As beekeepers we bring the frames full of honey in from the hive, ‘spin’ the honey out, settle it and jar it.
We don’t over-heat the honey. And we don’t blend honeys together so it doesn’t destroy its goodness and flavour.

Q:  What is candied honey ?
Q:   When honey crystallises does that mean it’s off?
Q:  What do you do ?
Q:  Where do you keep your hives?
Q:  How do you know that the honey is a particular variety, say, Coolibah or Yellow Box?The bees don’t tell you, do they?
Q:  How many hives do you have?
Q:  Why do you have to travel around so much?
Q:   How do you get the bees not to fly away when they’re on the truck?
Q:  How many sites for your hives do you have? How do you get to put your hives on all these places? Do you have to pay for them?
Q:  Are all the bees in the hive the same?
Q:  How is Honey made?
Q:  If the bees do all the work, what do you actually have to do?
Q:  How do you get the honey out of the frames?
Q:  What’s the best type of honey?
Q:  Do you eat a lot of honey yourselves?
Q:   How often do you get stung? And does it hurt?
Q:  How long has honey been around?
      The Battle of the Books

Q: What is candied honey ?

Chemically, honey is a solution of sugars, minerals, acids and proteins dissolved in water. The sugars account for around 80% of the honey while water only makes up around 17%. Since there is a high content of sugars relative to water, the sugars can't remain dissolved in the honey and it is common for them (mainly glucose) to form crystals. When this happens the honey is said to be 'candied.'

Candying is a naturally occuring process and how readily a honey candies depends mainly on its glucose and moisture content, although the conditions it is stored under can also contribute to candying (storing honey in the fridge makes it candy faster). Some honeys like yellow box for instance can take years to candy while others can candy overnight.

In fact, honey has been found buried in Egyptian tombs and is still edible after thousands of years!

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Q: When honey crystallises does that mean it’s off?

No. In fact it’s a good sign because it’s a sign of the honey’s naturalness and wholesomeness. It’s simply some of the natural “bits” that make up honey, including specks of pollen, binding together. All honeys candy but just not in the same timeframe because their composition is different based on the flowering plant they come from. For example, yellow box honey is very slow to candy (say a couple of years) while some honey types can candy overnight. We knew a bloke who extracted napunyah honey one day and didn’t clear out the pipes from his extractor to his settling tank. He came back the next day only to find his pipes full of rock solid honey. Not a job you’d want clearing that up!

Don’t throw out crystallised or candied honey. You can eat it that way or if you want to re-liquefy it, stand the container in warm water or microwave gently with the lid off.
Honey itself won’t ever go off – it’ll only ferment if you get a lot of water in it. (In fact, that’s how in ancient times they discovered mead which is fermented honey and water and quite alcoholic – by accidentally getting water in honey and leaving it). Honey kept sealed will last for ever. Some was found after thousands of years when they dug up an Egyptian pharaoh’s tomb and it was still edible.

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Q: What do you do ?

We’re always getting asked about the practice of beekeeping. Understandably if you’ve not done it and you don’t know any beekeepers, you wouldn’t know this stuff.

Beekeeping is something you learn the most from being hands on. It’s not the sort of stuff you can learn from a book or easily describe – you really have to see, live and breath it. And after decades of doing it you’re still learning because bees are such fascinating creatures and there’s so many variables that go into it – namely climatic conditions and the flowering patterns of trees and flowers. But here’s a rough attempt at answering the more common questions we get asked. At the end we’ve also included some of the more quirky things about beekeeping and honey over history. They appeal to us and make us feel a part of an age-old universal tradition.

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Q: Where do you keep your hives?

