September 14, 2006
How sweet it is: behind the buzz at two of California’s hives
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Then the frames go off to the extractor, a giant stainless-steel drum that spins, its centrifugal force pulling the honey from the frames. A spigot allows the honey to flow into a vat, and we take that vat -- by "we" I mean stronger people than me -- over to the filter, which separates out wax and other yucky bee parts to drip the honey into jars. Someone in our loosey-goosy assembly line of about 20 people puts labels on the jars, homemade stickers reading "Sonoma Wildflower Honey."
Then comes the most important part of the process: tasting the honey. It's lighter and sweeter than the store-bought honey I remember from years past. (You never eat more plain honey than during the Jewish fall holidays, when you're at the table maybe a dozen times between Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Simchat Torah). But the taste of this honey also lingers on my tongue for just a moment longer than the store-bought kind. Or maybe that's just how it seems, because I made it -- or helped make it -- myself.
In this era of advanced technology, you'd think the process of making honey would eliminate humans -- maybe even bees! -- but at Bennett's Honey Farm, a commercial honey producer in Fillmore, north of Los Angeles the honey gathering process is very much the same as it was in Sonoma.
Except that instead of four semiproductive hives garnering only about 30 pounds of honey, Bennett's has between 300 and 400 hives of their own, as well as hundreds of other people's hives, from which the farm extracts honey as a service. Bennett's produces 100 tons of honey per year, under the Kosher-certified labels "Piru Canyon Honey," for farmers' markets, and "Topanga Quality Honey," for health food stores, such as Whole Foods.
Honey, an all-natural product, is generally kosher as long as it's filtered; some people prefer all their products to have kosher certification. Although one might think honey would not be kosher because all products of nonkosher animals and insects are not kosher, rabbinic scholars as early as the Talmud posited this was not so because as milk is a product of a cow. Honey is not a product of a bee, like a cow produces milk. A bee essentially manufactures the honey. (Bees have two stomachs, one for their own nutrients, and one for carrying nectar to be made into honey.)
Here, 10 men work the hives, smoking the bees, brushing them off and running them to the trucks, much as we did in Sonoma.
"They're very fast," says Ann Bennett, owner of the honey farm with her husband Red. (They started the company 28 years ago, and this is their third year in the Fillmore facility). Unlike my dilly-dallying in the sun, the men must be fast to get all the frames into the factory, which is where the industrialized process begins.
I can't see it in operation this first week in September, because the season only lasts from about April to August, but all the equipment is similar to the what we used in Sonoma, except that "human hands do not touch the honey," Ann Bennett explains.
We're standing in a giant warehouse, surrounded by drums, the large metal canisters that contain tons of honey. The smell is overwhelmingly sweet, cloying, insidious; if you've ever gotten your legs waxed, you know what I mean. But first the frames go into a heating room, which warms them to make the extraction process easier.
Then, instead of uncapping by hand, they are removed by machine, which runs them through a conveyor belt and uncaps with an electric knife. Here the wax is separated to one extractor, where the honey removed is used for low-grade quality uses, and the wax can be sold to candlemakers and the like. The uncapped frames are deposited into the extractor, and the honey is pumped -- Willy Wonka-style -- into another room, where it is filtered, then pumped into another room for bottling and labeling.
"Some places heat their honey to 160 F, and it comes out cleaner but is stripped of the vitamins and protein," Bennett tells me.
Those honeys are the equivalent of the genetically modified shiny red apples that have less taste; commercial honey granulates faster, and contains less of the healthful properties honey is known for: healing wounds, aiding digestion, guarding against ulcers, fighting allergies, increasing energy and smoothing skin.
At the Bennett Farm tasting room, which is open to the public, they sell royal jelly -- foodstuff of queen bees, pills made from honey and pollen, honey creams and lotions. But mainly they sell honey.
"Honey has been lending its sweetness to the earth longer than we have walked on this planet," writes Mani Niall in "Covered in Honey: The Amazing Flavors of Varietal Honey" (Rodale, 2003), a cookbook that also explains the history of honey and the honey-making process. In fact, scientists have found bee fossils they believe were as much as 50 million years old. Many ancient cultures refer to bees and honey, including the Greeks, the Indians and the Romans.
"In their stunningly simple way, bees offer a gift to the world that is neither animal, vegetable nor man-made. To do this, they exist in an extraordinary place where these three worlds meet, a place we can only hope to sense through the power of our imagination and the sweet taste of honey."
This extraordinary place Niall is referring to is the beehive. The bee community is a hierarchal society where every bee works a certain task. At the top is the queen bee, who is actually housed in the bottom of the man-made hive, separated from other bees so she can lay eggs in her own compartment. (They can enter her compartment; she can't enter theirs). A queen is a fertile bee that populates the hives, and is created by being fed only royal jelly all her life.