Honey, Honey

Fact: Each honeybee makes about 1/12 teaspoon of honey in her lifetime. (See here http://goldenblossomhoney.com/education_bees.php and here https://www.apexbeecompany.com/honey-bee-facts/ for more bee facts.)

Keep this in mind as you read.

Saturday, we harvested honey from FreeBees, our most productive hive. We took two supers (medium boxes) of ten frames each. Not all the frames were completely full, and not all the honey was capped, but the frames passed the shake test. (When held parallel to the ground and shaken, nothing dripped out.) We also have swapped in an empty large frame for one full of honey in both FreeBees NewBees (twice in NewBees.) We stored two of these in the freezer in case they need them for winter, but decided we wouldn’t be shorting them if we extracted one. It looked much like this one from Buzzers’.

Before extraction day, we did a quick check to see if our queens were laying.

There was brood and larvae in all three hives. In the third picture, you can see a somewhat typical pattern – a rainbow of capped brood, surrounded by nectar and honey. Usually, there’s also an arc of pollen, but lately the girls have been mainly bringing in nectar, though I was glad to see a lot of bright yellow pollen coming in the day after we checked.

All those baby bees need pollen for protein!

We didn’t see any royalty in FreeBees, but there was plenty of evidence she’d been busy (all that capped brood in the above pictures).

And we spotted the queen in both Buzzers’ and NewBees (much easier when she’s sporting a big green dot!) I even managed to snap a few pics of Buzzers’ royalty. I also got a picture of a fat drone begging food. Look at that rotund body and those big eyes! In the pictures above, you can see Buzzers’ capped brood and lots of larvae. If you look closely below, you’ll five baby bees emerging from their cells.

But I promised a post about honey, and you shall have one.

Look between these frames. Some cells were built out to the next frame, causing them to burst and drip with glistening, amber honey.

Before we could harvest that honey, we had to move the bees out of the supers. They are several ways of doing this, but we use an escape board because it seems less intrusive than the other methods (discussed here: https://www.dummies.com/home-garden/hobby-farming/beekeeping/how-to-remove-the-bees-from-the-honey-supers-in-your-beehive/).

On Friday, we inserted an extra super above the queen excluder, put a shim with an opening on top of it, the escape board on top of that, and the honey-filled supers back on top of all the boxes below.

So working upward from the hive stand, it was a deep box, another deep box (both for brood), the queen excluder, an empty honey super, a shim, the escape board, a honey super, a second honey super, the inner cover, and finally, the outer cover. FreeBees towered over the other hives.

Thankfully, The Engineer remembered to block the entrance on the inner cover, or we’d have moved the bees out of the supers only to have them come back in through that entrance.

We left the escape board on for about 36 hours. If left less than 24 hours, most bees won’t have moved down. More than 48, and they begin to figure out how to get back in.

When we opened the hive to take the supers, a few bees remained, but they were easily brushed off as we checked the frames one at a time and put them in a plastic container to carry to the garage.

We placed the escape board below the hive and watched the bees flow like a river back into their home.

I insisted on closing the garage door so we could work without being invaded by every bee in the county. This was the right move because later, when the extraction was done, we opened it to let in some air as we cleaned propolis off the boxes and frames before returning them to the hive.

First, one bee came exploring, then another, then three or four more. We closed the door again when it became clear we’d soon have a garage full of bees if we didn’t.

Here’s a picture of our setup, with the box of frames in the back, our uncapping tank, and the extractor.

If you look closely, you’ll see two screws on the board on the right. These help hold the frame in place as we slice the caps off the cells. This is done with a knife like this one. We heated it with hot water between frames to make it slice more smoothly.

Photo from Queen Right Colonies online catalog (https://www.queenrightcolonies.com/product/uncapping-cold-knife/)

Sometimes, the cappings were set too low to cut without gouging into the frame, so we sliced off what we could, and then scratched openings in the rest with a capping scratcher (kind of a glorified fork with extremely sharp tines).

