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Harvesting Barn Honey for Mead (Guest Post)

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My wife leaned in up against me on the couch, her index finger flicking across the iPhone screen like a master dealer flicking out cards at a Vegas black jack table. Although I have to admit I’m pretty indifferent to just about anything sentimental, the tiny subjects of each picture she was showing me really did have an endearing quality to them. As a self-respecting man I would never use the word “cute” to describe anything but I imagine that is the word someone much more in touch with their feelings than me would describe them as. Their furry little jackets made them look like some sort of insect Vikings or Manowar album cover and the neon yellow sacks on their hind legs shone with a vivid intensity. “We have Bees”. My Wife’s announcement was less of a statement then A STATEMENT! I imagined this was the level of excitement associated with other brief statements like “I’m pregnant” or “I’m cured” or “We won”.

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My wife and I own a house on the east end that we’re actively trying to sell. The property must have been part of a large farm that was split up into residential properties at some point because there was a massive 600 square foot barn in the back yard. I say “was” because last winter the entire barn unceremoniously collapsed in on itself like some sort of farmyard neutron star. I let the clean up go for a number of months for a couple of reasons, first because I knew it was going to be a fortune in just dumpsters alone to get rid of this disaster and second trying to hire general contractors out east is an absurdly complicated process. I grew up in the middle of Suffolk County, or as people out east refer to it “up island”. I was used to opening up a phone book or searching the internet and finding about 35 people who all offered the same general services and then having that person at your house that afternoon to fix whatever needed to be done and then politely rob you blind. Not so out east, there you have to track down one of the various rumored contractors whose information you can only find by word of mouth and then get ignored as phone calls and appointments go by the wayside. It’s what I imagine living in a socialist third world country must be like all the time.

The interesting part came when I received a phone message from the real estate agent that the clean-up estimate went well but did I know there are bees swarming around the barn, furthermore he was pretty sure they were honey bees. A trip out there by my wife and several dozen artistic iPhone pictures confirmed that we did indeed have bees and that they were in fact genuine honey bees. So I figured get some cheap cans of hornet nest killer and cover the suckers with deadly chemicals like the jungles of Vietnam right? Wrong. When I called an exterminator, he informed me that honey bees are a protected species and killing them is against the law and carries massive fines. So somehow I had to transplant the bees from the barn and then hand them over to some local bee keeper, or at the very least re-enact the entire movie of Candyman. So like anybody who is faced with something they know absolutely nothing about I took to Youtube. I have to say I was pretty surprised at the way many of these guys man handled large swaths of bees, simply banging a bench teeming with bees over a bucket to let large chunks made up of dozens of them drop. It looked fairly simple so I was about to give it try when I remembered that my friend, farmer, and National BJCP judge Matt Bobiak had started raising bees on his farm in Pennsylvania and maybe he could shed some light on the situation.

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I emailed Matt and told him of my ambition to take out the bees myself. Matt wrote back some sound advice but also added “Even as someone who has now had hives for 6 months, I don’t know that I would take on this project… Handling bees is not always the most intuitive behavior. When you get the first sting, things can go haywire quickly.” It was that phrase “things can go haywire quickly” that scared me a bit. When I was young I saw a kid who accidently stepped on a hornets nest at the local park get rushed away on a gurney toward a frantic ambulance core on its way to the emergency room. Matt’s choice of words somehow evoked that memory enough that I knew I didn’t want to try the removal after all.

Luckily about a year prior to this I had begun to brew mead. Through a series of moves and hand me downs I happened by about 20 pounds of orange blossom honey. The bucket it was given to me in sat and stared at me for a few months from the corner in my house before I happened to be leafing through an issue of Zymurgy and came across a mead recipe that called for the exact amount of honey I had on hand. Given it was already in a bucket I just dumped a few gallons of water on it hit the mixture with my stir whip, added nutrients, and let it do its thing. When all was said and done I was amazed to discover it tasted good, real good. I had spent about 1/10 the energy I usually exert on making a beer and I created a drink I could enjoy just as much. From that point I was hooked on making mead. Soon after I got the mead bug I located a local honey supplier off the Long Island Bee Keepers Society website after some of their members gave a talk at a Long Island Beer and Malt Enthusiasts meeting. As luck would have it the supplier I contacted also specialized in honey bee removal.

