Advice for New-Bees

varroa_mites
Varroa: your new nightmare…

I have been keeping bees now for seven years. In spite of taking courses, reading every book I could, keeping my eyes and ears open, and earning my Master Beekeeper designation, I have made every mistake I could.

Sometimes I needed to repeat them.

And I know more are out there waiting for me to make. Such is beekeeping.

We all have to do things in our own way and in our own time, but for what it is worth, here is what I wish I had known in my first year…

  1. What is your motivation? If you want to learn about bees and their way of bee-ing, and have honey to give away at Christmas, learn to keep bees healthy via a thoughtful program of feeding and mite control when necessary. If you want to troll through hive after hive of sick and dying bees, searching for that elusive Varroa-proof bee, check out the treatment-free approach. I have decided I do not like dealing with crashing colonies, so I deliberately left the treatment free camp early in my beekeeping career to just enjoy raising bees. There are talented researchers now systematically looking into whether bees can be bred to be Varroa-proof. I will be happy to buy their bees if and when they succeed!
  2. Beekeeping is expensive: it seems unfair that keeping honey bees, who used to keep themselves in hollow trees, is so expensive. But you will need to budget for nearly $700 for your first year if you aspire to one hive. More for two. In your first year you are acquiring bees ($220 per pop), equipment (full setup plus spare boxes and frames= $250), gear ($200+). You need to assemble and paint things. You will need to buy sugar for feed, pollen substitute to get your package going, medicines. It just costs a lot of money, so you need a healthy bee budget.
  3. It is easy to keep bees, but difficult to keep them well. For the first year or two, you will open that hive, probably with pounding heart and sweaty palms…and not have a clue what you are seeing. That is normal! Just ask a more experienced beekeeper to come look at your hive(s) with you and invite yourself to watch while others beekeep. The more you see, the faster you will learn. Read as much as you can: there is a lot of detail to successful beekeeping so be patient with yourself as you climb that learning curve!
  4. Beekeeping is hot, sticky, dirty work. You are out there in the sun, in your bee suit, lifting heavy frames and boxes. There are tricks to avoid lifting full boxes, but beekeeping demands some back, core and hand strength. You will get stung. Style goes out the window! It is worth it….but be aware, your car, your house, your garage will all be filled with sticky, mucky equipment.
  5. Listen to all the information, but to quote our Provincial Apiculturalist Dr. Paul van Westendorp: hew to standard practice for a few years before experimenting. I urge you to learn plain vanilla beekeeping in a standard Langstroth setup before you try out treatment free beekeeping, top bar or Warré hives, or any other innovative technique. By running a standard hive in standard ways you will observe the normal arc of development for a bee colony. By developing a sense of what is normal, you will be much better able to evaluate the effect of innovations.
  6. The biggest threat to your bees is unchecked Varroa mite infestation. Learn all about Varroa and treat in a timely fashion, at least with the organic acids. Here is another Varroa resource.
  7. Inspect every week or 10 days. This builds your sense of what is going on in a colony, and keeps you up to date on what is going on in there. You will spot problems (swarming prep, disease, pests) early…when you can still do something about them.
  8. Cultivate mentors. Mentors are often gained when you take a beekeeping course: you can email your teacher(s) questions (preferably with pictures if you have an issue in your hive). Most clubs have a mentor list, or you can ask to have one assigned. Chat boards might turn up an experienced local beekeeper who will give you a hand.
  9. Become a gardener! Bees are currently suffering from degradation and dwindling of nectar and pollen sources. The single best thing you can do for honey bees is plant for them. The Xerces Society has excellent information for planting for pollinators.

Check my Resource Page for some beekeeping info!

Note if you are about to hive your first package: make sure all the bees are swept from the package into your new hive…if the weather is too cold, the bees will not be able to fly in on their own, following the scent trail made by their sisters in the hive. When it is chilly, just leaning the emptied package against the hive in the hope the bees remaining inside will find home is not enough. Note, you may have to “deconstruct” the hive to get at all the bees inside. Your bee brush will  help in persuading the reluctant bees into their new home!

Here is excellent advice for new beekeepers, courtesy Southern Oregon Beekeepers.

Advice from Linda’s Bees!

Randy Olivers’ excellent guide to your first year.

