To Bee or Not to Bee...

When Rafael Ortega, a member of the Mid-States Fab Shop Team, realized his family was spending $300 per year on honey, he decided to take matters in to his own hands… literally.

Ortega, who has been on the Mid-States team for 6.5 years, turned to the man he had been purchasing all his honey from to learn. Denny Dodge of Double D’s Bees has become a mentor of sorts to Ortega.

He began his journey as a bee keeper last year, starting with just two hives. This year, he has six. Each of Ortega’s bee hives is composed of two brood boxes, where the queen lives and lays eggs; and a queen extractor, which keeps the bees from traveling to the honey supers, where the honey is stored. Currently, Ortega has somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000 bees. There are three types of bees that are common to this area: Russian, Italian and Carniolian. Ortega has a mix of Italian and Carniolian.

To care for the bees, Ortega dons leather gloves, a heavy duty sweatshirt and protective vest. He utilizes a smoker, filled with pine needles which calms the bees down and gives him time to work. Ortega checks on his hives at least weekly.

”They fly around me, but if I work calmly, they leave me to work,” Ortega said.

To extract the honey, Ortega uses a blower to gently remove the bees from the frames. He then puts the frames on a honey extractor, breaks the capping open with a hot knife and then the honey extractor spins them so the honey collects in a bucket. The honey is ready to eat right from extraction.

The hives are located on conservation land and produce 100% pure honey. Depending on the time of year, the honey has a bit of a different taste. Ortega said the taste they get in July is more clover, whereas the taste they get in August is more Goldenrod.

It is important to note that Ortega tests the honey to make sure it is safe for consumption before extracting it. Ortega completes two harvests per year, and harvested about 17 gallons of honey this year.

He must leave enough honey in the hives to sustain the bees through the winter, and he also makes sugar cakes to help them get through the cold months. During winter, the bees will all huddle around the queen to keep her warm in the center. The rest of the hive will rotate between being on the inner part of the circle, or outer part of the circle so everyone survives.

While Ortega’s bee keeping first stemmed from the idea of saving money on honey, it has turned in to so much more. Contributing to the environment is an immensely rewarding part of what Ortega does.

Studies have shown a significant decline in the honeybee population in the U.S. Honey bees are essential for the pollination of flowers, fruits and vegetables, and support about $20 billion worth of crop production in the U.S. annually, according to ABC News.

Caring for the bees has also provided endless learning opportunities for Ortega and his four children - boys ages 9, 12 & 17 and a girl aged 15. He said the boys are particularly fascinated by the process. And his family has enough honey to get through the year, with a little extra to share.