I remember the sandwich vividly. It was unassuming to the eye—our choice of picnic fare on a budget—assembled from bread, peanut butter and Manuka honey we’d bought from the corner store in a small town in New Zealand. But when we bit in, allowing that first kiss of honey-swirled peanut butter to sink in to our taste buds, it became clear this was no ordinary PB&H. Or, to clarify: no ordinary honey.
The second time I came across honey like that—pure, full, and rich, unfiltered and unconstrained by a bear-shaped plastic container—happened years later, at my friend’s family home in Wood Acre just a few months ago. Set on a sprawling swath of greenery, the property blushes with roses and lavender and blackberry brush. Here, my friend’s mother, Elizabeth, grows vegetables and herbs to season their meals with flavors from the garden. She’s also a beekeeper.
Starting a hive requires patience, time and commitment, but the benefits reaped from one’s hard work come in the form of a golden-hued substance so long revered for its taste and purported healing properties it has been found, perfectly preserved, in the tombs of ancient Egyptian Pharaohs.
“Beekeeping is something everyone can do,” Elizabeth said on a recent phone call, citing rooftops in cities like New York City and San Francisco as urban spaces known to host successful hives. “I highly recommend it.”
For seven years, my friend’s mother has been caretaker to honeybees. Each year, these bees bring her two varietals of honey to harvest: blackberry and lavender, from the plants on her property. Beginning her journey with no prior experience, she has coaxed one hive into two and become witness to one of nature’s complex ecosystems and intricate dances.
“First, it was the honey—I’ve always been a naturalist, but I was afraid of bees,” she said of the start of her journey. “Now I’m more interested in the bees than the honey.”
No matter your reason—honey or hive—beekeeping is an activity suited for the hostess, a way to connect with nature and, as in the case of Elizabeth, serve something so remarkable just a spoonful lingers on the memory of guests long after they leave.
Follow these steps to learn how to start your own hive—or, if you don’t have time to be a beekeeper quite yet, see a few delicious honey and food pairings fit for your next summer fete!
Before you start a hive, do your research! There are dozens of books and videos and online resources on the subject, as well as classes from local honey communities. Elizabeth recommends Bee Kind, in Sebastopol, California for Northern California residents, but suggests there are beekeeping communities everywhere. “There’s always a group in your area,” she said. “We have two beekeeping societies in Marin and one in San Francisco—lots of people do beekeeping in cities, even if you don’t have a yard.”
In addition to in-person classes, Bee Kind offers a host of online learning materials, videos and resources to get beekeepers started. Elizabeth suggests Dadant and Mann Lake as additional companies with the resources to get you started.
Hive Set-Up and Maintenance
Once you’ve done your research, you can order bees and equipment from the companies mentioned above. Your bees arrive for pick up at the U.S. Post Office, and then it’s time to put your knowledge to use. “[Bee Kind] gave us pretty specific instructions for how to do it,” Elizabeth said.
Following set up, she takes a relatively hands-off approach. “You mainly want to stay out of the way—to be helpful if you can, but not get in too much,” she said. Some seasons, being helpful means doing what’s best for the bees—and not harvesting any honey at all. If there’s not enough, “the bees can actually starve,” she said. “A beekeeper can manipulate the odds, and help them if they’re weak.”
This involves seasonal maintenance of the hive itself. From September until spring, Elizabeth steers clear of the hive, as the bees downsize their colonies to prepare for winter. On the first warm day in March, she inspects the equipment to see it’s in good repair: the wood is strong, the clasp locks, the combs have a clean foundation. Throughout the spring, she makes periodic checks to ensure the hive is intact and the queen is laying eggs.
“You can’t do inspections on days that are cold or wet or windy,” she said. “I usually go in around noon, when many of the bees are out foraging, so I’m disrupting less of the hive.”
“The flavoring is completely up to the bees,” Elizabeth said. “You can be at the luck of the draw of where you place your hive.”
According to The Honey Connoisseur, a recent book co-authored by beekeeper and honey sommelier C. Marina Marchese and scientist and Bee Culture editor Kim Flottum, bees practice what’s called “flower fidelity.” Once they choose nectar from a specific flower, they visit the same type of bloom on every foraging excursion. This produces pure varietal honey, like Elizabeth’s blackberry and lavender in Wood Acre, or the Manuka, in New Zealand.
To increase your odds of a specific varietal, you situate your hives near a certain flower source, but ultimately it’s up to the bees to decide which nectar source is the most attractive, and will ultimately shape the honey. This is part of what makes honey such a distinct phenomenon in the locavore world.
“It’s like seeing rings on a tree … When you pull out a frame of honey, you know it represents a certain block of bees and a gathering of nectar from a certain period of time,” Elizabeth said.
When you do have enough honey to harvest, there are a variety of methods of extraction. This process takes a long time, says Elizabeth, which requires driving the bees out of the hive—either through a strong-smelling chemical, exit gate, or a brush, like she prefers—before removing the frames for extraction.
“It’s pretty messy,” she laughs. “I have an electric extractor, but many people have a hand crank or share or rent an electric one.”
To acquire the honey, you take a knife, put the frames on the edges of the extractor, and spin it. With an electric extractor, “honey just pours out. There’s an opening that’s maybe three inches in diameter, and it goes into a bucket with a little stem at the top that’s the equivalent of a cheesecloth and filters anything out.”
From there, the honey is ready for tasting.
There are hundreds of kinds of honey around the world, with flavors that range from mesquite to buckwheat to ulmo, a fragrant white flower found in the Chilean rain forest. When accompanied with complimentary flavors, honey and food pairings can reveal a complex, delightful flavor profile all its own.
Here are a few quick ideas for summertime, offered by The Honey Connoisseur:
– Avocado honey and vanilla ice cream
– Tulip poplar honey and sour red cherries
– Buckwheat honey and dark chocolate
– Honey and balsamic vinegar drizzled over fresh strawberries
The Honey Connoisseur also notes goat cheese’s creamy texture and mild flavor works well with nearly all flavors of honeys, making the perfect h’ors d’oeuvres for a summer soiree. Elizabeth prefers her honey like I do mine—spread on toast, drizzled on ice cream, or, in its purest form, straight from the jar.
Image via Milkwood