The Honey Harvest

By Jean Webster

On a recent Saturday, John and I met a few local beekeepers at Dragonfly Cove Farm, in Dresden, Me., to harvest this season’s honey.

The room we use is just off the big farm kitchen. With a cement floor and enough space for two honey extractors, it’s become the traditional spot for removing honey from beehives. (The extractor is the machine that spins the honeycomb and removes honey via centrifugal force.) Dragonfly owners, Marge and Joe, also raise ducks, chickens, geese and goats; that room holds several ceiling-to-floor freezers for the meat they sell.

Unlike last year’s “take” of 120 pounds, this time we brought only five frames of honey – about 13 pounds. Obviously 2011 was an exceptional season. These frames are smaller than those holding the bees’ year round honey supply. An oblong wood and wax frame, measuring 18 x 5½ inches, it reminds me of small old-fashioned window screens.

To start, the beekeeper uses an electrically heated knife to skim the wax the bees made to hold the seasoned honey in the cell of the frame. (The cell is a hexagon-shaped compartment of a comb. Bees store food and raise brood – immature bees – in these compartments.) The skimmed wax and some honey drop into a wooden box for later enjoyment, or to strain and add to the honey flow. When all is done, this pile is a mixture of some of everyone’s honey.

Since we arrived last, we waited our turn on the extractor. John helped out by turning its crank, while others kept it from jumping off the stand.  The extractor is a simple contraption that stands about four feet high, a plain metal cylinder with clasps inside to hold the frames in place. The method is simple, too. Turn the crank and eventually the honey flows down the inside of the machine, out the spigot and into a container. The best is a plastic bucket with two strainers to separate the honey from any wax or – yes, this can happen – any bee parts that made it into the flowing honey.

Part of the treat of being at Dragonfly Farm is “time out for lunch,” often one of Marge’s hearty soups, homemade bread and honey butter. Her kitchen is large and inviting, with cooking and baking aromas, and a big friendly dog begging to be petted. This year we had a tasty goat meat and veggie soup, with corn bread on the side. The group usually supplements with food to share.

Once everyone’s honey was harvested, we divvied up the wax and honey mixture from the “drop box.” At home we strained our share, adding the golden liquid to our own honey and saving the “waxy residue” for special treats. We’ll share our dozen jars with family and friends.

That’s the harvesting story of  backyard beekeeping. But, people often wonder about the danger of CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder) to our bees. The truth is that the backyard honeybee’s life is simpler and less dangerous than the “professional” bees, which are carted around the country to pollinate plants on large farms. Right here in Maine, working honeybees pollinate the huge up-country blueberry crop.

Unlike those bees, ours have a varied diet. Within a few miles of our property, they have the choice of flowers, weeds and other plants from early spring through the fall, as well as the sugar water we feed them in the off-season. The “professional” bees generally feed on one crop – like blueberries – for a long period, making for a less healthy diet.

Also, at a meeting this summer we learned the results of a Harvard University study investigating the effects of pesticides – specifically neonicotinoids – on honeybees. Large agra-farms inject pesticides into their seeds to make them resistant to disease. The Harvard study found that incorporating even a small amount of these pesticides into a hive’s sugar water in the spring caused significant honeybee deaths. But not all at once.

That first spring, bees feeding on the treated sugar water survived into fall. Soon, though, the researchers found dead bees in and around the hives. The pesticides were being passed from one generation to the next, weakening the “hive.” By the time the snow flew that winter, hundreds of bees had dropped dead. The longer the pesticides were in the hive, the worse the results.

A quote from the Bulletin of Insectology states that “researchers found that 94 percent of the hives had died after exposure to the neonicotinoid pesticide.” (Read more about the Harvard Study at

Backyard beekeepers cannot combat the practices of the large agra-farms. But we can maintain a centuries-long tradition.


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One Response to “The Honey Harvest”

  1. Jo Galante Cicale Says:

    wonderfully poignant. the harvard study will, hopefully, gain enough attention to another problem with GMOs that hasn’t been fully explored or discussed. Bees are like the canaries in the mine.

    Enjoy the honey and wax!

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