Not everyone has the time, the space or the inclination to keep their own bees, but buying honey can be confusing. Meme Thomas, instructor for the Honeybee Conservancy classes at Rodale Institute and founder of Baltimore Honey, shared with us the best questions to ask your beekeeper (and the answers you want to hear in return) to ensure he or she is focused on keeping the bees healthy.
Q: Is the honey from your own hive(s)? Do you package honey from another source? If so, from where?
A: Ideally, you want to buy directly from the beekeeper or someone who is very familiar with the practices of the beekeeper(s). Never support a vendor, processor or packer who doesn’t know the origin of the honey he or she is selling.
Q: How are you as a beekeeper contributing to the health of honeybees?
A: Know your beekeeper’s methods and management practices during honey production. How the beekeeper cares for the honeybees makes a big difference in the quality of the honey for sale. Sustainable beekeepers should have planted nectar- and pollen-rich plants for all seasons, especially for the months of late winter to early spring (February through April), through the summer dearth and into the late fall (June through November). If they don’t mention omitting the use of chemicals, you’ll want to ask specifically about their use of miticides, antibiotics or artificial feedings, including cane/beet sugars, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup and pollen patties.
Q: How do you ensure your honeybees are well hydrated?
A: Honeybees need water to stay hydrated but also to regulate the thermodynamics within the hive and colony. They use water inside the hive as a means for evaporative cooling (air conditioning within the hive). Honeybees will place water over and on top of the wax comb to prevent it from melting and to keep the eggs and young developing honeybees in cells laid by the queen bee from overheating and dying. That said, beekeepers should always provide clean water at each hive, especially when honeybees cannot forage outside the hive due to cold temperatures or cloudy, foggy or rainy weather.
Q: How do you prevent your bees from starving during the winter months?
A: Beekeepers should leave 100 pounds or more of capped honey in the hive for honeybees to feed on over the cold months of winter and into early spring.
Q: How soon do you remove honey from a hive after setting up a new colony?
A: The first honey harvest should occur sometime after the fifth season of placing a honeybee colony into its hive. For example, if a colony is set up in a hive in the spring, a beekeeper would wait five seasons—summer, fall, winter, spring, summer—and the first harvest wouldn’t take place until a year after establishment. And only the excess honey (above the 100 pounds) will be harvested while the remaining will stay on the hive for honeybees to feed on through the winter. The five-season rule allows for honeybees to establish themselves and to store away enough capped honey for winter survival.
Q: How do you prevent your honeybees from stinging you when you take their honey?
A: Cross your fingers and hope their response isn’t “with a smoker.” The materials that are burned in smokers emit over 20 volatile compounds into the hive. Over time, the smoke will create residue build-up on the wax comb of brood and honeycomb which, in turn, affects both the honeybees and the natural flavor of the uncapped and capped honey.