Rusty Burlew’s Let the Bees Be Bees??

Below are some photos of what your colony should look like in summer.

Good fortune, little newbees! May your colonies live long and prosper.

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How to help the bees (and other pollinators)

van gogh flowering garden with path
Vincent van Gogh, Garden with Flowers, 1888

Plant as many nectar and pollen plants as you can, everywhere you can: in gardens, pots, medians, along pathways and roadways, on all land now in simple grasses (till and oversow with Pollinator Pasture instead, skip the mowing). Many of the mixes now incorporate grasses to hold the soil and complement the floral mixtures: they are quite beautiful!

A good pollinator planting will give season-long varied nectars and pollens, here are a few good season-spanning choices we can all add to our gardens and wild spaces:

  1. Spring-flowering heathers
  2. Maples and Hawthorns
  3. Dandelions (huge nectar and pollen resource in early spring)
  4. Clovers (can be succession sown to extend nectaring period)
  5. Sarcocca (a favourite landscaping shrub)
  6. Wild roses
  7. Fennels, dills, mints, garlic chives, herbs of all kind…let them flower
  8. Catmint…catmint is the single best source of nectar and pollen for honey bees in the urban garden
  9. Rosebay Willowherb (fireweed…a very pretty garden plant)
  10. Malvas (mallows)
  11. Lavenders of all sorts
  12. Joe Pye Weed…comes in a variety of heights now, long bloom period, appeals to a wide range of pollinators
  13. Sedums
  14. Fall flowering, single asters
  15. Caryopteris (Bluebeard, a pretty fall flowering shrub)
  16. Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus)

Give plants to your neighbours, plant in pathways, untended vacant land, anywhere you can tuck in a plant or two! Lobby your municipal, state/provincial governments to plant all areas now in simple grasses in pollinator friendly mixtures. Ask them to stop mowing verges and medians so the wildflowers can bloom. Ask them to landscape with pollinator friendly shrubs and trees.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, the first spring willows, alders and maples feed the spring colonies, helping them replace the old, work-worn winter bees with new spring bees, who will become the all important summer foragers. The hives must come to strength by early June, when the blackberry blooms, giving us our largest local nectar flow.

Without late summer plantings targeted at nectar production in late summer, a time when there is a natural nectar dearth in the best of landscapes, bees struggle. And in an age of large swathes of monocultures, where fields have nothing to offer after the crop spring bloom period is over, and equally large swathes of urban development which are empty of pollen and nectars, all pollinators find it hard to overwinter. They simply starve.

Invasives are often the only food out there! Japanese knotweed is now a critical source of late summer/early fall pollinator nutrition. Dandelions provide early spring nectar and pollen. Urban gardens, watered all summer by their gardeners, are often a richer source of bee and pollen nutrition than are the wild places, and certainly more than the cultivated fields.

The hives in my urban back yard, surrounded by mature gardens filled with flowering plants, gather more honey than the hives I keep on local farms.

Helping the Honey Bees *****************************And All Pollinators

For beginning beekeepers, and all those interesting in the canon that is Beginning Beekeeping, welcome!

Our online course, stuffed with resources, is here,

Begin at the Beginning.

But below is a nice exploration of how we can all help the honey bees, who truly do need all our help.

bayjournal.com
bayjournal.com

The number one question I get at public presentations and apiary tours is: How can I help the honey bees and pollinators?

In our contemporary, disrupted landscape, all pollinators are facing considerable challenges. Many are endangered. And the pollinators are trying to tell us something: what is bad for them is bad for us too. They are sending us clear signals that we need to be better stewards of the land, of the planet, and of ourselves.

There is a growing consensus, backed by independent research, that bees and pollinators are dying from two main causes:

  1. Pesticides and agri-chemical sprays
  2. Degraded and lost forage habitat.

And in the case of honey bees themselves, the Varroa destructor mite is wreaking havoc. Beekeepers are important to bees principally for their role in keeping bees free, or as free as possible, from Varroa mites. In Canada at least, we have lost our feral honey bees, thanks to the predation of the Varroa mites: the stress of the Varroa on the bee colony makes overwintering pretty much impossible. This has cost us enormous portions of the honey bee gene pool, alas, and may ultimately spell the end of honey bees in our world.

