Every year I try and come up with a non-candy option for the class Valentine’s Day cards. In the past we’ve made bath bombs and red sparkly play dough. This year, as Valentine’s Day is the beginning of the beekeeping year, I have bees (even more) on the brain.
The other week I also did a presentation about beekeeping to my son’s kindergarten class, which was sweetness itself. After hearing about every single time every child has been stung, or nearly been stung, or thought about being stung, by a bee, wasp, or mosquito, they asked great questions about honey extraction, where the dead bees go, what makes honey taste different, and how I make the smoker work.
So, as the time for planting wildflowers comes up in early March here in the temperate, if damp, west coast, I thought we could tape a little glassine envelope of bee-friendly wildflower seeds inside the valentine. If you’d like to do the same, I think the bees would be thrilled. Below you’ll find a printable in both English and French (my son goes to a French immersion school), to make your own. We’re gluing this image to the front of a blank card after my son does the tough work of printing his classmates’ names on them, and taping the little envelopes inside.
I am making my own lip balm this year as part of my homemade gift basket. This sounds much more insane Pinterest-mom than it is – I promise. I spend much more time sourcing appropriate containers than anything else, and that’s my favourite part. I mean, containers!
As a beekeeper, I also have access to a good chunk of beeswax, should I want to do the messy work of rendering it down.
A word about beeswax: know your source. I know you can buy those beeswax pebbles on Amazon and Etsy, but please, go to your local beekeeping association and get your wax through an actual beekeeper, and ask them how they manage their bees. As you probably know, keeping honeybees is a difficult job these days for a number of reasons. Plenty of beekeepers choose to fight off the many diseases by giving their bees medicines and antibiotics every year. These substances build up in the wax, which you are then putting on your lips. You don’t need to ask for organic beeswax, just say you’d like beeswax from someone doing natural beekeeping without medications. Small-scale beekeepers are more likely to work like this. Beekeepers are a funny lot, but most are happy to help you out, especially if you come with cash in hand. This is a good time of year to get it, too. I didn’t know anything about this until I started beekeeping myself.
On to the rest of it!
I bought empty lip balm tubes as I don’t like sticking my dirty fingers into a lip balm pot while out and about, but if you prefer that kind of container, there are lotsoutthere. For decanting into your container, try using a [amazon_link id=”B00MH7SDS0″ target=”_blank” ]children’s medicine syringe[/amazon_link]. You can find them at most pharmacies, and it makes things much less messy, especially for decanting into the tubes.
Basic lip balm recipe ratios Makes about 15-17 lip balms in tubes
40g coconut oil
1-2 tsp honey
Melt the beeswax with the coconut oil. I do this in a mason jar sitting on a jar ring in a pot half-filled with water over medium-low heat. Whatever vessel you melt the wax in will become hopelessly covered in wax, so use something you can dedicate to the purpose. The pot will get a bit of wax scum on it too, fair warning!
Once everything is melted, add the honey and stir to combine. Test the consistency of your lip balm by taking a small amount out on a spoon and letting it cool. Test it out! Too greasy? Add a bit more beeswax. Too stiff? Add a bit more coconut oil. If you add too much honey, it won’t mix in with the wax mixture.
Get some tubes gathered together and standing upright. Whisk your wax mixture vigorously, and then pull some into your syringe and fill tubes madly to the top. Once the first round of tubes are filled, you will need to add a glob of balm to the top of each one. Pop on the lids and label them up.
A note on honey separation: I found that when I added too much honey to my mixture, when I filled the tubes, the honey would sink to the bottom. It’s easy to roll the lip balm out of the tubes and into your melting pot, and then wash the honey out of the tube (or, er, dip your finger in it and then wash it out with hot water…). You can remelt this lip balm as many times as you need to get the ratios right. The whisking before pulling up the melted balm helps distribute the honey as well, but some batches just wouldn’t come together for me.
People ask me how we get from some wooden boxes full of buzzing bees to jars of honey. They are amazed when I explain the very low-tech process of honey harvesting in a small apiary like ours.
Once the nectar in the flowers gets going in the early summer, we put some extra boxes on top of the hives with smaller frames just for honey. I’ll spare you all the ways you can set this up, because there are several. By mid-August, we will take these off. Obviously, they are full of bees. We shake them off and run away. No really, that’s pretty much it. You shake the frame firmly, most of the bees fall off with an angry ‘bzzzzzt’ and then you brush the rest off with a bee brush. Then you run for the tupperware bin, dump it in and slam the lid closed before the bees figure out where you went with their food supply. Repeat 20-30 times, in our case.
