Archives for category: beehives

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Usually, we don’t put the jackets on the bee hives until December. But we don’t usually have temperatures in the teens and a foot of snow until late December. (Okay–I’m exagerating with the foot of snow–we aren’t there yet–but we will be by tomorrow if the forecast is correct.)

There’s a sweet spot with winter bees, between 37 and 43 degrees Fahrenheit, at which it’s cool enough for them to be ‘semi-dormant,’ but warm enough not to make excessive demands on their stores of winter honey. Usually, at this time of year the hives stay ‘in the zone,’ without insulation.

Then as the winter catches its stride and cools, we suit up for the duration.

Usually.

According to the prognosticators, this is just a cold snap. They say December will be mild. But right now, the bees could use some extra help. So, today was a lovely day to do a little winterizing, in a light snowfall.

(If things seem a little out of order, yesterday I was gardening–in the snow–puting in bulbs for spring. It felt like, if I didn’t do it then, I wouldn’t get another chance until April. Those new gardens are now under seven inches–so maybe I was right.)

So much for usual in the weather department.

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There, snug for winter. (We have just the two hives populated this year.)

 

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It’s pretty, though.

 

Today was the big day. We’ve been watching the weather and today was possibly the last day. Tonight it will rain buckets. Tomorrow the temperatures begin to fall, and we’ll descend into winter-like weather. Of course, It could warm up again, later in November. But there’s no guarantee. So today was the day that we had to winterize the bees.

This year, we’ve done everything “right.” We kept a lid on our varroa numbers. We fed them through the dearth of autumn. (Though, in reality, they continued to bring in resources well into October and didn’t eat much of what we gave them.) And, because studies show that smaller hives fare better in winter, today we completely took their hives apart and reconfigured them for winter. We also harvested some honey for ourselves–but not that much.

We have two hives this year. One is a ‘pedigreed’ hive–fancy Saskatraz bees from out of Canada. They have a reputation for being especially winter hardy and resistant to the dreaded varroa mites. The other is a swarm hive–local mutts. They came from a swarm hive that our friends have kept, for years now. So we know they can over-winter in Michigan’s cold climate. The swarm bees are pretty mellow. The pedigreed bees have a pedigreed attitude. We paid good money to get bees who think that they are better than we are. We suit up fully when we open that hive.

Or, almost.

Bees are not always organized about how they occupy a hive. It’s their home, their choice. But what you want going into winter, (as a beekeeper) is bees in the bottom, with densely packed honey above them for their winter stores. That isn’t always what they provide. Sometimes the frames will be only partially filled, or only built out on one side, but not the other, or having some of the cells uncapped and “wet,” that is, not fully evaporated down to the 17% moisture level that makes it honey. Capped honey never goes bad. Uncapped wet “honey” can ferment.

So our job today was to tear apart the hives and inspect, frame by frame, and to rebuild the hives with the best, fullest, honeycomb frames above the bottom, deep super, that will start as their home for the winter. As the winter progresses, they’ll eat the honey stored directly above them, and move up in the hive as they eat their way through the winter.

Our work today was a pretty invasive process and the bees were not impressed. We want the total hive (bees plus adequate winter stores) to be as small as possible, because the bees have to heat it, with just their body heat. A cavernous hive with spotty honey resources peppered through it is not a good recipe for  winter survival. As extra insurance, we put hard sugar “candy” up in the very top of the hive, just in case the bees consume more in the winter than we’d estimated.

We started with the pedigreed hive. As anticipated, they were pissy about the invasion, and we had to smoke them aggressively. We were wearing full body bees suits, topped with heavy leather gloves. It was cool, about 54 degrees (F), so most of the bees were home.  We won’t open a hive under 50 degrees–the bees will lose too much needed heat. The air was full of peeved bees. We were covered with bees. When a hive is alarmed the tone changes–the low hum of a happy hive picks up to a loud whine. We tried to work quickly.

At one point, a bee discovered my Achilles heel. I stupidly wore thin socks. The bee stung my ankle, right through that thin sock. There was nothing to do, but press on. It was, after all, the last day. It was my fault, really. I never wear thin socks when working the bees. What was I thinking? Just as we were closing up the Saskatraz hive, another bee found my other ankle. Damn. Well, at least it’s a matched set.

The swarm hive was much calmer. They didn’t like the invasion, but their pitch never ramped up to that warning whine. We’d worked out a system by then, pulling and examining each frame and sorting which ones were best to pack back into the hive for the bees. Those swarm bees made the chore a pleasure. It’s amazing how different two hives, side by side, can be in terms of temperament.