But what can you do to help the bees and pollinators?

Plant.

Windset field July 2016
(Phacelia, clovers, mustard)

Plant, plant, and then plant some more!

For all pollinators, food is getting hard to find. The native pollinators in particular have short flight ranges. If nectar and pollen sources are interrupted, distantly spaced, and lack floral diversity, their diets are sparse, lack good nutrition, and the long flights mean there are fewer calories to bring home.

And in both our cities and our farmlands, we have made those fractured landscapes, filling them with non-floral plants like grasses and low maintenance shrubberies, and monocultures. Monocultures in particular are bad for pollinators: there is only one thing to eat, and only for a few short weeks of that crop’s bloom period. And the crop may not offer good nutrition to the pollinator: imagine having only Froot Loops to eat for the rest of your life.

Monoculture fields are kept weed-free with herbicides, which kill all the plants the pollinators need, and the monocultures are kept pest free with pesticides, which kill and weaken the pollinators. And in the case of short flight range pollinators, fields of monocultures mean they cannot find enough food throughout the growing season to sustain their colony. And they die out.

Lately we have heard rumblings that honey bees are actually the problem: they have long flight ranges and out-compete the native pollinators.

This is poppycock of the worst kind: half-truth and misdirection. Why? Many, many of the flowers native pollinators need are NOT the ones honey bees feed on. Getting rid of the honey bees does not address the lack of suitable native pollinator forage. And while it is quite true that honey bees forage over a wider range than most native pollinators, getting rid of the honey bees will not solve the problem native pollinators have, which is that their forage sources are too sparse, and too far apart, too fractured for them to fly to.

Even if the honey bees are taken out of that equation, native pollinators will still starve.

It is up to us to make sure the pollinators have enough to eat: we are the ones who degraded their habitat so severely that their survival in in peril.

So how to help?

Plant as many nectar and pollen plants as you can, everywhere you can: in gardens, pots, medians, along pathways and roadways, on all land now in simple grasses (till and oversow with Pollinator Pasture instead, skip the mowing). Many of the mixes now incorporate grasses to hold the soil and complement the floral mixtures: they are quite beautiful!

Here is one very thorough guide to planting for pollinators in our biozone….

and another!

unsprayed field edge shutterstockA good pollinator planting will give season-long varied nectars and pollens, here are a few good season-spanning choices we can all add to our gardens and wild spaces:

  1. Spring-flowering heathers
  2. Maples and Hawthorns (and also Sourwood trees/bushes and the Bee Bee Tree, Tetradium)
  3. Dandelions (huge nectar and pollen resource in early spring, let ’em bloom)
  4. Clovers (can be succession sown to extend nectaring period, don’t forget the Sweet Clovers, Melilotus, both annual and biennial)
  5. Fennels, dills, mints, garlic chives, herbs of all kind…let them flower
  6. Catmint…catmint is the single best source of nectar and pollen for honey bees in the urban garden
  7. Rosebay Willowherb (fireweed…a very pretty garden plant)
  8. Phacelia…beautiful, self sows, nectars heavily. Best succession sown.
  9. Malvas (mallows)
  10. Lavenders of all sorts
  11. Joe Pye Weed…comes in a variety of heights now, long bloom period, appeals to a wide range of pollinators
  12. Sedums
  13. Fall flowering, single asters
  14. Caryopteris (Bluebeard, a pretty fall flowering shrub)
  15. Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus)

Give plants to your neighbours, plant in pathways, untended vacant land, anywhere you can tuck in a plant or two! Lobby your municipal, state/provincial governments to plant all areas now in simple grasses in pollinator friendly mixtures. Ask them to stop mowing verges and medians so the wildflowers can bloom. Ask them to landscape with pollinator friendly shrubs and trees.

The second thing you can do to help pollinators is to go organic. Farmers use agri-sprays to reduce their labour costs, and to keep in business.

But if we don’t buy what they spray, they won’t spray it anymore!!!

Search for organically grown fruits, or at least non-pesticide sprayed fruits and vegetables. Pesticides aren’t just bad for the insects, insectivores (like birds and bats) and pollinators, they are bad for people, too. We don’t need them. Buy local, buy sustainable, buy organic…as much and as often as you can. That includes local raw honeys!

