The little jars making their way around campus this summer seem to glow. Held up to the light, they radiate a phosphorescent visualization of life created by thousands of bees and a few dozen Bruin Beekeepers.

The group, which started in 2018, has developed a thriving apiary atop the Life Sciences building. It has taken years of cultivation to get to the first harvest, which started early on a Saturday morning cloaked in June gloom.

The harvest starts the same way an inspection would, with trained student beekeepers lighting up a handheld smoker. The smoker resembles a cross between an oil can and a lantern. Fueled by pine needles, the smoke calms and distracts bees while the boxes that house their hives are taken apart.

Inside those boxes are dozens of frames, the simple wooden rectangles that give bees a place to store nectar. Once that nectar thickens, bees cap the cell with wax, creating what non-experts would understand as a honeycomb. 

When bees are at their busiest, often in spring and early summer, beekeepers will add additional frames known as “honey supers” to the hives, giving workaholic bees a place to store excess honey.

Once an expert like Bonny Bentzin, the Bruin Beekepers’ advisor and UCLA’s deputy chief sustainability officer, determines that honey stores are sufficient, harvesting can begin.

“Producing honey is hyper local,” Bentzin said. “We know what’s in it. It gives you an appreciation for where your food is coming from. We’ve gotten used to the idea that we can eat whatever we want whenever we want relatively cheaply. This is a way to reinstill value and restore reverence for our food supply.”

The valuable supply of honey was hand carried down from the rooftop aviary into a collection room that grew stickier as the morning progressed. The frames, laden with honey, are heavy. Beekeepers scrape off the wax layer that caps the honeycombs before the frames are dropped into a centrifuge by staff advisor Rey Soto. The honey is then spun from the comb, dripping down the interior sides of the drum to a spigot below.

Once it emerges through the spigot, the honey trickles through two screens to remove debris.

It's a slow process. And the honey needs still more time.

Honey is filtered through two screens to remove debris.
Mitch Jacobson
Honey is filtered through two screens to remove debris.

“It has to sit for a while so the wax cappings and the occasional dead bee or whatever can come up to the top,” Soto said. After that, we’ll get the nice, good, pure honey.

The Bruin Beekeepers product is indeed pure – likely purer than some of the honey you might purchase, Bentzin said.

“When you’re buying from a large producer, they might be pulling honey from another country,” Bentzin said. “If they’re doing mass bottling, odds are it’s not straight honey. Research shows that.”

Research is among the group’s missions, along with beekeeper certification and sustainability education.

The honey, four gallons in all, is destined for Bruin Beekeeper supporters and the Community Programs Office.