We finished and carted our tools and our harvested honey back down the hill to the house. We had to stop, several times on the way down, to brush bees off of us. It’s best to leave the bees at the hives. You really don’t want angry bees hanging around, or on you when to start to strip down out of your gear. Finally, when everything was put away, I could settle in to tend to my swelling ankles. Now, with the help of a hot cider, with just a touch of Irish whiskey in it, I can put my feet up and reflect on the success of the day. Ready for winter. Nearly perfect. Marred only a little my my failure to dress for the occasion.

(Sorry, no pics, my hands were busy.)

I’ve Taken Up Smoking

I’d always avoided it before. Smoking seemed, well, filthy, and unfair. Instead, I’ve just girded myself for those high stress, even invasive, situations. Sometimes I used aroma therapy, a light mist of mint–it seemed calming. But not enough. So now I’m smoking.

We have two very large hives. We will probably split them before winter. Recent studies show that small to medium size hives fare better in over-wintering. These two hives have been enormously productive. Because we were busy building the barn, we just added additional supers when the bees filled things up. Now, the hives are so large, it’s become difficult to work the bees. Any hive can get pissy if you’re in it too long. With such large hives, it takes time just to get to the bottom on a simple inspection. So I’ve reverted to smoking.

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Smoke doesn’t calm the bees. It alarms and distracts them. Faced with smoke–the prospect of fire– the bees prepare for an emergency exit by gorging themselves on honey. Then, when the emergency turns out to be illusory, these gluttonous bees are too stuffed to move, or get back to work. Smoking bees costs you at least a full day of productivity. Think about how most Americans feel after Thanksgiving dinner. That’s what smoke does to bees.

One thing I learned recently is that the beekeeper can smoke him or herself. The bees avoid the smoke smell, so you can turn the smoker on your gloves or veil and make yourself an unattractive target–if a smoky one. It works.

We tested the bees for mites today–and found ourselves on the threshold for treatment.  Though we intend to split them, and add queens to the newly formed hives (as it’s too late in the season for them to make their own and still get ready for winter), we don’t want to do mite treatment on the new queens. So, we’ll use Mite-Away strips this week, and split them next week. We are fortunate that a local beekeeper is breeding queens and has Michigan-hardy, mated, queens available now.

So that’s the plan. I’ll be glad when it’s done. The resulting smaller hives won’t need so much smoking and both we, and the bees, will be happier for that.

Mid-Year Reset

2019 has been a bust. I’m looking to reset the time clock for a fresh start. Not that I haven’t prevailed in the challenges of the year, I have. I’ve taken acute and catastrophic and whittled it down to manageable-chronic. I’m learning new rules to the game and living within them. I followed up months of serious illness with a fall, and injuries, only to have my mother hit with a brief, but alarming illness, that had me drop everything to come to her aid.

Maybe it’s the best thing to happen all year. Prolonged illness can set you up to a cycle of fragile. For the first time in my life, I felt old. Responding to my mum’s plight let me put my own stuff aside to address her needs. Now that she is on the mend, I am returning to my own life with renewed vigor.

Sure, the garden is weeks behind and every other schedule in my life is askew. But suddenly the questions are about how to catch up–not to forego. I brought my mum home (she was traveling when she fell ill) and that meant I had the chance to visit with my sister and brother-in-law. His garden is in–delayed some, because he had to deal with his father’s death. (See how lucky I’m feeling already?)

He had a bunch of orphan plants–extras from the greenhouse that would’ve ended up in the compost. I have ready gardens–but the vagaries of my past few months meant I didn’t get my starts in. Now I’m returning home with a car full of tiny tomato, pepper, broccoli, and cabbage plants. Instant garden. I’ll finish up the rest with seeds. My mum’s travels were extended by the unexpected illness. When we arrived at her house, her pantry stash of organic potatoes had gone too far–rooting and sprouting. So I have seed potatoes. My sister was tearing out a neglected flower bed–to convert it to garlic and onions. I need to start landscaping around our new house. Now I have buckets of daffodils, irises and day lilies. These little plants completely fill the back of the car. Tomorrow, I’m headed home.

Things are looking up.

For the first time this year, I’m excited to get back to writing, to get back out into the bee yard, to get the garden underway. Our crew has made good progress on the barn (which I’ll get to see when I get home.) So, despite the fact that the year is nearly half gone, I’m celebrating a new beginning.

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Even well after the hive was removed, the mob refused to disperse!

The Plundering Season

It’s September, a time when beekeepers assess whether the season, and the bees, have produced enough honey to permit a harvest. It’s also a time when the bees themselves try to maximize their stores for the winter. Responsible beekeepers will leave enough honey in the hive to allow the hive to overwinter. Others will take all the honey, and feed the bees sugar water. (You can tell already where I fall on the spectrum.) I think that the perfect food for bees is honey, and that’s what my bees get.

