The only thing I know about harvesting honey is from reading Winnie the Pooh and that always seemed to end with Pooh’s head stuck in a honey jar.
And so when my friend Tracey Yeager asked if I wanted to learn how to collect honey from her hives, I said yes.
“Wear white and bring gloves,” she told me. “And we’ll see how you handle bee stings.”
The white I could handle but I wasn’t too sure about those bee stings. But nevertheless I drove the west on Elkinsville Road where I as staying in Indiana’s scenic Brown County to the Red Hen Barn, Tracey’s home on a hill where she keeps her horses, free range chickens and, of course, honey hives. When I pulled into her driveway, Tracey was already taking apart a hive. She was wearing what looked to me like walk-on-the-moon type of gear and she pointed to a pile of similar clothes including a helmet with a net that pulled down to cover my face.
“This is Langstroth hive,” Tracey explained as we started removing the wooden boxes, each with a narrow frames coated with wax. “He was the one who discovered that bees need three-eighths of an inch of space to pass through and work effectively.”
Tracey is an attorney by day and so she always studies whatever subject she’s interested in very thoroughly. She offers to lend me one of her beekeeping manuals but I decline, saying I’ll just try to learn by watching and doing.
Back in her spotless kitchen, we remove our gear (no bee stings so far and now they’re outdoors and we’re inside) and start removing the frames.
“Bees make a wax and spit it out, covering the honey,” she tells me as she picks up a capping comb and brushing it across the wax pushing it out of the way to reveal the honey combs, each soaked with rich amber honey.
Our next step is to take each de-waxed screen and place it into an extractor. Though there are electric extractors, the one we’re using has a hand crank. Taking my turn, I crank the handle, sending the frames spinning around. The centrifugal force, Tracey tells me, forces out the honey and it flows to the bottom of the extractor and then out of a little spigot into a big container. Or at least most of it does. My face is also getting pelted by droplets of honey. I decide to think of it as a honey facial. Once the five gallon bucket is full, we take it to the kitchen counter and start to spoon it into jars.
“It’s unfiltered honey because I don’t microfilter t,” says Tracey as we start to cap jars. “We’ll probably extract between 200 and 220 pounds of honey today.”
That’s a lot of honey. But there’s a high demand for Tracey’s honey which has won awards and by the end of each season, she seldom has more than a few jars left for herself. People come to her house and buy it off her porch and she also takes it to the Brown County Courthouse where she has her office and sells it there as well. One reason it tastes so good is that her bees feed on the wildflowers like goldenrod and sweet cloves growing in her pasture, the tulip, maple and locust trees in the surrounding woods as well as asters, roses and raspberry bushes from her garden. Both early summer and fall are harvesting time for her hives --she started off with two and now has 12 – each containing about 50,000 bees so it’s a good thing she likes to keep busy as that’s a lot of honey to collect.
Picking some mint from her herb garden, Tracey muddles them in the bottom of a tea pot and then pours warm green tea which has been seeping for a few minutes over the mint. We each pour the tea over ice and add a teaspoon or so of the freshly gathered honey. The taste is minty and just a little sweet to offset the slightly biting taste of the green tea. And, of course, the taste is fresh with mint just plucked from the garden and honey from the hive.
Tracey Yeager’s Greek Yogurt and Honey
1 container plain Greek yogurt
Dried apricots, cut into small pieces
Place the yogurt in a sieve or wet cheesecloth, pushing it down to remove all the liquid. Place solids on a plate and top with the honey, walnuts and dried apricots. Tracey recommends this as a dessert accompanied by a glass of sherry or port.