Honey Journal — Entry 8
Name: Rees Estate, Private Reserve Honey
You can buy it here: Unfortunately, it’s not for sale.
Country: Woodland Hills, CA
Purchased: Given as a gift in January 2008.
Color: When you look into the jar, the honey is as dark as ink. Rich brown halos rim your spoon as you lift the honey into the light.
Flavor: Deep molasses with a black licorice after taste. Hints of orange peel give it a nice tang.
Consistency: Heavy, but porous.
Fragrance: Musky molasses
Prager listener, Robert Rees, whom Susie and I met on a Prager Cruise a couple of years ago to Brazil, sent me a small jar of this honey from his private stock. Twenty years ago he tried his hand at making his own honey in his own backyard. Having sampled his work, I can tell you he has a real talent for the craft.
I asked Robert if he would share with me his experience of making the honey and he agreed. I posed a bunch of questions to him. I found his answers fascinating. They provide a glimpse into the process of backyard beekeeping , a serious hobby that given my burgeoning love of bees I would be tempted to try if producing a radio show were a less time intensive endeavor.
Here’s our exchange.
How many hives did you have?
[Robert Rees] I had three hives – each with a base brood chamber and 3 or 4 “supers” (honey boxes).
Did you keep them in the backyard of house?
[Robert Rees] I had them in my back yard.
Were they hard to manage?
[Robert Rees] Not at all. On a daily basis, they barely require any attention, nor do they cause any trouble (unless your 3 year old son decides it would be interesting to go out to the hives in his underpants and poke a stick into the entrance to the hive). Occasionally, a beekeeper needs to check the hives for various bee health concerns and honey status. When the honey has filled the honey comb frames in the boxes, you need to harvest the honey or add another box to the top of the hive. The real work is extracting the honey. That’s quite a chore.
Did you heat the honey to get it out of the hives?
[Robert Rees] No. A hobbyist like me would rent an extractor and an electric capping knife from a bee supply place. There used to be a great one in Thousand Oaks. The capping knife is heated just enough to remove the wax capping on the honey cells. Then the frames are put into the extraction drum which uses centrifugal force to spin the honey out of the comb. After extraction, you open the spigot on the drum and strain the honey into a bucket to remove the bee parts (bees, wings, legs, etc.), bits of wax, twigs, and other junk.
Did you ever add anything to the honey? Or is 100% pure?
[Robert Rees] Nothing added.
Was it always this dark? And have this same taste?
[Robert Rees] No. A couple harvests were very light and less viscous. The flavors definitely vary with the color. I can’t explain it with any certainty, but I expect that different years with different weather would cause an abundance or lack of certain flowers that the bees would visit. Sometimes the hives, which were sitting right next to each other, would have different honey color. I guess that hives have preferences for what they harvest.
Did you ever get stung?
[Robert Rees] Many times. You can sit in front of a bee hive, inches away from the entrance where thousands of bees are coming and going and never get stung. If you don’t bother them, no problems. It’s when you’re inspecting the hives or harvesting the honey that they get aggressive. In those cases, a beekeeper might wear a suit and veiled hat, and/or “smoke” the hive. Introducing smoke into the hive entrance and the open top makes the bees think that there is a fire, which makes them start gorging themselves with honey. In a real fire, the engorged bees would evacuate the hive and find a safe place to rebuild. The honey is converted to wax to create a new honey-combed hive structure. The point: engorged bees don’t sting. However, there are “guard bees” who will attack you and occasionally I got stung; usually not more than a couple stings. If you are allergic, you can easily die from a single sting.
Once I got stung about 50 times, when I was getting a hive from a friend whose wife was making him get rid of his hive because their kids where getting stung. He had a four box hive built up on a 4″x4″ post. Those hive boxes are extremely heavy when they are full of honey. I had to disassemble the hive box by box from a ladder. After the first ten stings, you barely notice them. When I was done, I realized that I was in shock and had to lie down for a while to recuperate.
Do you know want kind of bees they were?
[Robert Rees] This was before the invasion of the so-called African bees, so mine were the standard European variety. (I think the scourge of the dreaded African bees may be another “global warming” type scare).
Why did you stop?
[Robert Rees] My house has an alley in the back with office building across the alley. At night, the offices had yellow flood lights on. I think the bees got confused and thought it was the rising sun. The lights would attract then and in the morning there would be a bunch of dead and dying bees by the office entrance doors. Those folks figured out where the bees where coming from and reported me. Apparently, bees are classified as a farm animal and you can’t have them in a residential neighborhood. So, goodbye bees At that time, a beekeeper friend was moving out of state to start a full time bee business. He bought my hives and most the honey that I had harvested. I only kept 5 gallons of the dark honey that I sent you. I liked it the best.
Do you want me to give out your email address so that readers can get in touch with you or would you rather I not?
[Robert Rees] I don’t want to sell anything. If you or anyone else wanted to know more about bees and honey, there are several good books about it. Mastering the Art of Beekeeping is one of the classics. You can use my name and email (email@example.com). I’m thrilled to be part of your honey blog.