During a visit to the pastoral countryside of New York State, I had the opportunity to learn about the fascinating world of honey bees.
A Bivy Of Bees
The bees were loudly buzzing and swarming around the beekeeper. As I watched from afar, I was amazed the bees were calm and not stinging me or David, the beekeeper. The bees swarming around David, with their wings furiously fluttering and the undulating waves of movement they created were mesmerizing and hypnotizing.
David is coming up on his sixth year as a beekeeper, formerly called an Apiarist. He got into beekeeping for the challenges of maintaining a healthy hive, producing honey, and keeping the hives alive during cold New York winters. David has learned about beekeeping, or Apiology, through books, videos, and primarily his mentor-friend who has hives in Brooklyn. Incidentally, Brooklyn hives produce more honey per hive than anywhere else in the United States. He started his journey into beekeeping with one hive and now has three hives and admitted that beekeeping is “much more work than what I thought it would be.”
Equipment needed to keep bees is of course honey bees, then bee friendly flowers nearby, a beekeeping suit, a smoker, a J hook frame lifter for removing frames from the hive, and wooden frames. There is no acreage minimum needed for maintaining a beehive. The last tool needed is an ample amount of courage to don the beekeeping suit and enter into a thick swarm of bees. The frames that I saw David scraping are cleverly designed to hold brood comb or honeycomb.
In the mid nineteenth century, Lorenzo L. Langstroth designed a hive utilizing the frames with equally patterned hexagonal indentations in the flat tray area. Many consider Langstroth to be the father of beekeeping in the United States. Ideally a healthy queen bee would fill each tiny hexagon on the frame with a larva. Or, the worker bees would fill in each hexagon with honey.
The bees will seal the frames differently depending upon what is placed in the frame’s hexagonal shapes. If a bee places larvae in the frame, then there is a dark capping of each hexagon and a food source of honey is usually stored in the corner of the frame for an energy source for the worker and nursery bees. If honey is placed in the frame’s hexagonal shapes, then the capping or “lids” to each shape would be of a different substance. A beekeeper can look at the capping on the frame and know what is in each minuscule hexagon.
A beekeeper's life is one of tending to and inspecting the hive. Inspecting a hive is critical to maintaining the health of the hive. Upon inspection, the beekeeper can detect if the queen bee is laying eggs on the wooden frames. David informed me of a motto in the bee keeping culture is to have a “Queen Right” hive. Simply put, if the queen is alive and laying eggs, and maintaining an industrious hive, then the hive is healthy. The queen sets the attitude for the hive and fosters docile bees. If the inspection finds that the queen bee is dead, the hive is in peril of dying. Queen bees can be ordered online and sent immediately to the beekeeper. Additionally, if the worker bees detect the queen bee is dead, they can make a new queen by increasing their production of royal jelly and 21 days later the larva turns into a queen bee.
David’s key to inspecting the hive is to calm the bees by blowing smoke into the hive prior to inspection. He explained that the type of wood used in the smoker is irrelevant. In fact, he has been known to use pine cones in the smoker. He starts the inspection with several puffs of smoke directly into the hive. He waits a minute or two before lifting the lid on the box frame bee hive. Then he inspects the hive, pulling out a frame at a time.
The bees were loudly buzzing and swarming around the beekeeper. As I watched from afar, I was amazed the bees were calm and not stinging David or me as he continued to blow smoke in the air and directly into the hive. David explained that a Nor’Easter storm was brewing, causing the bees to be slightly more agitated than normal.
Honey bees, bumble bees, wasps and hornets are Hymenopterids, insects that have a membrane, see through wing, and are in the species of invertebrate due to their lack of internal backbone. In fact Hymenopterids usually have two sets of these see through wings. Honey bees are exceedingly organized and live in a well scripted colony, where each bee has a unique assigned job.
A queen bee lives in a hive along with approximately fifty thousand bees. Her primary job is to lay roughly one thousand eggs daily. Throughout her three year life she needs to live in a temperature controlled environment. Worker bees help maintain the 90 F temperature needed to ensure the queen stays alive and continues to lay eggs. Worker bees also gather nectar, guard the hive from invaders, clean the hive, keep larvae alive and of course, produce honey.
In the hive along with the queen and worker bees are nursery bees who feed the larvae, drone bees for mating with queens, and mortuary bees who are the undertakers of the hive. Their job is to remove dead bees from the hive by picking them up and dropping them well away from the hive in order to keep the dead bees from accumulating in the hive, or attracting bears or other pests. Lastly, the forager bee collects water, pollen, and nectar and brings them back to the hive. Most importantly, bees help pollinate plants, flowers, and fruit trees. Without the pollination bees provide, a majority of our food sources which are derived from pollination would suffer.
