It is about 11 o’clock in the morning when I go to my hives. This is a calmer time of day since most of the bees are out foraging, which means there are less bees to deal with and those are all occupied guarding their hive and feeding the young.
I quite unexpectedly became a beekeeper. I enrolled in an evening course at the MCAST agricultural school and thoroughly enjoyed the excellent tutoring of Dr David Mifsud, consisting of weekly three-hour classes and several practicals. During that period I purchased three full-sized colonies.
Usually a new beekeeper would start with one or two nuclei hives but I bought commercial-sized ones from two sons who had no idea what to do with their father’s bees after he passed away. I took the plunge and harvested my first honey after one month, which helped pay for part of the expense.
I now have ten full colonies and five nuclei, which will take a year or so to become full colonies, but I want 200! I love how organised the bees are and how everything is totally natural and there is absolutely no wastage. Furthermore, bees behave differently in every season depending on the weather, location and other factors.
At the moment I have hives in Zurrieq and Mgarr and inspect them every ten days or so. It takes me about five minutes to check each hive for its general well-being, for any damage done by mice, and for the presence of mites, indicated by a damaged brood and weak bees. A brood is the part of the hive where the eggs are.
I always get a sting or two. It is important to spend as little time as possible disturbing the boxes, as bees remain wild so the less they are disturbed the better. On one occasion a bee came under my face veil from a gap in my suit from a zipper left a few teeth down. I accidentally killed her, but when the others smelt the venom of the dead bee, they went crazy and I was attacked.
To make things worse, it was the most aggressive colony and I was alone. They covered me and entered my protective suit. I was afraid because they tend to go for the eyes, so I ran about 300 metres from the hives to the nearest water-tap with my eyes closed, and then hosed myself down.
I killed lots of bees, although they are precious to me, but I had no choice. I had to go to the polyclinic afterwards because I had at least thirty bites on my face and head. I know one expert Belgian beekeeper who almost went blind from a bee-sting in his eye.
Bees actually sting only if they feel threatened, but people are afraid of them and this creates the problem of finding the right place for hives, especially because it is better to pick a location away from activities which use pesticides or chemicals.
Inside the box, each of several frames holds a foundation sheet made of beeswax, with distinctly-sized cells on either side of the sheet. The size of a cell determines its use. The brood is at the bottom of the box while the supers – the area of cells designated for honey storage – storage, lie over a queen-excluder, which acts as filter preventing the larger queen bee from getting through.
During my inspection I also check how the bees are keeping their honeycomb. I really appreciate how hard bees work. To make one drop of honey, about 5,000 trips of nectar and pollen collection are required. The scout bee locates the pollen and returns to the hive to perform a dance by which the location and distance of the pollen is indicated.
Bees add enzymes and nutrients to pollen and nectar to make honey. The surplus honey produced is placed in cells in the hive and the bees flap their wings to dry the moisture from the nectar, otherwise the natural sugars and water will tend to ferment. Afterwards, they seal the cells with beeswax, which is secreted from a gland in their tummy. It takes 16 grammes of honey to make 1 gramme of beeswax.
Bees are complex creatures and their society includes several different roles. In a typical hive you may have a 100,000 female bees, 200 drones (males) and one queen. The queen is the the colony’s pivot and the only sexually mature egg-laying female.
A queen is the result of an egg placed in a larger queen cell. Queen bees are sometimes bred specially for making new colonies or to produce royal jelly. Royal jelly, the special highly nutritious food produced for queen larvae by a particular group of nurse bees, will ensure a faster rate of development.
Within just 16 days, the virgin queen will take flight for approximately five days within a two-mile radius, will mate several times with drones (males) from other colonies and then return with enough sperm-packets stored in her abdomen to last her a lifetime of egg laying, which is approximately 2-3 years. A queen may lay up to 5,000 eggs a day.
It takes 26 days for a bee larvae to become a worker bee. Its first ten days in the hive as an insect are spent as a nurse bee, whose duty is to clean the hive and its cells, take care of the queen, and receive pollen and nectar from foraging bees to make honey.
Bees will also produce propolis from special glands to fill up the space between the frames up to a quarter of an inch, which is the bee-space necessary. This natural antibiotic protects the hive against disease, and is also used for healing human ailments.
A few males are born of larger, drone-sized cells. A male bee has big eyes in order to easily locate a queen, large wings to reach her quickly and a big belly to aid mating. The male’s only duty is to find a queen with whom to mate, after which he must die!
