From Winnie the Pooh to the ancient Mayan kings, people throughout the ages have used honey for culinary purposes and continue to do so today. A long-held Irish tradition is for newlyweds to drink a cup of mead, a golden sweet wine made from honey, during their first 30 days of marriage, (their honeymoon) daily to ensure longevity of their marriage.
|Locally, members of the Southern Missouri Beekeepers were recently treated to a demonstration on honey extraction and then had the opportunity to sample the liquid gold delicacy on warm buttered biscuits at the home of Leon and Peggy Riggs of Monett.|
Starting his sixth year as a beekeeper, Riggs originally got started raising honeybees due to severe allergies.
"I've always been interested in bees but I always had a fear of them," he said. "But there have been so many good results."
Honey was known by the ancient Greeks to be an antiseptic, and believed to confer immortality. For Riggs, eating honey has other medical applications.
"My allergies are not so bad," he said. "And my psoriasis has been gone for over a year."
Treating allergies with locally harvested honey is believed to benefit sufferers because the bees collect local pollens which end up in the raw product. By ingesting two spoonfuls of honey on a daily basis, Riggs has built up an immunity to the irritants that trigger his allergic reactions.
"But it has to be raw honey," he cautioned. "Processed honey has been heated and the enzymes killed off."
Riggs also noted that the venom from bee stings is helpful to his arthritis.
Pulling the combs from the hive, Riggs held up a rectangle wooden frame backlit by the setting sun.
"That's as near to perfect as you can get," he said, gently placing the honey-laden frame onto a rack containing several additional harvested honeycombs.
Riggs picked up a metal cannister filled with twigs and berries, setting the contents aflame with a blow torch. He demonstrated the traditional method of "smoking" the bees further down into the hive, leaving the upper layer relatively bee-free for extracting the combs.
"Think about the consequences of your harvesting," he cautioned group members. "If you use too much smoke, you'll end up having honey that tastes like smoke."
Riggs advised onlookers to use berries off of staghorn sumac in their smokers. "The smoke also helps with mite control."
Riggs also recommended using almond oil extract to force the bees down into the hives when taking the souper off the hive.
"They don't like the smell of that," he said. "Once we extract the honey we'll put the comb back and let the bees refill it."
Riggs cautioned group members to be especially careful when "capping" the honeycomb.
"Try not to damage the honeycomb," he said. "It takes seven pounds of honey to make one pound of beeswax. Reusing the comb makes a lot less work for your bees."
Riggs deftly placed the frame over a collection tub and took an electric knife to cleanly slice away the wax caps on both sides of the comb. He then placed the capped frame into the spinner. With the second wooden frame, Riggs demonstrated the hot knife method of capping the comb, the wax tops melting off and revealing the amber liquid below.
"It usually takes about 45 minutes or so to spin the honey," he said. "There are nine frames in each level of the souper, where the honey is stored by the bees. The temperature and humidity can make a difference in how long it takes to spin out, too."
Riggs opened the tap at the bottom of the spinner allowing the honey to cascade down through a fine mesh filter. He then placed the collection bucket on a table and filled a variety of jars for those in attendance to sample.
"The best time to harvest honey is between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.," Riggs said. "That's when most of your bees are out foraging. Even plants we consider to be noxious weeds are a source of pollen for the worker bees."
For those in the business of beekeeping, the greatest threats to their insect populations are indiscriminate spraying of insecticides.
"A lot of times the electric company will come along and spray along the roadway," he said. "If there is a good wind or the hives are too close to the area where they are spraying the bees can bring the spray back to the brood and kill the entire hive."
Another threat to hive health are the tiny mites that can attack the bees' tracheal and circulatory systems.
"I use powdered sugar," he said. "It helps eliminate the mites and serves as a food source for the bees."
Bees serve an important role in agriculture by pollenating plants.
"About every third bite of food that you eat is a result of bee pollenation," Riggs said. "Commercial bee haulers transport trucks all over the country, from California to Maine, to pollenate various crops. Most bees don't like the vibration of the travel. It stresses them."
And when the sun goes down, most of the bees go back to their own hives, rarely erring in their quest to reach home.
"The queen bee releases a pheromone and all the bees in that hive can identify her," Riggs explained. "They can go forage for pollen all day and return back to their hives by about sundown."
Bees do not sleep but they do enter a motionless state, reserving their energies for the next day's foraging while others protect the queen, the source of the hives continuity.
"The queen has to lay about 2,000 eggs a day, replacing the worker bees that were lost to predators or illness," Riggs said. "She is attended by several worker bees who feed her and carry away her waste.
"The queen is the heart of the hive."