September 14, 2006
How sweet it is: behind the buzz at two of California’s hives
I'm trying not to freak out at the high-pitched scream of the bees. See, I'm wearing full protective gear for the honey-making process -- a white jumpsuit, a netted straw hat affixed to me with a series of complicated rigmarole of strings (the zipper ones had run out), long tan-leather gloves that reach past my elbow, and socks as high as my knees, with the pants taped down over them. Not an ounce of my skin is exposed, but still I can't help but feel nervous -- it's Hitchockian, really -- as thousands of bees swarm around me.
They're doing this because I'm standing in the beeline -- literally the line of passage of bees swarming from the hive because they have been smoked out of there; it's kind of like the 405 during rush hour, except faster, as they stream out of their man-made hives and into the countryside of Northern California.
Call this my week of honey. As the High Holidays approach, I've embarked on a two-part honey tour: First, traveling to a friend-of-a-friend's private honey extracting pre-holiday party at his family villa in Sonoma, and next at a commercial honey farm in Southern California.
For as long as Jews have been eating on holidays, it's been customary to eat honey on Rosh Hashanah, as a symbol of hope for a sweet new year. The tradition of eating honey is ancient, recorded as early as the Babylonian Talmud in the seventh century. There are also many mentions of honey in the Bible, most notably in Exodus, when the land of Canaan promised to the Israelites is called "a land flowing with milk and honey." Although that honey is thought to be fig or date honey, by using honey on Rosh Hashanah we are remembering Israel, no matter where we are.
It is also noted in Psalms that God's commandments are "sweeter than honey and the droppings of the honeycomb," and "sweeter than honey to thy mouth." The High Holidays, which are a time of judgment and preparation for the upcoming year, should be filled with mitzvoth, and honey reminds us of that.
We usually eat it with apples, as well as challah, and for many, as part of every recipe on the table. (See recipes throughout this special Rosh Hashanah section.)
But where does the honey itself come from? I'd always known generally, on a third-grade science-class level, that bees make honey from flowers, but I'd never really thought about the complicated process that bees go through to make honey, or the complex operation that people go through to get that honey to the table. Until now.
It's Labor Day weekend and instead of lounging out at some pool, I'm standing in a buzzing field, sweating profusely in my mad scientist/spaceship/safari outfit, invading the bees' habitat in order to help take honey from their hives. These hives are not like I've imagined them: those brown, hairy ovals found in trees at summer camp and replicated in ceramic honey holders. Man-made hives look more like small armoires, a short stack of wood dresser drawers, called supers. Each super has about 10 frames, long rectangles dotted with the geometrically perfect honeycombs, the octagons where the honey is deposited. Our goal today: to remove the frames, bring them to the farm, extract the honey, then filter, bottle and label it.
They say it's easier to catch flies with honey, but how do you catch honey?
The first thing we have to do is light a fire in the smoker, a can with an accordion-like pump that produces, eponymously, smoke. Bees hate the smell of smoke, so we pump smoke into the top drawer, close the lid and the bees make a mad dash out, which is when I discover, standing in front of the hive is probably not the best place to be.
Then we take the frames out of the drawer, brush off the bees and run it over to the car for transportation. (Walk is more like it; it's not easy to run in this jumpsuit, nor is it smart to make sudden movements near bees -- although swarming bees, rushing to get out of their smoky hives, don't often stop to sting visitors). We have four hives here today -- some 40,000 bees -- but only two are producing honey. It's tedious work, this smoking, brushing, transporting of the frames -- and it's only the first step. (I suppose that our job is nothing compared to that of the worker bee, who makes about 40 trips a day to the flowers).
Finally, we can take off our paraphernalia for the rest of the process and get out of the hot sun to go to the honey "farm": It's more like a high-ceilinged garage structure containing honey extracting equipment.
If you're a good turkey carver, you'd probably be good at scraping off the capping, the layer of capped wax that seals the honey in the frames. But if you're like me -- someone who cooks the bird but never carves it -- handling the hot knife turns out to be quite tricky. It's easy to tell which rectangle frames hold honey -- the combs are darker, heavier. I hold the frame diagonally over a container that will catch the drippings, and try to shimmy the knife at an angle. Oops! No, I didn't slice my finger, just cut too deeply into the combs.
I uncap the other side too but my wrist aches and I feel kind of sorry for the poor bees that will have to rebuild the combs just because I'm a lousy home destroyer -- I mean carver.
I decide to move over to the next step in our human assembly line: combing the frames. I use what looks like a hair pick to scrape off the last remaining wax.
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. Â
At a commercial farm like Bennett's, they import queen bees from special breeders, so as not to lose any bees or honey. Private beekeepers often wait for the colony to create their own new queen. Drones, or male bees, mate with the queen. They die after mating. The queen bee can live five years.
Most of the bees in a hive are worker bees -- females who live 30 to 45 days. They spend the first half of their lives taking care of the hive. They spend the second half gathering pollen and nectar from flowers. The pollen travels from plant to plant, and the nectar is what is made into honey. The bees carry the nectar back to the hive, transferring it by tongue to other bees, who transfer it again to other bees. Their digestive enzymes thicken the nectar and break it down from a diglyceride to a monoglyceride. Other bees fan the nectar, dehydrating it; honey has a moisture content of less than 18 percent.
"We don't use water on the equipment throughout the season," Bennett says, because honey contains its own antioxidants.
Bees in nature gather nectar from a variety of flowers, creating what we eat today, the generic wildflower honey. But if you place your hive near one flower, you can create what is known as a honey "varietal." These varietals have different textures, colors, tastes and aftertastes. Here at Bennett's, the honey varietals are made according to season. Oranges come first, then sage. Bennett's also produces avocado honey, cactus honey, buckwheat honey, eucalyptus and wildflower.
Niall divides honey into four categories: fruity and floral, herbal, spice, and deep and earthy honeys.
So this Rosh Hashanah, even if you can't make your own honey, go to your local health food store and buy a different varietal to use in recipes, on challah and with apples.
No matter which honey you use, though, it's all the same blessing: "Yehi Ratzon melifanecha shetichadesh aleinu shana tova u metuka." May it Be Your Will that we should have a sweet new year.
On Sept. 19 from 5-8 p.m., Herzog Wine Cellars in Oxnard will be hosting a honey tasting event, with honey from Bennett's Honey Farm.