Jackets peel off as students enter a hot room in the corner of the Crop Science building (BLDG 17), where the air is thick with the scent of honey. Wooden boxes of various colors full of honey frames line the walls, nearly reaching the ceiling. Bees buzz around just outside the door.
“The hotter it is, the easier it is for the honey to flow,” the teaching assistant of one of Cal Poly’s most popular classes, Beekeeping (PLSC 175), Samuel Dea-Huang said. “That’s why we keep it hot in here and that’s also why I curse Jeremy Rose for putting me in here for hours at a time.”
Each week, five students from the class go into this hot room, known as the honey room, to extract honey from the frames set up by professors Jeremy Rose and Patrick Frazier.
Thanks to the large amounts of rainfall during the winter, there was no problem making honey this year, Rose said. In the past, it was difficult to make a lot of honey due to complications from the drought and the high concentration of bees in the area competing for resources.
“It’s just so highly variable that it’s always a challenge and we are dedicated to making sure it keeps working every year, regardless of how complicated it is,” Rose said.
The amount of honey produced and how quickly the honey is produced depends on how much nectar flow is happening and how many flowers are in bloom. Over the summer, the bees were filling the frames with honey in a matter of days, Dea-Huang said.
According to the Cal Poly Center for Sustainability, the class produces an average of four barrels – or 220 gallons – of honey each year between the fall and spring quarters.
The Cal Poly beekeeping program is able to exist in this capacity thanks to the passion and dedication of its professors.
“I don’t think there are too many other classes offered, not only that are this popular and important, but to where you have two different instructors taking out a full day of their week to come here to teach about something that they’re both passionate about,” Frazier said. “And you get to see both perspectives as someone who’s, you know, a backyard beekeeper slash hobbyist to a commercial beekeeper, too.”
When Rose and Frazier started teaching at Cal Poly in 2018, the program wasn’t nearly as strong as it is now. Rose and Frazier put in many hours of work to get the beekeeping class to the level it’s at now.
According to Frazier, they reinstated the Cal Poly honey program to ensure the honey “is being locally produced and extracted from here on campus, in this area.”
“It’s been a tremendous turnaround for this program,” Frazier said.
Dea-Huang also made a significant effort to support the program. While Frazier and Rose are out in the field with the majority of the students, Dea-Huang works with a small group of students in the honey room to extract honey. Outside of class time, he continues the extraction process, staying as late as 2 a.m. some days.
From hive to jar
The process of making honey begins with the bees. Those in the beekeeping class help to check on the bees and feed them pollen patties and bananas.
Biomedical engineering junior Yuke Billbe is currently taking the class and said it’s something she really enjoys.
“It’s really fun just to get hands-on experience with the bees and we learn a lot about them in class,” she said.
The bees that the students help take care of fill honey frames with honey and seal the honeycombs with wax. Depending on what plants the hive is near, the honey can have different flavors such as raspberry, eucalyptus and blue curl.
Once the frames are full, the wax seals on the honeycombs are scraped off with a fine-toothed metal comb. This step gets very sticky as the honey oozes out onto their hands while they scrape.
“Sticky is a way of life,” Dea-Huang joked.
With their hands covered in honey, everything the students touch gets sticky as well.
“[The honey] really just gets everywhere, like everything is sticky,” Billbe said. “There’s like honey on your knees and you don’t know how it got there.”
Once the frame is completely unsealed, the whole thing is placed into a cylindrical machine called an extractor, regardless of how much honey is actually on it.
“Jeremy’s favorite saying is ‘picture me as extremely desperate,’ so if there’s even a teaspoon of honey in there, we’re throwing that in there,” Dea-Huang said.
Inside the extractor, the frames are spun around fast, flinging the honey onto the walls of the machine. The honey then drips down to a spigot at the bottom and is poured out into a bucket.
When a bucket is full, it is dumped into a 55 gallon metal tank where the unfiltered honey sits for a few days. During this time, any impurities such as wax or dead bees will float to the top where they can easily be skimmed off.
From there, the honey is placed in jars labeled ‘Cal Poly Honey’ and is sold year-round at Campus Market and the Poly Plant Shop.
Cal Poly students are involved in the entire process in a very hands-on way.
“This is, in our opinion, one of the last classes here on campus that’s a learn by doing class,” Frazier said.
The class is open to students of all majors and has consistently had a lot of interest. The class currently has 48 students enrolled, but in the past, according to Frazier, it has had as many as 120 students with 47 different majors represented.
Beekeeping (PLSC 175) will next be offered Spring 2024.