If mead is the new darling of the craft beverage market, then accomplished artisan meadmaker Gordon Hull is certainly leading the charge. His West Marin-based Heidrun Meadery is a favorite among fermented honey wine aficionados who swarm to the 19 acre property near Point Reyes Station, California to sample Hull’s dry, champagnesque bubbly.
But what about the industrious pollinators that make the honey for his sparkling wines?
Bees are the winged heroes of Hull’s prosperous enterprise. Without them, his mead would not exist (nor would agriculture as we know it today). So when I learned that Heidrun was hosting a summer series of in-depth “flower to flute” workshops, led by expert apiarists Bonnie and Gary Morse, I couldn’t wait to join in the fun.
This knowledgeable husband-wife duo have struck a bee-utiful partnership with their business, Bonnie Bee & Company. Together they offer consulting services, education, and support for local beekeepers, as well as manage Heidrun’s Marin-county hives.
I couldn’t wait to spend an afternoon learning about honeybees! These fascinating, creatures have a complex social hierarchy that’s all about maximizing productivity (and I could certainly learn a thing or two from these little guys). My curiosity was further piqued when I received the following list of dos and don’ts the day before the workshop:
- Do not wear black or red clothes (lighter colors are better). Apparently, bees will mistake you for a honey-loving bear if you wear black. The color red also appears black to them, so bee-ware of those hues.
- No perfume or cologne. A bee’s sense of smell is 100 times more powerful than humans, and they communicate a lot with chemical signals. Strong odors can agitate them.
- Do not eat bananas before the workshop. The smell of bananas mimics alarm pheromones!
- Shower in the morning before coming to the workshop. This is especially true if you consume alcohol the night before (again, these little guys are highly sensitive to odors.)
Who knew?? I carefully pondered the nuances of bee etiquette as I showered and dressed the morning of the workshop.
I arrived at Heidrun a bit early (sans any potentially offensive odors or colors) and joined the small group of bee enthusiasts gathered in the meadery tasting room. Bonnie & Gary welcomed us warmly and began the afternoon’s program with some amazing statistics about bees. For instance, I never knew bees fly up to three miles from the hive to forage for pollen, or that they travel around 55,000 miles and visit over 2 million flowers to produce one pound of honey! I certainly came away with a new appreciation for the spoonful of sweetener that goes in my morning tea!
But the best part of the adventure was actually suiting up in beekeeper’s gear, complete with veiled hoods, for a close encounter with the bees themselves. We looked like a pack of astronauts as we made our way out to the hive boxes in the nearby garden.
The group watched as Gary stoked the smoker can (puffs of smoke are a common tool used by beekeepers to calm the hive), while Bonnie began prying the lid off a large bee box.
The air instantly came alive with a palpable buzz of electric energy as our guides gently removed the honey-laden frames from the hive, and passed them around for us to hold. It was noteworthy that neither beekeeper was wearing gloves during this process (definitely the mark of a true pro). We marveled at the hundreds of bees swarming at our fingertips and the intricate wax combs they make to encase their liquid gold.
Ever wonder how honey goes from hive to jar (or glass in the case of mead)? Answer: centrifuge! We gathered up four honey-laden frames for harvest and returned to the meadery where Bonnie and Gary showed us the extraction process. First, we “capped” the frames with a long hot iron to remove the thin layer of wax sealing each cell in the comb.
Next, Gary loaded the open frames into the centrifuge where the honey is spun at high-speed to force it out of the comb. The liquid drains down into a collection area at the bottom. All we had to do was turn a spigot, and collect the fresh honey in small jars to bring home. When we were finished, Bonnie returned the empty frames to the hive for the bees to refill.
I will long remember this fun and informative day that gave me a bees-eye view into the life of these little honey makers. If you’d like to experience this bee-utiful adventure for yourself, you’re in luck! Heidrun will host three more Bee Experienced workshops in 2017 on Sunday, July 23, August 20, and October 22. Tickets can be purchased online, or at the Heidrun tasting room.