Home News Local News Sticky Business
By LISA BRITTON
Of the Baker City Herald
Jake Guardia pays no attention to the cloud of bees swirling around his head.
On this cloudy September morning, Guardia, 22, zipped up a hooded jacket against the threat of thousands of stingers and headed toward a cluster of wooden hives nestled in a field just outside the town of Halfway.
Cool days are not a beekeeper's favorite.
Warm weather finds the worker bees out and about, gathering pollen and nectar in the never-ending task of making honey.
"They'll go out and do their stuff and not worry about what you're doing," Guardia says.
But when the temperature cools, honeybees tend to stick closer to home and guard their honey supply.
Guardia is the "bee technician" for Honeybee Rodeo, a Baker City business owned by his mom, Jessica Guardia.
Monty Rouse, 59, is the business' "bee consultant" and has spent more than 30 years learning all about honeybees and the complicated process of making honey.
As Jake Guardia makes his rounds to pull honey from their 400 hives scattered throughout Oregon, Rouse runs the extraction and packing processes back at the shop in Baker City.
Honeybee Rodeo is one of several local honey productions that have hives and bees scattered throughout Baker County.
The buzz is a bit unnerving as Guardia grabs a smoker and foul-smelling boxes sprinkled with Honey Robber (called "fume boards") and heads toward the hives.
His advice is to fight the urge to swat at the bees, and to retreat if the colony seems perturbed.
With a couple bees, this seems plausible, but on this day there are more than just a few flying insects.
One three-story hive (each story is a foot-high box) can house as many as 60,000 honeybees.
Guardia is surrounded by 21 honeybee homes.
But he doesn't bat an eye as he pries the roof from the wooden hive with a small crowbar it opens with a sticky groan as the waxy buildup gives way and sends puffs of smoke over the active bees.
"(The smoke) kind of stuns them and confuses them. It calms them down, too," he says.
The non-aggressive honeybee doesn't really want to plunge its stinger into your flesh a fatal last resort for this flying insect.
"It pretty much pulls out their whole intestine and they die shortly thereafter," Guardia says.
Wasps and hornets like yellow jackets don't lose their stingers and can continue to attack, he says.
After the insects retreat to the bottom of the hive, Guardia slides a fume board over the top to further scatter the bees.
His task is to "pull the honey" by removing the top story (called a super) that he will take back to the shop in Baker City.
Beekeepers harvest the surplus honey produced by the colony, the sweet stuff that would generally help the honeybees survive the cold winter months.
These pampered insects, though, needn't worry about winter.
Every fall, Honeybee Rodeo's hives are trucked down to northern California to take advantage of mild temperatures and await the almond pollination in February.
Guardia says they supplement the bees' winter food supply with frames full of carrot honey a type of honey produced from the carrot pollination near Vale.
Carrot honey, Guardia says, isn't agreeable to the human palate.
"That's probably some of the worst honey you can get," he says. "It looks like motor oil, it's so dark."
After the smoke and fume boards have quieted the honeybees, Guardia lifts off the top super and heaves the box on his flatbed truck.
Those are the frames full of honey, he says, though at this late date the bees aren't very productive evidenced by the ease of lifting the box.
Each super contains nine frames, and one frame can hold as much as two pounds of honey.
"Sometimes you'll pick up a hive and it can weigh anywhere from 50 to 100 pounds," he says. "Some hives you throw out your back they're so heavy."
Once the supers are removed, Guardia starts inspecting the health of each hive.
He lifts out a frame lined with the perfectly hexagonal cells of a honeycomb and peers through the protective mesh of the bee suit hat, scanning the moving mass of honeybees for the mother of the hive.
The society of the honeybee depends on this matriarch to sustain the colony she lays about 2,500 eggs a day and a bee lifespan is about four weeks and keeping everyone as busy as, well, a bee.
"The queen pretty much runs the whole show," Guardia says. "She likes to keep everything in order and running right."
