Adding to our failures last season, we did not finish writing our reports from the 2018 Michigan Beekeepers Association Spring Conference before the 2019 MBA Spring Conference occurred. Oh, shame. Due to a number of factors we then missed that conference entirely. And now even the 2019 MBA Fall Conference has come and gone. We did attend that one but only gave our talk and went home to collapse in post-performance, introvert’s coma without seeing any of the other talks. That should give us a respite from conference reporting once we get this last bit finally published.

So in this new year, before the 2020 Spring conference is upon us, let us now very much belatedly make our last report by writing of the honey tasting workshop with Marina Marchese of Red Bee Honey.

Nearly everyone is somewhat familiar with the descriptive vocabulary of the wine taster. The basics of professional tasting of honey are the same as for wine. Also cheese, coffee, garlic, olive oil, maple syrup, and anything else consumed. The fundamental task is to notice the various sensory components and give name to them without value judgment. So, one can observe that a foodstuff smells of, oh, cat urine as long as one is being literally accurate and not metaphorically pejorative. After all, someone may like that smell. Probably someone with toxoplasmosis. On the other hand one must identify as defects tastes resulting from unintended errors in production or storage, such as skunked beer, which has been exposed to too much light.

As a warmup exercise, we were given small, vented, plastic containers holding substances with scents fair and foul. Spices, fruits, mildew, medicine, and, yes, even cat urine1. Putting adjective to smell proved harder than expected. Nearly each one was familiar yet, encountered out of context, more often unidentifiable than one would expect. One can strengthen this skill during meals by focusing on the smell and taste of some foodstuff and, after swallowing, repeating its name out loud. Ignore dining companions shifting seats to be further away.

Then at last we got to the part anticipated, the actual tasting of a variety of honeys. Each sample was a small amount in the bottom of a wine glass. Honey being too thick to swirl, we spread the sample in a thin layer around the sides of the glass with a wee plastic spoon. The increased surface area released more of the aroma and the shape of the glass contained it. Then nose was inserted and aroma inhaled. We hastily wrote our sensory impressions with our practiced vocabulary on our worksheets. Next we scooped out a bit with our spoons to taste, ensuring every part of the tongue was covered. An enjoyable and surprisingly exhausting exercise. And nothing smelled of cat urine although a few honeys were found to be unpleasant to most and our beloved buckwheat proved divisive. But none of these were defects in the honey. The aroma and flavors were what the plant and bees produced and not at all what the beekeeper fouled up.

After all the fun we were exposed to some actual defective honeys. One gave evidence for a common error, using too much smoke to harvest the combs. Another tasted quite metallic and was the result of being left to settle in a metal container for too long before bottling. Yet another smelled sufficiently foul that we declined to taste it. Educational and good to have experienced but not as much fun as the tasting of good honeys.


1The Mrs. was the only one in the room to successfully identify this one. But then she had the advantage that when a wee child the family once took in a pregnant stray cat and soon they were sharing their small New York apartment with thirty or so cats.

Honey Straining Apparatus

Honey Straining Apparatus

Our honey straining equipment from Brushy Mountain arrived a few days after our fun with the funnel. Except for a few parts it could be easily DIY-built given a suitable pair of food-grade buckets with lids but obtaining such proved difficult for us to do on short notice.

Working from left to right in the picture we see:

  • Honeygate

    Honeygate

    A 5-gallon bucket with honey gate. This actually comes as two pieces: the honey gate, which is a kind of valve optimized for thick fluids and the first of the hard-to-DIY parts, and the bucket, which has a hole in its side near the bottom.

    The honey gate has a threaded end with an O-ring that inserts into the hole (O-ring on the outside) and is locked in place by a large plastic nut. Assembly is easier if the gate is inserted upside-down, that is, with the lever pointing left. (As with scissors there is a right-handed bias.) Then after the nut is firmly hand-tightened, the gate is given a half-turn clockwise from the outside. The walls of the bucket are flexible enough to flatten slightly and make a better seal than one would expect although a few beeks will apply food-grade silicone around the outside.

    The gate pivots on the left-hand screw, loosened just enough to allow motion, as one raises and lowers the handle extending to the right. The right-hand screw fits into a notch in the handle and has a wingnut for easy loosening during bottling to allow the notch to be easily lifted off and lowered on along with easy tightening to avoid leaks while honey is being accumulated in the lower bucket.

  • A 600 micron filter, the second of the hard-to-DIY parts. This seats neatly into the top of the bucket. We debated over using this. While we certainly wish to remove things like bee legs and wax fragments from our honey, we want to keep any pollen. Googling reassured us that most pollen is less than 100 microns in size so we used it anyway. Four and two hundred micron filters are separately available as well and should also pass pollen.

  • A perforated stainless steel plate to fit into the next piece.

  • Bottom of Bucket and Lid Assembly

    Bottom of Bucket and Lid Assembly

    An assembly consisting of a 5-gallon bucket, this one with most of its bottom removed, leaving just a lip to hold the plate, attached to a bucket lid with matching hole. A DIY-er could omit using a plate by simply drilling several holes through the bottom of the bucket rather than cutting one large one, although having a plate makes it easier to clean things.

  • Seen in this second bucket are a strainer bag to hold the crushed comb and some rubber bands (ordered separately) to hold the bag in place. Various kinds of mesh bags can be used. The bag provides a coarse degree of filtration to remove chunks of comb and parts of bee. Some beeks go no finer while others use it as a prefiltration stage for something like our 600 micron filter. And it provides an easy way to remove the spent comb from the bucket for cleanup. Removing it from the bag is still messy.

  • Lastly a lid to keep dust and things from falling into comb as it drains or into the honey as it sits awaiting bottling.

The assembly sequence is:

  1. Start with the first bucket and make sure the honey gate is closed.
  2. Insert the filter.
  3. Add the second-bucket-cum-lid assembly.
  4. Insert the stainless steel plate.
  5. Insert the strainer bag and hold with rubber bands.

To use:

  1. Fill with crushed comb.
  2. Cover with the lid.
  3. Leave it be overnight.
Strainer Assembled

Strainer Assembled

And here is the first jar of honey from the late Beatrix.

Our First Jar of Honey

Our First Jar of Honey

It is not as clear as most honey we have seen. The slight granularity detected on the tongue suggests this is due to tiny sugar crystals. If so then gentle heating ought to clarify but we probably shan’t bother.

In honor of International Talk Like a Pirate Day we consider the beekeeper as a marauder of the hive bees, plundering their golden treasure. Aye, harvesting their honey.

The Michigan Beekeepers Association suggests the common September practice of taking honey from the hives. Surplus honey, that is, for the bees must have enough to survive in order to be robbed again. Local experience of past seasons generally suggests a weight of honey to leave a colony, 60 pounds in this case. But who can predict the winter? If a winter is unusually severe then beekeepers must supplementally feed the bees either by returning some of their honey (Jack Sparrow weeps) or providing cheap sugar, either dry or as fondant.

The newer trend, at least among non-commercial beekeepers, is to let the bees keep all their honey over winter until a strong nectar flow in the next spring. The honey is presumably better for them than mere sugar and there is no bother to return what was not taken. Once they have made it through winter and are visibly increasing their stores it is easier to determine how much honey they can spare. That may be none after a bad winter but then the bees will have needed it.

As for Annabelle and Beatrix, they are entirely safe from our depradations (if not our well-intentioned intereference) this year since they were just started from packages this season. Next year, when the dandelions bloom, we may briefly hoist the Jolly Roger.