There isn’t one place as such that we keep our hives. Beekeeping isn’t like other forms of farming, like, dairy or pig farming where your stock is kept on your farm. We have to move our hives all around the place to place them where trees are flowering. This is what produces the nectar that the bees collect and bring back to the hives to transform into honey. Our aim is to place hives where there is a “honey flow” and only leave them there as long as the flow continues. Once a flow dries up we need to move them along to the next place and the next honey flow.
We cover an area with a radius of about 400kms. The furthest trip we’ve ever done in one night is from Mandurama in Central NSW to Eulo in Western Queensland – a trip of over 900 kms or a 10 hours drive.

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Q: How do you know that the honey is a particular variety, say, Coolibah or Yellow
     Box? The bees don’t tell you, do they?

In a way they do, because we know that a bee won’t fly past a good flowering tree to go and find honey elsewhere. If we locate the hives amongst a field of flowering canola, for example, or blossoming coolibah trees, the bees will automatically go to those plants to collect nectar. So our job is to really know our trees and flowers, understand their flowering patterns and be in the right place at the right time.

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Q: How many hives do you have?

It varies from beekeeper to beekeeper and also from year to year. We will tend to “downsize” the number of hives during a bad season just because the conditions are such that the hives don’t flourish and keep re-building themselves as easily. But roughly in a reasonably good year we all have in the range of 800 hives. In each hive there’s about 60,000 bees so we like to say that means we have a workforce of millions so we can’t possibly know them all by name!

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Q: Why do you have to travel around so much?

We have to move the bees where the nectar is and that depends on trees and flowers being in blossom. It’s not uncommon for us to do more than 100,000kms a year going in search of good country and moving bees around the place. Usually when we take bees to a site, we’d leave them there for about 6 weeks but if a honey flow dries up and the trees stop flowering, which can sometimes happen in a matter of days, then we have to move them again.

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Q: How do you get the bees not to fly away when they’re on the truck?

Basically we wait until it’s dark before we travel. That allows for the field bees who’ve been foraging throughout the day to come home to the hive as night falls. Bees have an amazingly strong homing device – they’ll always come back to their particular hive, not even the one right next to it, only inches away. If you move the hive they get confused and flustered for a while until they find where you’ve moved it to. But once they’ve settled into the hives at night, they won’t come out again, so that’s when we pick them up and load them on the truck. Sometimes if we do it before they’re all back and inside , we’ll get huge “beards” of bees clinging to the outside of the hive boxes and even the truck itself.

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Q: How many sites for your hives do you have? How do you get to put your hives on all
these places? Do you have to pay for them?

Each beekeeper tends to have different sites even though they might live and be based in the same area, though often we might “lend” someone a site. On average we’d have about 250 sites. You can’t rely on the same sites being in flower from season to season. Several years might go past when a site is no good at all and then one year it’ll fire up. We’ve developed relationships with landowners over the years whose places we put bees on usually for about 30kg of honey a year in return. Mostly we go on private land though some of our sites are government owned and we pay fees for those. Farmers like having us there because bees are good pollinators so it can help their crops. And they like knowing that a honey has come off their land as well.

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Q: Are all the bees in the hive the same?

Definitely not. Some say that bees have developed the perfect society where the workers (who are sexually undeveloped females) do all the work. Another take on it is that the drones are typical males – fat and lazy who are good for only one thing! Others would prefer to be the Queen – she gets to mate with the drones of her choosing, then kill them but she then spends the rest of her life laying eggs.

The facts are that there are 3 classes of bees – the Queen (only one per hive), the drones (males) and the workers (females).

The Queen lays about 1500 to 2000 eggs a day.

The drones simply exist to mate with the Queen. Their life involves only eating, sleeping and vying to be selected by the queen to mate. Only about 1 in a hundred are selected and once the mating act is over the queen kills the drone by removing the sexual organ.
The female bees, by contrast, are the industrious working bees of the hives. They move through various phases of their working “career” starting out as hive nurses that clean and cap cells and feed the drones, queen and the brood laid by the Queen. Then they progress to cleaning the hive, packing pollen and building honeycomb. Next they become honey ripeners, then hive guards preventing bees from other colonies and pests such as wasps entering the hive. Finally they act as scouts, who hunt out nectar sources and then graduate to become foragers who go out into the field foraging trees and flowers collecting nectar and pollen.

