pollen.

My honey was put through a standard 600-micron honey sieve. Joe sieved his too, and he thinks the sieve was 400 microns, which is smaller but should still let the pollen through. According to Brushy Mountain Bee Farm, 600 microns is considered a coarse sieve, 400 microns is medium, and 200 microns and below is fine.  Nearly all pollen is between 6 and 100 microns, so neither a 400- nor 600-micron sieve should remove any pollen.

The lack of pollen made me think that maybe it was honeydew honey after all. Aphids don’t eat pollen, just sap. So if the honey bees collected honeydew from the bark and needles of pine trees instead of visiting flowers, they would not have much contact with pollen.

Joe says he fed no sugar syrup this year and that there is no civilization anywhere near his hives where they could have found syrup. I know this is true because his honey tastes nothing like syrup! Trust me.

Still, I don’t know the answer to the mystery, I’m just asking the questions. What’s going on here? Does anyone have a different theory?

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

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Joe’s honey at 40x. I found a few things that looked like this. © Rusty Burlew.
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My honey at 40x. Pollen galore. © Rusty Burlew.
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Joe’s honey, a pleasing amber color and a great taste. © Rusty Burlew.

Bees in the buckwheat

Here is something I would do if I could. Bees in a field of buckwheat seems too good to be true. The source of my all-time favorite honey, Fagopyrum esculentum, just doesn’t want to grow in my shady forest apiary. Believe me, I’ve tried. So I have to be content looking at a photo like this and dreaming about the molasses taste of buckwheat honey. Sigh.

Thank you, Wayne, for the photo, even if it makes me wistful.

Gillispie's-bee-yard
Beehives in a flush of buckwheat flowers. Photo and hives © Wayne Gillispie.

How much honey should I leave in my hive?

How much honey will your bees need for winter? Good question. But before I answer, here’s a question for you: How much heating fuel will my household use this winter?

Well, you say, that is complex. It depends on where you live, your local climate, and the size and geometry of your house. It depends on what type of furnace you have, how warm you like it, and how many people live there. It depends on how much insulation you have, and whether you have wind breaks, and what color it is. It depends on air leaks and ventilation and the materials it is made from. It depends on whether the seasons are early or late. And on and on.

Your bee colony has different issues, of course, but just as many. The climate and weather, the amount of ventilation, the structure of the hive, the number of bees, the kind of bees, the number of warmish days and the number of abnormally cold ones are some obvious examples. The fact is, you can’t predict exactly how much honey a colony will need, so it is better to estimate on the high side.

I checked dozens of sources this morning and found an amazing amount of agreement on general guidelines. Bees in the southern U.S. may thrive on as little as 40 pounds, bees in the middle states need about 60, and northern bees may require 80 or 90. Those are average numbers for average years and average hives. What’s average? Another good question.

In all but the warmest areas, I recommend that a beekeeper leave 80 to 90 pounds. In nearly all cases, this will assure a good supply of natural food for your bees, and it will save you messing around with syrups and sugars and supplements. In short, it is good for them and good for you.

The Mann Lake catalog used to have estimates for the weight of full boxes. According to them, a full ten-frame deep weighs 80-90 pounds, and a full ten-frame medium weighs 65-75 pounds. Discounting the weight of the structure and dividing by 10, a full deep frame holds about 8 pounds of honey and full medium holds about 6 pounds. (If you evenly space nine frames in a ten-frame box, a full frame will weigh a bit more.)

According to Caron and Conner (2013), the ideal fall colony will have brood in the center of the lowest box. This will be flanked with frames of honey and pollen, and the two outermost frames will be filled with just honey. The second deep will be filled to the brim with honey—all ten frames.

Applying the math to their ideal colony, you will have 12 deep frames completely full of honey which gives you (8 x 12) or 96 pounds, plus any additional that is stored on the pollen frames.

This setup should get you through any winter, but in the more temperate states, you could easily replace the second deep with a medium, which would give you (6 x 12) or 72 pounds of honey plus any additional on the pollen frames.

A common error that new beekeepers make is harvesting the honey supers without checking the brood boxes for honey. You cannot assume the deeps are full just because the honey supers are full. Often the bees use one or both brood boxes for brood and pollen during most of the season. Not until late in the year do they start moving the honey closer to the brood nest. If you take the supers without checking, you could be leaving your bees with almost nothing for the winter. So above all, remember to look before you take.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

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A full frame of honey. © Nancy McClure.

Is my honey safe to eat?

Is it safe to eat honey from a hive with mites?

Is it safe to eat honey after my bees absconded?

Is the honey from a dead hive safe to eat?

A moth was on the honey comb. How can I sterilize it?

Is it safe to eat a jar of honey with comb inside?

Help! There’s a bug in my honey. Will I be sick??? Please get back to me right away!!!

Is it safe to eat honey from a hive that had mice?

Some variation of the “is it safe” query pops up every day. The questions often concern insects or mites, as if a stray wing may sicken us.

In my generous mood, I patiently explain. In my catty mood, I want to say it is entirely unfit for consumption, and if they’ll send it to me, I’ll take care of it. In my impatient mood, I want to know what they’re smoking.

Why are we so afraid of insects? Furthermore, why is food from a store or restaurant deemed perfectly safe while food directly from nature is suspect? People will eat mystery meat out of a can—or a shiny apple containing 37 different pesticides—without a thought. But those same people will panic at the idea of eating something a mite may have stepped on.

When I read these questions, I get the feeling that people don’t realize how many contaminants are in their food. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) publishes a handy-dandy little guide called the “Defect Levels Handbook,” which lists the allowable number of insect parts and rodent hairs in all different types of food. For example:

  • Peanut butter may legally contain up to 30 insect parts per 100 grams. My jar of Organic Crunchy Peanut Butter says a serving size is 2 tablespoons or 32 g. So that’s 10 insect parts per serving. Yum. Furthermore, the reason for the restriction is listed as aesthetic. In other words, those parts won’t hurt you, they just look bad.
  • Broccoli is always interesting. Frozen broccoli may contain up to 60 aphids and/or thrips and/or mites per 100 grams. That’s about 3/4 cup. Reason: aesthetic.
  • Canned mushrooms should not contain more than 20 maggots of any size per 100 grams of drained product, nor should they contain more than 75 mites per 100 grams of drained product. Reason: aesthetic.
  • Wheat flour should average less than 75 insect fragments per 50 grams. Reason: aesthetic. And you thought you were vegetarian? Think again.

When I was a kid my grandfather would ask, “What’s worse than finding a worm in your apple?”

I would shrug, trying to imagine something worse.

Then he would laugh merrily and say, “Finding a half a worm!” He though that was hilarious; I thought it was gross.

One day, as he was loading bushel baskets of apples into the trunk of his car, I poked around, looking for one to eat. “These are all wormy,” I complained, tossing them back.

“Of course!” he said. “That’s why were pressing them for cider!”

Needless to say, cider didn’t pass my lips for many months. But people don’t get sick drinking cider or grape juice or cranberry juice, worms and all. It all goes back to the aesthetic: we dress up our food to make it look nice, but the harmless contaminants are still there. The trouble is, we do such a great job hiding the truth, that people believe their food is pure.

My point? Don’t worry. Honey is one of the safest foods around. If you don’t like insects on your toast, remove the ones you can see, then chill. There are things out there we should be worried about, but a bug in your honey doesn’t make the list.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

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What lurks within?