Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Bees? Really?

Bees on honeycomb
People are often very interested in the beekeeping aspect of soap making. Obviously, not all soap makers are beekeepers, even the ones who make beeswax and honey soap, but they're two hobbies that go together very well. Once people find out that I use my own honey and beeswax, they have a few questions. Also, as a beekeeper, I often do talks about honeybees at elementary schools, so it's a very nice change of pace to explain things in grown-up terms :)

I'm often asked how bees make honey and wax. They don't just magically appear, after all. So: honey is made when bees collect nectar from flowers and store it in the beehive in a small hexagonal cell of the honeycomb. They fan it with their wings to dehydrate it, and when it's at the proper moisture level, they "cap" it by covering the cell with a thin layer of wax. To a beekeeper, a capped cell is proof that honey is ready to harvest. Honey is one of the few food substances in existence that will never spoil, due in large part to the level of dehydration attained by the bees. The only honey that ever goes bad is honey with too much water in it, which is harvested too early (or it might also happen if extra water got into the honey after harvesting; honey with water intentionally added, for instance, can be fermented into mead). Beeswax is secreted by bees from glands in their legs- in people proportions, imagine a big flake of wax on your thigh. They use the wax to build honeycomb, which, as mentioned, is a storage place for honey, and also for pollen, and for baby bees.

Honey still in the comb
To harvest all this requires some management of the hives. Beehives are built of a stack of boxes, called "hive bodies" or, depending on the size, "deeps" or "supers"; the lowest box is typically filled with eggs, baby bees and the adults who care for them, plus the queen, who is always busy laying more eggs. The next box is filled with honey; if this box is the same size as the lowest one, that's usually enough honey to see a colony of bees through the winter, and must be left for the bees to eat. Any boxes above that, though, are fair game for the beekeeper to harvest. You slide something called a "bee escape" between the lowest boxes and the ones with honey you want to harvest. This has a little maze in the center, so that bees can exit the honey boxes but not get back in. After a couple of days, there are no bees left in the upper boxes, and you can take them indoors to harvest.

A full frame of capped honey
Harvesting involves opening the boxes and removing the frames of honey and beeswax. You pull each one out and use a very sharp knife to carefully slice off the "cappings," or the layer of wax that seals the honey in. You then put the frame into an extractor, which is a hand-cranked cylindrical device that uses centrifugal force to whip the honey out of the comb. You repeat this until all the frames are empty, and then put them outdoors again, so that the bees can reclaim any residual honey.

An extractor full of frames
The cappings are your beeswax, which you then melt down for use in soap and lip balm.

The honey gets strained and then stored in jars until used. One of the reasons the bees cap the cells of honey is that honey is a humectant, meaning that it attracts and absorbs moisture- which is part of the reason it's such a good ingredient to use on skin. Honey soap can be very helpful for dry skin. Honey's also antibacterial- I use it instead of Neosporin on cuts and scrapes, and they heal faster and leave less of a scar. You can read more about the healing properties of honey here.

You can make soap without honey and beeswax, and in fact, I often do. But the honey and beeswax soaps are always my favorite, because while everyone's skin is different, my skin always feels and looks better when I use honey and beeswax as my everyday shower soap. And I love going out to my bee yard and seeing the girls flying around; it's great to know that you're making something good and you know where your ingredients come from. In the summer when the sun warms up the hives, you can smell the honey and beeswax, and it just smells so good that I'm never satisfied until I take a shower with that soap :)

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