Bees cannot be bossed by their keepers. “They’re going to do what they want,” said Remy Lazare, assistant curator of animal collections at the Audubon Nature Institute Butterfly Garden and Insectarium.
Fortunately, these industrious insects have a strong work ethic. “Busy as a bee” is no empty phrase, Lazare said. “They’re going to keep working, no matter what.”
On this late August day, Lazare was harvesting honey at the Audubon Insect Rearing Facility in eastern New Orleans. She began the process by removing a box, called a super, from a hive in the facility’s bee yard. Inside the super were 10 rectangular wooden frames, each containing a honeycomb.
The next step was to scrape the beeswax off the combs. Then they were put into an extractor, a barrel-shaped device that, when hand-cranked, spins honey from three combs at a time.
Straining the honey and pouring it into jars completes the labor-intensive process, which Lazare called decidedly “old school.”
But this human part of honey production is the only one over which she has complete control.
Bees will choose which flowers they visit for the nectar and pollen they collect to feed the colony back at the hive, a process that results not only in honey, but also in plant pollination necessary for crop production. And they will do it at their own pace, which is affected by such things as weather and the strength of the colony.
These factors make for an unpredictable harvest season, Lazare said.
The sweet news is that, following establishment of three new hives this past spring, there are now four thriving bee colonies at the Insect Rearing Facility. As a result, honey from these hives is being sold online at the Audubon Nature Institute website (auduboninstitute.org) and at the insectarium’s gift shop at 423 Canal St. Proceeds help support the insectarium.
The honey has been available since June and will be available only as long as supplies last. “It’s definitely a seasonal item,” Lazare said. A 3-ounce jar is $6.99, and a 6-ounce jar is $12.99.
In addition to being an easily digestible sweetener, raw honey such as Audubon’s “is antifungal, antibacterial — it’s just miracle stuff,” Lazare said. She cited as proof the fact that Audubon Nature Institute veterinarian Dr. Elsburgh Clarke has used honey, with great success, as an ointment to treat wounds on a Mississippi sandhill crane and an African blackfooted penguin.
The color and flavor of any honey depends on the flowers the bees have visited for the nectar that they turn into their signature dish. “These bees are visiting everything out in New Orleans East,” Lazare said.
She gave this rule of thumb: “Amber honey is full-flavored. In spring it’s generally a little lighter.”
Because there is less nectar to collect in winter than in other seasons, bees slow down after something of a fall food drive. A full larder makes harvesting the honey essential.
“You have to harvest the honey,” Lazare said. “If they make too much, you are inviting vermin into the hive. But you have to make sure they have enough to make it through the winter.”
“It’s a fine line,” agreed Allison Wyatt, a senior animal staffer who also tends to the Audubon bees.
Both Wyatt and Cokie Bauder, manager of the Insect Rearing Facility, have been so bedazzled by their winged co-workers in the honey business that they have established their own hives.
“You sort of get bitten by the bug,” Bauder said with a smile.
A major concern of beekeepers worldwide is Colony Collapse Disorder, which has been decimating the global honey bee population for more than a decade, with dire effects on crops everywhere. Causes are just now being pinned down, Lazare said.
Although the public cannot see the bees or watch the honey production process at the Insect Rearing Facility, the hives are integral to Audubon’s mission.
“Audubon Nature Institute is very involved in conservation initiatives,” said Jayme Necaise, director of animal and visitor programs at the insectarium. “Honey bees are in constant peril due to effects of Colony Collapse Disorder. By keeping honey bee hives, our facility is doing our part to ensure the survival of these extremely important insects.”
And there’s one more reason to support your local honey producer, Audubon or otherwise: The honey bee is the Louisiana state insect.
The Audubon Nature Institute’s honey is available online at auduboninstitute.org, or at the insectarium’s gift shop, 423 Canal St.
Proceeds help support the insectarium.