Reduce your gasoline consumption: biofuel is used in all gasolines now, and comes from huge, pesticide-laced monoculture corn plantations. These monocultures both starve out and poison bees and pollinators. As quickly as possible we need to move to alternative, clean energy sources.

Reduce your meat consumption: soybeans are the main component of most animal feed, and soybeans are grown in vast, pesticided plantations, just as biofuel corn is. Source grass-fed, free-range meats.

Finally, delight in the wonder that is the natural world. Encourage and support community gardens, kid science programs, and an attitude of caring, responsible stewardship for our planet.

We were given the Garden, let us make it bloom.

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Resource Page

Honey-Bee-And-SunFlowers

Whenever you are out of your depth, stumped, puzzled, or frustrated as a beekeeper, consult some resource persons or sites. Bee clubs often offer mentor programs, and monthly educational presentations.

And there is a wealth of information online!

First year care of your new colony, thanks to Randy Oliver.

A wealth of bee education, here!

And here!

Wax your plastic foundation for quick comb-building! Good experiment here.

Detailed, concise Varroa information.

More good Varroa information.

Effects of Varroa on the colony.

and I have deliberately placed after the Varroa information:

How to conduct an informative post mortem on a dead hive.

And… another post on how to do a good post mortem if you have winterkill.

How to set your hive up for winter.

Excellent winter feed technique that can save your bees.

Great blog on making winter candy supplement for your bees.

Using  Krabby Patties for winter feeding.

And….Spring Management technique.

Guide to medications, good info in spite of being advertising!

Great general purpose microscope for those who wish to learn to identify their own parasites and diseases.

Exhaustive planting list for the coastal Pacific Northwest…don’t forget the the heather,  catmint and Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus)!

Excellent publication on bee nutrition: Fat Bees Skinny Bees, by Doug Somerville

Also for the PacNW, the BC Apiculture calendar of the beekeeping year.

The Washington state beekeepers’ forum…great place to get answers to your beekeeping questions.

Small Hive Beetle information.

Beginning Beekeeping Handbook, University of Kentucky

Some E-Book links! Thanks to Susquehanna Valley Beekeepers

“Observant Beekeeping” by BC Bee Supply, Ian Fraser

Crush and Strain Honey Harvesting (all the backyard beek needs!) by Linda Tillman

Queen Rearing Calendar Generator

Excellent bee video channel

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Equipment

My favourite feeder, the Rapid Feeder, it is the bomb!!! Linda Tilman’s blog on this feeder, here.

My favourite outer cover, the Ultimate Hive Cover.

A nice queen catcher, the One-Handed Queen Catcher, well made and easy to use! photo below

one handed qc

My very favourite bottom board, the brilliant Country Rubes Screened Bottom Board, note it can be adapted to 8 frame boxes: they also have a kickass robbing screen and a small hive beetle refit available.

Observation hive! By Greg S. Long of Corvallis, Oregon. Beautiful woodwork.

And…get a nice tote for all your hiveside beekeeping stuff (especially your epipen and charged cell phone):

tool tote 1

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Exam Notes 7: A Healthy Bee Colony

Clean, thick with bees!
Clean, thick with bees!

In your lives as beekeepers, you will often hear and be asked “why are the bees in trouble?”

There are so many answers to that simple question.

You will be pulled this way and that in your thinking. The treatment free advocates are convinced that if we just raise our bees organically, there will be no bar to colony health. The hive design advocates feel top bar hives and Warré, in which bees are free to draw their own comb as they see fit, will protect bees from diseases and pests via increased natural vigour. Many advocate teas, essential oils, drenches and commercial “natural” preps of all sorts.

As we have discussed often, the bees are in trouble because of the Three Horsemen. Of the Bee Apocalypse.

Varroa destructor mites.

Degraded/reduced forage.

Pesticides and field sprays.

But in our highly disrupted landscape, in the face of worldwide spread of Varroa, the constant disease and pest spread via mobile, treatment heavy pollination operations (super pests and diseases now arriving at your municipality!!!), unsustainable agricultural practices, global warming, pollution, and fear of stinging insects, we as beekeepers must muddle through. We can only do our best.

We cannot change the world, at least not quickly.