A couple of days before we extract the honey, we bring the bins in from the outdoor bee shed, and let them warm up inside. The honey will come out more easily if it’s warm. On extraction day, we trucked the bins over to a big kitchen we borrowed, and a friend from Hives for Humanity set up the motorized extractor. This is just a big metal barrel with a rack inside that spins really fast. Some of us start uncapping frames, which entails carefully lifting the wax caps off the comb so the honey can come out using a very sharp thing that looks like a many-tined fork. You try to do this without completely wrecking the comb underneath. Wax caps go in a bucket, frames go in the extractor. Like an old washing machine, it bumps around if the frames aren’t balanced. The faucet at the bottom gushes with beautiful honey, and we balance a sieve over the bucket to catch the bits of wax we missed. The finished bucket sits for a few days to let the air bubbles work their way out, and then we fill jars. That’s it. This year, our harvest was about 70lbs of honey from our two colonies.
The pretty much empty frames go back on the hives for a couple of days so the bees can take the last of the honey out. We then store them for use next year, so the bees don’t have to build up the comb from scratch.
This year I rendered the wax cappings by heating them up in an old tomato tin inside a pot of water, then filtered out the bee legs and other bits. I’m going to make some honey and beeswax lip balm I think.
This process is about 160 years old (if you used a hand-crank extractor, which we will probably switch to next year). The Langstroth beehive was patented in 1852, and meant that beekeepers no longer had to entirely destroy combs to get honey. Before the removable frames-in-a-file-box method, beekeepers would coax bees to settle in upside down baskets (skeps), clay vessels, logs, or cut down entire trees to get at wild hives inside. To harvest the honey, beekeepers destroyed the hives and killed the colony. That had been going on for a long time: archeologists have found drawings from the 25th century BCE of workers blowing smoke into hives and removing honey combs.
If you find the history of honey and beekeeping strangely fascinating, as I do, find a copy of [amazon_link id=”B001CHKGNG” target=”_blank” ]Holley Bishop’s Robbing the Bees: A Biography of Honey[/amazon_link]. If the behaviour of bees blows your mind, [amazon_link id=”0691147213″ target=”_blank” ]Thomas D. Seeley’s Honeybee Democracy[/amazon_link] will be just your thing. Are you itching to start beekeeping? Best take a class first – look up your local beekeeping association and they will steer you in the right direction.
Oh bees, I love you but sometimes I want to throw my equipment off the roof and never try and figure out what’s going on ever again.
This is my first season being the hands-on beekeeper of our tiny apiary of two hives. Thankfully it isn’t just me, but another person in my building is taking this on with me – which leads to epic text conversations about equipment and plans of action. He is patient, which I am grateful for, because that is not one of my virtues.
There are the amazing things: the glorious smell of the beekeeping shed redolent with wax and honey, watching a bee chew its way out of its cell and greet the world for the first time, witnessing a waggle dance on a frame you are holding in your hands, tasting bee-warmed honey straight from the frame, seeing 3,000 bees look up at you when you open the inner cover, discovering your apple tree groaning with fruit. All of these things are incredible.
The not so incredible: the stings you will get, the sicknesses your bees will get, the times you don’t catch a problem and events spiral out of control before you’re able to help, the vagaries and mysteries of why colonies do what they do, the agonizing indecision of how to best help these little creatures you share space with.
Because it becomes apparent quite early on that you are more of a shepherd and less of an owner. These bees are going to do their thing, either in your pretty little wooden boxes or somewhere else. This first year it feels like a scramble to stay in front of their needs while we learn the rhythms of the beekeeping year.
Still, one of the best things in the world is sharing with visitors a jar from your 60,000 neighbours on the roof. As long as you take them up to say thank you, of course.
I like telling people about our orchard, the 42 fruit trees in our rooftop garden, and watching their eyes go wide.
Well yes, but they are on dwarf root stock, so they grow in pots.
We partnered with TreeCity/TreeKeepers to procure our trees, pots and soil. One Saturday morning, a large group of us moved our trees from the basement to the roof, and planted all of them in pots. We have figs, pears, apples and crabapples spread out throughout our garden.
It will be a couple of years before they produce fruit, at the very earliest, but in the meantime the bees will be very pleased with the flowers.
It’s funny, in the past few weeks, a duck has nested in our garden, and then we waddled down five flights of stairs to the ground and walked a block to the pond in the park. We’ve planted fruit trees, started some of our spring crops, worked with our bees to make sure they’re set up for the spring nectar flows – you would never know we are deep in the city.
The pot with the string running to the roof in the first photo is actually hops, we have some keen microbrewers in our co-op.