September is also the time when you really need to be prepared for bear attacks on the apiary. Bears are readying for winter, too, and honey is a great (and tasty) source of calories to fatten up for winter. But bears aren’t the only predator.

September is the robbing season. The robbers? Other bees! Okay, so there are other flying robbers as well, wasps and yellow jackets, but bees are major culprits. If a hive is weak, queenless or disorganized, other bees can seize the opportunity to raid their stores of honey–or even wax. That hive that was limping along, but suddenly seems very active? Look again! That new activity might just be looting neighbors!

Not only is robbing devastating for the hive/victim. It can be a loss of resources for the beekeeper. Sometimes a less than thriving hive is kept for combination with another hive at the end of the season–or its resources can be used later–honey for overwintering stores or wax in the spring for splits or new bees. A robbing frenzy often kills the weaker hive’s defending bees. Sit close and you can watch the battles at the entry.

There’s another reason to discourage robbing. Why was that hive weak to begin with? If the reason the hive wasn’t thriving was because of mites or pathogens–robbers may well carry them home and spread disease*. Serves them right, eh? Well, consider that the culprits are often members of one of your other hives. Robbing only amplifies bee losses.

Recently, we lost a hive to robbing. As the home-bees were thoroughly beaten, we sealed the hive to reserve possible resources for later AND we put entrance restrictors on the remaining hives. Frenzied robbers deprived of their target often pick the next weakest hive…and so on. Like any mob, they’re not easily directed or dispersed.

Over the weekend we brought some “empty” boxes to a bee event, to use for demonstration purposes. Apparently there was some leftover honey in the empties. On our return, we left the demonstration hive in the back of the truck overnight. By morning, the robbers had found it and the truck was in a cloud of bees! They were so loud and so numerous, we wondered if we had caught a swarm. No such luck. We had to suit up, and then break down the hives (far from our bee yard) and let the bees disperse. We didn’t want to bring that robbing frenzy anywhere near our hives–even if it was our bees in the mob. It took hours before we could get back into the truck. It was a dramatic display of seasonal bee behavior.

We tend to think of our bees as docile and malleable. But they can be triggered to behave as a mob. We hear from other local beekeepers that this was not a good year for honey production. Our own bees seem not to have suffered, but apparently the word is out that resources are scarce–and regardless of actual hive conditions–the bees are listening to the rumor mill. We’re keeping an eye on the bee yard to jump on any indication of mob rule. Who knew that we’d end up as bee referees?

 

 

* If you suspect that a weak hive was diseased–you should thoroughly investigate and diagnose, before using its resources in other hives. Sometimes all you need to do is to let the hive “freeze over winter” and sometimes you need to treat the hive equipment–and sacrifice any resources. The good news is that often you can still harvest any honey for human consumption–so it’s not necessarily a total loss.

“Conventional Wisdom”

A.V. Walters–

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Conventional wisdom says that bees located in the shade will be cranky. Conventional wisdom says that bees that get too hot in the full sun, will be unproductive and may tend to swarm. We’ve seen hot bees in the sun. They “beard” on the outside of the hive. Once the sun is up–and the heat–they return to the hive and quit foraging. What’s the point? The nectar dries up. Back at the hive, it’s too hot to go in. Other bees are busy, cooling the hive with the wind from myriad wings. What would conventional wisdom have us do?

We have relocated the bee yard up the hill and into the pines. There were plenty of reasons to do it: to avoid wind blown pesticide contamination from the adjacent farmer down at the bottom of the hill; to put more distance between the bees and any neighbors; so that the bees would not be visible from the road (some of our beekeeping friends have experienced thefts!); to get the bees out of the direct sun during the hottest part of the summer; and to reduce bee “issues” in the garden, that can lead to gardeners being inadvertently stung.

I’ll miss being able to see them from the house. Bee hives have a way of saying, “here we are, and we belong.” This is the first year that the orchard really looks like an orchard–and that, along with the garden, will have to satisfy our visual boundaries. The bees’ new digs enjoy the dappled light of the pines–and a regular refreshing breeze. It’s only a few minutes walk, one that will pull us into the forest with more regularity. And it’ll be cooler for us, too, during the dog days of summer. Often beekeeping requires suiting up–and those extra layers can be really stifling in the heat.

Rick put up the new fence. Then he marked it with ribbon tape to alert the deer. Not that they’d have any reason to invade, but we’ve had problems with deer colliding into fences and tree cages, if they weren’t marked. You’d think the fence would be enough… but those deer aren’t looking. A deer can really mangle a tree cage. The fence is really for the bear, and it’ll deliver quite the jolt. I hope it’s enough to dissuade them. There are three hives, now. By mid-season, we hope to split them–for six, going into winter.