The uncapped frames go in the extractor, leaving the capping wax and extra honey to drop into the uncapping tank, which strains out the largest pieces of wax, allowing honey to be captured in the tank below.

Next, we crank. And crank. And crank. Then the frames are turned so the opposite sides face the inside of the tank, and we crank some more.

The yellow spigot is used to drain the extractor into a clean bucket through a strainer or two. We used a colander set inside a second colander that was lined with cheesecloth.

This works, but it’s a bit convoluted, so I bought a proper honey filter like this one for next time. It’s two strainers in one, a coarse one on top a finer one.

Photo also from Queen Right (https://www.queenrightcolonies.com/product/double-sieve-stainless-steel-honey-strainer/)

Once all the honey was extracted, we bottled. The Engineer calculated our harvest at about 59 pounds, but I think it was actually more because we used odd sized jars, and were guesstimating their weight.

I began the beeswax rendering process by putting the cappings in a 200* F oven in a large metal bowl. When the wax floated to the top, it left behind enough honey to fill another jar or two.

When it cooled, the bottom of the wax looked like this.Yesterday, I tried to scrape the gunk off, then put it back into a container, adding boiling water to separate the good stuff. It didn’t work too well, so I fell back on my old method of heating it on a burner at the lowest heat (watching it like a hawk), and then straining throw a clean cloth.

This works ok (see above), but next time, I plan to try crushing it all in cheesecloth, and pouring boiling water over it. In theory, the cheesecloth is supposed to hold in the yuck, allowing the wax to escape. I’ll let you know how it works.

I also strained the honey from the bottom of the uncapping tank. Since there was less, I did it inside with a colander and sieve (balanced precariously) on the kitchen counter.It was enough to fill these bottles. We cleaned up most of the mess on Saturday, first with the hose in the yard, then with hot sudsy water and a rinse, followed by a swish with a weak bleach solution to sanitize everything.

I washed the remaining items inside with sudsy water, a hot rinse, and boiling water from my kettle to sterilize.

Extracting with an extractor is definitely better than the crush and strain method we used last year, but it was the right decision to wait to buy one. The investment in money and cleaning time wouldn’t have be worth it for just a frame or two.

I’m pretty sure our bee club loans out an extractor, and you can rent them, but we (I) ended up buying the bees their very own for Christmas last year, a gift-giving practice that will not become a tradition. It was on sale for $200-something last fall, so it’s not a cheap investment.

Still, we expect to get at least some honey from Buzzers’ and maybe another frame or two from NewBees, so renting one would have been about $50 just for those two occasions.

Long May She Reign!

News flash: The queen lives on!

Perhaps we owe thanks to the previous queen for blessing our hive with easygoing offspring who acted against instinct and didn’t kill their would-be monarch. Maybe this queen possesses some extra-strong pheromones. Or it could be the stars just aligned in her favor. We know this apparent miracle isn’t due to skill or knowledge on our part.

But when we finally opened the hive today to see what was going on, this is what we found. IMG_0072
Notice anything?

If you look very closely, you’ll see two different kinds of bees, darker Carniolans from our previous queen and lighter yellow ones from the new Italian one.

In the second picture, you might even see that the new yellow bees seem a little fuzzier.

IMG_0073

Below, you’ll see larvae and capped brood, and the difference between the two races is more distinct.

IMG_0074

What we never saw was the queen, whom we’re calling “The Red Queen” because she was originally marked with red — this year’s color. Unfortunately, that mark disappeared by the time we released her, which is partly why we didn’t spot her.  (Our last queen was marked yellow, but we never called her anything but “The Queen.”)

I’ll admit the hive has seemed quite active for one filled with winter survivors. And you probably won’t believe this, but a few days ago, I saw a bee fly past our kitchen window and noticed it wasn’t dark like ours from last year. I went out to watch the foragers entering and leaving the hive, but when I didn’t see any yellow bees, I assumed the one I’d seen was from a wild hive somewhere.

