The hills were alive with the sound of buzzing

The real Maria

You know the story of Sister Maria, the governess for Georg von Trapp’s mess of singing angels. Today, January 26, 2021, would have been her 116th birthday. Maria Augusta von Trapp, or Baroness von Trapp, was stepmother seven of the Trapp Family Singers. She wrote The Story of the Trapp Family Singers from her Vermont farm in 1949. The book became the musical and the musical became the film The Sound of Music.

I like the sound of the Sound of Music.  After fleeing German-annexed Austria on the eve of the second world war, Maria and her family settled in the United States on a farm in Vermont. She was encouraged to take up beekeeping by her husband, Georg. Yes, the singing nun became a singing beekeeper.

Maria von Trapp wrote The Story of the Trapp Family Singers to promote the family’s music business. Her original story seems to have been mostly accurate. Embellishments were added by Hollywood.  Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote the songs we love, greatly enhancing the award-winning (Five Oscars!) 1965 movie. For most of us, the movie is our only link to the von Trapps.

I was curious about what happened to the singing family, so I researched their exile. I was surprised to learn that when they escaped the Nazis, they took a train to Italy (the movie has them walking into Switzerland). Then they toured around Europe as a singing troupe, went to America, returned to Sweden to sing, then ended up back at their estate in Austria for a few months. Sixty-year-old Georg persistently refused to serve in Hitler’s navy, so they finally left permanently (again by train). By the way, Baron von Trapp was a decorated naval officer commanding a fleet of submarines during the first world war. He sunk a dozen Allied (British and French) war ships and some cargo freighters.

How does an Austrian become a naval officer? Austria is landlocked, far from the ocean.  Georg was actually born in Croatia, not Austria. Croatia has a thousand miles of bays, coves, and seaside. Much earlier, the Austrians had taken over Croatia and treated it as their colony. Austrians built forts and navy bases along the Croatian coast.  Georg’s father was an Austrian officer, deployed in Croatia when Georg was born there. Although Georg von Trapp rightly refused to live under the German flag in Austria, he grew up in a foreign country occupied by Austria. (Why does everyone want to occupy someplace else?)

Though not born in Austria, Baron Georg von Trapp was a real Austrian patriot. Before Germany took over Austria, Hitler’s people tried to destroy the banks in Vienna. One of Georg von Trapp’s friends was a banker. Georg placed his family’s vast wealth into the Austrian bank to try to keep it afloat. It sank, the von Trapps were broke, and took to earning grocery money through singing gigs.

Maria von Trapp teaching Julie Andrews how yodel like a beekeeper:

I used to be bothered when I learned that a popular book or movie (based on a true story) wasn’t faithful to the true story. Then I began to realize that art doesn’t have to imitate life. It helped when I remembered that my favourite artist, van Gogh, wasn’t creating documentaries in the cornfield or teaching astronomy on starry nights. I can live with that. The beauty is in the interpretation.  So, it doesn’t matter that the von Trapps lived a slightly different story than the movie’s musical family lived.  The only important thing is that Sister Maria moved to Vermont and became a beekeeper.

Posted in Culture, or lack thereof, History, Movies, People | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Propolis vs Covid

Bernie wears his Covid mask while I prepare to open my hive.

I think propolis is the most underrated product of the hive. Bee stings can be a wonderful therapy for autoimmune disorders while honey and pollen are wholesome foods with strong and vocal advocates. Meanwhile, I think that royal jelly is much over-rated – it does not extend human longevity and it can only be produced by murdering future queens.

The sticky stuff ringing the hive cover’s feeding hole is propolis. I had a small cover over the drilled-out hole and bees glued it in place.

That leaves propolis, the underrated sibling of hive products. I have seen it cure mouth sores, skin disorders, and reduce the annoyances of colds.

Honey bees gather propolis resin from the buds of poplars and coniferous trees. Honey bees gather the tacky stuff to seal cracks and holes in their hive, especially in preparation for winter. Greeks named it ‘propolis’ as they noticed that it was found ‘pro’ (before) a ‘polis’ (city) of bees. But bees may also smear a thin veneer of propolis over foreign intruders inside the hive. If, or example, a grasshopper enters the hive, dies, and can’t be removed, bees entomb the dead body in  propolis, which limits the spread of bacteria, viruses, and fungi.