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We moved the bees in, this morning. They were a little crabby at first. But by the end of the day they had settled nicely. I’m sure there will be some adjustments as we all adjust to new routines. It’s beautiful up there. I hope the bees enjoy it. By my estimation, they have nothing to be cranky about.

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(Really, only three hives. That tall stack is extra honey supers for when the nectar flow really starts.)

Spring, Not for the Faint of Heart–

A.V. Walters–

We celebrated today. The trees are in. It’s a little late, but then, spring was late. My hands are rough and raw and I ache, but all 100 trees are happily in their new homes. Once the trees arrive, we drop nearly everything to get them in the ground. The hurry is twofold; to minimize the stress on the baby trees, and to get them in the ground before the bugs arrive. I’d post a picture, but 100 baby trees spread over many acres doesn’t present well.

We put 50 bass trees into the forest, this season. The ash are almost all dead now–victims of the Emerald Ash Borer–though many remain standing. The beech trees are dying, too–beech bark disease. Beech Bark Disease is the result of an introduced insect, beech scale, combined with one of two native fungal infections. It takes both the insect, and the fungus to kill the trees. In the past few years the disease has been making its way west, and it’s estimated that Michigan will lose over 90 per cent of its beech trees. Rick and I have forest panic. We are desperate to plant our way ahead of the devastation. Though the insect involved in beech bark disease was introduced into Nova Scotia almost a hundred years ago, its impact here is recent. And fast. We feel we have no choice but to keep planting. The bass trees are a favorite of the bees, so it was an easy choice.

This year, spring came so late that the sellers (catalog and the Soil Conservation District) all had to delay their tree deliveries. You cannot plant in the snow. We had two major snow storms in April, leaving us knee deep in the white stuff at mid-month. It was the first time I saw people angry about the snow. Our local police blotter told of a woman  who reported a man on her block who was yelling and cursing. When the police arrived, the guy was surprised, and embarrassed. He’d been shoveling, yet again, and he was just venting. A lot of people felt that way.

I had a trip planned–to go downstate with my mum. Rick and I planted as many trees as we could–about seventy of them, before I had to leave. Rick heeled in the rest until my return, and now those are planted, too. Though Spring is late, the bugs are on time–and the past two days of planting were challenging. Black flies don’t care that the trees must be planted…they just want a bite of you, swarms of them all want a bite of you.

Now that the trees are in, we can concentrate on getting the bees ready. We are moving our bee yard up the hill, into the pines. That way they’ll be far from incidental human contact and out of sight. It’ll be cooler in the summer. There’s always a light breeze up there, and they’ll be partially shaded. Hot bees are not happy bees. Rick has already put the new fence up, and tomorrow I’ll sort through all the bee stuff and ready the hives. By the weekend the bees will be installed in their new digs.

In the meantime, we are starting to get the garden ready. That’ll be another few weeks of work. It will be interrupted, though, because I found a great craigslist deal–on blackberries. We want to put in a long hedge of blackberries to shield us from the cornfield on our south side. Blackberries grow fast (sometimes too fast) and they’ll give us a good wind break. So, next Monday we’ll pick up 200 blackberry plants and get those in, before returning to the garden project. The bees will love them.

It’s Spring. What can I say? It’s not for the faint of heart.

Connecting the Dots…

A.V. Walters–

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As I washed the dishes this morning, I glanced out and was taken aback at the sudden increase in bunny scat, dotting the landscape. Was there some kind of a bunny event? Then it dawned on me. We’re experiencing a winter heat wave. Everything is melting. This is not an overnight accumulation; this is a mid-winter exposé. By observing the accumulated droppings, we can actually map the bunnies’ trails and activities. Funny how a turn in the weather can reveal what’s been going on, all along.

Like yesterday, today will reach 50 degrees Fahrenheit, before a wave of unseasonable rain and fog heralds in the next cold front, dropping us back into the low double digits tonight. Then, Winter, having taken a breather, will return in full force. Tomorrow will be an icy, slippery mess.

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We took the opportunity to check on the bees. The snowy caps on their hives, so pronounced just three days ago, are gone. When winter temperatures reach the high forties, bees will fly. I doesn’t matter that there’s nothing to eat or gather. Supposedly, bees are loathe to soil their hives, so the warm weather gives them the opportunity to take a “cleansing flight.” Often it doesn’t go so well…it really isn’t warm enough for them. The snow around our hives is dotted with dead bees. It’s a good news/bad news conundrum—proof that our hives are still alive, but learning that came at a cost. I wish those intrepid bees would stay put in their clusters. This erratic weather, glimpses of climate change, is really hard on the bees.

