State Fair University: You need a good queen to make honey

Every day at the State Fair the MPR News Morning Edition crew is trying to learn something new.  They call it “State Fair University” and today the classroom is the Horticulture Building.

Many of the prize-winning flowers and vegetables there would be nothing without a team of tiny helpers: honeybees. The Minnesota Beekeepers Association has occupied a corner of the building since 1937 — that’s where Morning Edition Producer Jim Bickal got a lesson in beehive hierarchy from long-time beekeeper Warren Schave.

Warren Schave from Wyoming, Minn. operates Sunrise Apiary. He's been keeping bees for 20 years. He was inspired to start by the beekeeping exhibits at the Minnesota State Fair. (MPR Photo/Jim Bickal)

WARREN SCHAVE: The queen is the matriarch of the hive. She’s the boss. The hive can sense if she’s inferior. They’ll make what’s called “emergency cells” and try to replace her. If a hive gets overcrowded their natural tendency is to want to swarm. And what that means: Half the bees will take off with the original queen and a new queen will emerge with the best that stayed behind, but she’s the boss and they treat her like royalty.

JIM BICKAL: So how do you now if you’ve got a good queen?

SCHAVE: You can look at the brood pattern — if it’s nice solid cells of brood, which is the larva stage of the bees — if it’s real spotty, egg here egg there, it’s not a very good queen. Beyond two years (a Queen’s) egg-laying capacity goes down.

BICKAL: Their bee biological clock is ticking.

SCHAVE: Yeah. Not that she can’t produce eggs but the numbers go down.

BICKAL: And so if you’ve got one you don’t like, what do you do?

SCHAVE: In the spring and towards early summer you can actually buy a queen from a bee supply place that sells bee equipment, and you can introduce her to the hive. You have to use what’s called the “slow release” because the bees in that hive will not recognize her as the queen because she has different pheromones so it’s a little cage that has a candy plug at the end. It takes them about four days to eat through that candy plug. It opens a hole that the queen can walk out and hopefully the hive will accept her.

BICKAL: Is there a king?

SCHAVE: The drones are the male bees. They hang around in case their services are needed with the new queen. You know what I mean.

BICKAL: Tell me about the harvesting of the honey. How does that work?

SCHAVE: The honey that the beekeeper takes is on top of the boxes where the bees live. They’re called “honey supers.” If you have a good year you may have anywhere from five to eight supers on top of the hive. You go out and pull that, you bring it in to the room or facility, the honey house where you are going to extract honey.

Each frame has a wax cap over the honey. You needed a heated knife to remove that wax cap out of the frames, and then there’s a centrifugal force machine called an extractor. You put these frames into the extractor. It spins the honey out of the frames and then it is typically send through a strainer to get the wax and the bee particles out into maybe a five-gallon pail. And it’s totally ready for human consumption. There’s nothing else you have to do to purify it.