Then today, before our inspection, The Engineer mentioned he’d seen some yellow bees around the hive.

Did we dare hope? All the books said a hive with laying workers would kill a new queen.

And yet … and yet … they didn’t.

This just proves once again the old beekeepers are right: Bees don’t read the books. IMG_0075
Here’s another picture of our diversely populated hive. (It does make you wonder, doesn’t it? If two races of bees can get along, why can’t people?)

We also saw several drones. I managed to get a picture of one for you, and even more amazingly, managed to mark it with an arrow so you can see him.IMG_0076
Notice how he’s bigger, with huge eyes. That’s to find a queen to mate with. Other than that, they kind of blunder around begging food from the workers.

<insert joke about males and their food and sex-seeking behavior here>

All the activity was going on upstairs in the honey super we left on for the winter. (If you wonder about our reasons for that, please read my earlier posts). The bottom deep box has only drawn comb and honey.

This is not how it should be, so we’re having a think about how we’re going to remedy this. We’ll go in again on Saturday if weather permits and do some rearranging. Then, we’ll treat for Varroa with Mite Away Quick Strips, followed by a sticky board count and a sugar roll and/or alcohol wash.

I’ll keep you posted.

Thanks to my friend, Kate (from the blog “Tall Tales From Chiconia”) for this post’s title. She writes about quilting and life in the Land Down Under.

 

Cautiously, Infinitesimally, Almost Imperceptibly Hopeful (for About a Day)

As you read this, please be sure to read the updates to get a true picture of what’s happening in our hive.

If there were a scale called “Chances Our Bees Will Survive the Winter,” it might look like this:

1__________________________________5_____________________________10
Bees will certainly die.                  Bees might not die.                 Bees will certainly live.

Following the Yellow Jacket raid two weeks ago, I would have put our girls at about 1.5.
After this week’s hive inspection, however, I think they’re closer to a 3, perhaps even a 3.5.

They have some brood. It’s spotty, but I think that may be normal with winter approaching. I know the queen slows down on laying eggs this time of year so there are less mouths to feed during winter. And we have baby bees hatching and some larvae. We also spotted the queen, which is always reassuring. IMG_2864
The caps on the cells aren’t as nice as earlier in the season, which was a bit worrying, so we checked for American Foulbrood (AFB) this week. The larvae in the caps we opened weren’t discolored and didn’t “rope out,” so we don’t have to burn all our equipment.

Yes, AFB is that bad. Its spores can live up to 70 years on equipment, and it’s lethal. (Click the link, and the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs will tell you all about the disease.)

So, no burning necessary. That’s a relief.

Update: Sassafras Bee Farm very kindly sent me an email with some bad news. Our bees almost certainly have Parasitic Mite Syndrome (PMS). Here’s a link to some information on this syndrome, with lots of pictures that look exactly like our hive.

This week, there’s also been a great deal of wrestling going on in front of the hive, with bees dragging other bees out of the hive and dropping them on the ground, sometimes even flying away with them (to drop them elsewhere, I guess).
At first, we thought the hive was being raided … again, and our bees were protecting the hive — another worry. But our girls weren’t stinging the bees they tossed out.

It reminded me of that scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. You know, “I’m not dead yet!”

If you haven’t seen it, click the link above for the clip.
I’ll wait.

Funny, eh?

I can be a little dense, but eventually I realized what was happening. The worker bees were getting rid of the drones. They didn’t need to sting the evicted bees because drones don’t have a stinger and can’t sting back.

As you may know, drones don’t do much except fly to a Drone Congregation Area (DCA) and hang around, hoping to mate with a queen. (I’ve linked to Honeybee Suite here, partly for the description of DCAs and partly because I liked the comments.) There’s at least one DCA in England that is documented as having been in the same place for centuries.