Propolis has strong antibiotic properties, so it’s not surprising that scientists have tested its efficacy against Covid-19. A January 2021 paper – not yet peer-reviewed –  reports the results of treating three randomized groups of 120 hospitalized patients: using a placebo, a 400-mg/day dose, and an 800-mg dose/day of propolis. There was little difference between the propolis dosage levels tested, but both significantly outperformed the placebo. People treated with propolis recovered and left the hospital several days earlier. Here’s the paper’s abstract, published January 8, 2021:

Among candidate treatment options for COVID-19, propolis, produced by honey bees from bioactive plant exudates, has shown potential against viral targets and has demonstrated immunoregulatory properties. We conducted a randomized, controlled, open-label, single center trial, with a standardized propolis product (EPP-AF) on hospitalized adult COVID-19 patients.

Patients received standard care plus propolis at an oral dose of 400mg/day (n=40) or 800mg/day (n=42) for seven days, or standard care alone (n=42). Standard care included all necessary interventions, as determined by the attending physician. The primary end point was the time to clinical improvement defined as the length of hospital stay or oxygen therapy dependency. Secondary outcomes included acute kidney injury and need for intensive care or vasoactive drugs.

Time in the hospital after intervention was significantly shortened in both propolis groups compared to the controls; median 7 days with 400mg/day and 6 days with 800mg/day, versus 12 days for standard care alone. Propolis did not significantly affect the need for oxygen supplementation. With the higher dose, significantly fewer patients developed acute kidney injury than in the controls (2 versus 10 of 42 patients). Propolis as an adjunct treatment was safe and reduced hospitalization time. The registration number for this clinical trial is: NCT04480593 (20/07/2020).

Although the paper is not peer reviewed, it’s worth a view and may be solid. One of the authors is David De Jong, whom I respect. The paper will likely be peer-reviewed, but that could take months. Promulgating potential treatments now seems reasonable – especially when the curative agent has been used for generations to reduce cold and flu effects.

Posted in Apitherapy, Hive Products, Science | Tagged , , | 12 Comments

Better Hives: Dzierzon’s Boxes

Jan Dzierzon, 1901, age 90.

Here in North America, we believe that modern beekeeping began with Langstroth, who discovered bee-space and movable frames. But Europeans are celebrating the Polish beekeeper, Johannes Dzierzon, for the same accomplishments. On the continent, it’s Dzierzon, Dzierzon, Dzierzon, everywhere you go. Especially today, on Dzierzon’s 210th birthday.

Johannes Dzierzon was from a Polish family in Silesia. Trained in theology, he combined research and practical work in beekeeping with his duties as a Roman Catholic priest, before being compulsorily retired by the Church and eventually excommunicated. Luckily, it was the 1800s – he wasn’t executed for his lack of conformity. More on that in a moment.

Dzierzon frames, c 1840

During his 50 years as a priest, Dzierzon oversaw a rural parish where he spent much of his time beekeeping. In 1838, he devised the first practical movable-comb beehive, which allowed manipulation of individual honey combs without destroying the structure of the hive. But three years before that, at age 24 (!) Father Johannes Dzierzon flipped biology upside down by discovering that some creatures (male honey bees) develop from unfertilized eggs. It took scientists a few years to accept this remarkable finding.

The American entomologist Everett Phillips wrote about Dzierzon’s discovery of parthenogenesis in the 1903 72-page Review of Parthenogenesis:

The parthenogenetic development of the male eggs of the bee, Apis mellifica, was first observed by Johannes Dzierzon, a priest at Karlsmarkt, Germany. He was a bee-keeper of many years’ experience and a good observer. The theory was first announced in the Eichstadt Bienenzeitung in I845, and in 1852 was published in book form. His arguments were briefly as follows:

