Down at the Farm: Gretchen Bee Ranch
March 2015~Seguin, Texas
- Mr. Gretchen has been keeping bees since 1982!
- Owners: Mark & Thien Gretchen
- Emphasis: producing delicious raw honey and beeswax products; replenishing local bee populations
- Other projects: beekeeping classes, Pearl Farmer's Market in San Antonio, public education about bees
- Our favorite thing: Wait, we have to pick just one?? A few of our favorite things...Mark and Thien and their family are sooo nice! Their honey is sooo fantastic for eating and baking with!! Bees are sooo cool (and sorta scary up close!)
ALL ABOUT IT
We first met Mark and Thien at the Pearl Farmer's Market in San Antonio about a year ago. I was on the hunt for raw, local honey to bake
with, and theirs really hit the spot. The delicious honey naturally led us to learn more about beekeeping, so this past weekend we finally got around to taking their beekeeping class! Mark teaches a couple of these classes each year, and they are absolutely fantastic. The thing with bees is that you can't just read about them...you have to really go experience them up close and personal to see if it's for you (or not.) After taking the class, I would recommend that anyone considering beekeeping take a similar course before investing in hives and all the other gear you need for keeping bees. Getting started is an investment of time and money, and you don't want to find out that you're terrified of/allergic to bees only after spending a bundle.
That said, Mark also recommends that anyone looking into beekeeping read through First Lessons in Beekeeping by Keith S. Delaplane. He is also a fan of the American Bee Journal, which has been in publication since 1861 and comes out monthly in both print and digital format. Most area of the country have beekeepers associations as well, which are great resource. Here in Texas, one of the largest is the Texas Beekeepers Association.
Our class ran about two and a half hours, and was packed full of information about the entire beekeeping process, from the protective clothing you need to the various styles of hives available to how to process honey. Mark was great about explaining all the unfamiliar terminology in beekeeping in a way that was easy to understand (do you know what a honey super is? How about a queen excluder? Propylis? Neither did we!) It was all very engaging and hands-on, which was fun. After our introduction to the beekeeping process, we all struggled into heavy canvas suits (once you get them on, you sort of feel like an astronaut) with an attached mesh hood. Long leather gloves came up to our elbows and protected our fingers and hands from stings, which is where Mark said the majority of bee stings occur. Protective gear is vital because here in Texas (as in many of the Southern states and parts of California) we have populations of Africanized honey bees which can cross-breed with docile hives of bees and turn them vicious (not quite like the classic 1978 horror flick The Swarm, but it's not good either.)
Then we trooped outside to have our first brush with the bees. The style of hives Mark uses are called Langstroth hives, and they've been around and a favorite of beekeepers since 1852. In the photo gallery above, you can see that they consist of four key components: 1) a cover; 2) a "honey super" which is like a bee pantry for their honey; 3) a "brood box" where they raise their young, and where the queen bee lives; and 4) a drawer at the bottom for collecting pollen, which is great to take for allergies.
Mark showed us how to start a fire in the smoker with food-grade burlap, which makes the bees calm so they don't get to annoyed about having the roof taken off their home. He said the bees like it best when you work with them on dry, calm, sunny days (well heck, that's my favorite kind of weather too, can't blame 'em.) Then he pried off the hive cover with a "hive tool" (looks like a crowbar), and took out some of the frames so we could see the bees at work in the top wooden box, or "honey super." These honey supers can get really heavy--they can weigh up to 50 pounds when they're full of honey! Periodically, Mark would pump some smoke on the bees to keep them calm.
Except they weren't sounding very calm to me. As a gardener, I ordinarily love bees, but the most I'd seen together in one spot was about 10 on my basil flowers, buzzing that happy bee sound. There were a lot more bees here, zooming and grumbling around. Mark said that during the summer, a single hive can be home to up to 100,000 bees! He said that they were a bit agitated this morning, because it was cloudy (not their favorite weather) and we were all standing around their hive looking at it, which apparently wasn't their idea of a happy Saturday morning. I took the coward's way out and stepped back from the hives. Having a camera along on a trip such as this was advantageous...(me to Chris:): "That's okay! I'll just let you hold that frame of hundreds of angry buzzing bees! I'll take pictures for the website! Good thing this camera has a zoom lens!" Sheesh.
Mark pointed out how the bees store the honey in each tiny chamber with little beeswax caps. When you're used to buying bottled honey, it's hard to imagine this frame of capped honey could turn into that! Then Mark lifted the honey super off and we got a look at the brood chamber (also called a brood box), which is where the bees live. It's sort of like their nursery--the queen bee lives here, laying eggs. The workers (undeveloped female bees) feed the larvae honey, and they store pollen, nectar and honey for themselves and the other bees here as well. The drones (male bees) mate with the queen to create more larvae, and the cycle continues.
After getting a chance to hold the frames with the honey and bees on them, which as you know I did not feel compelled to try myself, Mark showed us how to put the "queen excluder" in place. This is essentially a rectangle of screening which keeps the queen from flying from the brood box into the honey super above it. The point is that when you go to harvest your honey, you don't want to accidentally harvest your queen bee! Without her, the whole hive will slowly die off.
And then we were done with the grand tour! No one had gotten stung (of course), and we brushed our bee suits off carefully to avoid crushing a bee when taking off our outfits. Back in the honey house, we learned about processing raw honey (quick version: you scrape the beeswax caps off the combs, then place them in an extractor which slings the honey out of the combs.) Then delicious honey, which we sampled after class, is then stored at about 94°F and later bottled and sold at the farmer's market and elsewhere.
We are so grateful to the Gretchen family and their bees for a wonderful day on the farm!