Tomorrow it will snow again, covering the bunny scat and the unlucky bees. We’ll descend back into winter, a little wiser for having connected the dots.

 

 

Long Live the Queen…Part 2

(What Were We Thinking?)

A.V. Walters–

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And, finally home in their hives.

We know better. There is no shortcut to proper procedure.

This pulls together a number of wayward thoughts, please bear with me.

 

Some months ago, one of the leaders of our bee group reported that she had a “hot hive” and had been stung over forty times when she tried to work it. “Forty Times!” I thought, “I’d quit bees in a heartbeat.” Shortly after that, I was visiting Garth, a bee-buddy of mine and I was stung. No big deal, it’s a part of beekeeping. Knowing that I react to stings, Garth grabbed my arm and sprayed it with his homemade “aphid spray.” He’d discovered that it helped to lessen the impact of a bee sting. Surprisingly, it worked—though I still swelled up, the large local reaction was half of what I usually suffer. We debated what the active ingredient might be—was it the mint? (peppermint and spearmint) The dish soap? The garlic oil? Garth wasn’t willing to experiment. After all, when it works, why bother?

Many years ago, my then-husband came up a mysterious rash—related to his new fitness plan of regular swimming. We thought it might be the pool chemicals. He ended up seeing a dermatologist. The doctor was intrigued. He did an “ice cube test” and determined that the problem was a relatively rare condition called cold urticaria. My husband was allergic to the cold, and the rash was simply hives. “Not a problem, then… we surmised. The Doc was quick to correct, “Not if it’s just a few patches, but if you get those raised welts over large swaths, it puts you at risk for heart failure.”

Now, the prospect of heart failure steps things up a notch. The Doc advised to seek immediate medical attention if the rash spread to more than a quarter of a body’s surface. He suggested considering another form of exercise. My husband opted to continue swimming, and over time, the rash abated.

 

Back to our bee story… we were in a hurry to get our two queenless hives re-queened. I drove half-way across the state to collect our new royals, so the first thing the next morning, we were up for the task of installing them. A new queen isn’t just dumped into the waiting hive. She must be kept in a queen cage for several days, so her pheromones can work her magic on the hive. Otherwise, she risks rejection by the colony, and murder. Generally, one makes the effort to install the queen at or near the bottom level of the hive. This is especially true, late in the season, so that the brood and ball of bees will be below the honey storage. That way, during the winter the bees can travel up, through the column of warmth generated by the huddled bees, to their food supply. If they have to travel down, or sideways, they risk “cold starvation.” An entire colony can starve, within inches of their food stores, if it’s too cold to make that short trip.

There were several considerations. We knew the hives were hot. We knew that the installation should be as brief as possible. They’d been pretty well-behaved during the split, so we weren’t too concerned. Because we expected this to be quick, we just wore our bee jackets, instead of fully suiting up. That was our first mistake. To speed up the process, we also decided to lift up all the top boxes at once, so we could place the queen cage directly into the bottom deep box, supposedly minimizing disruption. That was our second mistake.

Together, the top, inner cover and two medium boxes of honey, were a little heavier than we expected. As a result, our entry into the hive was not as measured and smooth as usual. And, perhaps because we were opening directly into the bees’ home (and not just the honey storage) we may have alarmed them…

Nothing in our beekeeping experience could have prepared us for what happened next.

Instantly, the usual background hive hum raised to a fever pitch and bees poured out in a tsunami of bee defense. No warning. No raised abdomens or threatening thunks. It was a full-scale attack. They got me first, covering me with stinging bees. The bee jacket mostly worked—only a few stingers got past its tight weave. But one layer of denim is no defense against determined bees and my jeans were covered with the angry, stinging mob. Even as the words, “We’re in trouble,” left my lips, I heard Rick’s cursing reaction as the bees found his ankles. Somehow, he still managed to shove that queen cage into the maw, before we jammed that hive shut. And then I abandoned him.

From the hips down, every part of me was on fire. When a bee stings, it gives up its life in defense of the hive. It also releases an alarm pheromone that tells other bees, “Sting here!” They did. I was a cloud of alarmed bees. Nothing I could do dissuaded them. I ran. They followed. I tried rolling in the dirt; still, they came. I grabbed the garden hose and sprayed down my legs and the bee cloud around me. It didn’t slow them down at all. (Though the cool water was a bit of relief.) And then I ran again, to get as far away from the hive as I could. Peripherally, I was aware that Rick was in a similar dance. I don’t remember screaming, but he says I was. I distinctly remember his cursing.

Finally free of advancing bees, I started scraping away the bees that were sticking to my jeans and socks. I saw Rick flicking them away with his leather gloves and followed his lead. As soon as we were clear of bees, we ran for the apartment and peeled out of our clothing at the door. Even then, there were some bees stuck to our jeans and bee jackets.