(1) A queen to be of any value must be fertilized by a drone. This takes place on the wing, high in the air. Drone eggs are not fertilized, but worker and queen eggs always are. The supply of semen is enough for a lifetime. No clipped queen can be fertilized, as copulation never takes place in the hive. Dzierzon wrote, “The power of the fertile queen, accordingly, to lay worker or drone eggs at pleasure is rendered very easy of explanation by the fact that the drone eggs require no impregnation, but bring the germ of life with them out of the ovary; whilst otherwise it would be inexplicable and incredible. Thus the queen has it in her power to deposit an egg just as it comes from the ovary, and as the fecundated mothers lay it; or by the action of the seminal receptacle, past which it must glide, to invest it with a higher degree, a higher potency, of fertility and awaken in it the germ of a more perfect being, namely a queen or a worker bee.”
(2) The most important point in the theory is that “All eggs which come to maturity in the two ovaries of the queen bee are only of one and the same kind, which when they are laid without coming in contact with the male semen become developed into male bees, but on the contrary when they are fertilized by male semen produce female bees.”

This strikes at the root of and completely abolishes the time-honored physiological law that an egg which is to be developed into a male or female individual must always be fertilized by male semen.” Dzierzon refers to Riem, a French naturalist, for the fact that laying workers lay only drone eggs. In I854 Dzierzon wrote: “If the drone egg does not require fertilization, Italian mothers must always produce Italian drones and German mothers, German drones, even when they have been fertilized by drones of another race.”

Dzierzon even had an explanation for the way fertilized eggs differentiate as worker or queen. He discovered that it was due to early-development nutrition, i.e., royal jelly. I am in awe of the brilliance of early scientists such as Dzierzon who made such discoveries without any genetic tools, before Mendel and others began unravelling genetics.

None of Dzierzon’s work or discoveries lessens the importance of Langstroth’s work. The American Reverend Langstroth independently created a cheap practical hive about 20 years after Dzierzon’s efficient movable-frame hive. Both wrote a great deal about practical beekeeping and both worked for their respective churches. Dzierzon, a Pole who attended a Protestant grammar school before entering the priesthood, was excommunicated at around age 60 when his years of radical politicking and his disagreement with papal infallibility finally caught up with him. He left his parish, and moved to a hamlet in his childhood province.  Of his new home, he wrote:

In every direction, one has a broad and pleasant view, and I am pretty happy here, despite the isolation, as I am always close to my beloved bees — which, if one’s soul be receptive to the works of the Almighty and the wonders of nature, can transform even a desert into a paradise.

During his retirement years in Silesia, Dzierzon continued researching and publishing. (He wrote 800 papers and 26 books in his lifetime.) After thirty years of excommunication, the infallible pope had died and Dzierzon reconciled with the Roman Catholic Church. He died at age 95, probably holding a hivetool.

My copy of Dzierzon’s most popular English translation. I flip through this book every January 16.

Posted in Beekeeping, History, Hives and Combs, People | Tagged , | 5 Comments

Face-off

I was one of the first Facebook users on my block. I’m not usually an “early adapter” – I let others struggle with beta versions, then I move in when the system is actually working. But I heard about Facebook almost 15 years ago and quickly saw how easily I could meet beekeepers around the world. I learned a lot from them, visited some, and gained some new perspectives. This led to lasting friendships (and business) with Chilean and Hungarian beekeepers, and connections to inspiring folks like Lesli Sagan, who started Avital’s Apiaries (see “computer guru starts bee-driven business” in the Ithacan newspaper).

Facebook also helped me connect with family. With almost a dozen siblings and a hundred cousins, nephews, nieces, and misfits, there was always something interesting going on. I shared photos of my kids’ brilliant concertos and my backwoods road trips. It seemed pretty good.

I think my first Facebook scare was when I wrote to a high school friend through Facebook’s Messenger (an email service). I told her that I was going to take a few extra days in Holland and hopefully, finally, see some work by van Gogh – an artist whom I adored since childhood. I posted the private note to her, then went back to my Facebook home page where ads greeted me for tickets to the van Gogh museum and lodging in Amsterdam. Facebook had read my Messenger mail. Creepy.