Each hive contains only one queen. The worker bees undeveloped females are the ones who gather pollen and nectar and care for the young and make the honey.
"They're constant workers. They don't quit for nothing," Guardia says.
Drones which make up about 20 percent of the colony are male bees whose sole purpose is to mate with the queen, and are the first to be kicked out of the hive if the colony's short on food.
Suddenly Guardia points a gloved figure at the mess of honeybees, tracing the erratic movement of one bee that is clearly larger than the rest.
This is the queen, and a sign that the hive is healthy.
The frame he holds is full of shiny honey in uncapped cells, waxy cocoons of the brood (the baby bees) and a yellowish arc of stored pollen.
The pollen, Rouse explains back at the shop, is the bee's protein supply and the honey provides their needed carbohydrates.
Bees, Rouse says, can consume five pounds of honey per day.
Just how do the bees make all that honey, anyway?
The process works like this: bees fly to the local floral sources they have a two-mile travel radius and suck up the nectar, which then goes into a "honey stomach."
In the stomach, the nectar mixes with digestive juices.
"Then they regurgitate it back out into the cells," Rouse says. "At first it's as thin as water."
Nectar, he says, is about 90 percent moisture.
Once the runny honey is stored in the cells, the bees dry the liquid by beating their wings inside the hive. When the honey reaches a moisture content of 18 percent, the bees produce wax and cap off the cell for storage.
Honey contains yeast and will ferment if it's moisture percentage is too high, Rouse says. Mead, or honey wine, is one of the oldest alcoholic beverages.
The honeybees instinctively know when their honey has reached the appropriate liquid state, he says. And, due to Baker County's dry climate, honey produced here generally has a moisture content of between 13 and 15 percent.
Once Guardia pulls all the honey and checks each hive, he straps down the supers with a thick rope and heads back to Baker City.
The insects aren't too happy to see their hard-earned honey drive away, and Guardia's truck is followed by a cloud of bees in a scene reminiscent of the cartoon character Pig Pen with his signature swirl of dust.
By the time he arrives at the shop on H Street, the bees have mostly disappeared and Guardia unloads the honey crop to begin the extraction process.
This procedure, it seems, involves a lot of dripping and waiting.
The frames of honeycomb are first fed through an uncapper that shaves off the thin wax cap covering each cell of honey.
"Sometimes the combs are a little wavy and it'll miss," Rouse says, holding a partially uncapped frame and a hive tool. "We can do those by hand."
He scrapes off the remaining wax, then slips the frame into a circular extractor basically a big centrifuge that flings the honey from the comb.
"Centrifugal force draws the honey right out of the cells," he says.
Some wax and pollen spin out as well, and the liquid runs into a trough where the honey eventually settles to the bottom.
"Honey's so dense that everything floats to the top," Rouse says.
Most finished honey still contains trace amounts of pollen, he says.
"They say people with allergies should eat honey from their local area," Rouse says.
According to a report cited on the National Honey Board Web site (www.nhb.org), honey that contains local pollen can help alleviate allergies by desensitizes the immune system to that certain type of irritant.
Extracting honey takes about 24 hours from hive to container, Rouse says.
To squeeze the most honey from the combs, wax remnants are moved through a press to force out any honey that might still be part of the mix.
"It's just a wedge that gets tighter and tight as it goes, then the honey drips down below," he says.
The honey runs through several metal troughs until the end product is sucked up into a 400-gallon stainless steel tank.
Hot water coils keep the tank temperature at about 90 degrees F to keep the honey from solidifying.
And from there, the honey is ready for consumption, either through a wholesale buyer or smaller-scale retail sales.
Rouse slides a pristine five-gallon plastic bucket beneath a spigot and, with a flip of the handle, watches a stream of golden honey pour into the container.
And, after all these years and processing pound after pound of the "liquid gold," he still loves honey straight, in his coffee, even on his rice, he says as he dips his hands in a bucket of water to rub away the layers of honey.
"It's a sticky business," he says with a smile.