Buying honey can be confusing, but not everyone has the time, space, or inclination to keep their own bees. Meme Thomas, 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 that he or she is focused on keeping the bees healthy.
Q: Does the honey come 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 from 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. The way in which the beekeeper cares for the honeybees makes a big difference in the quality of the honey for sale. Sustainable beekeepers should plant nectar- and pollen-rich plants for every season, especially for the late winter to early spring months (February through April), as well as through the summer nectar dearth and into 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, and artificial feedings, including cane/beet sugars, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, and pollen patties.
Q: How do you ensure that your honeybees are well hydrated?
A: Honeybees need water to stay hydrated and to regulate the thermodynamics within the hive and colony. They use water inside the hive as a means of evaporative cooling (air conditioning within the hive). Honeybees will place water over and on top of the wax comb to prevent it from melting. This also prevents the overheating and death of the eggs and the developing honeybees that have been laid in cells by the queen bee. That said, beekeepers should always provide clean water near 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 during 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 should wait five seasons: summer, fall, winter, spring, summer. The first harvest won’t take place until a year after establishment. Only the excess honey (anything above 100 pounds) will be harvested, while the remaining honey 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 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.
For more information on Rodale Institute’s work in honeybee conservation, click here.