Last weekend I checked on the bees. Despite the hot afternoon, I donned my big white bee suit (it’s at least a couple sizes too large for me) and lit a fire in the smoker, letting the newspaper catch and flame first before I added a handful of wood chips. I pumped the bellows of the smoker and watched it puff, patiently waiting to make sure it was fully smoldering before I closed the lid. I zipped up my suit. I put on my tall yellow boots and tucked my pant legs in. I grabbed my hive tool and tucked it into the pocket of my suit. I pulled my gloves on, thick leather reaching up past my elbows. I carried the smoker with me in one hand and the metal tray to set it on in the other and headed up to the hives.
The humming grows louder when you enter the hive. And it changes when you smoke the bees. Afraid of an oncoming forest fire the survival instinct kicks in and they get to work eating up the stores of honey in case they have to vacate the hive. This is a harmless activity, since they won’t actually leave once they realize the smoke is gone and no real forest fire appears, but it keeps them busy and distracted while you inspect the hive. I’ve heard it also masks any fear pheromones that they might put out, which keeps them from going in to protective defend-the-hive mode.
So I smoked them, and paused to marvel at the sound of their collective buzzing roar. Then I carefully began inspecting the hive. I pulled the first frame out and set it on the ground off to the side, leaning up against the hive, and then I continued pulling out each frame one at a time, looking them over, checking them out, admiring the bees busy at work, each with her own specific job to do. I noticed the brood comb, with the little white larvae of new baby bees tucked just perfectly into the bottom. I noticed the pollen cells, and the honey stores, and the new white wax, so crisp and clean in contrast to the yellowed older wax. As always happens to me when I am working with the bees, I found myself in awe, talking out loud to them as I worked, saying things like “you guys are so cool!”
And the best part? I got to taste the first bit of honey, from my hives, from my beautiful bees! It was just a bit of comb that had been built in a bad place. Burr comb, it’s called, which they had built dangling out in between two frames. Bees will do this if there’s too much space. They like their homes tight. They will build extra comb to fill the gaps. But as a beekeeper you don’t want that. That’s why you give them the frames in the first place, so that they will build their comb in neat orderly sections, which you can later lift out without disturbing or breaking anything and then extract the honey from. So anyway, there was this burr comb, hanging out in between two frames, and I did something I’d never done before, I cut it out. I carefully sliced it off with my hive tool and then, not knowing what else to do with it, I set it aside on my smoker tray and continued with the inspection.
Then, when I was done, and had gently replaced all the frames in their proper spots, and put the lid solidly back on, I took my smoker and tray back to the porch, kicked my boots aside and stripped off my bee suit (it’s hot in there!) and I took that bit of broken off comb and put it right in my mouth.
Oh! What a sensation. The soft, warm beeswax, so delicate and fragile, just crumpling inside my mouth, squishing like chewing gum between my teeth as I chewed ever so slowly, and oozing out from it- such sweetness. The honey was so fresh and light, warm and sweet. It was almost clear in color where a pool of it had dripped on to my smoker tray, and I ran my finger through and licked again and again.
And oh, there must be nothing in the world quite like fresh honeycomb, straight from the hive, straight off the frame, warm from the sunny summer afternoon, only moments ago being attended my fuzzy little bees and then suddenly melting in my mouth. I held onto the wax for a while, chewing it, rolling it over on my tongue, sucking every last little bit of sweetness out, until at last I spit it into the palm of my hand, the little warm soft ball of it, and set it aside to use later for candles.
It has been hard lately, checking on the hive and seeing all the honey beginning to get stored up, that shiny, glistening bounty looking so delicious. Lifting up the frames, some of them are heavy, so heavy with the weight of it all. And I have to resist the urge to just bury my face in the frames, (never mind the onslaught of stings that would ignite) and gorge myself on it. It is hard to be patient, to know that I will need to wait until next year before I can really begin to harvest honey, that I have to let the bees store up their own reserves this year, to get them through the winter. But that little taste, that sweet little taste, let me know it will be well worth the wait.