Sweet spot

GREENFIELD — The buzzing doesn’t bother Debbie Horn anymore.

It’s just white noise now, the drone of tens of thousands of bees beating their wings in unison, fanning the hive she maintains.

Theirs is a music that fades into the background, all part of the soundtrack of the small forest surrounding Horn’s rural Greenfield home just north of the Shelby County line.

The white wooden boxes, shining in the sunlight on the south side of the property, don’t look like much from the road. But Horn knows better.

To a biology professor, who makes her living exploring nature and its nuances, those boxes encase a fascinating little community. Horn has been raising honeybees for the past three years and estimates she might have 50,000 of the insects in the five hives she keeps. And with those bees comes lots of honey, which she harvests and sells to local vendors.

Once a hive is started, it is self-sustaining, with each bee playing a part in the hive’s survival. Each member of the bee community has an important role, and Horn knows them all.

It’s a cushy life for the queen, whose only job is to lay eggs. Drones are there for mating, then forced from the hive once they’ve served their purpose. Worker bees do just that — work in every capacity, feeding and bathing the queen, collecting nectar, storing the honey and more.

Harvesting that honey and prepping it for sale is a multistep process and a bit of an investment, not so much in money but time, Horn explained.

Horn visits her hives often to check the bees’ progress, waiting until just the right moment when the honeycomb is ready to collect.

The bees are hard at work from spring to fall, flying to and from the hive to collect and drop off nectar from nearby flowers and other blooming plants. During each trip, the nectar is stored in the bee’s honey stomach, where the body produces an enzyme that begins to break down the plant sugar, the first step of turning the nectar to honey.

When the bees return to the hive, worker bees receive the loot.

“Somebody meets them at the door, so to speak,” Horn said.

The worker bees take the nectar and place it in a small cell inside the waxy honeycomb. The bees then fan their wings rapidly to dry the substance into a honey-like consistency. When the honey is properly thickened, the bees seal the cell with a small wax cap.

It’s that cap Horn keeps an eye out for — the bees’ signal their work is done.

Harvesting the honey is a process that begins with calming the hive, whose residents become agitated upon approach. It’s important to walk toward the hive from the side, Horn said, as someone blocking the sunlight at the front could be perceived as a predator.

Even with protective gear — canvas gloves, a hard plastic hat and a mesh veil that covers the beekeeper’s face — the risk of being stung is always there.

A second set of hands makes for quicker work, so Horn corralled her son, Parker, to join her at the hives on a recent afternoon.

Getting stung

Parker manned the smoker while Horn pulled out wooden frames crawling with bees. Each man-made frame contains a foundation upon which the bees build the honeycomb. If the cells are capped off, the frame is removed. If not, the frame is placed back in the hive — gently so as not to squash any bees — so the bees can finish what they started.

The bees swarm about the boxes as their home is disturbed. Hearing the buzz was unnerving at first, Horn said, but she’s learned to recognize when there’s real trouble — the pitch goes up a hair and gets much, much louder.

Otherwise, she just busies herself checking the hive, paying little attention to the hum in the background.

“You don’t even notice that they’re making a sound anymore,” she said.

You get over the occasional stings, too, her son added.

For someone who isn’t allergic, fear of landing on the wrong end of a bee’s stinger is far worse than the damage it does, he said.

“It’s the anticipation,” he said.

(Of course, there’s an epinephrine pen in the house for visitors, just in case someone discovers an allergy the hard way.)

Some people tend their hives without any protective gear at all.

“Me?” Horn said. “I’m a wuss.”

Once the frames are removed, the pair hop in the car.

Horn drives north on State Road 9 to U.S. 40 and hangs a right. She heads to the home of Tom Ferguson, who has served as her beekeeping mentor since she started with the hobby three years ago.

Acting like Pooh

Ferguson gets questions every so often from someone wanting to start a hive. He ignores the first request on purpose.

“Because I don’t think they understand there’s work involved,” he explained.

In Horn’s case, persistence paid off, and Ferguson helped her get started. Today, she uses some of his honey-harvesting equipment after removing the frames from her hives.

Ferguson’s electric knife takes just a few moments to heat, and then Horn uses it to gently slice off the wax caps holding in the honey.

It’s hard to resist popping a dripping piece or two into your mouth as you go along, she admits.

With the cells open and glistening with honey, Horn places the frames into a manual centrifuge and closes the lid. The crank on the top of the device spins the cylinder, slinging the honey against the side.

Gravity does the rest, and within moments, honey drips from a spout at the bottom and passes through a filter.

It looks just like what you buy at the store when it comes out of the spout, but it tastes even better, Ferguson said.

“My grandson’ll sit on his haunches like Pooh Bear,” dipping his fingers into the honey, Ferguson said.

The honey passes through the filter and drips into a bucket. Old plastic ice cream tubs work just fine, Horn has found.

The honey is then left out for a few days, during which time any leftover wax rises to the top to be skimmed off.

Flavor varies

Getting those honey buckets home is perhaps the most harrowing part of the process, Horn joked. Her biggest fear has always been getting into an accident with buckets full of honey in the back seat.

“You might not even have a dent in your car — it’d be totaled,” she said. “Can you imagine?”

Once the honey is bottled, it’s ready to be sold.

No two bottles are exactly the same, Horn explained. The flavor depends on what the bees have been eating.

Nectar from an apple orchard, for example, will produce apple-blossom honey. Different flowers also affect the color of the honey.

One thing never changes, though, Horn said. Raw honey always tastes sweeter than anything you buy off the shelf.

She’ll put it on her Rice Krispies in the morning, and it sweetens up any kind of tea, she added.

“You put a little on your tongue; the aroma just fills your whole sinuses and everything,” she said.

Even three years in, Horn remains fascinated by the process. It’s strange to think the creatures hard at work in the white wooden box create something that ends up on a shelf in the pantry – and over her breakfast cereal.

“Bee culture, if that’s what you want to call it, is really interesting,” she said.

And of course, “I just love honey.”

About this series

This week, the Daily Reporter goes behind the scenes to explore how products from Hancock County are created, start to finish. Whether the item is crafted in the comfort of a person’s home or put together in a local shop, we’ll show you how it’s made.

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Noelle Steele is editor of the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3232 or nsteele@greenfieldreporter.com.