story and photo by Phillip Bonn
Nestled in the hills overlooking Owasco Flats on 115 acres of land is Sunswick Farm. This mix of fields and woods near Moravia is the home of Brooks Mullahy, Peter Davis and thousands of bees.
Brooks is the head beekeeper. Her sister, Tracy – who also lives at Sunswick Farm – assists her in the bee yards and honey house. Brooks is an energetic, outgoing lady with a quick smile and loquacious tongue. After returning from Africa where she lived and worked for many years, she decided to settle in the Finger Lakes Region near family.
Brooks chose to be a beekeeper because she wanted a job that would keep her outdoors and provide a constant learning experience. “I was a backyard beekeeper decades ago and decided that is what I would put my efforts towards,” Brooks said. “It’s challenging and rewarding at the same time!”
When I dropped in for an interview, Brooks treated me to a honey tasting. She identifies a particular honey variety by the hive location, plants that are in flower at the time, taste, smell and color. Tasting honey is like tasting wine; each batch has its own color, viscosity and flavor. Some were creamy, others buttery or granular in texture. They can be super sweet and light in color like apple blossom honey, or earthier and dark like Japanese knotweed honey (my favorite).
A trip to the bee yard and honey house
After the tasting, we headed over to a nearby bee yard and suited up. Brooks started at one end checking each honey super on top of the brood boxes. The supers contain the extra honey that the bees do not need.
When full, each super can weigh between 30 and 55 pounds. Together, we removed six supers from the yard to the honey house. The supers were then weighed on a certified scale. Our haul totaled 336 pounds!
Once inside the storage area, we sampled the fruits of our labor. Pulling a frame out of each super, we tasted each one. One type of honey had a hint of minty freshness, another smelled like old sneakers but was super sweet and one was light on the tongue and mildly sweet.
The extraction process
Processing the frames of honey starts at the decapping machine. Here, the frames are removed from the honey supers and placed one at a time into the decapper. The wax cappings are sliced off and fall into a well with some of the honey from the cells. (See pages 28 and 29 for more details.)
The wax cappings are fed by an auger into the wax spinner. Using centrifugal force, the spinner separates the honey from the cappings. The honey drains out to the sump where it settles. The dried wax caps are unloaded by cranking an internal knife that scraps off the dried wax into a bucket. This wax will be processed later into bars of pure beeswax, which sells for a good price on its own.
Back at the decapper, the mostly empty frames are pushed down a conveyer channel until there are 28 stacked up. These frames are loaded into a spinner, 14 to a side, and spun to remove any remaining honey which drains into the sump. Once the sump is full, the honey is pumped into the holding tanks. These stainless steel tanks will hold 250 pounds of raw honey in each section, with three sections total!
With all the raw honey in the holding tanks, the bottling begins. At this point, the honey is drawn off to fill the various size glass jars that Brooks uses. She does not like to use plastic containers, as it affects the honey’s taste, she stated. Plus, glass is recyclable, as customers will return the containers for reuse.
Truly raw honey is unheated and will crystalize over time; people think honey has gone bad when it happens, but it is simply part of the natural process. If honey doesn’t crystalize, it is a good indication that the honey has been heated, causing the loss of nutrients.
The whole procedure of harvesting, processing and packaging the honey can happen at least four or five times a year at Sunswick Farm – perhaps more if the harvest is good.
Brooks and Tracy mostly work in the bee yards between late March and mid-October, operating 13 yards spread across three counties. In the winter, their work involves continuously bottling harvested honey and repairing equipment with Davis helping with the making new equipment. It’s a labor of love.
Every Saturday you can find Brooks at the Syracuse Regional Farmers Market where she has a booth in Shed C. You may also contact her and buy honey at the farm. She may even give you a tour of the honey house!
Did You Know …
Bees do not die off during the winter. They cluster around the queen during the cold months to keep the cluster warm, reaching internally around 75
Did You Know …
A bee can fly up to 3 to 5 miles in search of pollen and or water.