I cut back on my Facebooking. I stopped posting so many personal photos. But I kept my ‘business’ page, a place where I announced new bee blog posts (like the one you are reading right now). Then, some months ago, I placed a short piece with a link from Facebook to here. Facebook’s security forces blocked me, saying that the site I was linking to “did not meet community standards.” A beekeeping site? Not meeting community standards? There was no recourse. The badbeekeeping blog was banned from Facebook. I wrote to them, but never got an answer. I tried to post more pieces with links to this blog but they were all banned as “not meeting community standards”. Was the problem all those photos of scantily-clad bees? They wouldn’t tell me. Meanwhile, disgusting links to alt-news, anti-science, pro-fascist and antifa sites were everywhere. I saw some very ugly stuff posted by some of my Facebook  ‘friends’ – but my bees were still banned.

Then suddenly, a few weeks ago, Facebook lifted the ban against my bee blog. No explanation, no apologies. This certainly is not a big deal on the worldwide scheme of dank despair – except for what it reveals about monopolies, privacy, and the pursuit of wealth. I still use Facebook, but I rarely publish family stuff there anymore. I’m exploring alternatives, such as Reddit which is a bit wild and reckless, but entertaining and occasionally informative.  I’ve been tweeting for 10 years. Twitter has its use, and is especially good for announcements.  I’m using the WordPress blogging platform and I have a couple of private web servers. But should I explore other venues to replace Facebook? Am I missing anything?

Posted in Outreach, Personal, Strange, Odd Stuff | 21 Comments

Resolutions

Interpreting this photograph as a sunrise or sunset depends on perspective and knowledge. Our approach to 2021 will be likewise predicated.

Most of my New Years’ days have passed without resolutions. This year, I resolved, would be different. Along with the typical (exercise more and eat less), the necessary (write more), the obvious (finish that grad degree), the impossible (learn Hungarian), and the vital (be a better person), I have a smattering of resolutions related to my main avocation.

I aspire, after 50 years among the bees, that I will be a better beekeeper. That is, a beekeeper who is more aware of the environment that honey bees occupy. It took me a long time to realize that there are more kinds of bees than just bumble bees and honey bees. There are at least 20,000 species, many as different as cats and dogs. Bees are suffering from climate change, urbanization, landscape fragmentation, chemicals, exotic pests and diseases. Unique, irreplaceable bee species are becoming extinct at an accelerating rate.

My work at the University of Calgary involves research on possible detrimental effects that keeping urban honey bees may have on native bees. There are almost certainly some ill-effects. Are they subtle or are they extreme? Can they be mitigated? Will beekeepers – with their advocacy of greenspace and elimination of chemicals – be allies of native bees, or will the honey bees they keep ultimately destroy our indigenous bees?

My 2021 goal, fortified by related resolutions, is to more clearly understand the interactions of honey bees and native bees, weigh their impact, determine some recommendations and relay the information without exaggeration or bias. I hope I succeed.

Posted in Beekeeping, Ecology, Native Bees, Personal, Save the Bees | Tagged , | 6 Comments

2020 Rewind

Never thought I’d see masks hanging by the door. But here they are in 2020.

Like an unruly house guest staying far past midnight (and still visiting the liquor cabinet), 2020 should have left long ago.  It’s a year we won’t forget.  A hurricane in an earthquake, delivering volcanic pyroclasts. Our 14-year-old will forever remember the year (years?) she wore exquisite home-made masks to her junior high. Science, history, math, language – taught without a visible frown from any of her classmates.

2020 began with a blistering heatwave in Australia, followed by the inevitable fires and loss of life.  A friend sent me photos of her family’s former apiaries where millions of honey bees perished. I shared them, and my story about the Australia blazes, here. The fires, of course, brought billions of dollars of damage to structures and businesses, but we are haunted by reports of beekeepers. They told us how they arrived in distant apiaries, finding ash heaps where hives stood. In surrounding forests, the cries of wildlife, suffering burns, deepened their dismay.

Approaching an Australian apiary, January 2020.

Back in Alberta, a warm spell arrived in late February, but I noticed that there were no bees flying from our backyard colonies. Dead, both of them. Full of honey, wintered with good queens, and adequate populations in well-insulated hives.