Hooray For Honey
Honey has been a dietary staple for centuries. Stone Age paintings of beehives and the collection of honey have been dated back thousands of years. History notes the earliest cultivated hives were kept by the Egyptians. Honey was a valuable commodity and was consumed as well as given value in bartering systems and used in ceremonies, burials, and rituals.
Today honey is a globally consumed food item used in baking, sauces and syrups, and beverages. It can range from a clear light golden color to a clear dark amber color. The lighter the color of honey, usually the lighter tasting the honey. Honey can be purchased as extracted liquid honey, comb honey, or chunked honey, with a chunk of honeycomb in the jar along with the extracted honey. Creamed honey is opaque extracted honey that is thicker in consistency than clear honey. English creamed honey is considered a perfectly acceptable sweetener for the afternoon tea table. The opaqueness is formed by crystallization and creates a thick spreadable honey that is perfect for scones!
Honey is exceedingly sweet in flavor and used as a natural sweetener. Honey can be naturally flavored by the type of nectar the bees collect. The nectar of wildflowers, clover, orange blossoms or even camellia sinensis tea plant blooms infuse the honey with delicate floral notes. Manuka honey is produced from nectar collected from the blossoms of tea trees located in New Zealand and leads to a darker honey with a rich taste. This specific New Zealand tea tree is a different species from the Camellia sinensis tea tree, and has short almost needle like leaves, that when crushed, are intensely aromatic. Spices, for example vanilla, or cinnamon, can be added into honey, often creamed honey, for a unique flavor profile.
Tea With Honey
It is believed that in ancient times, honey was used to make a fermented drink called mead. When honey was first used to sweeten tea is unclear. Suffice it to say honey was an ancient sweetener for tea, long before sugar became accessible. Honey can be added to hot or iced tea. It is extremely sweet; a little goes a long way. A general guideline is to add one teaspoon of honey per cup, or glass of tea. There are conflicting reports regarding adding honey to boiling water or tea. It is believed that adding honey to near boiling tea temperatures can degrade the beneficial properties of honey. To be on the safe side, the tea can be allowed to cool during steep time, then honey may be interjected into the tea. This can aide in keeping the integrity of the honey.
In pairing honey with tea a simple matching of color may be helpful. For example, I would suggest adding a dark colored and rich tasting buckwheat honey to a fuller bodied, malty, earthy, and grainy flavored black tea. Adding an orange blossom honey to a green, or white tea could give a pleasing subtle floral note to the tea. I like to occasionally add honey to a cup of Earl Grey tea. To me, the spicy bergamot flavor is tempered with the addition of honey. David puts honey in his cup of Irish Breakfast tea, as well as chamomile and green tea.
General tea etiquette suggests when done using a teaspoon or a honey dripper to deposit honey into tea cups, stir quietly and not hit the sides of the cup when stirring. In taking the spoon or a honey dripper out of the tea, do not tap the rim of the cup with the spoon to attempt to release all the honey. Finally, place the used spoon on a separate dish or plate instead of on the tea saucer or table linens.
David and I finished inspecting the hive right before the storm sent the bees back into the hive and both of us sprinting for shelter. He exclaimed that bees, like us, prefer great weather and benefit from warm, dry, and sunshine filled days. As the storm blew rain horizontally, I was thankful we were inside, and the bees were safe in their hive. I was thankful that they were busy bees, making honey for me to add to my tea. As David stated while inspecting the hive, “honey makes a great gift, and I enjoy giving the honey to others.”
Thankful for honeybees and tea,
Disclaimer: Please do not give honey to children under the age of one. Occasionally honey may have bacteria that can lead to botulism in infants.
Bailey, Adrian. RD Home Handbooks Cook’s Ingredients. The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., 1990.
Gold, Cynthia and Lise Stern. Culinary Tea. Running press, 2010.
Women’s Day. Encyclopedia Of Cookery, Vol.6. Fawcett Publications, 1966.
About The Author
Leslie Sundberg is a World Tea Academy Certified Tea Specialist, a World Tea Academy Apprentice Tea Sommelier, a Specialty Tea Institute Level IV trained Tea Specialist, and a Tea and Business Etiquette Specialist. On any given day, Leslie can be found teaching, speaking or sharing in the joys of a cup of tea. No matter what Leslie is doing or where she is, one thing remains constant: 4:00 in the afternoon is tea time!