Busy as a Bee

Written by Teresa Dennard.

John Ray, A Beekeeping Enthusiast

Honeybees are interesting little critters. Brought to North America by early settler, they have remained unchanged for 20 million years. Bees are the only insects that produce food for humans. The honey made by the bees includes all the ingredients necessary to sustain life, including water. Additionally, about every third bite of food we eat was pollinated by a bee. We owe a lot to the honeybees—they are some of the hardest working creatures on the planet.

John Ray, who lives in the Del Ray community, is a beekeeping enthusiast. He and wife, Jane, became interested in the honeybees about 15 years ago when a migratory beekeeper came through the area looking for property to leave bees during the winter months. After seeing the operation, Ray’s interest grew and before long had a few hives of his own. Living in Lake Jackson at the time, an administrator at Brazosport College, Ray had some good luck and some bad luck working with the bees from long distance. “When I retired and moved back here,” says Ray, “I thought I’d get a little more serious about it and get a few more hives. I still have good luck and bad luck.”

According to Ray, interest in beekeeping is growing. “Years ago it seemed most farms had chickens, cattle and a bee hive, but as we’ve become more urban, there’s been an emerging interest in keeping bees. It’s something that requires as much work as you want to give it. You try to set things up for them and let them go. I wear gloves and a veil when working with them, but not all folks do that. I see no reason to invite a sting. Hives are individuals who have their own personalities and do their own thing. Some are more docile; some are more aggressive and will meet you on the way to the hive. Invariably you’re going to get stung occasionally, but the real danger is if you start moving around and slapping. They tend to get upset. In the summer when bees start to really get busy and put up more honey, if you crowd them too much, they swarm. When you start pulling honey, they get very protective. You “smoke” the bees and that calms them down.  You’ll be surprised when you look at what work goes into making just a teaspoon of honey.”

It takes about 500 bees to travel over 55,000 miles and visit approximately two million flowers to make one pound of honey. Not all of these bees are the same--three types exist —the queen bee, the worker bee and the drone bee. Each hive has only one queen bee who has two primary purposes: to produce a unique scent that helps regulate the unity of the colony and to lay eggs, up to 2,000 per day. The other bees tend to her every need. The worker bees are all female. Their job is to bring pollen and nectar back from the field to feed the others, to guard the hive and to heat and cool the hive. Their life span is only six weeks during the active season. They usually die from wearing their wings out. Also, the worker bee has a barbed stinger that results in her death after stinging. The drones are the male bees whose only purpose is to mate with a queen. They’re expelled from the hive in the autumn because they have no use in the winter months.  

“The thing that interests me about them is the connection to the garden. They’re just fascinating critters. You don’t have to go out and give them any instruction. You don’t have to say, ‘get busy working today.’ They just come pre-programmed to do what they do. This is a hobby, but I will probably sell some of the honey this year because I’m just going to have more than I can give away to friends and family.” Ray has no interest in buying an 18-wheeler and hauling boxes of bees all over the United States. Even though the migratory beekeepers make more money carrying bees for pollination for almonds in California, he enjoys working with the hives he has developed over the years and learning the tricks of the trade from other beekeepers. Many folks say bee stings are good for arthritis, and some say honey collected in this particular area helps with allergies. Jane enjoys cooking with the raw honey. A recipe she enjoys is the Mini Honey Fruitcakes listed below. If you visit their home in the early morning sun, the bees are like little missiles, doing their own thing. They’re--busy as bees!"

Mini Honey Fruitcakes

  • 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • Coarse salt
  • 1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/3 cup honey
  • 1/4 cup apricot jam
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 cup ricotta cheese or 3/4 cup whole milk
  • 1 cup pecans or almonds, toasted and ground
  • 1 cup coarsely chopped dried apricots (5 ounces)
  • 3/4 cup chopped dried cranberries or cherries (5 ounces)

honey glaze (Makes 1/2 cup)

  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • Pinch of salt
  • Garnish: dried apricots, cranberries, or cherries

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Whisk together flour, baking powder, and 1 teaspoon salt.
  2. Beat butter and sugar until pale and fluffy. Beat in honey and jam, and then eggs. Add flour mixture, and beat, alternating with ricotta. Beat in nuts and dried fruit.
  3. Press a square of parchment into each cup of a standard muffin tin to create a liner (you can also use baking cups). Divide batter evenly among liners. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 40 minutes. Transfer tin to a wire rack. Let stand for 10 minutes.
  4. Meanwhile, make the honey glaze: Bring honey to a boil in a saucepan, and cook for 3 minutes. Stir in lemon juice and salt.
  5. Brush fruitcakes with glaze, and garnish with dried fruit. Brush again with glaze. Remove from pans. Let cool.