Here’s a blog post from a guy who went in search of one that was written about in the late 1700s.

He found it too. Pretty amazing, if you ask me!

The mating process breaks a drone in two.
At least they go out with a bang. (Sorry!)

Since drones take up valuable resources with no immediate benefits to their hive, a hive won’t create male bees until it can support them.

But who makes that decision?

Not the queen.  Her job is laying eggs, and she does so according to the size of the cell — fertilized for workers in smaller cells, unfertilized for drones in larger cells.

Not the drones. We’ve established that they’re only good for one thing. (And I’m not, repeat not, drawing conclusions about any other species based on bees!)

So who decides the size of the cells? The worker bees.
And don’t they deserve that privilege? They’re called workers for a reason, and it’s a simple one. They do all the work.

Okay, okay, the queen labors too. Spending your life laying eggs and then being made to swarm or being killed by a usurper is work too. “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” and all that.

But, I digress.

Back to the workers. Guess what? They also chose when to create queen cells and raise new queens when they deem it time to swarm or replace the old queen.

Talk about the power of the sisterhood!

The boys? Not so much power. If a drone doesn’t mate by the time fall comes around, he’s kicked to the curb. His sisters quit feeding him, making him weak, and all that much easier to wrestle out of his home.

Judging by the state of the wings of some of the drones we saw on the ground, I think the girls may chew the wings of their bros, as well.

Yeah. It’s a rough life for a bee. Workers work themselves to death. Drones mate and die or get kicked from their hive and die. Queens lay eggs their whole life, and then are killed or forced to swarm (and then die later).

So, let’s change the subject and look at some pictures.

IMG_2886The Engineer took this picture of a showdown. I’m pretty sure it’s a worker making sure a drone doesn’t come back in the hive. Drones are usually bigger than worker bees, which isn’t the case here, but their eyes are also much bigger. This is more obvious in the picture below. The blog, Gerry’s Bees, has a nice picture showing the usual differences. Update: Sassafras Bee kindly pointed out that the big-eyed bee is NOT a drone, but a worker with Deformed Wing Virus. IMG_2885
In the seven days since our last inspection, the bees also produced a lot more honey. IMG_2879
It’s so beautiful; I couldn’t stop taking picturesIMG_2881
IMG_2882
IMG_2878
This last picture is of the honey they’ve made on one of the drone foundations we put in last month to try to help with the Varroa infestation. The queen laid a few drones on it, but the next time we checked the hive, our bees were saving nectar in both drone frames. We left them in, and now they are full of honey.

Notice on the bottom of the picture there are bees hanging off one another in sort of a cluster. They frequently do this between frames as we remove the frames to inspect, clinging to each other in a living bee chain until the distance becomes so great they are forced to let go. The phenomenon is called “festooning,” and here’s a great photo of what it looks like (from Honeybee Suite).

The Engineer and I have been working too, learning what we can do to aid our girls in getting through winter. Yesterday, we attended an all-day class on “The Hardest Season.” We came away with a much longer “to-do list” than we went in with.

And now, I’m cautiously, infinitesimally, almost imperceptibly hopeful we can help — or at very least, not hinder — their chances of survival.

On a scale of one to ten, I’d give us a 4, mostly for effort. 🙂

Update: While I’d still give us a 4 for effort, I’m not sure anything we do will save our hive. We may be starting fresh in spring. Feeling down about this, and there’s nothing slight, cautious, or infinitesimal about the emotion.

 

 

 

 

 

I Just Saw a Baby Honey Bee, or One Step Forward, One Step Back

During our last full hive check, The Engineer noticed this girl making her first appearance as a fully grown bee. Seeing this was definitely a high point in our beekeeping experiences so far.

 

We’ve continued looking in on our girls each week, though last week was devoted to a sugar roll, which unfortunately yielded a few more mites than is optimal. Our bee guru has advised us to insert our drone frames and sprinkle the frames with powdered sugar. We will then remove those frames sometime after two weeks, but before three weeks pass and the bee larvae hatch.

