Honey highway: History and where to get the good stuff
In the final chapter of this three-part series, Todd Whitney explains how to calm down an angry beehive and why his honey is different from you'll find on most store shelves. We also examine the complex history of beekeeping.
Honey is a sweet food substance made by honey bees and has long been a staple of human consumption, in part because of its attractive chemical properties used in baking coupled with its distinctive flavor as a sweetener. Whether from wild bee colonies or from domesticated beehives, honey has long been a sweet and sometimes sticky industry full of interesting characters as diverse as the products they farm.
Todd Whitney owns and operates Todd’s Honey Farm in Richardton. He spent most of his life as a mechanic working in a Ford garage, custom exhaust garage and other car shops in Jamestown, and eventually moved to Richardton. Whitney started his own mechanic business there in 2005, but it wasn't long before he realized it wasn't the bees knees.
Many beekeepers use smoke to calm their hives when they need to work. He said burning pallets or wood chips is the most common way to generate smoke.
“The smell of smoke calms them down. I’ve seen people use cedar, apple and all kinds of smelling stuff. I use old burlap sacks, put them in a little smoker and you smoke the bees. Just one little puff over the hive and they just calm right down… But a lot of times like this year it was so dry out there nobody really wanted to have a fire in a can,” he said. “Now cigarette smoke won’t do it, carbon monoxide makes them kind of angry.”
Whitney doesn’t use this tactic as much as he used to, and he’s become accustomed to getting stung.
“I very seldom use the smoker anymore. It’s only when I medicate because I have to break the hive. But when I’m out pulling honey or supering I just take my time, crack the lip you know. I’m not banging things or throwing stuff around. Most of the time the bees are pretty mellow depending on the time of day,” he said. “If you go into the hive before all the worker bees get out, they get kind of pissy.”
According to the BBC Science Focus Magazine, when honey bees sense danger they produce pungent pheromones to alert fellow hive dwellers, who in turn do the same. Smoke interferes with their sense of smell, and hence their ability to detect the pheromones.
The bees also get flustered if he gets in their way when they’re coming backing to the hive. Bees are smart and almost have a GPS-like sense of where the hive is. Getting in the way of them returning is comparable to standing in the middle of their parking spot and it throws them off, he said.
Most of Whitney’s honey gets shipped off in barrels to other parts of the country, but he keeps some of it to make his own products. With all of his bees in California this time of year, Whitney spends some of his time in the winter making containers of spun chokecherry, peanut butter and clover honey. These are available at The Wurst Shop in Dickinson, and the C-store at the Cenex truck stop in Richardton.
“It flies off the shelf at the C-store truck stop up here,” he said.
There are some key differences between the pure honey he produces himself and the mass produced stuff that can be found on most grocery store shelves. It’s much healthier, he said.
“If you warm honey up past 140 degrees, it becomes pasteurized. Once you do, you melt all the crystals in the honey and take all the antioxidants out of it. So once you pasteurize it, it will not crystallize. Or you can add corn syrup to turn one gallon of honey into a gallon and a half. Most of them pasteurize,” he said. “You get the flavor of honey, you get the looks of honey, but you get absolutely nothing good out of honey except the flavor… All of my honey is straight out of the hive, never gets heated up more than the 90 degrees they would keep their hive at, between 80 to 90 degrees.”
His honey is crystalizing faster this year because the weather was so dry in the spring and summer months of 2021. The moisture levels in his honey this season are down to 12 to 13%, meaning it will crystalize within a couple of weeks.
“Some of these companies, they add a lot of water. They’ll get the moisture level up to 16 to 17%, some even 17.5%,” he said, adding that this can delay crystallization by six to seven months.
Just because honey has crystallized, that doesn’t mean it’s time to throw it away. Whitney recommends warming it up in a stovetop pan at very low heat.
A sweet history
Humans have benefited from honeybees for thousands of years. According to the blog How Stuff Works , domesticated beekeeping came into practice in China and Egypt around 2500 B.C. Paintings in the sun temple of an Egyptian Pharaoh depicted beehives, honeypots and smoke being used to calm bees. Some early peoples also created beehives from hollowed out logs and tree stumps.
The first artificial hives, called skeps, were made of baked clay or woven straw with a hole at the top for bees to come and go. These are still used in some parts of the developing world.
Wooden box hives gained popularity in the 18th century. Most of them were either difficult to move, or sections would stick together as well as to the wood. In the 1850s, Lorenzo Langstroth of Pennsylvania realized that bees will not build combs in spaces tighter than one centimeter. So designed a box hive with frames precisely spaced out so they could be taken out and put back in with ease. The Langstroth box hive remains the most widely used among modern beekeepers.
This is the final installment of a three-part series.