I soon discovered that nearby friends lost 34 of their 36 hives. Across the western Canadian prairies, winter losses were the highest ever. In Alberta, over 40% of all colonies died. (Although the long blizzardly winter received much of the blame, 60% of the thousands of colonies wintered in climate-controlled shelters also died.) Over 100,000 Alberta hives needed cleaned and restocked by people who were barely making a living producing honey and running pollination services.  I think the losses were mostly due to bee viruses. Viruses dominated the news in 2020.

Restocking deadouts wasn’t easy this year. Responding to the Covid virus, cargo flights of honey bee packages were cancelled, leaving Alberta beekeepers without replacements. Some operations reduced their holdings, split some of their own hives, or bought domestic nucs and hives – though the source couldn’t meet the demand. At the first rumblings of Corona, back in February, I ordered replacement nucs from British Columbia. I was nervous taking receipt of the little hives in mid-May, but ultimately, I made a huge honey crop from those bees in my backyard.

I started by transferring frames and shaking out every bee from the nuc box:

See how they grew, from tiny hives May 22 (left) to gigantic, July 25 (right):

Because of the virus and cancelled flights, commercial beekeepers and farmers were also unable to welcome all of their seasonal farm help from abroad. In order to produce the dirt-cheap food we buy, thousands of foreign beekeepers, fruit-pickers, greenhouse workers, and other farmers normally arrive in Canada each spring. (We don’t have enough Canadians willing, able, or skilled enough to do this hard work.) This year, scheduled flights weren’t flying. To bring in essential farm workers, planes were chartered. For example, the Canadian Honey Council spent $200,000 bringing 80 Temporary Foreign Workers from Nicaragua to Canada. Other seats on that flight were occupied by Canadian tourists and business people who were stranded in Central America, but were coming home thanks to the beekeepers who had arranged the charter for their helpers.

Meanwhile, my honey bees that had arrived in nucs from British Columbia developed into strong hives. When the clovers began blooming (late June here), nectar flowed into the hives, and the bees gave us over a hundred pounds per hive – plus they filled their own pantry with winter stores. I don’t remember a year with as much lush clover (both Melilotus and Trifolium) carpeting parks and roadsides.

Here is some of the honey from those nucs, poured by my 18-year-0ld and his friend:

Unfortunately, I spent the summer rather ill, with extreme fatigue and brain fog. Luckily, my teenagers helped me with the honey bee hives in our backyard. They also did the hard work among my experimental hives, which I’d established around the city, and over a hundred bumble bee domiciles and biodiversity traps. The traps required four summertime visits to collect pollinating insects and refresh the traps. I would not have done this without my kids serving as my arms and legs.

One of the University of Calgary research subjects:

Brain fog and fatigue also made it difficult for me to analyze data and write my Masters’ thesis. I am months behind schedule, but I have a wonderfully patient supervisor. Although I am likely the worst grad student he’s ever had, we have been doing some great research. Eventually, I’ll produce a worthy analysis and write a valuable report. Meanwhile, my work is inching along.

More fires, this one near Penticton, BC.

                                                                             Photo, Daniel Miksha

In mid-August, my son took the photo above while he was visiting friends in British Columbia. It looks dramatic, but no one was killed and not much property was lost. By autumn, reports of more fire tragedies arrived, this time from California. More honey bee hives and property were reduced to ash. This, along with thousands of Corona deaths, accompanied by lost businesses and unemployed folks weaken the spirit. Mental stress, displaced families, friendships placed on hold take a toll.

Photo: Ohio State

Almost as a joke, 2020 brought us some murder wasps. A bit of levity delivered by a giant insect with a lethal sting that kills dozens of people each year and extinguishes the vitality of entire colonies of honey bees. Sportingly, murder wasps have jaws that snap bees’ bodies in half, taking down a 40,000-population hive over tea time. The Asian Giant Hornet made news this year with its discovery in a couple of places along the west coast. A denizen of Asia, queens probably crossed the Pacific in a container ship. I suspect they are now fully established in Washington state and/or British Columbia.

Finally, let’s throw in a few hurricanes, swarms of tornadoes, and a year-end earthquake that demolished a town near my grandfather’s childhood home in Croatia. We hope that the door smacks 2020’s backside on its way out. And hello, 2021.