When and how to introduce a new queen, when an older one has grown tired, is no simple matter. There is much management skill involved in bee-keeping, no wonder it is often taken up by retired business-men! The decision-making is the fun part of bee-keeping, which I consider an art.
I notice that our bees are beginning to cap the honey in the supers, which means I can begin preparations for the upcoming summer harvest for the beginning of August, this will mainly from the wild-thyme found in the north of the island. In autumn, our honey is naturally flavoured with carob and eucalyptus from around the Rabat area. For the spring harvest, in May-June, we expect a citrus and multi-floral honey from the centre areas of the island.
Harvesting is the toughest part of bee-keeping. Each frame typically yields approx 1.5 kg of honey and each of our hives produce on average some thirty full super frames. We use an air-blower and a smoker to calm down the bees, otherwise they may get really aggravated. The smoker makes them believe that the hive is on fire so they are kept busy gorging themselves with honey in case they need to abandon the hive.
Nonetheless, I often end up taking some of the bees for a drive in the pick-up truck until they give up and fly back to the hive. A few inevitably end up coming all the way to my Mosta workshop, which is set up to process both the honey and the wax. It is incredible how angry and persistent they can get, trying to protect their golden treasure.
When harvesting honey, I uncap the cells in the frames with an uncapping knife or fork. The uncapped frame is then put into a special centrifuge which may be hand-operated or motor-driven, and this extracts the honey. The empty frames are placed back in the hives and the bees immediately set to work to repair the damage, which prepares the frames for the next harvest.
After harvesting I move the boxes to a new location, because giving the bees fresh foraging grounds promises more than one harvest in a year. Even after being cleaned from honey, each box containing the outer wooden shells, frames, bees and honey comb brood weighs about 25 kilos, and we must carry them during the night, when all the bees are home and resting. Relocation is the part I least like about the beekeeper’s job.
Our honey is raw and we do not heat it to lower its viscosity, as this also removes the 2% beneficial enzymes. The coarse filtering is why our honey contains a little bit of wax and a little bit of propolis. Some people worry that the granulation is due to added sugars, but it is because bees feed off a portion of their honey during the cold winter months. Feeding syrup to bees causes a different type of granulation.
The honey is packaged into glass jars and labeled ready for retail through our shop. Each hive and each super is numbered, which means we can trace all honey from hive to table. Each hive’s history is also logged.
After we extract the honey, sometimes the frame containing the empty honey comb is damaged beyond repair. These damaged frames and any ones which are two years old are given back to the bees for cleaning from traces of honey, then removed again for melting down the beeswax for use.
Frames are melted in a solar furnace, then purified by boiling in water about three times using a gas-fired boiler, whereby impurities are removed from the bottom. The beeswax is then poured out of a tap into molds to make ingots. This is a slow process.
When we are ready to use the beeswax, the ingots are melted in a double-walled, electric baine-marie. The molten wax is then poured into the candle molds. Beeswax is a natural fuel and very long lasting. We may melt 30 kilos of wax at a time, thus making a 30-kilo run of candles in a day’s work.
Wax is poured into various silicon molds which are very expensive to purchase. We have begun to make our own, although molds are very difficult to make because it is so easy to break the candles when removing them from an imperfect mold.
The resulting candle may be painted with special paint which catches easily onto the wax and which is not harmful to burn. Pigment or perfume may also be added. Special effects like glitter and so on are also possible and we are beginning to experiment with all of this.
Beeswax can also be made into soaps, shower-gels, shampoos, face-masks and so on. Honey is used to make sweets, jams and wines. I am constantly reading and experimenting. The main problem for me at the moment I do not have enough hives to produce enough honey.
The shop demands much time – dealing with clients, stock-taking and all the daily requirements for running a shop. I also use Internet sales to distribute honey to shops abroad that sell honeys from around the world.
In my shop I have one item not for sale: a traditional clay hive pot (qolla) used for honey-production in Roman times, when the methods of bee-keeping were vastly different from those of today. In Xemxija, one can still see the stone apiaries from that period.
Nowadays there are 200 beekeepers in Malta with an average of five hives per beekeeper, while the largest keeper has around 300 hives. This is a stark contrast when considering that, in Sicily, a small beekeeper has around 3000 hives, which is more than the total number of hives in Malta!
Still we carry a distinction as honey producers, as indicated by the name given to our island by the Romans: Melita... which is Greek for honey!
Honey & More, Ross Street, St Julians
Tel: 21383864; Mob: 79582078