March Newsletter: Swarm Season, Honey Questions to Ask, Some Like it Hot, Honey...We have too...

Tis the season…Swarm Season. You got questions, we've got answers. - By Jess & Alma

What is a swarm? Swarming is a honey bee colony's natural means of reproduction. In the process of swarming, a single colony splits into two or more distinct colonies. Swarming is mainly a spring phenomenon, but in Florida it can happen in the spring and in the fall. The hive will raise a “princess”. The resident queen will do what is needed to be physically ready to grow a new kingdom elsewhere. She leaves the hive she made to her princess to become the future new queen. The percentage of bees that will leave with the old queen engorges themselves with honey to leave with the queen before the princess hatches.

Are swarms dangerous? For the most part, NO. Before a percentage of bees from a hive swarm they will engorge themselves with honey. They do this because they do not know how soon they will find a new home. When you see a ball of bee on a tree branch it is usually a rest-stop. Majority of the swarm will stay on the branch to conserve energy, while a select few leave in search of a location to make their new home…such as hollow tree, a soffit, abandoned doghouse. The ball of bees that are waiting, are not necessarily dangerous because they still have a full tummy and the tree branch is not their “forever” home. I’ve heard Alma use the analogy of, “Would you be fired up to defend a rest-spot after eating Thanksgiving dinner?” Bees are MOST gentle in swarm state.

You said “Most likely not dangerous” what you mean? If the scout bees cannot find the ideal “forever home” and they have depleted their reserve. They may need to make the “rest-spot” their forever home for now. This is when you start to see honey comb being built on that tree branch. When this happens, they WILL defend the branch and can be potentially dangerous.

So, if I see a swarm what do I do? Leave it alone. They will leave. Give it a few days to a week…more if its rainy. Scout bees can’t go looking for a forever home in the rain. It not until you start to see honeycomb or it has been 3 weeks that you should call a beekeeper. Once the bees have been relocated, remove the branch, replace the part of the soffit where the swarm was located. The swarm location has been marked with a pheromone identifying the location as an “official honey bee rest-spot.” The swarm site will attract future swarms to rest on the branch. In one year, we caught 17 swarms off on ONE "swarm" branch!

Honey, You have options when purchasing honey

– By Jess

We’ve enjoyed talking to customers at our Farmer’s Market locations. We not only get to teach people about honey and bees, but also learn what customers think. Often, while explaining why our honey is so good, we see frustration on our customers’ faces because they have bought some other honey and didn’t know what to ask during that purchase. Here are some questions to ask BEFORE buying honey:

“Are you a beekeeper?” This sounds crazy, but the honey industry has two main categories, producers and packers. Producers intuitively are those people or companies that own bees who’s hives produce the honey they sell. What’s not intuitive is the practice of packing honey. Anyone can buy a drum of honey, fill jars, and take them to the farmer’s market. That person doesn’t know anything about where that honey came from, the practices used, so it’s always best to buy from beekeepers. Many of those that sell to the packing houses are beekeepers that don’t always have the best honey producing practices. I’ve seen beekeepers sell honey to packaging houses that been exposed to chemicals. When questioned about the beekeeper’s methods the exact words were, “ Once I sell it to the packinghouse it’s their problem.” This is why it’s so important to ask questions and purchase directly from the beekeeper.. At our market in Englewood you will see beekeepers and those that sell purchased honey. We can’t speak on the other beekeeper’s practices, but I can speak on our own practices which is truly local honey within 2-6 miles of each of our farmers markets, raw, hand harvested, by bees raised with organic practices!

Is this your honey? Followed by, “Did you harvest it?” Similar to the explanation above, you want to buy from someone with a vested interest in selling pure, unadulterated honey rather than someone selling a commodity. Keep in mind, some people will say “Yes” to the question of “Is this your honey” Technically, speaking it is their honey because they did purchase it. This is why you want to ask did they personally harvest it.

How local is your honey? When talking about local honey, you should reference your town or a neighboring town, not your state. There’s a big difference between Sarasota, FL honey, Florida honey and U.S. honey. Moreover, the term “local” is not legally defined. Some people may consider their honey local because it was harvested in Sarasota or in the state of Florida. What they don’t tell you is that although the honey was harvested here, the bees may have collected the honey in a completely different state. At Sarasota Honey Company our bees can fly to every one of our farmers markets and stores that sell our products. To us local is defined where 80% of the hives are located within 45 minutes of your home or the flowers found where the bees are located are the same flowers in your backyard.

Do you feed your bees? There are a lot of beekeepers that have to feed their bees. Some feed their bees a sugar water or a corn syrup water. Much of the cheap honey that you find out on the market, is just that... cheap honey. Some beekeepers make a living getting paid to pollinate crops. Some of these crops maybe heavy in pollen but not nectar, therefore they have to feed. Here in Florida, there can be an over-population of bees in the agricultural land. Just as we see "snow-birds", we see "snow-bees". Beekeepers from northern states bring their bee to Florida during the winter months. Moreover, there is a lack of diversity due to the mono-culture found in agriculture land. The combination of lack of diversity and over-population creates and environment where the bees have to be fed in order to survive.

These bee will combine the sugar or corn syrup feed with the few flowers they can find to make “honey”. Also there are some beekeeper that cheat or “water the tap” by feeding their bees in order to make a lot of “honey” to meet retailer demand and have the ability to sell it cheap for the retailer's profit margin requirements. All of our honey is made from 100% flower nectar. We only feed when we are growing our baby bees or during a drought, but never during a honey flow. Honey flow is a term used by beekeepers indicating that one or more major nectar sources are in bloom and the weather is favorable for bees to fly and collect the nectar in abundance to convert into hone.

Now let's do some basic math: I have seen a jar of local "Honey" at local grocery store selling at $7 per pound. The store will only do business you if they can double their money: $7/2 = $3.50 for the beekeeper. $1.70 for Packaging: (labor to package the honey, jar, cap, labels). Beekeeper remaining balance:

$3.50 - $1.70 in Packing = $1.80. The beekeeper is left with $1.80 per jar to cover: Beehive boxes, frames, bottoms, lids, platforms, physical labor, protective gear, harvesting equipment, pumps, drums, buckets, warehouse space, office and staff, licenses, permits, 4 different types of insurances, trucks, gasoline, water, light, internet...ect.

The expenses I listed are just the ones that I can think of off the top of my head; I'm sure Alma can come up with more. I cannot help but wonder, how do they stay in business? How can they afford to properly care for their bees with that type of budget? How can they provide a sustainable income for themselves and their employees? Three sayings come to mind: "If it's too good to be to be probably is." "If if walks like a duck, talks like a duck, it probably is a duck" and "You get, what you pay for".

I’ve heard the argument, “Well the bees DID make it! Bee do make honey, Right!” This is why at Sarasota Honey Company, when we get low on particular honey it goes in a smaller jar or we have to say it is not in stock. We do not feed our bees for honey purposes. Our honey is made of 100% nectar of flowers. We just DON’T have an unlimited supply. Every year will yield a harvest that is govern by Mother Nature.