Unlike a lot of people who are genuinely terrified, I would characterize my relationship with bees as a healthy dislike. That being said, I didn’t hesitate to don the full beekeeper garb during a recent visit to the apiary at Grande Lakes Orlando, home of the JW Marriott and The Ritz-Carlton hotels.
Resident bee expert and recent graduate of University of Florida’s Bee College in St. Augustine (seriously, there’s a bee college), Jesse Demmers was on hand to school me in the art of beekeeping and, more importantly, honey harvesting. Besides being the sous chef at Citron, Jesse is charged with taking care of the six hives that live on Grande Lakes’ 500-acre property.
Grande Lakes started its beekeeping operations in 2011 and has since expanded with four new hives located at Whisper Creek Farm, the outdoor event space where farm-to-fork dinners, weddings, and corporate functions are now held.
Jesse tells me the four new hives won’t start producing for another year, but for now the two older hives produce about two pounds of honey every month. At harvest time, Jesse heads out to the apiary with his beekeeper outfit on and smoker in hand. He smokes the bees (no harm done, I’m told) to subdue them, pulls out the ten wood frames inside the supers, and gently brushes off the bees and then scrapes off the wax they have secreted over each honeycomb. Then he pours the honey into containers and brings it back to the kitchen.
“Bees are incredibly smart creatures,” Jesse says. “After they deposit the nectar into the combs, they wait until most of the water evaporates before secreting the wax seal. But if it’s taking too long to evaporate, you’ll hear a hum coming from the hive. That’s their wings flapping in an effort to speed up the evaporation process.”
When the bees’ behavior has him stumped, Jesse calls in a bee expert or takes his issue with him to a meeting of the Winter Park Beekeeper Association (neat!). He buys his queen bee, which is twice the size of her worker bees, online.
Since the bees, which only have a 30-day lifespan, survive off the honey they make, Jesse never takes all of the honey from the hive. Instead, he grabs a few pounds here and there and shares it with Grande Lakes’ restaurants where you might find the honey drizzled over desserts. You’ll also find it inside The Ritz-Carlton Spa, where several signature honey treatments were created to showcase the apiary’s harvest.
During my visit, I discovered that there are a few things you won’t learn from watching Bee Movie, which was the extent of my bee education prior to this experience.
1. Bees get more agitated after a rainfall. Jesse wasn’t really sure why this is, but since we had just experienced a downpour less than thirty minutes prior to our hive visit, he suggested I keep my distance. No need to ask me twice.
2. When bees feel threatened and go into attack mode, they’re actually looking for a good spot to sting. Since they’ll die soon after, they want to make sure they’re not wasting their stinger on a pant leg. So, these brainy bees are actually looking for skin.
As I suit up from head to toe in my completely unflattering beekeeper duds, I point out to Jesse that the netting around my face has started to unravel, leaving a small hole big enough for a handful of angry bees to sneak through and give me a nip. “You better stand back,” Jesse suggests as he starts pulling the lid off the super. Um, hell yeah. My heart is racing, my palms are sweating, any courage I had has now drained from my body. I try to remind myself that they are just bees… really pissed off bees, mind you… but just bees.
From a safe distance, I marveled at the miracle of honey. Here is something we eat every day but it’s not created in a factory or grown in the soil; bees make it and the science behind it is awe-inspiring. When you get the chance to really see the process from flower to honey jar, the whole experience of eating honey takes on new significance. And while I would not suggest heading to a hive without an expert by your side (plus Grande Lakes doesn’t offer public tours), I do recommend upping your appreciation for honey by supporting local honey makers such as Dansk Farms, which sells online, at the Winter Park Farmers’ Market, and at specialty food stores throughout Central Florida.