Once inside, near naked, Rick said, “Now what?” There was no time to debate. I’d always thought that Garth’s “active ingredient” was the garlic. It was a gamble, but it was all we had. “Garlic!” I yelled, and Rick started peeling cloves as I ran for the anti-histamines. I pulled out my epi-pen and laid it on the table, just in case.

Rick’s ankles were beginning to balloon. For some reason, that was his most targeted zone. Everything below my hips was mine. The rising welts were beginning to merge—I counted 47 stings on the front of my left thigh, before giving up on the count. It was more important to rub in the garlic. I figure I was stung over a hundred times. Many of those stings were “minor,” such that they did not go deep or leave a stinger—in that, our jeans saved us.

Garlic. We grated it, cloves and cloves of it. And then rubbed it into our tortured skin. It stung a little—but in the wake of what we’d been through, we hardly noticed. I was well aware that one, or both of us, would likely end up in the ER. In the back of my mind, I was remembering the admonition—if over twenty-five percent of a body welts up, it’s time to seek medical attention! For nearly an hour we grated and spread the garlic. The kitchen smelled like an Italian restaurant. If we had to go to the hospital, there was going to be some explaining to do.

Finally, it began to work. The welts began to dissipate.

Then, Rick did the unthinkable. He suited up again to retrieve the second queen (left out in the bee yard) to insert her into the other queenless hive. Granted, he just put her in the top—but at that moment, nothing could have convinced me to go anywhere near the bees. He was the hero of the day.

Not that we weren’t still uncomfortable. The stings continued to itch. For me it took two days for the welts to completely disappear—but normally, on me, a sting can remain inflamed for up to a week. This was a phenomenal recovery.

And the bees recovered, too. Both hives have accepted their new queens and they are merrily back to work, in their orderly bee way. Would I quit beekeeping? Not on your life. We’ve learned a lot.

Mostly, though… Garlic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Multi-Part Saga of Succession: Part 1

A.V. Walters

Any population lacking authentic leadership is in trouble. Without authentic leadership, any group can fall for the antics of power hungry posers, whose influences, over time, can only disintegrate group cohesion and direction. You know the type, charismatic thugs capable of whipping up an excitable crowd. Don’t say, “It can’t happen here.” It has.

And such was the case with our largest bee hive. It’s been a productive year, ample rain has fueled a pollen and nectar bonanza. We’ve been doing regular hive splits, trying to avoid last year’s swarming losses. Those bees have been keeping us on our toes. But in early August, we ran out of woodenware, the boxes, bottoms and tops that make up a Langstroth hive. By then, we’d split all the hives, but one and we didn’t have time to build anew. Summer’s like that. We still had plenty of honey supers–so we just kept adding “up,” giving them space to grow, and to store all the honey they were producing. We needed the honey, because all those split hives were going to need resources, heading into winter.

Finally, we were able to catch our collective breath and assemble and paint new hive parts, to split the big hive. But we were too late. When we inspected, we could not find the queen–she and her entourage had already swarmed. There were still gazillions of bees, enough for at least two full hives, but there were signs of trouble.

A queen bee reigns by virtue of her hormonal influences. Not only are the bees connected and loyal because of pheromones, but all those female worker bees’ reproductive urges are suppressed by the queen’s control. When a hive goes “queenless,” either because of swarming, accident or mutiny (yes, mutiny), the bees will endeavor to create a new queen with one of the recent eggs or larvae. This takes a couple of weeks, and in the interim, you’re at risk of a “laying worker.” Without the constant hormonal suppression of the queen, a worker bee can begin laying eggs–and exert a similar hormonal control on the hive. The worker is unmated, so she can only lay drone eggs and she does not have the full complement of pheromones. A rogue hive like this can be mean and unpredictable.

Our inspection revealed problems, there were eggs–but no fresh larvae. The laying pattern was erratic–sometimes two eggs per cell and eggs laid on the sides of the cells, instead of the bottom. These are clear indications of a rogue, laying worker bee. The laying worker bee can interfere with normal royal succession. She may kill the larval queen–or kill her on hatch. After all, who wants to give up newfound power? To save the hive, we needed to re-queen it, and quickly.

Since the hive was still huge, even having swarmed, we opted to get two queens and to split the hive into two before we re-queened. As it was so late in the season, we wanted  already mated queens. We needed them to get in, and get to work, quickly. We wanted to find Michigan, winter-hardy queens, to maximize the chances of surviving the winter. We tried to see this as an opportunity to increase our genetic diversity, instead of just the loss of a truly productive queen.