You can read more about the different types of bees on some of the useful sites we’ve linked to below. They’ll give you more detail about the different functions of each. What they won’t tell you is what it can be like trying to find the queen in a hive of thousands of bees. Sometimes we have to do this to either check that there is still a live queen or to replace an aging queen with a new one. You can’t introduce a new queen into a hive which still has one in it – the bees will kill the “invader”. But if the hive is queenless, they’ll adopt a new one. Take the photo below – see if you can spot the queen – she is the one with the longer body than the others. If you can’t find her, click here to see.

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Q: How is Honey made?

The bee hive is divided into different types of bees – the queen, [link back to section above where it talks about the queen] the workers [link back to section above where it talks about the workers] and the drones [link back to section above where it talks about the drones].

The scout bees fly off to find the nearest source of nectar and return to the hive and communicate this to the foraging bees by doing a type of dance, either a “round dance” or a “waggle dance” depending how far away the source is. The foragers then fly off and collect the nectar which they store in a pouch inside their body called the honey sac as well as packing pollen on the spines of their legs.

When the forager returns to the hive she delivers the nectar from her honey sac to other worker bees who add enzymes which help turn the nectar into honey. The workers place the nectar into honeycomb cells where it “ripens”, i.e. changes into honey. At this stage the nectar contains too much moisture so the bees fan their wings to move air through the hive and remove excess moisture through evaporation. When fully ripened, the cells are “capped” by the bees sealing the cells with beeswax so that no moisture can penetrate. The honey is then ready for collection.

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Q: If the bees do all the work, what do you actually have to do?

Our work follows a seasonal pattern. The busiest time by far is from Spring through to Autumn when the trees are in blossom and the bees’ honey production is at its peak. During this time our focus is on ensuring the hives are in the best place possible to capture available honey flows so a lot of our time is taken scouring the countryside for flowering plants and moving bees back and forward.

When we’re not moving the bees we’re “working” them. This is the part that takes years to really understand and it’s hard to describe except in simplistic terms. Working the bees includes a range of activities – “under-supering”, brood checking, raising ‘nuc’s’ or nucleus hives, feeding the bees, checking and replacing queens, assessing and applying certain management practices to build hive numbers and maintain healthy hives. The list goes on.

One core activity is “under-supering” followed by collecting the honey. To follow this, you have to envisage a hive. Hives are made of timber boxes with a narrow entrance at one end and either 8 or 10 frames hanging in each box. A hive generally consists of at least a “double” – that is, two boxes and more often a “triple” or even four boxes. The queen and brood cells are usually kept separate in the bottom box away from the boxes used for honey-making and storage. An “excluder”, a type of grate is placed between the bottom box and the rest of the hive – this prevents the queen from getting up into the other boxes and laying eggs or brood in the boxes that we only want to be filled with honey.
When we ‘under-super” we first check that the honey box (super) is relatively full and the honey is ripe for collection. We move the full super to the top of the stack and replace it with another for the bees to keep filling with honey. The full super is left overnight separated from the rest of the stack by a clearer board which is a wooden board with a type of funnel in it that leads the bees to leave this super and move down into the super below to be with the rest of the colony. Once there, they cannot move back up and this ensures the bees are not in the super full of honey we take back to be extracted. We clear out any excess bees by blowing them out – using something like a leaf blower.

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Q: How do you get the honey out of the frames?

We bring the boxes full of honey back to our extracting plants. There are different types of extractors but the more common ones work using centrifugal force. First each frame has to be “uncapped” which means slicing off the wax that the bees have used to seal in the honey. We used to do this by hand with hot knives but now the frames go through an automated uncapper. From there they are hung in racks in the extractor (usually a stainless steel covered container that rotates at high speed) and effectively “spun” so that all the honey comes flying out and drains into a sump and then is piped along to a settling tank before passing through to the filling stage.

