Robbin' Honey

By Avery McGaha

This has been an exciting week at GRP, as we completed our transition to the “off” season. With a lonely winter around the bend, we wrapped up our canoes, cleaned out the walk-in freezer, and — with a silver tear in my eye — unplugged the industrial coffee pot. And the animals of the Preserve are starting to do much the same.

Black bears, after gorging themselves on something like 20,000 calories per day in the summer, are now transitioning into hibernation. Bears are starting to sleep more than 22 hours a day, slowing their metabolism until it reaches near stand-still in the coldest months. The excess food they ate during the summer has turned to fat, which the bears’ cells use for energy when food disappears for the winter.

On the farm, our honey bees are getting ready, too. This week, they were near the peak of their yearly honey production. During the spring and summer, honey bees churn the nectar of flowers into honey, saving up the energy-rich sugars in their honey like the black bear stores energy in fat. Bees are so productive, however, that they often produce way more honey than they need to survive the winter.

And so this past Tuesday, GRP Farm Manager Rachel decided it was time to rob the bees for some delicious honey. (Farmer Phil spent that day tilling and planting wildflowers.) I had to see this for myself.

The first step was to suit up and light the smoker. Before breaking and entering into the bees’ home, beekeepers light a fire in a glorified jar. The smokier the better — so Rachel stuffed as many leaves, straw, and corn husks into the smoker as possible. When the smoker started puffing a thick smoke, Rachel headed toward the hive.

Now for inspection. Rachel pried open the lid, checking to make sure the honey cache was worth robbing. And it was. “We’re going to have a LOT of honey,” she said. The next step was to separate the top two sections from the hive, and smoke the bees out of them. But why were we using smoke?

Smoke is a hive burglar’s best friend. When you pour smoke onto a hive, Rachel said, three important things happen. First, the smoke makes it almost impossible for bees to communicate. Normally, an intruder would cause bees to eject warning pheromones — molecules that they can smell — that organize a repelling attack on, say, the hungry bear who was foolish enough to stick her head inside the hive. When the air is full of smoke, Rachel said, it’s like “they can’t hear the warning signal.” This is proved any time the smoker goes out. As soon as the smoke clears, you can hear the bees start to buzz louder and louder, becoming more angry and more coordinated with each moment.

Second, Rachel said the smoke sends bees into a kind of forest fire mode. They prepare to leave the nest if they have to, and get distracted by guzzling as much honey as possible before they are forced out by the fire. Finally, Rachel said that, like humans surrounded by smoke and fire, it just “kinda blows their minds.”

Once the sections were mostly bee-free, Rachel hefted the enormously heavy honey boxes over the electric fence, up the hill, and onto her porch. Without the steady presence of their queen, who lives lower down in the main hive, the remaining bees would no longer recognize the section as home. They’d have a honey snack and fly back.

Oh, and that electric fence you can see? Don’t worry, this 10,000-plus-volt fence was unplugged during the robbery, as it always is during the day. It’s only at night that the hive requires such aggressive protection.

The first year Farmer Phil and Rachel had bees, during the summer of 2013, they awoke to bear-induced chaos in the back yard several times. Bears love to eat bee larva, even more than honey. If you’ve had animals get into your trash before, you’ll sympathize with having to clean up the mess they leave behind. But the Honey Heists of 2013 were probably worse. Each time this happened, Rachel would have to get out of bed, don her canvas jumpsuit, gloves and face net, and essentially rebuild the hive — while thousands of angry bees swarmed around her.

Since they installed this fence, however, the bees have been left alone. Sure, they had to smear peanut butter on the fence to teach the bear not to show up again (“Unfortunately, you need them to lick it,” Rachel said), but the benefits have been amazing. Campers get to see pollinators in action all summer and learn about how important bees are to many ecosystems.

In the next few days, Rachel will set the honeycombs over a strainer for more than 24 hours to catch all the honey. Then, she’ll leave the leftover wax and debris next to the hive, where the bees will munch the pieces and turn them into useful materials again. They’ll even clean up Rachel’s honey-speckled jumpsuit — so she leaves it outside for them too.

This year, Farmer Phil and Rachel are planning to split this thriving hive in half. If all goes well, we will have even more honey, and even more pollinators zipping around the GRP farm.