But we can be the best stewards possible to our bees…who in the Pacific Northwest are far, far from their ancestral homeland and need our help to thrive in this rainy, cold, urbanized place we call home.

I have often spoken critically of the commercial pollination operations that are treatment heavy and which medicate prophylactically. I have great sympathy for the economic challenges faced by pollination operations and farmers, but I am also aware of the challenges their practices can pose for bees…we can only face facts and beekeep with that in mind.

You will develop your own strategy/philosophy for healthy, ethical beekeeping. Here is the strategy that so far, is working for me:

  1. bees need good nutrition. Between October and March, there is no food and little opportunity to fly for it, thanks to the winter rains. Bees must be “put to bed” with lots of stores on board, both honey and pollen, to get them through. Because we can’t help the bees while they are tucked up for winter, leave a sugar brick on the top bars in case, for some reason, the cluster cannot move sideways to get at their honey stores. There is no virtue in letting your bees starve to death. In their home range they enjoy warm temperatures and year long forage. That is not the case here, and never will be. If you are breeding bees, by all means select for thrift in use of winter stores as one attribute of a desirable bee. But if you are not breeding bees, or running a big survivor project, feed the bees you have.
  2. bees need to be free from pests, in particular the Varroa destructor mite. All other pests and diseases pale beside the horrific impact of Varroa on honey bees. Unless you are running a survivor bee project, which must be set up well outside the flight range of other colonies (to prevent drift of pests and disease on bees fleeing crashing hives in your survivor beeyard), then I think you have an ethical duty both to the bees and to nearby colonies to control effectively for Varroa in particular, and tracheal mites in general…and small hive beetle in areas where they are an issue. IMHO and experience, effectively means using at least formic and oxalic acid treatments, probably three times a season. I see no point in letting mite populations build to a point where there is obvious stress and impact on the bees before treating. We can’t, alas, yet aspire to eradicating the mites. But we can give the bees the maximum freedom from predation possible.
  3. bees need clean homes, principally clean wax in the brood nest. We are discovering more and more sublethal effects of environmental toxins (pesticides, agrichemicals, urban pollution) on bees. The pollution and chemicals seep into the wax, and the eggs and larvae must develop in the toxic cradle of the contaminated comb. So harvest your comb often, and encourage the bees to draw fresh, clean wax every 2 or 3 years at the outside. It makes for less efficient honey harvests, but we owe it to the bees.
  4. bees need winter protection, which here on the coast means winter emergency feed (that sugar brick!), a quilt box to keep them dry, a rain hat to minimize heat loss, and optional wrapping. I fuss, so I wrap.
  5. bees need good forage. Bees are healthiest when they can choose from a wide range of floral nectars and pollens for a balanced diet. Even in urban settings we can replant roofs, byways, lots, medians, gardens and balconies with season long, healthy bee/pollinator forage plants. Farmers, if they won’t go organic, can at least practice bee friendly spray regimes (no drift, night spraying), and plant strips of bee pasture along the margins of fields to feed bees, pollinators and increase the pollination of the field crop. Municipalities can rework all plantings and unused lands to be bee and pollinator friendly. Every piece of fallow land should be planted over as a bee/pollinator pasture. And we need to go organic as consumers!
  6. bees need an attentive beekeeper to offer aid and assistance when disease and pests strike. There is no virtue in letting your bees die from neglect or a remediable condition. Beekeeper assistance includes making some effort to keep lines of bees that are resistant to local pressures ie. weather, pests and diseases. But in bee-dense (=high drift) areas and areas hosting prophylactically treated pollination hives, and areas awash in a yearly intake of non-local (in our case, New Zealand) genes, it is simply impossible and unrealistic (and, I think, cruel) to demand the bees develop to be “locally adapted”. In addition, we have an ethical duty to other beekeepers in our bees’ flight range to prevent disease and pests from our hives traveling to theirs. So bees need frequent inspection to minimize disease and pest issues…note that robbing screens may prevent drift into your hives of diseased or Varroa-laden bees looking for a new home.

Here endeth the lesson. May you find as much joy and peace in your bees as I have. They are indeed what Dr. Tom Seeley so touchingly calls them:              “sparks of wonderment”

May that wonder always be your companion in the beeyard.