Miguel was an oddity of his surroundings, as if someone had transplanted him from a 1950s Puerto Rican farm to a contemporary Long Island suburb. He was surprising agile for someone in their 70s but it was hard to imagine him as any other age. His relaxed manner and verbal style paired perfectly with his worn flannel shirts and industrial looking suspenders. His accent was hard to work through at times and his penchant for stories and social commentary only exacerbated it. When you enter Miguel’s house he immediately ushers you to a seat and then relaxes into chair at his kitchen counter, sipping a cup of coffee or tea as if you were a friend or relative paying a visit to catch up on things. “So, what do you do for a living”, this was a peculiar first question to me since it had nothing to do with either the bees or our business. “I’m a teacher”, “ah” he leaned back in his chair and fingered his suspenders, “educated”. I wasn’t sure exactly where he was going with this; “teachers are good people” he offered and took another sip of his cup as he launched into a description of a teacher he once was acquainted with whom he felt was a very educated person. It immediately became clear that if I was going to employ his services it was going to be on his terms and at his leisure.

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After talking for some time, Miguel showed me around his work space in the lower level of his house. There was what looked like hundreds of empty buckets stacked alongside filled buckets and tanks of various honeys. Every piece of equipment or decoration seemed to have some significance as he would jump from one anecdote to the next while simultaneously offering life lessons on everything from work to women. Every so often he would get caught up describing a honey in one of the containers, then pause and nod as if he internally convinced himself of something, pull a small glass jar sample from a box onto a worn wooden work table, then produce a spoon seemingly from nowhere to offer a sample. I tried about 5 varieties of honey that day and each was intoxicatingly delicious.

Miguel seemed genuinely interested in people and a vast rolodex of past experiences. He told me he was a master bee keeper and while I didn’t know what that entailed exactly I was nonetheless simultaneously convinced and impressed. After two hours of sampling honeys and stories concerning what seemed just about every acquaintance he ever made, we were able to set a date to go out east and transplant the bees from the wreckage of the barn. We would meet up at his house in the early morning and I would ride in his truck with him and help out at the house.

The day of the removal I stood on Miguel’s driveway helping him load onto his truck an odd assortment of equipment most of which I swore I had once seen at the Mutter Museum of medical oddities in Philadelphia. After packing up various hoses, canisters, saws, and straps he produced a worn green wooden box which looked like something that had once held produce on a roadside grocery stand. He patted it with pride and proclaimed “this is the money maker”. After rumbling around in his truck for a minute he produced an old vacuum hose and confidently attached it to a hole in the front of the box. Then he produced a floor stand vacuum which looked like it had seen a lot of mileage and attached it with another short hose through a hole in the back of a box. The contraption reminded me of an old tri pod camera you see in the westerns, the ones that had a black felt cape which covered the photographer as he held up a silver handled flash. Miguel explained to me that this was a bee vacuum he constructed; the best way to extract the bees without harming them was to suck them through this apparatus and into the box which acted as a bee cage. Sort of like when the Ghostbusters trapped Slimer in the dining room of the hotel.

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Joining us that day was a young kid named Jorge that was staying with Miguel. After about an hour of packing, a trip to the post office where Miguel visited his favorite teller, and a few egg sandwiches we were finally on our way. When we hit the end of the Expressway we unceremoniously pulled over. Miguel and Jorge jumped out as if this was part of their usual routine so I followed. The two of them waded into the thicket of brush cresting the side of the highway as the wind from speeding cars crashed against me like waves on the beach. When I caught up they were breaking off twigs from a woody looking bush with tiny red fruit that beaded its branches, “The smoke from these calms the bees and makes them docile” he explained. I began to join them as I wanted to at least give the appearance of earning my keep, as I broke off branches Miguel casually added “watch the poison oak” which I realized I was standing in.

When we pulled up to the house out east we drove through the backyard and to the barn. My wife and her friend Jeanne were there waiting for us. Jeanne holds various science degrees and is interested in all things wildlife so she was eager to watch the process of extracting honey bees. As we began to set up, this was the first time I had been near the barn since I was made aware of the bees. I was acutely aware of their presence with everything I did. Jorge unraveled extension cords for the bee vacuum, Miguel started a small fire in a hand held smoker, which looked like a cross between an old silver tea pot and a small accordion. He walked towards the barn and surveyed the area around the bee hive. Not wanting to miss anything I shadowed. I was surprised to see the bees flying in and out of a hole in the side of the barn about two inches in diameter. I had hornet infestations a number of times before and I had just assumed the bees would have built one of those big hideous hives that looked like a mess of rages and old paper mache.