Online, I found just what we needed–and I zoomed off to pick up our new royals. Though  we weren’t happy about having lost the swarm, we were confident that we could make the best of the situation.

What? Did you think I was carrying on about something other than bees?

 

 

 

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Honey, Cooking, and The Science Behind The Sweet

A.V. Walters

Honey is a foodstuff of almost mythical proportions. It is one of a handful of foods that, left in its original form, never spoils. Honey has been known to last literally thousands of years—and still be edible and sweet. Honey will crystalize—a condition that may put off the uninformed consumer—but crystalized honey is still good. If it offends, you can simply warm it gently and it will resume its liquid amber loveliness.

Honey has three characteristics that, acting together, serve as its natural preservative. Despite being a liquid, honey has a very low water content of only 14 to 18 %. Bees will not “cap” honey in the comb until it has reached this low moisture threshold. Most bacteria cannot survive in such a low-moisture environment. Honey is also highly acidic, with a pH between 3.0 and 4.5. That acidity will kill off the few remaining things that might want to grow there. And, as we all know, honey is sweet. That natural sweetness also discourages bacterial growth. Archeologists have found sealed honey in ancient Egyptian tombs that was still preserved and unspoiled. Add to these three basic characteristics are the enzymes in honey that come from the bees’ stomachs. These enzymes combine with nectar sugars to produce gluconic acid and hydrogen peroxide—natural components of honey. Blended together all these characteristics make a super-food that keeps, nearly indefinitely.

Herbalists and healers of ancient times understood these qualities in honey. It was widely used to treat wounds, for skin ointments and to prevent infections. To retain its natural preservative qualities though, stored honey must be sealed. Because honey is hygroscopic (naturally low in water) it will absorb liquid from the air and eventually spoil if left uncovered. Though honey is naturally pure, it can contain trace amounts of bacteria, and while this is not a problem for healthy children and adults, raw honey is not recommended for infants or people with compromised immune systems.

What about cooked honey? Cooking honey poses two questions: Does cooking undermine honey’s otherwise beneficial qualities? And, is it actually toxic? Purists and practitioners of natural or ayurvedic medicine will tell you that cooked honey is poisonous, and should never be eaten. There’s a smidgeon of science that supports that position, technically, but most feel that’s a little extreme. At the end of the day, this is something you’ll have to decide for yourself. Honey is essentially a natural, supersaturated sugar solution. Added into that are enzymes, courtesy of our friends, the bees. Many of the purported health benefits of honey are connected to those enzymes. But, when you heat honey, the enzymes begin to break down, beginning at about 118 degrees, Fahrenheit. Over-heating may result in losing most of the beneficial properties, making honey just another sweetener. (A good reason to gently heat your crystalized honey. You can warm it in a bath of warm tap water or in a double-boiler, at very low heat, to protect its enzymes.) In cooking, you can preserve honey’s integrity by adjusting how and when you heat it. Whenever possible, wait and add the honey until later in the cooking process (this is especially true when sweetening sauces or glazes.) Or, you can also “dilute” any heated honey mixture with a larger quantity of unheated ingredients. Check your recipes to see if there might be ways to limit exposure to high temperatures. Needless to say, honey is always at its best when used in recipes that are never heated, like salad dressings, toppings, dips or icings.

But, is it toxic? When honey is heated, its fructose, in combination with its natural acidity, degrades and begins to form hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF), which is mildly toxic. The hotter it gets, the more HMF forms. The solution is dilution. Diluting the honey with other ingredients, (prior to heating) lowers the acid level of the honey, helping to prevent HMF formation. Even then, the actual HMF toxicity levels that result from normal cooking are very low. Our evolved human gut is fully capable of digesting cooked honey products, with no observable adverse affects. If you are a purist—don’t heat your honey. Otherwise, take reasonable efforts to preserve the maximum beneficial effects by keeping honey temperatures as low as practical. You can cook and bake with confidence, knowing that you are not putting yourself at risk.

There is one group that should never consume heated honey. That is your BEES! Bee guts and intestinal systems are relatively simple and cannot safely digest HMFs. Ingesting even a small amount of honey that has been heated can result in bees developing gut ulcerations. Many beekeepers use heat to separate wax from honey—and feed the resulting honey back to the bees. Don’t do it! Only give bees cold-processed, unadulterated, honey. Even adding water to honey, for bee feeding, must be done carefully because once water is added, the honey mixture is subject to bacterial spoilage, and fermentation. (Think mead!) If you use watered-down honey for bee feeding, make sure that it remains fresh. Remove any unconsumed honey blends within a day or so, replace with a fresh mixture, and periodically clean containers.