Q-23_beekeeper_with_bees

Exam Notes 6: Honey Harvesting and Handling

HoneyJars_20110928When is it time to harvest? Each beekeeper has his personal approach.

The one rule to honey harvesting is: harvest and bottle ONLY cured honey, which by definition is 18% or less water by content.

This can be measured with a refractometer. The rule of thumb in the field is: only process frames of honey that are 90% or more capped over honey. Anything with more open cells can be put back on the hive in the hope the bees will finish filling and capping the cells.

If your honey has a water content over 18%, it can ferment, which ruins the honey. Also note that honey is hygroscopic, if left uncovered it absorbs moisture from the air. In a humid atmosphere, it will rapidly absorb water post harvest, even through the cappings, and be ruined. So process right away or freeze…or make into mead!

Some harvest as the frames are capped out, giving the bees empty comb to fill. Rinse and repeat for a max honey harvest! You can process immediately, or hold your honey frames in a freezer. Honey freezes well and freezing prevents crystallization.

Honey frames can be held until you have enough for a batch process, then rewarmed. Or held until a hive needs a frame of honey…maybe one of your spring hives is light and needs the food, or maybe you are making nucs, which each must have a couple of frames of stores on board.

Some harvest once the honey flow (blackberry in our area) ends. Some harvest between nectar flows, attempting to garner varietal honeys or to at least separate our their honeys into spring honey, summer honey, fall honey. As a rule, there will be very different flavour profiles, appearance and crystallization rates between the different nectar flows!

Locally, our spring honey is usually pale and citrusy with bright herbal notes (likely from maple and hawthorn). The summer honey is golden yellow, rich and buttery (likely from blackberry). The fall honey is darker, with deeper and more sultry herbal and smoky notes (likely from loosestrife and evergreen honeydews).

Once the honey flow is over, the bees may start to draw down the stored honey to eat themselves as the late summer nectar dearth sets in. Some beekeepers keep a hive sensor on at least one hive in the beeyard to track this. Once the bees begin to use their stored honey, the honey is harvested and feeding for winter begins. While it is no doubt better for the bees to eat their own honey, the beekeeper may be depending on honey sales to keep the beeyard funded!

Some beekeepers leave the honey on till the following spring, and only harvest once the spring flow begins. This works well as long as the local honey is not prone to quick crystallization. It is pretty much impossible to process honey crystallized in the comb. Crystallized honey is best fed back to the bees.

Once the honey is processed, either via crush and strain for smaller operations, or via uncapping and extracting in a larger one, you are left with sticky wax cappings. You can add a bit of water to them and feed that back to the bees in your in-hive feeder. You can spread a layer of cappings on top of the inner cover and let the bees clean them up, removing the cleaned wax cappings for melting down into beeswax blocks. You can also spread them on a large pan and let the bees rob the pan in the beeyard. But that risks disease transfer, fighting and robbing.

After straining, bottle your honey in clean, dry jars of your choice and get the lids on right away to prevent moisture absorption and fermentation.

Cut comb honey is produced by using very thin, purpose-made, sheets of wax foundation, which are put on the hive in a strong honey flow. Once drawn out, filled and capped, these frames of honey can easily be cut with a comb honey cutter:

comb-cutters-143-p

Because honey is a food product, keep the honey line tidy and clean, and keep the processing staff tidy and clean too!

Honey will, inevitably, crystallize (great link!!). That does not mean it is bad. You can gently rewarm the honey in a warming cupboard or warm water bath, taking care not to heat it above 40C/140F. Depending on the floral nectar souce, crystallization can be slow or fast…lightning fast! So when your bees are on sources that crystallize quickly, harvest ASAP.

Commercial honeys are heated and micro-filtered to prevent crystallization on the store shelf. That is part of why commercial honeys have less interesting flavour profiles than local raw honeys (the other reason being much of the commercial crop is blended with/derived from clover and canola, mild honeys by nature). Note that canola is almost always GMO seed. Many consumers are not comfortable with GMO foods.

Honey is awesome stuff. And I feel inordinately proud of the honey my bees produce. I help the girls but they do all the work. It is a delight to give jars away, and most people are eager to get a jar of local, raw honey.

It is seductively delicious!

CutChunkCombHoney-938x704