We immediately set to work peeling away the shingles attached to the side of the barn and chop down branches that interfered with our access to the hive. I got to wield a machete and would alternatively chop and pose for my wife who would roll her eyes as I asked “this turning you on baby?” As we successively tore away at the layers of the barn, peeling back the shingles and prying off the wooden slates, the swarm circulating around the immediate area grew exponentially. Soon the air was thick with them, we even had to yell in order to talk to each other.

As we continued to work, Miguel and Jorge gave no indication that they were going to take even the slightest safety precaution in terms of covering up. I found this a bit worrisome but still followed suit since I a) didn’t want to look like a wimp and b) was fairly certain they didn’t bring any protective coverings anyway. As the swarm circulated, bees began landing on my arms, face, shoulders, and torso. I remembered Matt Bobiak’s heed that “things can get out of control quickly” and I gave a concerned look back over towards my wife and Jeanne who were standing a safe distance away. Miguel must have sensed this because he turned over his shoulder and offered, “Andrew, don’t be afraid”, which I found reassuring until he added, “or you might die!” and then chuckled privately to himself.

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Miguel started up his bee vacuum and began sucking down bees into the box as Jorge and I continued to pry off the wood from the side of the barn. Beneath the layers of worn and dilapidated wood siding reveled enormous stalagmite looking sections of comb. Miguel pointed out the different parts of the comb that were used for various functions by the hive. It was a miracle machine of nature to me, each tidbit of information more compelling than the next.

Afterwards, he pulled a stainless steel tray from the back of his truck and began effortlessly cutting through sections of comb with a hot knife. He extracted comb sections that held the honey like a butcher pulling off large slabs of meat from a hanging carcass. Each section made a dull slap as it was tossed indifferently into the tray. He then cut off a few small pieces of the honey filled comb and handed them to Jeanne and my wife to try. “Would you like to try some?” he asked, I refused being a tad bit picky about eating something that came from a moldy collapsed barn but he just gave a look that seemed to say “what’s wrong with this sissy?” and then cut me a piece anyway.

The honey was dark amber and glistened in the sunlight. I closed my eyes and popped it in my mouth. The taste was surprisingly rich and sweet but not cloying. There were notes of dark fruit like fig and raisin with touches of caramel and it was one of the most delicious things I’ve ever tasted. I knew that the sweat equity that was involved in order to extract the honey from the barn must’ve heightened the taste perception but it didn’t matter to me. I felt fully immersed in that moment as tens of thousands of bees swarmed around blocking out any signs of humanity with the volume of their wings. For the first time I can remember I felt like a part of my natural surroundings instead of an intruder outside looking in. This imagined integration generated a sense of safety even as I was aware of the sheer absurdity in thinking this way. My breath and my mind slowed to a crawl. I looked down at my bare hand which was nearly covered with honey bees calmly carrying on their way of life, oblivious to our presence, and I somehow felt at peace; that this was simply the natural order of things. I almost sensed that I was somehow being pitied; my severance from nature, begun eons ago by ancestors long since forgotten, which robbed me of the simple pleasure of interacting with my natural surroundings.

The Dalai Lama wrote that anxiety is fear of the future and depression is regret of the past so we must cherish our continual existence in the present. At that moment with honey lingering on my tongue and the bees engaging my every sense I felt that I was truly in the present.

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A few months later I was at Miguel’s house when he presented me with a gallon of the barn honey, here’s the recipe I used to make a traditional sweet wildflower mead. (3 gallons)

12 lbs wildflower honey
2.25 gallons reverse osmosis water
10 grams Lavlin D-47 yeast
11 grams Go Ferm (for rehydration)
3 teaspoons Fermaid K/Go Ferm 50:50 mix

Mix water and honey with a drill attached stir whip, chill wort to 62 degrees. Rehydrate yeast with Go Ferm as per instructions on yeast packet and pitch. Combine and stager nutrients, adding ¼ per day beginning after the yeast has gone through the lag phase (about 8-12 hours after pitch). Aerate/de-gas with a stir whip twice a day for first two weeks. Rack after about a month, cold condition for two to three more, and clear with Super-Kleer or Sparkolloid if needed.

Written by A+K

August 15th, 2014 at 12:50 pm

Posted in Home Brewing,Mead

Tagged with , , ,

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