Hannah Kiddoo 2015-01-25 20:49:12
Backyard Buzz A Houston attorney enjoys the sweet rewards of beekeeping DONALD BURGER HAS ALWAYS BEEN BIG ON GARDENING. HIS YARD BOASTS a range of fruits and vegetables, as well as tropical plants, ornamental grasses, and a host of colorful roses. It made sense then when, in 1999, he decided to try his hand at urban beekeeping and bought thousands of honeybees to live in stacked wooden boxes behind his Houston home. “I thought it would be a good idea to increase pollination,” he said. More than a decade later, Burger’s beehives have done that and more. Each year, this solo attorney harvests around 15 gallons of honey—without leaving his backyard. He generously shares the sweet, sticky gold liquid with family and friends, all of whom rave about it. According to Burger, the honey from his hives is more flavorful than store-bought varieties, some of which are produced by bees consuming nectar from a single type of plant, such as clover. “My honey is city flower. Whatever you’re growing in your garden, that’s what the bees are getting.” Still, purposely bringing bees onto your property? Burger is quick to dismiss concerns of danger, chalking them up to misunderstandings about the insects. “Bees get only one sting,” he said. “Really, the only time bees will sting you is if you’re messing with the hive. So if a bee’s out on flowers, it’s not an issue. She could care less about you. You’re not a threat to her.” There are many types of honeybees on the market. Burger keeps Buckfasts, a hybrid variety known for its gentle demeanor and resistance to tracheal mites. This time of year, the bees are laying low in the hive, snacking on their food reserve and continually flapping their wings to warm the nest and queen bee to an ideal 96.8 degrees. “To keep it that hot in the winter, they have to use a lot of energy to generate heat,” Burger explained. Once spring arrives, things get busy. The queen begins to lay eggs, and worker bees, which make up the majority of the hive, have an average of 21 days to prepare for the extra adult mouths to feed. To do so, they head out—up to five miles—in search of nectar, which is collected and mixed with an enzyme the bees secrete inside their mouths. They then deposit the nectar in honeycombs, where it dries and transforms into honey. Once it is the right thickness, the combs are sealed with beeswax. Bees live off of this supply, but they also produce more honey than they need. This excess is what beekeepers collect. Burger keeps his colonies in Langstroth hives. A popular option since the late 1800s, the Langstroth method uses multiple removable frames that encourage bees to build honeycombs. Once a frame is at max honey storage capacity, Burger brings in additional empty frames. In the spring, bees can fill up a medium box with honey in just two weeks. The cycle slows down from June to August, when water is sparse and plants aren’t as rich in nectar. Toward the end of October, after the possibility of late season blooms has passed but before cold weather makes the honey too thick to flow, Burger knows it is time to harvest. The extraction process takes a full day. Burger first clears a space in his garage and preps his supplies. Then, he begins working on the hives, applying smoke inside to keep the insects docile while using slow and deliberate motions. “The main thing is, don’t be hitting the hive or vibrating it,” Burger said. “If you heard somebody pounding on your window, you might get a little agitated, and that’s the same with bees.” Burger removes the top boxes of the hives and hauls the honeycombs to his workspace. He takes a hot knife and cuts off the wax caps, spins the frames to release the honey from the combs, and then catches the liquid in food-grade buckets. Reducing the surface space makes it easier for the bees to keep warm as temperatures drop, but knowing that the bees will need plenty of honey to get through the impending cooler months, Burger leaves at least two filled boxes in the hive for their consumption. Backyard beehives are becoming increasingly popular in metro areas. Publications dedicated to the hobby are common in bookstores, honey products overflow at farmers markets, and YouTube videos on the subject abound. Amid the hype, Burger has established himself as an experienced and knowledgeable resource for area beginners. He teaches a course for Leisure Learning Unlimited in Houston, where he explains beekeeping basics, such as where to buy bees (Burger gets his from an apiary in Navasota), what safety equipment is needed (he recommends a full suit when starting out), and what to expect during the first year (a lot of work). He is also webmaster, program director, and a past president of the Houston Beekeepers Association. Burger has considered selling his honey, but for now, he’s content simply sharing the bounty with those he is close to. For him, the best part of beekeeping is the look in people’s eyes when they receive the end product. “If I’m giving them a gift of honey, it’s something that is unique.” For more information about Burger’s beekeeping, go to burger.com/beeindex.htm.
Published by State Bar of Texas. View All Articles.
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