August 8, 2011
It’s too easy to pun on honey. But making honey is quite a labor-intensive endeavor—mostly for the bees, but also for the humans who extract it.
On Wednesday, a group of students led by Sarah Khasawinah hosted a honey extraction party, in two parts. First, the beekeepers calmed the bees with smoke and tapped them out of their “super” (the box where the honeybees make surplus honey). Then they took the super to a studio at the Maryland Institute College of Art and extracted the honey from the honeycombs; to do this they used a hot knife to remove wax cappings from the honeycombs and a centrifuge to spin the honey out of the combs.
Khasawinah, who is a doctoral student at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and a Sommer Scholar, established the hive with two other Sommer Scholars and doctoral students, Katherine Reiter and Stefanie Trop, as a school project. One of their hopes is that the hive will serve as a predecessor and centerpiece for a community garden that they would like to establish at the school. CLF supported her beekeeping club, and they are mentored by Jef Boeke, who has kept bees for 20 years. (Boeke’s day job is geneticist and professor of molecular biology and genetics at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and founding director of the High Throughput Biology Center.)
The main goal of this project is to keep the bees alive and healthy, especially as colony collapse disorder threatens bee populations, and therefore food systems. Any surplus honey she gets from the hive is a bonus. “Whether we deserve it or not is another matter,” said Khasawinah.
In part, she attributes her lifelong interest in beekeeping to a Qu’ran chapter, “The Honeybee,” which was read to her as a child. According to hadith, Prophet Muhammed strongly recommended honey to promote healing. (Khasawinah marvels at the Qu’ran’s specificity and accuracy regarding honeybees; in this chapter, the verse refers to the “female honeybee,” and yet it was only recently discovered that the worker bees are female.)
The small group of attendees was treated to tastes of the raw honey, either by sucking it off the waxy comb cappings, or as it came out of the centrifuge. The honey was far more flavorful—and sweet—than the honey that sits on supermarket shelves. The difference? Commercial honey producers pasteurize honey, mostly in order to melt the wax that falls into the honey during extraction, to make it look “pretty” on supermarket shelves. The pasteurization, unfortunately, also destroys some of the flavor nuances.
Located in the courtyard of Hampton House, a Bloomberg School building, the hive feeds all year on local nectar, which it uses to make honey. Because the honeybees have a roaming radius of only three miles, this was genuine Baltimore City honey. Boeke guessed that these bees gathered nectar mostly from city tree favorites within the radius: black locust, tulip poplar, and linden (also known as London plane). With May and June—when trees are busily producing nectar—as the busy months of honey production, this time of year marks the beginning of the honey harvest.
In one year, the hive, which may contain up to 60,000 honeybees, produced about 100 pounds of honey—60 pounds to feed themselves all year, especially in the lean months of winter when there is no nectar, and 40 pounds of “surplus,” which is what topped the scoops of ice cream that Khasawinah and Reiter handed out at the studio.
Honeybees (Apis mellifera) are not native to North America. Although there are native pollinating bees, known as “solitary” bees here, and “stingless” and “senorita” bees in South America, no native bee species produces honey at a volume that comes close to the volume of European species. In fact, honeybees are one of the many organisms that came from the Old World to the New World as part of the “Columbian Exchange,” or post-Christopher Columbus era. (The Sommer Scholar honeybees at the Bloomberg School are an Italian variety, and Khasawinah keeps a Russian hive at home.) Colony collapse disorder in North America has affected both native species and honeybee species.