Wednesday, April 20, 2022

A Weekend with Wacky Bee Honey


Under the unforgiving heat of an April sun, I donned a white long-sleeved button-down and a light-blue cotton jogger, with a pair of mid-calf socks and sneakers. I was steaming under my ensemble but I wasn't so hot about getting stung.

My husband Judd and I were attending a two-day workshop on apiculture led by Juaqui Gutierrez, the man behind Wacky Bee Honey, a small bee farm tucked in a forested village in Antipolo. Judd had been toying with the idea of raising bees. I, meanwhile, was interested in the honey. 

The workshop began at 8 a.m. when my body was still begging for coffee. The breeze and the tinkling of the bamboo wind chimes didn't help. But before I could fully drift off to a dreamy reverie, I was brought back to the present by Juaqui’s stories about his buzzing obsession. I didn’t realize bees were so interesting. 

I remember Juaqui explaining the hive caste system: “The queen is not the leader of the hive, nor the workers her servants.” Everyone plays a role: The queen lays eggs, the drones mate with her, and the workers gather pollen and nectar. They all play their part in allowing the hive to thrive. 

Had I known that I would be handling hives myself during the workshop, I might have bailed out. But by the time I held a frame heavy with bees and honey, I was already too enamored by the inner workings of the hive. I felt safe enough in my outfit, paired with a bee-keeping hat and veil and the leather gloves that were provided. Each participant was also given a smoker that was fed with scorched coconut husks. When the bees became aggressive, we smoked them to temporarily disorient them. 

We were assigned two hives each and given a checklist of items to look for. We checked the hive, frame by frame, on the lookout for eggs, larvae, pollen, mites, drones, queen cells, etc. Most hives have 10 frames. Everyone went agog when a queen was spotted. The frame was carefully returned to make sure that she did not get separated from her hive. 

Juaqui concluded day 1 by letting us taste pollen and allowing us to harvest honey straight from the hive! What a treat to enjoy hive to table honey! He also showed us how honey is extracted from each frame. He sang praises to the narra trees that were bountiful with blooms during the summer months and apparently a favorite among his bees. 

Day 2 began eventfully with a taste test. Juaqui marked seven small jars with letters and let us taste the syrup from each to determine the real honey from the decoys. I aced the test but not without difficulty. When real honey is augmented with sugar syrup mixed with bee enzymes, it is difficult to tell it apart from pure honey. 

You’d think the bees won’t run out of food in an area where there’s an abundance of nature to forage. But when the trees aren’t in bloom, usually in the winter* months, beekeepers need to help the bees by providing them with food in the form of sugar syrup mixed with pollen substitute. We were given another hands-on exercise on feeding, this time with a new checklist of things to look out for. I squealed with delight when I finally saw the queen in my hive, marked with a bright yellowing sticker with the number 8 on its thorax.

It was hard work to check two hives. Juaqui has over a hundred. During major honey flow in June and minor honey flow in November, he dons a suit during harvest so that he can work fast and be insulated from stings. During his first year, he managed to harvest 36 kilos of honey from a single hive, a generous harvest by most standards. He does all the work with the bees, but his wife Anne helps with the bottling and marketing. Anne attended to all the food in the workshop and did a superb job at it. We enjoyed eating our home-cooked lunch and snacks at Tungtong shed, overlooking the thick forest and with the sound of the running river down below. The longer I spent in their place, the more convinced I was that I needed to live closer to nature, attuned to its rhythms, lulled by the buzzing of bees. 


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