Posted in Beekeeping, Strange, Odd Stuff | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Visit the UK National Honey Show – Free!

2019 National Honey Show

I’ve always wanted to visit the UK National Honey Show, renowned as the ultimate in honey judging. But, it’s in the UK and I’m in Canada. Well, because of COVID-19, the event has moved on-line and we all have a free ticket to attend! Of course it will be different this year. (I’m not sure how the judges will do a virtual honey tasting.)  But the professional line-up (and the cost to us) makes this too good to miss!  Here’s a note I received from Jeremy Burbidge of Northern Bee Books. Thanks, Jerry!


From the UK National Honey Show:

As you know, due to Covid 19 and resulting restrictions, this year’s National Honey Show will be an on line conference, the first of its kind in the UK, welcoming beekeepers worldwide.

It is free for all to attend, worldwide. We look forward to welcoming you.

On Monday 12th October, registration will open, please visit our website for the registration link, top left. Once you have registered you can attend as many or as few of the events as you wish.

Conference Programme 

(Please note: The schedule below is in the UK time zone!)

Thursday 22nd October

13.45 Welcome

14.00 Mike Palmer: A year at French Hill Apiaries

15.30-16.30 Demonstration: Gwyn Marsh Making Beeswax wraps

17.00-17.15 National Honey Show AGM

17.30-17.45 National Council AGM

18.30 The Central Association of Bee-Keepers Lecture: Medhat Nasr: Wintering honey bees – but not as we know it

Friday 23rd October

11.00-12.00 Demonstration: Chris Park, Skep making

14.00 Etienne Bruneau: The honey market in turmoil 1

5.30-16.30 Demonstration: John Goodwin, Showing honey

18.30 Bees for Development Quiz

Saturday 24th October

11.00-12.00 Demonstration: Same day soap: The Robb recipe

12.30-13.30 Bill, Bob and Bees. Bill Turnbull and Prof Robert Pickard interview

14.00 Jeff Pettis: Long live the queen, please!, why are queens failing?

15.30-16.30 Closing

If you miss any of the demonstrations, they will be available on YouTube afterwards for six months; and similarly if you miss lectures, they will join our programme of lectures on YouTube to watch and revisit at your leisure.

We look forward to welcoming you to the conference, and hope to see you in person in 2021.

www.honeyshow.co.uk

Don’t forget, this is a world event. Adjust the schedule to your local time.

Posted in Beekeeping, Culture, or lack thereof, Hive Products, Honey | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Ready for the cold?

Podcasts continue to grow in popularity. People are spending about two hours each day following the wise musings of their favourite word-weavers. I heard that Joe Rogan signed with Spotify for $100,000,000 (though he’s locked in for ten years).

I rarely listen to Joe Rogan. He’s OK, I guess, but he doesn’t talk about bees. (I mostly listen to beecasts.) One of my favourites is PolliNation, hosted by ex-Calgarian Dr Andony Melathopoulos. Andony is one of the best bee presenters you’ll ever have a chance to meet. He works at Oregon State University and his podcast originates there.

You can catch Episode #156 of Pollination on your podcast provider’s app. This episode, Preparing hives for winter,  is another great one. Andony meets Dr. Shelley Hoover in one of her research apiaries. Shelley has worked for Alberta Agriculture, been president of the Entomological Society of America, and is now the Apiculture and Pollination Scientist in the Department of Research and Innovation at the University of Lethbridge, in southern Alberta. Her research focuses on honey bee health, breeding, management, pest management, and nutrition, as well as canola pollination. She knows a lot about honey bees.

Shelley Hoover and Andony Melathopoulos, in Lethbridge, Alberta, in 2016.
I took this photo when they were both working at the agriculture research station.

This week’s PolliNation podcast covers wintering from a northern prairie perspective. Shelley Hoover manages 95 hives across the border from Montana. Don’t miss this podcast. Among the topics:

Starvation is still a common cause of over-wintering colony death. (Especially among hobby urban beekeepers, where it ranks as the leading cause of honey bee mortality.)

