The Experiments

Monday, August 15, 2011

Guest Experiment: "Make" Your Own Honey

Due to unforeseen illness (is it ever foreseen?) and since my current experimentation is requiring more time than anticipated, I asked Owen to share his experiment in something that we will never be able to do at this house: beekeeping (thank you, Nick's deadly bee allergy). Owen and Emily and their two daughters (and baby #3 due today!) were some of our first friends here - Emily actually attended Madeline's birth as my doula a whole 3 weeks after meeting me! They are genuine and kind and capture one of the reasons why I love the Iowa City area (yes, I said Iowa) so much. They are this seamless and beautiful blend of urban and rural (not to mention just plain awesome people). They live in an old farmhouse on 5 acres surrounded by corn, but are active participants in the "city" community. And the majority of "city folk" here work hard to bring the farm to the city. You get to meet the farmers at the markets and coops in town and are actually invited go to the farm to see where your food is raised and grown. It's just a truly amazing and real community. So thank you, Owen, for your ongoing friendship and for sharing your foray into keeping bees.

Naturally, people ask me why I started beekeeping. They might expect that it reminds me of my childhood in some way, maybe a close neighbor that kept bees in their backyard, where I would visit the busy, humming hives on hot summer afternoons. But no, it wasn't anything romantic like that. I started beekeeping because I was curious. Kristin asked me to write a guest post for I Can Do It Myself and after reading her blog over, I think we share some common defects. I too want to do it myself, I too want to save money, and I too want to engage with my children. Who doesn't?

I first met an actual beekeeper at the Iowa City Fairgrounds during the Johnson County Fair in 2010. He had a display set up but he wasn't particularly outgoing. He looked a little wild, with a round, red beard that completely hid his mouth. He said that at one time he had sixteen hives, but these days he's down to only three. "Too much dinking around with these dang swarms." See, he doesn't want to pony up cash for new bees, as bee prices have gone up sharply in the last ten years, instead he tries to catch them in the wild.

I grabbed a pamphlet about the local East Central Iowa Beekeeper's Club and asked a few questions, something about how much it takes to get into the hobby and when I should place an order. I think I got a few basic pointers, but I don't really remember. That year I tried to order a package of bees via e-mail, but I was too late for the season. "We are completely sold out of bees. You need to order in Feb or March. Phil Ebert."

About a year later, February 19th, I had the same thought, went back through my e-mail, and replied with the same question. His reply: "We have plenty of pkg bees available... If you want to go with the 4#, I need you to send me a check for $104." I was in! ($104)

The next beekeeper I met was none other than Mr. Ron Wehr, the supplier of my local Fareway's top-shelf all-natural honey. He taught the beekeeping class that I took at the Washington Kirkwood extension ($35). He is a real, down-to-earth Iowa farmer. He keeps about 300 beehives in various locations around the Keota, Washington, West Chester area. No beard. Very friendly, and his wife is outgoing and very sweet.

My next stop was Dadant and Sons was established in 1863 in Hamilton, IL, just 75 miles south of where I live. Mr Charles Dadant was a socialist from France, but that wasn't his fault. I ordered the "Honey of a hobby beginner kit no 1" ($150), which contained:
1 - standard beehive unassembled
1 - all purpose hive tool
1 - reversible entrance reducer
1 - bee smoker to calm bees
10 - 9 1/8 inch grooved top bar frames, unassembled
1 - protective bee veil
10 - sheets plastic based foundation 
1 - sting resistant gloves
1 - entrance feeder
1 - book First Lessons in Beekeeping
1 - assembly instructions
1 - smoker fuel 1 lb.
1 - telescoping metal cover, unassembled
1 - inner cover
1 - bottom board, unassembled

There are a few useless parts, but the majority all critical, and all you really need to get started (besides the bees!). That winter I assembled the beehive in the garage, with the girls helping out occasionally. When an abnormally warm day came in spring we all sat out and painted the hive (and a little bit of each other, and a lot of the sidewalk) with pictures of bees and flowers. On April 14th I drove to Lynville, IA, to Phil Ebert's house to pick up my 4lb package of bees. I also picked up bees for a local Amish man, Chester Miller, who has turned out to be a very helpful fellow beekeeper. Chester very kindly paid for the gas. ($0) (Note: You can purchase Phil Ebert's honey products from the Coralville Hy-Vee, on the top shelf, on the left. There's an Amana beekeeper selling his wares there too, but I haven't met him.)

The hiving was fun for all (Emily screaming, the girls stuck in the car surrounded by bees). The first month was tense, feeding a total of 12lbs of sugar mixed in water to stimulate comb-building ($12), hoping that the queen was viable. The first inspections, once a week, opening up the hive and getting very intimate with the bees, were thrilling. After a few looks inside I realized that they had "taken" and the hive was booming! Just before we went to Pennsylvania for a week I ordered and assembled another "brood box" and two honey collection "supers" (from Dadant again, Hobby Kit #3) ($140).

On July 16th I extracted my first quart of honey, using the very messy and slow "crush and soak" method, scraping comb and honey into a strainer held over the old glass pint canning jar. This is also the best method for little fingers to sop up the excess honey from the edges of the frames. WARNING: Everything gets sticky.

At the end of the season we will have at least 20 pints of raw, all-natural, unprocessed, local honey. There may be another season in the fall with another 20 pints. Most of our honey will be consumed by ourselves, and a large portion will turn into Christmas gifts. Calculating the value of the honey is not staight-forward. The supermarket doesn't sell my kind of small-batch honey, but sells the larger-scale local honey for about $5 a pint. At a farmer's market the honey may be worth, with a pretty jar and label, as much as $10 a pint. As a Christmas present, it may be worth $20. As used on toast with peanut butter and cinnamon, it may be worth $100 to me, my wonderful wife, and my two little daughters.

So, in summary, Kristin and her readers, with an initial investment of around $500, you can probably produce $500 worth of honey the first year and probably a lot more the following year. In the worst case you can buy new bees every year for $100 and get $500 worth of honey for your own use. Reign in your fantasies of great wealth and financial independence, though, because honey production also has a big risk factor. Bees die, crops fail, wood rots, skunks attack, droughts happen, and so on. So you could just be a normal honey consumer and buy it from the store. Or you could get close and personal with your food, admiring God's creative creation, learning a lot, and having a lot of fun. I hope that I've convinced you.

And no, bees are not illegal in Iowa City, like Chickens. It's mostly up to the tolerance of your neighbors. You can probably talk them into it with the promise of a few jars of honey.

Check out Owen and Emily's website and get yourself some of their fresh, tasty honey!

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