Because the drone growth cycle more closely mimics that of the Varroa Mites, the mites prefer to lay their eggs in drone cells, thereby affording their own offspring a better chance at survival.

This, of course, is the opposite of what we want.

By inserting drone frames, we will promote the raising of drones and the laying of Varroa Mite eggs on those drones. Thus, when we remove the frames, we will have a better idea of how many mites are in the hive, and at the same time (hopefully) decimate a portion of their next generation.

That this will also decimate the drone larvae is of little consequence. They don’t do much anyway and will be kicked to the curb before winter anyway. (In the honey bee world, drones are a bit of a luxury.)

The most important thing about using drone frames — and I’m not sure I can stress this enough — is to REMOVE THE DRONE FRAMES BEFORE THE DRONES (and Varroa) HATCH!

Yes, I’m shouting. It’s that crucial.  Should something happen and the frames not be taken out in time, we would not only have an overabundance of drones, we would also have an explosion of mites!

After we uncap the cells and take a look, the frames will be popped into the freezer for twenty-four hours and returned to the hive to start the process again.

Now you may be wondering why we would sprinkle the bees with sugar. The answer is simple. Honey bees like sweet stuff. They’re also very clean. Getting coated in sugar will encourage them to clean one another, which we hope will result in more Varroa deaths.

So our next hive check will be focused on the Varroa issue.

In other news, our Beetle Jail has been doing its job, having caught five of the little black nasties on our most recent check. The Beetle Blaster was less successful, and has been replaced with another Jail. We are currently using a bait mix of mashed banana, honey, fake pollen and water, which has added to the traps’ effectiveness. (I think that was the whole recipe. If you’re interested, leave a comment, and I’ll double-check.)  We tried cider vinegar first and didn’t catch anything.

Alas, the “nuclear option” for Yellow Jackets was not as effective, probably because my trap design was faulty.  In trying to not unleash death on any living creatures other than the would-be yellow raiders, I think I made the holes too small. (The traps did, however, catch an inordinate amount of flies.) I’m crossing my fingers that the commercial traps we hung have made enough of a dent in the Yellow Jacket population to keep them out of our hive.

Now we come to this week’s “one step forward, one step back” part of the saga. When we did the last full check, I developed a sinking feeling that they haven’t put enough by for the winter, even though we’ve continued to feed them.

Before all you experienced beekeepers come down on us for doing this, hear me out. First this is a new hive, one that had just begun to store honey before we left town for ten days, which also happened to be the beginning of the late summer nectar dearth. I’d much rather feed our bees and have them make it through the winter than take a chance on weaning them too early.

Could we be wrong? Of course. It won’t be the first time, and I’m sure it won’t be the last time we make the incorrect decision concerning the girls.

Anyway, I thought it prudent to replace our pint jar feeder at with a bigger one. And since we’d planned on getting an observation lid with a built-in feeder for the winter, I went ahead and invested (one step forward).

The only problem is the new lid doesn’t have an opening/upper entry. After only a few days, we’ve concluded it’s better suited for winter use (one step back), especially since Goldenrod season was nearly upon us and the bees would want that extra opening for quick access to the honey supers.

Well, the Goldenrod is now in bloom, and I wish you could have seen the hive yesterday! It was a blur of activity, with every other bee just loaded with pollen. Unfortunately for you, I didn’t follow through on that wish in the form of a still photo, only marking the occasion by video. And though it rained most of today, severely hampering the workers’ ability to forage, I have no doubt they’ll be back out tomorrow. (Maybe I’ll manage a picture of the action for my next update.)

This weekend, we will put in the drone frames, do the sugar sprinkle, and go back to the original telescoping top cover and inner cover. We’ll also check the honey and pollen stores and perhaps (finally!) remove the food.

I’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, here a few more of my bee photos to tide you over.