Shelley gives her bees 20 litres (5 gallons)  of 2:1  sugar syrup in the fall. At over 25 kg (60 pounds), that’s a lot. Feeding finishes by early October.

The bees are fed heavily in the fall so they don’t have to be fed in the spring. This reduces the chance of accidentally getting sugar into honey supers. Also, fall feeding is easier – it’s warmer and colonies have larger populations, so the feed is stored quickly.

She combines weak hives that would die over winter.  All wintering hives have at least  two deeps full of bees.

Dr. Hoover recognizes the importance of ventilation. Hives have multiple entrances, including upper ones. The alternative is, she says, wet dead bees.

Hives are wrapped with insulating material by mid-October and unwrapped in April or May.

Finally, listen to the podcast to find out why Shelley never drives next to a potato chip truck on Alberta highways.

Posted in Beekeeping, Tools and Gadgets | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Frosted Honey

My cousin, who lives in Europe, sent me the photograph above. She was wondering what had gone wrong with her honey – and how she could fix it.

First, I have to wonder if this is something ‘wrong’. Honey with this mottled, marbled, frosted look isn’t necessarily bad. If you produce honey with moisture below 18.6%, and keep all stages of the process clean, you can almost certainly safely eat the product. However, if you hope to sell it, you may want the honey to look “normal” – you don’t want to explain anything unusual to your customers. As I child, I worked in our family’s produce stand. We sold tomatoes, peppers, squash, and such. I learned, around age seven, that trimming outside leaves from a cabbage head made it sell better. Often, there was nothing wrong with the parts peeled off, but by offering less, we sold more. It’s usually the same with honey. Filter out the wax and pollen, and it sells more easily.  Maybe this is what we should do with ‘frosted’ honey – melt it and pour it back into the bottles. It will look better. That’s probably easier than educating a consumer about the higher quality of natural honey over heated honey.

What causes ‘frosted’ honey? I don’t  have much experience with this, so I passed the question along to some friends. They had a range of ideas. As usual with beekeepers, my five consultants had different opinions.

Since a lot of readers are harvesting, packing, and selling their late-season honey this weekend, I figured that I’d post the responses here for everyone’s benefit. Not only will you see some answers, but you’ll see how beekeepers think about things.  If you have thoughts to share, take another look at the photo above, read the paragraphs below, and add your ideas in the comments.

Here is what I asked my friends:  “My cousin sent me this photo from Europe. She’s wondering why her granulated honey has two types of crystallization, how to ‘fix’ it, and how to prevent this from happening in the future.”

Answer 1)  In the honey quality and defects workshop at Apimondia, the guy told us a theory I’d never heard before. He said honey contracts a tiny bit when it crystallizes and it’s that contraction that causes the “frosting.” He said honey that crystallizes quickly shows this more. He said to avoid it, one should slow down the crystallization process by keeping it at some temperature. Unfortunately I don’t remember the temperature. Based on my own experience, I’d say 14-16C, maybe as low as 12. The degree of contraction also depends a lot on the variety of honey, which is basically the sugar ratios and crystal size. Based on my own experience, I tend to agree that certain varieties of honey are much more prone to this than others. Again based on my own experience, moisture content may also play a role.

I’ve heard the air bubble theory too. In a way, they’re kind of the same thing because the white parts are where there is more air. I guess the ambiguity is whether the air is there because the honey contracted when it crystallized or whether it was in the honey before it started crystallizing. It could be a combination of both.

So Ron, I would amend your proposed solution by saying pay attention to the speed at which the honey is allowed to crystallize and aim for a moisture content of somewhere around 17.3%, keeping in mind that some varieties of honey will do this regardless of the packer’s best efforts.

Answer 2) Frosting is a component of storage temperature with increased risk if jarred honey is stored too cold, low humidity honey is at greater risk. Best storage temperature is 14-15 C. Never put jars with honey in a colder environment after jarring.

Answer 3)  The whitish colored stuff is wax, pollen etc. I usually don’t filter honey. Just settle it out. When the honey granulates – the very small non-sugar stuff separates out. Some of it floats on top but we always see some of the white streaks in nearly all jars. We just stir it in before use. This retains the good flavor elements in the honey. Well that’s our thoughts.

