One of the best things about keeping bees is harvesting honey. However, this year the story is not so sweet.
All the experts and the books tell us that honey production only partly depends on the weather.
Well, any good beekeeper in Ireland trying to produce honey during the June and July this year will tell you that it is totally dependent on the weather.
From the perspective of the beekeeper, and I suspect from that of the sun worshippers too, those two months were a disaster.
The continuous poor weather in the latter half of June and all of July, when if not raining it was very breezy, forced the bees to stay indoors and gorge on whatever stores of honey they may have had.
The blackberry and clover are in full bloom for about 4-6 weeks during June and July and these are the main crops from which bees obtain the nectar to produce honey.
It is critical that there are dry periods during these short weeks so that the bees can gather as much as possible and produce a surplus for the beekeeper.
However, this year the honey bees did not get a chance to produce enough surplus honey.
When they did get out, either the nectar had all but been washed out of the flowers, or the breeze prevented them making many flights to the blackberry and clover blossoms.
The poor harvest this year is disheartening for all beekeepers who have worked hard to build up healthy stocks during April and May.
It is particularly disappointing for the beginner beekeeper who was hoping to have some honey for family, friends and relatives.
It is also a financial disaster for those of us who have invested heavily in building up our stocks and equipment.
However, as optimistic beekeepers we have to keep reminding ourselves that honeybee farming is a long-term venture and one needs to be patient, stay with the plan and stick to good practice. This is the only way for it to be a success.
Generally speaking, beekeepers harvest their honey at the conclusion of the main nectar flow when the beehive should be filled with cured and capped honey.
Uncured honey is when the water content is too high and it needs further work by the bees to extract water from the nectar before it can resemble honey.
Honey has 18% water or slightly less and the main ingredient, about 80%, is sugar made up of a mix of glucose and fructose. The other trace ingredients are amino acids, vitamins, and minerals.
Normally, the honey is stored by honey bees in beeswax honeycombs mounted on a wooden frame given to the bees by the beekeeper.
The honey frames are typically harvested in August, when most will be filled with honey. On a completely filled frame the honeycomb will be capped by the bees with wax for storage.
The process of extracting the honey from the waxed honeycombs into a pure liquid form and bottled in jars is labour intensive but the rich, viscous, golden amber product is as beautiful and fragrant as it is sweet.
Local beekeeping associations often have equipment to lend to members to keep costs low and members are full of advice on how to produce the finest honey.
Generally, the frames are removed from the beehive to a suitably hygienic room or honey house. As honey is a food product all the handling is done under hygienic and safe conditions.
Firstly, the beekeeper removes the covering of capping wax manually with a knife and this wax is very valuable and often used to make candles or other products.
The honeycomb frames are then placed in a stainless steel spinning machine called an extractor.
It is spun around at speed so that the honey flies out of the honeycomb and the liquid honey collects at the bottom of the extractor.
After this the liquid honey has to be finely strained to remove any wax and debris and allowed to settle to remove air bubbles before jarring and labelling and then delivered to the market stall.
Because of all this work and the low production of honey in Ireland, local honey commands a price that might appear exorbitant.
But most beekeepers only get a small return on their investment of time, energy and resources. Most of us see it as a labour of love, maintaining the pollination of crops and providing a wonderfully rich source of natural sweetener.
If the art of beekeeping seems a bit complicated and burdensome—especially after you start dipping into bee books and buzzing about the net —don’t despair.
Get in touch with local beekeepers. They’re more than happy to share the information they have.
Night classes in beekeeping start on the Wednesday, October, 14, at CIT Bishopstown, you can find application form, on www.cocorkbka.org or you can email Bob McCutcheon at firstname.lastname@example.org
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