If anyone knows about bee character, it’s Don Shump. As
owner of the Philadelphia Bee Company and head beekeeper at Greensgrow Farms,
he has managed over 40 hives in West Philadelphia, Queen Village, Kensington
and Old City for the past five years.
Whether he is lecturing at the Free Library, answering questions of passing children or inspecting his beloved hives, he talks about the bees as if he knows each one individually. Female worker bees comprise roughly 58,000 of the 60,000 bees in a hive. As the burly beekeeper shakes bees off of frames, he coerces gently, “Off ya go, girls!” When he adds a new box to the hive for comb-making, he challenges, “C’mon ladies, let’s see what you can do!”
For three months of the year, Don’s brain is pre-occupied with nectar flow, the critical period between April and June when flowers and nectar sources are in bloom and the weather is favorable for bees to forage. While many parts of the country get a fall flow as well in September and October, Pennsylvania is not as lucky. Philadelphia’s bees collect the majority of pollen and nectar in April through June so Don continually checks on “the girls” to make sure they produce enough honey to last the winter.
Nectar is high in water content. To create honey, bees beat their wings, creating heat in the hive and evaporating water in the nectar. Amazingly, bees know exactly when the nectar has dehydrated enough and begin capping the cells with wax to preserve the honey for winter when water levels drop below 14%.
Because of Philly’s botanical history and the plethora of patio & rooftop gardens, community gardens, parks and weeds growing in the city, there is no single source for nectar. Therefore, Philly’s honey can only be classified as wildflower honey. Still, this makes for an ideal situation, as the biodiversity provides for a complex array of flavor notes and colors within the comb.
In fact, this range of vegetation also makes urban honey taste better than honey from the suburbs. In Don’s experience, the manicured lawns and smaller variety of flowers, results in honey flavors that are one-note.
“Philly is a natural smorgasbord for the bees. When I see an empty lot filled with dandelions, I do a jig!” he says, his face lighting up with a smile. “Honey is like wine. There are so many nuances and subtle notes. The flavors change with each harvest, even from frame to frame.”
Don recalls how his first year saw hot summers and resulted in floral notes that, as he put it, “punched you in the face.” The following year was especially rainy and the bees’ honey reflected the mellow weather, producing a smooth, buttery honey with evenly balanced notes.
With so much talk about flavor notes and viscosity, I was anxious to try some of the golden elixir I had heard so much about. I had come to the Southward/Queen Village Community Garden to see the hives and taste some honey, but to do so, I had to pass muster with Don’s mentor, Carolyn Scott.
When Don introduced Carolyn, she exhaustedly walked over and plopped down in a lawn chair next to him, letting out a sigh, as if we were inconveniencing her.
When asked what advice she would give beginner beekeepers, she gruffly retorted, “Don’t start.”
Carolyn began working with bees eight years ago when the beekeeper at the community gardens announced he could no longer take care of the bees.
“I thought it would be a challenge,” she recalls, shaking her head. “I had no idea what I was getting into.”
Without much instruction, she was left to figure out beekeeping on her own, including learning to repair broken frames and treat bees for diseases.
In addition to navigating these problems, Carolyn had another battle with the bees themselves. A self-proclaimed control freak, she learned early on that bees are unpredictable.
“They’re far from consistent. They can either be exciting or frustrating, depending on the week they’ve had and depending on the week you’ve had.”
As she opens up about bees, her demeanor changes.
“They’re fascinating creatures.” She smiles. “They are one of the most sophisticated societies known to man—they have a hierarchy of labor, nurse bees, workers, foragers, drones, the queen and even undertaker bees.”
She pauses for a moment and then asks, “Do you want to help us harvest honey?” Within minutes, I am wearing a netted hat, silently assured that I have received Carolyn’s coveted approval.
The honey house is a wooden shed on the property of Southwark Bella Vista Community Gardens. At center stage is the star of the honey harvesting operation: the extractor, a shiny circular metal vat that is bolted to the cement floor. Frames are pulled from their boxes and uncapped by running a hot blade over the wax honeycomb to open the cells. Don attempts to use the blade before it is completely heated up and it stutters across the comb like Morse Code. After a few moments, it reaches the appropriate temperature and honey bubbles across the blade. A trail of smoke singes through the air wafting carbon through the small space.
Next it’s onto the forking. An ordinary household fork is scraped quickly across the surface of any sunken cells, ensuring that every last drop of honey is extracted from the comb.
Finally, the frames are placed vertically in the extractor, ready to take a spin. The extractor uses centrifugal force to draw the honey away from the comb and onto the sides of the machine. Therefore, it is vital that the frames are placed evenly as to not damage the cells. Comb is just as valuable to beekeepers as honey because bees consume eight pounds of honey for every one-pound of wax they make.
When the frames have been checked, Carolyn bestows upon me the highest honor: I get to start the extraction process. I turn the dial to 10% of the extractor’s speed, creating a gentle whirring as the frames begin to spin. Anticipation builds as the dial turns to 20% and the whirring gets louder and faster. Then 30%, 40%, 50% and finally, at 60% we are at the fastest speed Don and Carolyn have ever spun. Even more impressive, within a few moments, a stream of viscous liquid gold has begun to make its languid descent out of the spout at the bottom of the extractor: the honey harvest has begun!
As the machine keeps spinning, more honey is forced out at a time and it must be strained as it is collected in a bucket. I suddenly find a spatula in my hand.
“Get to work,” Carolyn smiles.
As the comb spins, pieces of cut comb fly against the walls and find their way out the spigot. My spatula slowly scrapes the honey around the strainer, pushing clear honey through the tiny holes toward the vat of deep amber below.
The entire process takes roughly an hour to harvest from two boxes, each containing 10 frames of comb. Harvests generally take place in late summer, but because the weather has been so warm, Don was able to take honey. Temperature is important as warm temperatures make for less viscous honey and less viscosity makes for a quicker spin in the extractor.
Don recounts a time where he spent 3 hours to get one spin of honey on a 72-degree day. “After the first spin, I took the rest of the frames to the car and cranked up the heat to get them more fluid. I burned a lot of gas, but saved a ton of work!”
As Don turns off the machine with sticky fingers, the moment I have been waiting for arrives. I dip a spoon into the freshly strained silky liquid and have my first taste of pure, sweet gold. The fresh honey had a deep flavor with floral notes and a burst of raspberry flavor that danced on my tongue. This was liquid bliss worthy of the risk of a hundred beestings, a ten mile bike ride up the hills of East Falls and a 90 degree afternoon spent in long pants and a beekeeper’s hat.
As a long day comes to an end and the sky begins to match the golden ombre tones of our newly harvested honey, I ask Don what advice he would give to aspiring bee tenders, he jovially answers without hesitation. “Beekeeping is prooobably the coolest thing you can do. It’s a blast. I highly recommend you get into it.”