It is a visual that makes people think it is bad – It does not look like the processed  honey from commercial packers. Our food seems to need to look perfect to some commercial standards. I think that’s not a good model.  When I got a chance to go to Mexico and went to the supermarket – saw all kinds of produce that was not as “pretty” as the produce here. The food was perfectly OK.

Answer 4) It could be a bit of fermentation. If not blended together and was a some trace of wet honey, it may have risen to the top as the jar settled. It could also be different nectar sources that are not well blended and crystallizing at different rates. My proposed solution, warm it liquid and shake it up well.

Answer 5) I went to a talk at Apimondia given by the company that had won the best creamed honey in the world in 2018. They called this “frosting”. The speaker said it was caused by tiny air bubbles being trapped between the honey and the sides of the jar. I guess that is why it normally forms near the top or the shoulder of the jar. I had this problem one year when I took cold jars from the basement and added my honey without warming the jars first. This “frosting” started out like your cousin’s but continued to spread over time. I heated the honey in the jars and stirred the warmed honey. Depending on how many jars she has, this will work. It looks weird but it tasted the same. Sometimes, I can get the same white coating on the top of my 50 pound honey pails where the honey/air bubbles have crystallized on the surface. It is fine when I reheat the honey.

So, a variety of opinions on the cause of frosting. Most answers focus on temperatures (of jars and of storage conditions), on air trapped in the honey, and on moisture (most said ‘too much’ but answer #2 suggested the honey’s moisture was too low.) There was also a comment on honey variety – poor blending of two different varieties, or simply the fact that some honey may be more prone to frosting because of sugar chemistry.  There was also the suggestion that fermentation or excessive wax/pollen caused this, though I don’t think that’s right.

My friends’ solutions to fix the jars? Melt the honey and repackage it. Answer #4 also says that the honey should be ‘shaken’ after melting. I’d say ‘gently stirred’ to avoid introducing air bubbles.

What do you think? What causes frosting and how would you fix jars that have it? Feel free to comment below.

Posted in Beekeeping, Friends, Honey | Tagged , | 5 Comments

Covid: Saturday at the Hive

Mark Soehner’s Saturday at the Hive
in his idyllic backyard apiary.

Our local bee club (Calgary & District Beekeepers Association)  coordinates a nice summertime event, Saturday at the Hive. Experienced beekeepers offer to show their colonies to newer beekeepers. The guest list is limited and cleared through the bee club, but all the risk, planning, and teaching is left to the host. I thought it would be cancelled because of Covid-19, but after the province eased meet-ups a bit, these Saturdays at the Hive gatherings proceeded.

Mark, welcoming his guests to his socially-distanced bee event.

A friend asked me to attend his event. I was the old-timer who could help answer questions and demonstrate beekeeping tactics. Of course I said yes – it was a chance to meet some new beekeepers and enjoy a light delicious dinner and bee talk. Who could say “No” to that?

So, last Saturday, I drove over to Mark Soehner’s home and rolled my wheelchair into his back yard. I arrived late – Mark had already set up some tables with bee equipment and samples of his award-winning backyard honey. Ten folks showed up, most wearing covid masks. You can see mine, left.

After introductions and some background (Mark has kept bees for four years and has lived at his lovely home for 41 years!), the history of each hive was detailed: Mark had made 2 splits a few days earlier; a couple hives were strong honey-makers; another was a swarm that Mark caught eight days earlier. There was a lot to describe and demonstrate to the group of visitors.

If you decide to host a similar gathering in these awkward deadly days of Covid, you will be doing a big favour to a lucky group of beginning beekeepers – a long as you don’t make them all sick, of course. Encourage them to wear masks. Have plenty of space around the demonstration hives. Search for a couple of good example frames (pollen, queen cell, pearl brood, etc.), hold the frame away from your body and let people walk by, single file, like they might when they are visiting Mona Lisa at the Louvre. You can do this and keep everyone safe, entertained, and informed.

Guests, coming by single-file, to get a bit of learning slapped on them.

Left to right: Guest Michael, me (Ron), and host Mark.

Posted in Bee Yards, Friends, Outreach | Tagged , , | 4 Comments