At ABD, we ensure that the honey doesn’t lose its character and taste through over-processing, that is excessive filtering and heating which can affect the composition and taste of the end product. And we never blend one batch of honey with another. Our honey is really about as close as you can get it to the stuff that comes fresh from the hive.

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Q: What’s the best type of honey?

There’s no such thing as “the best” type of honey. It comes down to personal preference just like you might prefer different wine varieties – for example, chardonnay to riesling or pinot noir to shiraz. Having said that, there are types of honey that are generally regarded as better tasting and more popular as a result and there are some that because they pick up the characteristics of the plant don’t taste quite so good. These are very rare though - we’re lucky in Australia to have such good honeys as the norm, mainly from different types of eucalypts and other native flora. Some of the best-tasting, most popular honey types include:
* Mallee
* Yellow Box
* Coolibah
* Mugga Ironbark
* Spotted Gum
* River Red Gum
* Grey Ironbark
* Clover
* Red Stringybark
* Napunyah
* Leatherwood (unique to Tasmania)

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Q: Do you eat a lot of honey yourselves?

Absolutely! The Sunderland household, for example, goes through about a kilo a week. Of course we use it for more than just spreading on toast. Honey is incredibly versatile and we use it in cooking a lot. We always use it in tea instead of sugar not just because it tastes good but also because you need less for the same sweetness. Honey has always been recognised through history as being good for you and containing lots of essential vitamins and minerals - we also take a spoonful each night before going to bed because we find it makes us sleep better.

When it comes to cooking things we’ve found honey goes well with include:
* apples
* beef
* cardamom
* carrots
* cheese (particularly hard cheeses)
* chicken
* chocolate
* cinnamon
* cloves
* cream and ice cream (and in milk shakes and smoothies)
* cream cheeses and yoghurt
* dried fruit
* Fresh fruit especially figs and stone fruit like peaches and nectarines
* ginger
* lemon
* mustard
* pepper
* pork
* prawns
* nuts particularly almonds, macadamias and walnuts
* scallops
* soy sauce and of course
* tea and toast

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Q: How often do you get stung? And does it hurt?

Of course if we had a dollar for every time we’re asked this question we wouldn’t have to sell any more honey. We could all retire and keep bees.

Yes, we do get stung. Often. Believe it or not, you can breed bees to be crankier or more gentle. Different things can also affect whether they sting you – such as your own mood, the weather, what you’re wearing.

And yes, they always hurt but you do get used to it so they probably don’t hurt us as much as a non-beekeeper. Doesn’t mean you won’t hear language best not repeated here if you come out and see us get stung.

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Q: How long has honey been around?

Instead of dirt and poison we have rather chosen to fill our hives with honey and wax; thus furnishing mankind with the two noblest of things, which are sweetness and light.

Jonathon Swift

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The Battle of the Books

Honey through history and across the globe
One of the oldest known foods and used throughout the world, some of honey’s feature appearances include:
* Adam and Eve living in the land of “milk and honey” until they had to leave paradise
* Stone-age cave paintings in Southern Spain depict a honey-gatherer raiding a bees’ nest, showing mankind’s early interest in honey.
* Honey being found in the tombs of the pharaohs – still perfect and right to eat after thousands of years
* Honey being dropped by God to Abraham in the desert as he and his followers were fleeing persecution by the Egyptians
* Hannibal carrying great jars of honey and vinegar to feed his army as they crossed the alps on the way to battle against the Romans
* Roman soldiers using honey to treat wounds after battles
* Honey’s use for its medicinal properties in ancient Egyptian texts, dating back to 2000BC with honey appearing in over 500 of the 900 prescriptions contained in the most famous of these medical texts.
* In India, an old Hindu tradition was the gift of honey and butter to welcome guests or the bridegroom.
* It appears in Ancient Roman cookbooks and the Roman writer, Virgil (70-19BC) wrote a whole book on the art of beekeeping.

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