A family of hobby beekeepers say this year has been perfect for their honey collection and they are expecting their biggest honey yet.
Curt and Jennifer Burnham of Burnham Family Farm in ORION, Illinois know well that beekeeping is no easy task.
The two took up beekeeping about a decade ago and over the years have learned a lot about bee needs and honey collection.
“I was back when there was a lot of talk about decolonization, and I have a strong background in conservation,” Kurt said. “Jen has the same idea and the same land ethos, we want to work with the land, in harmony with the land. So we decided it would be a fun thing to try… Our first year we did great. , we got a whole bunch of points. The next year and we added a few points and failed. Then the third year we did it again and failed.”
After taking a lesson in beekeeping, the Burnhams had more success. Now they have seven bee families. At this time of year, 40,000-50,000 bees live in each.
“When you’re out there surrounded by bees and they’re around you, it can be a little nerve-wracking. It can be loud and stressful,” Jennifer said. “But at the same time, if you stand back and look at all the hard work that this colony is doing, every individual doing their part, I can just sit there and watch them and be in awe of it.”
When the wolf pulls the frames from the hives, it looks for a coating of honey wax. This is a signal that they are at the correct moisture level and ready to harvest.
This is the third honey harvest of the year. They will harvest one more time in the fall, but with a smaller amount of honey.
Jennifer scrapes the beeswax off the frames and discovers two to four pounds of honey underneath. Beeswax can then be used to make candles.
The frames are then placed in a spinning machine that separates the honey before it is filtered from any remaining wax or bee body parts before packaging.
“We ate more honey this year than any year we’ve had,” Kurt said. “Each bucket will be 40 to 50 pounds, and I bet we’ll get six or seven buckets. We’ll get a lot of honey.”
The third crop produced 385 pounds of honey, or about 32 gallons, making it into the record books.
Like all agriculture, weather plays an important role in honey production.
“I teach weather and climate, so I think a lot about the big patterns that are out there. In general, I think climate change brings a lot of disruption to any type of agriculture,” Jennifer said. “If it rains a lot, or if it rains for a long time, it’s awkward because it washes all the nectar off the flowers and it takes a while to replenish it… How early is the spring; did the bees start early so they could get the first dandelions in the yard?”
“We find that if it rains once a week or once every ten days, they do better,” Kurt said.
With changing weather, every year is not the same.
“We just don’t know, so we really have to work with nature, not against nature, in terms of how we do agriculture,” he said. “We are very fortunate to have had a perfect summer.”
They never know how many bees will be left at the end of winter. Colonies are past the peak of the bee population. In the fall, the queen will not lay many eggs because the hive does not want to carry and feed so many bees during the winter months.
“Some years you go in and they’re completely empty,” Kurt said. “Or you can go in and find a bunch of bees and they’re all dead, which means it was too cold and there weren’t enough bees to support the queen, so they all froze to death sooner or later. Especially winters where you can have a week where it’s -20° for the whole week is very difficult for bees.”
The Burnhams will wrap the colonies in black tarp paper to help retain heat during the winter. They also make sure the supers are full of honey when they enter the colony and will put a candy bar inside.
The best part of beekeeping for Kurt and Jennifer? They do this with their children.
Besides producing honey, bees also play an important role in food production. Bees are responsible for helping to pollinate nearly a third of all global food production.
Burnhams sells honey in several local retailers including:
- Mama B’s Cafe – Coal Valley
- Orion Family Pharmacy – Orion
- Alwood Pharmacy – Alpha
- Excelsior Studio & Galleria – Cambridge
- Ridgewood Pharmacy – Cambridge
- pHat Bottom Labs – East Moline