Exploring all that goes into locally produced honey seemed like a fine idea. But when it came time to observe the workings of Fern Hill Apiary in Marshall, a stinging reality set in.
Bees. Lots of bees.
My fears soon abated, however, probably because of owner Michael Rininger’s calm reassurances that the creatures weren’t “interested” in us. That I was wearing long white jeans, a white long-sleeve shirt buttoned up to my chin and a protective veil helped, too. Though Rininger’s wife, Donielle, had advised me to wear head-to-toe white — bees aren’t attracted to the color, she explained — her husband greeted me in green shorts and a T-shirt. Gloveless.
“I’ve been stung so many times, I hardly even notice now,” he shrugged.
Barely an hour after arriving at Fern Hill on a 90-degree day in June, I poked my naked index finger into a wooden frame half-covered with busy bees, breaking through a pure white, ultra-thin layer of fresh beeswax to return with a dollop of pale golden, delicately floral honey. Pleasant, not in the least bitter or cloyingly sweet. It doesn’t get much fresher than that.
The Riningers, both in their early 40s, describe themselves as hobbyist beekeepers. He’s a full-time telephone technician and installer. She works part-time for an association management firm and tends the couple’s children: Wade, 9, and Jake, 6.
“Michael does most of the beekeeping, and I do the boy-keeping,” she jokes.
Interested in bees since he was a boy, Rininger bought his first three colonies in 2004. Now he and his wife maintain 17 colonies: a dozen on their five-acre property and five others placed with friends around Fauquier County. That way, if bears wipe out the Fern Hill colonies, they have others from which to rebuild.
Before heading to the colonies, Michael Rininger points out the basics. First, he notes that there are two ways to acquire bees. You can buy packages that include three pounds of random bees (about 10,000), sugar syrup and a random queen, but he prefers the other approach — getting miniature working colonies from a local producer — because the bees are acclimated to local conditions and to each other.
Rininger advocates raising bees naturally, meaning he doesn’t use chemicals, such as miticides. Even so, “there’s no such thing as ‘organic’ honey,” he says. “We don’ t use any chemicals in our colonies, but bees forage. Who knows what the bees are getting at the neighbors’?”
In Rininger’s opinion, the fact that bees forage within a three-mile radius of their colony means that most honey would rightly be deemed wildflower honey, as Fern Hill’s is, unless producers have so much land planted with one nectar source (a little over 8,000 acres’ worth, he estimates) that they can know a honey’s precise provenance.
The taste of wildflower honey changes from year to year, depending on climate conditions and the nectar flows of the various flora that endow a honey with a distinctive imprimatur. Donielle counts black locust, clover, autumn olive, dandelion, chicory, Joe-Pye weed and tulip poplar among the plants that influence their honey’s flavor profile.
“Black locust is very light, almost clear. Tulip poplar is darker, almost black,” she says. “This year, there was not much of a tulip poplar bloom here but an excellent black locust bloom, so we should have a little lighter taste, which is good.”
Still, with all the different species that go into their honey, Donielle says, its taste doesn’t change much from year to year.
“We use it in our granola and our two wheat breads when we can get it,” says Brian Noyes, owner of Red Truck Bakery in Warrenton. “It’s a nice, thick honey and adds a flowery, yet subtle, taste to our product.”
Fern Hill’s honeys are available at some retail outlets around Marshall, including Barrel Oak Winery in Delaplane and Great Harvest Bread in Warrenton. (Other regional honey producers abound; some can be found online, as can Fern Hill Apiary, at www.buylocalvirginia.org.)
In the Riningers’ back and side yards are 12 colonies, each occupying a stack of wooden boxes. About 18 inches wide, 2 feet long and 6 1/2 inches high, the boxes contain wooden frames that hang parallel to each other. Each frame is outfitted with a sheet of honeycomb-celled wax held in place by thin wires.
The lower boxes, called hive bodies, are dedicated to the continued operation of the hive. There, the queen — one per colony — lays the eggs that will become either drones or worker bees; the wax cells hold them as they develop. The cells in the upper boxes, called supers, are used only for honey production.
A colony in the middle of summer, says Rininger, numbers 60,000 to 80,000 bees, 98 percent of which are worker bees. Workers bring nectar, pollen and water to the hive, guard it, scout new locations, make wax, feed developing larvae and keep the hive cool in the summer and warm in the winter, maintaining the temperature around the queen at 92 degrees even if it’s 20 below outside. The drone’s sole purpose in life is to mate with a queen from another colony, then die after the act.
In a good year, a colony can yield 200 pounds of honey; 100 is the norm. But, says Rininger, 60 pounds of it must be left behind to get the bees through the winter without starving or freezing. (Bees won’t leave the hive until the outside temperature is above 52 degrees.)
Touring his colonies with me, Rininger lifted off the outer covers and used a hand-held smoker with lighted hay inside; a small bellows kept it going. The smoke suppresses the pheromones by which bees communicate danger to one another, rendering them docile while he pried frames from top and bottom boxes to inspect them. He pointed out the newly formed sheets of white wax over honey-filled cells; the bees cap the honey once enough moisture has evaporated from it to prevent fermentation. He showed me other wax-capped cells where bees were pupating. His trained eye easily spotted tiny eggs and larvae.
Moving the honey-laden boxes around can be taxing for Rininger, who has lower back pain so chronic that he has performed apitherapy, or bee-venom therapy, on himself by administering bee stings to inflamed areas.
On their Web site, FernHillApiary.com, the Riningers say there is anecdotal evidence that continuing consumption of unpasteurized honey might provide relief from seasonal allergies, provided the honey comes from your locality.
I returned to the apiary this month to watch the honey extraction, which, because of the mess involved, the Riningers prefer to do just once a year. The process starts with Michael lugging heavy, honey-dripping frames to a netted tent, then using a heated trowel-like knife to slice away the beeswax caps. The frames are placed in a stainless-steel centrifuge that releases the honey, which Donielle then passes successively through coarse, medium and fine strainers.
“It’s a long, hot, strenuous day,” says Donielle, “but extremely satisfying. My favorite part of the day is the first time I open the honey gate on that extractor and get those first drips of liquid gold.”
Having received the first offerings of their 2011 harvest, I returned home to use it in recipes. The honey’s floral notes immediately made me think of the perfumey syrups used to soak baklava. It was a brutally hot day, and the thought of making ice cream came to mind.
I infused cream with pistachios and walnuts, cinnamon, rose water, vanilla, cardamom and a dash of cayenne pepper. For sweetness, Fern Hill’s honey had more complexity than lavender or orange blossom honey would have, so it was a welcome substitute for sugar. I used more of it to swirl into the final product, finding that frozen honey becomes delightfully gooey.
An early idea wound up being overkill: to make cups of layered phyllo dough and nuts, then serve the ice cream in them. Instead, I rolled up the pastry, cut it into batons and made baklava cookies to offer on the side.
Next, I composed a light summer appetizer of prosciutto, fresh figs, farmer’s cheese, basil and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar, all topped with a chunk of comb honey, like a cherry on a sundae.
Then I reworked an old favorite by marinating chicken thighs in soy sauce, garlic and hot pepper sauce before coating then with honey and sesame seeds. The result: a lacquered, juicy, crunchy, easy main-course dish.
That evening, Donielle Rininger sent an e-mail telling me that their yield this year was 600 pounds of honey: 250 pounds more than last year’s. Plus enough wax to make at least a few dozen candles.
That’s certainly plenty to buzz about.
Got honey questions? Hagedorn will join today’s Free Range chat at noon: washingtonpost/com/liveonline.