How to Extract 175 lbs of Honey in One Day

By Annabel Epstein ’18 and Sage Wylie ’19, Food Institute Student Fellows

Last week the rooftop of Lisner Hall on the George Washington University’s campus was abuzz with activity. Led by biologist and insect ecologist Professor Harmut Doebel and beekeeper Kayla Schwartz ‘19, a group of 10 volunteers, including Food Institute Student Fellows, Sage Wylie and Annabel Epstein, spent the day among the bees and honey. 

The GW Undergraduate Honey Bee Research Laboratory and Apiary, also known as GWBuzz, works to promote sustainable and healthy apiculture in the midst of Washington DC with the partnership of Founding Farmers Restaurant. They use the honey in their craft cocktails, as well as the honey butter cornbread.

Dr. Doebel started this program five years ago. His passion for honeybees goes far beyond the roof of Lisner Hall. In fact, he started beekeeping in his native Germany when he was in graduate school and has six hives of his own at home in Maryland. Dr. Doebel assisted students in collecting the frames and properly handling the bees, making sure each student felt empowered and unafraid of the honeybees. More than once he was heard exclaiming that bees are docile creatures and not looking to harm people. 

Kayla Schwartz helped to process the honey. She began her work in GWBuzz last year researching the effects of artificial pheromones on learning and aversive behavior in the honeybees. Pheromones are naturally occurring chemicals released by the bees in order to communicate with their hive. However, they can also be artificially generated and are a common tactic to increase pollination among a hive. Schwartz and her team were studying what,  if anything, happens when a hive is overexposed to artificial pheromones. Although her work was lab-focused, she enjoyed her time beekeeping so much that she came back this year as an assistant beekeeper.

Before we could head up to the rooftop we made sure we were properly outfitted for the bees. The thick, white, astronaut-like suit included a round mesh hat with face screens that covered every inch of the body, besides the shoes. Surprisingly, it was easy to see the buzz of activity all around us, and navigate around the rooftop. With bee suits on, we climbed to the roof of Lisner Hall to extract the honey frames from the 12 hives living high in the middle of Foggy Bottom. We used hive tools to jimmy the sticky frames loose, making sure to avoid harming any bees in the process. After collecting the frames bursting with honey, we started to outfit the hives for the winter. Before the temperatures start rising, summer screens are put into the hives to allow for better air circulation; if the air is too hot, the bees will not be as productive because, just like us, the heat wipes them out! We swapped out the summer grates for winter covers, and also checked on the health of the hives. Signs of a healthy hive include high bee activity, bees carrying pollen back into the hive and any sight of brood. Brood, also known as bee larvae, is developed after the queen bee lays her eggs in the comb cells of the hive. We had the joy of spotting all of these signs of a healthy hive when we were on the roof, and even saw a mature bee being hatched out of a comb cell! 

Managing to escape sting-free, we moved inside to process the honey from the frame to the bottle. First, we used combs to uncap the honeycombs on the frames. The frames are then placed inside a honey centrifuge. Here, the frames are spun so fast the honey flows out through the bottom tap, which is why it is so important for  the honeycombs to be  uncapped before being placed in the centrifuge; this process ensures we harvest as much honey as we possibly can. When it flows out of the centrifuge it is pushed through a sieve to collect any stray wax that may have gotten stuck, before hitting the collection bucket. Of course we couldn’t go through this process without tasting some of the honey. It was amazing to taste the different flavor notes of the honey from each frame. While some were notably sweeter, others had more floral notes and others were almost tart. Some people believe that honey produced in the city can have even more flavor profiles than honey produced in the countryside, due to the abundant and varied flora blooming in cities. 

Next time you are at Founding Farmers, keep an eye out for the cornbread and the cocktails infused with honey; you may just be tasting the hard work of the GW honeybees.

Check out the live bee cam and see for yourself what the hives are up to.