The Collins Learning Center and Business Office will be closed for renovations except during scheduled events.
The Beekeepers of Door County often meet at the Collins Learning Center at Crossroads. This month, they are meeting on Tuesday, January 23 at 6:00 and the public is invited to attend. Last month, not only was their program fascinating, but one of the beekeeper gave me a jar of honey. I had a sweet holiday season experimenting with many uses for this delicious liquid energy.
Most people realize that honey is survival food for honeybees. These colonial insects spend the entire growing season producing this liquid energy and then storing it to get them through the winter.
The work of preparing for winter begins in early spring. There are several steps to making honey and worker bees (females) do all the work. Honeybees have different tasks at different stages of their lives.
A worker bee starts helping her sisters produce honey when she is about 13 days old. After cleaning her own cell, her first job is to make the honeycomb out of wax. Coming from eight special glands of a young worker, wax comes out as a liquid. But very quickly, the wax becomes solid scales…almost too hard to work.
When you were a child, did you ever get a package of new clay? If the clay was too hard to shape, you sort of played with it—kneaded it—until it got soft. That what the young bees do. They knead the wax with their jaws (adding a bit a saliva) until it is the right consistency to shape the cells which will hold the honey.
Honeycombs are very geometric. Each cell has six sides that fit with the six neighboring cells perfectly. These perfect hexagons are all the more amazing because the worker bees have no experience, patterns, directions or supervision.
A bee works on the comb for about three days. Then she gets another responsibility: she acts as a guard to keep intruders out of the hive.
When she is about 21 days old, the worker bee finally gets to leave the hive to collect pollen and nectar…..her final job. Some workers become specialists. But in most cases, a foraging worker will collect pollen and carry it on her hind legs and will gather nectar with her tongue and swallow it. Some nectar goes into the regular stomach and is digested. The rest of the nectar goes into an extra stomach called the “crop” or “honey stomach”. While sloshing during the return flight to the hive, the nectar in the crop is thoroughly mixed with enzymes.
Back in the hive, the worker bee regurgitates the nectar into the mouth of another bee. When I tell children about this, they usually go pale and say; “You mean honey is bee throw-up?” Yup. But it’s not gross. The nectar in the crop doesn’t get digested and it doesn’t smell icky.
The worker bees start passing the nectar back and forth between them. At the right temperature, the enzymes convert the nectar into honey, which is then stored in the comb. It’s rather thin at this point, so the bees fan with their wings until the water evaporates and the honey is thick and sticky….so thick and sticky that bacteria cannot survive in it.
Consequently, honey has an incredible shelf life, not that I would know. My little jar is almost gone. But food is not the only product resulting from the intense effort of honeybees. The topic for this month’s Beekeepers meeting will be “Using Your Harvest for Other Products” This demonstration/discussion will explore products such as mead, soap, and lip balm. Visitors are welcome at the meetings.