100 Years of Honey

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Spencer Marshall comes from a long lineage of farmers. Born in McMinville, Oregon, Spencer’s family farmed many things, but surprisingly, least of all the now ubiquitous grapes of the Willamette Valley. His grandmother kept bees, arousing Spencer’s interest at a young age and unwittingly setting him along a path of that would keep their family in the beekeeping business over one hundred years.

Eventually the family moved to Lodi and began a dairy farm. Spencer’s move from Oregon, to Lodi, and ultimately to full-time beekeeping was no orchestrated unfolding. A quick tangent: on a recent visit to Point Reyes Farmstead, their dairy manager Brannon Areias – a fourth-generation rancher from the Central Valley- was asked how he felt about the family business of farming, he replied, “it’s a blessing and a curse.”

It’s a message we’ve heard repeatedly (though not always explicitly) from farmers, and Spencer was no different. In his early adulthood, he’d spent some time away from his family’s farm outside of Lodi, dabbling in schooling and carpentry in the Bay Area. In a critical moment for his family, his father suffered a debilitating injury leaving Spencer with the “decision” of taking over the family business, he obliged. Once back on the ranch he rekindled his old love affair of beekeeping, setting the stage for an eventual move to Marin County and the formation of Marshall’s Honey.

Spencer and his wife, Helene (who has given herself that apt moniker, “the beekeeper’s wife” is a  capable and energetic partner. She’s a San Francisco native who seems perfectly suited to function in the somewhat frenetic world of professional beekeeping. Helene and Spencer are both as sweet as they honey they sell.

For many beekeepers like Marshall’s, the business is rarely just about managing a single plot of land and harvesting honey. More often, they seek out favorable microclimates near plenty of attractive flowers that will ultimately make their job easier (and more delicious). For the keeper, multiple sites mitigates the risk of having all of your bees in one place (a pest or drought goes from not ideal to ruinous). It also provides more diversity and character to the honey, and often times, it a symbiotic income for whomever owns the land in said microclimate.
Honey is one of those things that you think you understand until you are actually forced to ask of yourself, ‘how exactly is this made?’ You are not alone. After spending a day with Spencer and Helene, here are a couple worthwhile bits about the Marshall’s, honey, and Marshall’s Honey.

Wax Off? 
Wax is melted to make candles or to sell by the pound. It’s food grade. Some chefs use it for making canelés, a French pastry that is cooked in a mold and uses a bees wax coating to maintain its seductive ridged configuration. If you’d like more info on canelés, San Francisco restaurateur Pim Techamuanvivit has written a brilliant summary and methodology of the pastry.

Did you know….
Honey is heavier than water. if a jar holds two fluid oz of water, it hold three oz of honey. In other words, a 16 oz jar can holds 24 oz. of honey. It’s all about evaporation.

Hands On
Each bottle of Marshall’s honey is bottled by hand. Sergio, a proud and friendly and employee, gave us a demonstration on just how proficient he is at filling. His precision in filling those jars sans sticky was one of the most impressive parts of the whole operation. No pumps, no pipes, no mess.

Bee Breeding
There are many considerations in breeding bees. In the 90’s “Yugoslavian Bees” were bred in the U.S. because of their resistance to mites. Spencer, who sometimes breeds these bees, notes they are productive, fairly benign and explosive in the spring. Over time, there is a natural selection of sorts, in which the bees that are best suited to the environment, and the palate of the beekeeper are the ones that ultimately win out. The final result is some sort of hybrid of multiple breeds.

How is Honey Made?
As the naming of many local honeys implies, honey comes from flowers. Bees take nectar from all sorts of flowers, and return it to their hive where its used as a primary source of food – particularly in winter months. Through a process of synchronized regurgitation, followed by an evaporation period (no water means no bacteria and extra gooey delicious density), honey is made.

It is quite an astonishing process really. Imagine: thousands of bees digesting beautiful flower nectar, that’s been stored in their custom bee bellies, where they’ve got a special enzyme that synthesizes the nectar into honey.

If that weren’t mind-blowing enough, they then deposit the honey into cells of the honeycombs, where, in unison, they fan their wings to help dry the honey (otherwise, it could be met with ambient yeast and the bees would then be in the business of making mead). Once dry, they seal the cells with wax and carry on. Utterly remarkable.

Extraction
Now, depending on volume, there are multiple ways in which the honey can be extracted. The Marshall’s use a machine called….an extractor. Before the extractor, there is an equally spectacularly-named machine called an “uncapper.”

Uncappers come in different shapes and sizes, but essentially they puncture the wax cells containing honey. Over its violent shaking and droning, Spencer proudly declared yelled that he’s had this machine since the 70’s (above) and that it still works perfectly.

After the cells have been opened via the uncapper, the racks are slipped into a big whirling machine that sort of works like the tumble dry setting of a dryer. The machine goes into a sweeping circular motion, flinging the remaining honey from the punctured wax cells. It is collected by the bucket full at the base of the machine, then filtered.

The drought was too much for the bees last year.
Without exception, each farm we’ve visited this year has mentioned the effects of the drought on their crop and/or farming practices. None of the stories are good, but Spencer’s account of the drought was particularly heartbreaking.

He claimed that in his 40 years of beekeeping, he’d never seen anything close to last/this year’s drought. Even in years where water was scarce, he never worried about starvation because of the big blue gum trees that littered the property just outside of Napa. He was aware that this drought was a particularly trying one – so is anyone who’s made their living off of our thirsty soils – but says he was caught “flat-footed” this year because his blue gums didn’t bloom, and there was no nectar for his bees. The Marshall’s lost 60% of their bees from their American Canyon apiary.

Future Queen Bees
Spencer is remarkably even about the whole thing. They do have several other hives, so this is not to say they lost 60% of their business, but again, it really puts into perspective how unprecedented this drought is. We’ll have to wait and see what becomes of next year’s blue gums and honey harvest.

Category: Eat