Make sure there’s no excess moisture, either from premature harvest, rainy weather, high humidity, or condensation, in your honey or it will be susceptible to fermentation,” was one emphasis of the class on beekeeping and honey production at the education center of Bridge the GapMinistries , located near Black Man Eddy. The class was conducted by professional beekeeper and honey producer from North Dakota, Alan King, on 6 consecutive Saturdays during January and February 2013. His lectures were simultaneously translated into Spanish and Chinese for the few students who did not readily understand English.
Honey, which is about 80% water when it is brought to the hive as nectar, is hygroscopic. That means it readily absorbs moisture. Anything above 18.5 percent is considered excessive and could result in the honey fermenting and spoiling. (See Rubber Boots question/answer of Belize Ag Report, Issue 17.) In Belize, extracting honey even in the driest months, usually March and April, requires careful attention to monitoring moisture. Alan stressed that the containers of extracted honey need to be capped with a tight-fitting lid. Large commercial honey producers watch their hives and test the honey that is extracted for moisture using a refractometer. As part of their natural process, bees cap the honey in the comb with wax at the right level of moisture. Extraction can begin after all the comb cells have been capped in the multiple frames of each box, called a super,that contains the bees and the frames.
The best method of producing liquid honey requires an extractor to whirl the honey from the uncapped comb/frame by centrifugal force. The job of uncapping is done with a sharp, heated knife to melt and slice off the wax cappings covering the cells on each side of the comb. After being uncapped, the frame containing the comb is placed in an extractor that uses centrifugal force to throw the honey out of the cells and onto the side of the extractor. The honey runs to the bottom of the tank where it can be drained. Combs are extracted on one side, and then lifted and reversed to complete the job. Reversible extractors have baskets that pivot to extract either side of a comb without lifting it.
Another emphasis of the honey handling presentation was cleanliness. Preparing a food substance for sale means careful attention to make sure that staff workers, utensils, and containers are not contaminated with any foreign matter. If an extractor is not properly cleaned after use, honey granulates on it and seeds more granulation when the extractor is used for fresh honey. “Granulated honey should be liquefied before marketing,” warned Alan. Honey supers must be stacked, and sealed for storage with moth crystals in the top super to keep out wax moths, and then aired out for a week the next season before returning them to the bee hives.
The beekeeping classes started with instruction on establishing bee colonies and included monitoring and managing bee colonies in terms of the functions of bees and how they live and interact. There are three types of bees: queens and workers, which are female, and drones, which are male. Beekeepers must monitor their hives to ensure that each is “queenright”. Queens are created by worker bees feeding a larva only royal jelly throughout its development, rather than switching from royal jelly to pollen once the larva grows past a certain size. Queens are produced in oversized cells and develop in only 16 days. Once mated, queens may lay up to 2,000 eggs per day. Beekeepers install new queens on frames of brood and bees taken from the stronger colonies to start new colonies. Workers, which develop in 21 days, are aptly named; their duties change upon the age of the bee in the following order (beginning with cleaning out their own cell after chewing through their capped brood cell): feed brood; receive nectar; clean hive; guard the colony; and forage. A typical colony may contain as many as 60,000 worker bees. Drones do not contribute to the honey-making task; their main function is to mate with virgin queens, after which they die. They also have no stingers.
Most of the bees in Belize are Africanized bees which are hybrids between European stock and one of the African subspecies, A. m. scutellata; they are often more aggressive than European bees, but believed to be more resistant to disease and better foragers. Originating in Brazil as a result of a breeding experiment for which the African bees were brought to Brazil in the first place, the bees have high resilience to tropical conditions and good yields.
The students of the beekeeping class had hands-on opportunity to practice the rudiments of monitoring the honey-making process by the bees and maintaining the hives. Donning beekeeping protective clothing the class learned how to use a smoker (fueled with dry cohune nut hulls) to calm the bees so they could take the cover off the super and examine the frames for honey-making progress and colony population.
The last class of the beekeeping course was a three hour documentary of Kings’ commercial beekeeping and honey-producing operation in ND where Alan and his wife JoAnne have been earning their living at beekeeping for the past 25 years.