Opening the first hive at Elawa Farm, beekeeper Curt Utterback discovers nobody’s home.
“You want to see 10,000 bees on a frame,” the Lake Forest resident said.
Instead, the beekeeping hobbyist and Elawa volunteer found ants, evidence of mice — they started eating the honeycomb — and one bee that he carefully knocked into an adjoining buzzing hive.
“When we’re honey harvesting, we’ll disassemble that hive and save what’s left for next year,” he said.
Honey harvest takes place in late July and early August, explained the man behind the Curt’s Pure & Natural Honey label sold at the Elawa Garden Market.
A beekeeper since 2009, Utterback and others tend the hives at Elawa. He also lends a helping hand to anyone in the community who has hives or is interested in the hobby of beekeeping.
“On an average year, I help with somewhere between 12 and 15 hives,” he said. “There are some in Elawa and some at different residences around the area. I have some of my own hives, also.”
Utterback likes to give his honey away, especially at Christmas, and gave a couple of cases of his Curt’s-labeled nectar to Elawa to sell at their market. Though he’s been involved in beekeeping just a half-a-dozen years, Utterback loves bees and introducing others to his hobby.
“Once you get past the stings, they’re very amazing insects,” he said.
Before checking the active hives, Utterback donned his light-colored bee suit, goatskin gloves and protective hat with netting. It’s a good thing he did.
“This is what I call a pissy hive,” Utterback said, backing away slowly as the bees from the second hive begin to swarm. “They’re aggressive, very aggressive.”
Aggressive, but productive. Very productive.
“They want to protect the hive, it’s getting late in the year and they don’t want their honey spilled,” he said.
Once the aggressive hive settles, Utterback moves to a second buzzing hive, pulling out full frames from the “supers” — the boxes that sit on top of two thicker hive bodies, where the queen and her brood reside. The queen is restricted from laying eggs in the supers by a metal screen with holes too small for her to fit through.
“This hive did blockbuster work,” Utterback said, lifting full frames and using a special tool to hold them aloft.
Each full super will produce, on average, 30 pounds of honey. Since the aggressive hive has two supers, it will net 60 pounds of honey — that’s 60 1-lb. jars of sweet, golden nectar.
No bees fly at him from the second, more gentle hive. Baby bees, which he identifies by their hair, sit on one frame he removes from a lower hive body.
“The temperament of this hive is calm. The temperament of that hive,” he said, pointing to the neighboring hive, “is ‘protect the honey at all costs.’”
He is pleased with the production of both hives.
“This is as good as it gets,” he said, checking the full frame. “Here is a perfectly-built honey frame. Both sides. You couldn’t ask for a better frame.”
Unlike some beekeepers, Utterback won’t take any action to change the aggressive hive.
“I’ve never had the heart to kill the queen in a good, functioning hive,” he said.
Utterback carefully repositions the frame from the gentle hive back into the hive body, puts the hive body back into position and places the metal screen to keep the queen out before hoisting the two heavy supers one at a time into their original spots.
He places a few bricks on top of the reassembled hives and marvels at what he just found.
“There’s a whole colony there,” he said. “Once you get past getting stinged, it’s amazing to see what 60,000 bees can accomplish.”