The very characteristics that give honey its extended shelf life can require some adjustments when cooking or baking with it. The most obvious is that honey is a liquid, so when substituted for sugar, you must adjust the balance of dry and wet ingredients to retain the desired texture. Every cup of honey used as sweetener contains about three extra tablespoons of liquid. So, you must reduce the other liquids in your recipe, increase the dry ingredients, or a combination of both. (The approach you take will depend on the recipe.)

It is often assumed that you can do a “cup for cup” substitution of honey for a recipe’s sweetener. Not so. In addition to increased moisture content, honey is sweeter than sugar when measured cup for cup. Depending upon the bees food source, and the seasonal time of production, honey can be anywhere from 1.25 to 1.5 times as sweet as sugar. You’ll have to substitute accordingly, and remember to taste as you go. Honey has a lower glycemic index rating than sugar (55 compared to sugar’s 61) so it’s a healthier option, with a slower impact on blood sugar. It’s easier to standardize baking with lighter honeys—the darker honeys come laden with their own native flavors. They can add depth and character to your baked goods, but darker honeys are a shifting exercise in taste exploration. Since the sugars in honey brown faster than regular sugar, you might have to lower your baking temperature by 25 degrees and cook your baked goods a little longer. Even if all your adjustments are correct, remember that baked goods made with honey are moister than sugar baking. If you’re looking for a drier finish—carefully bake longer, at a lower temperature.

Finally, honey’s natural acidity can play havoc with the leavening in baked goods. Most leavening agents (baking soda/baking powder) are “base” ingredients. The higher acidity in honey can act to neutralize your leavening agent—leaving an unadjusted recipe as heavy as a brick! You will need more leavening to achieve a proper rise, usually an additional 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoonful per cup of honey sweetening. There is no need to adjust if you’re using yeast. Yeast usually does well in the more acidic environment of honey. Add the honey to the bread dough mix, itself, to avoid interference with yeast performance. Do not “proof” your yeast in a honey mixture.

Honey as a food product has been with us for thousands of years. Whether you revere it for its mystical healing properties, or enjoy it as a healthy sweetener, it’s helpful to know how it behaves in cooking and baking. Following these tips, along with a little experimentation, will yield light and tasty results.

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Taking the Sting Out of It–

A.V. Walters–

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We keep bees. People respond to that with raised eyebrows—and usually some positive acknowledgement. The raised eyebrows are about the dark side of beekeeping. Most people think of beekeeping in terms of being stung.

Yes, we get stung from time to time. It comes with the territory. Usually, when it happens, you can point to some mistake you made—you moved too quickly, you inadvertently crushed some bees while stacking hive boxes, you didn’t use smoke (or enough smoke, or too much smoke) when performing an invasive activity. There are rules and rhythms that protect you from being stung. Bees only sting when provoked, and often give plenty of warning.

I react to stings, so I take every precaution. I only handle the bees when wearing “the suit.” I listen to the tone of the bees during hive work—you can hear it if their level of alarm amps up. Rick and I agree that it isn’t worth it to work on agitated bees. It’s not good for them, and we’re not happy to be stung out of our own stupidity. We can always close up a hive, and come back to it on another, better day. We plan ahead of time what it is we hope to accomplish, in a hive, and endeavor to do it in the least disruptive way. The hive is their home. They have every right to defend it.

Bees demonstrate stages of annoyance. First, you should take note if the bees are looking at you. I laughed when I first heard that—except that it’s true. Usually, when you work in a hive, the bees go about their business and ignore you. But, if they’re lined up, looking at you, it’s a warning. (It’s funny looking, the first time you notice it—as though they were spectators at a circus and you’re the main attraction!) Then, if they raise their back ends—you’ve crossed another warning threshold. Listen closely to the tone of the bee’s constant hum. In an irritated hive the background hum raises in volume and pitch. Time for more smoke, or to close it up. Guard bees may “thunk” you, that is, fly right into your chest or face—to make impact, but not sting. Again, we’re talking serious, threat-level warnings here. Bees do not want to sting. A stinging bee is a dead bee—they lose their stinger and innards in the process, so it’s a KIA hero’s defense. Move slowly and deliberately. Try not to breath on the bees (certainly don’t blow on them.) Do not wave your arms in a swatting defense. It only makes things worse.

Timing is everything. Happy bees are less likely to rise to alarm. What makes for happy bees? Good weather, ample food and available water. We try not to open the hives in bad weather—the bees are stuck inside and as crabby as school kids denied recess. We do our bee work midday, so most of the bees are out in the fields. And we make our disruptions as short and productive as possible.

There are three physical levels of reaction to stings. A normal reaction includes the initial pain of the sting, some level of swelling and discomfort at the point of sting, usually resolving overnight. The worst reaction is life-threatening anaphylactic shock. If you respond to stings this way, you probably shouldn’t be keeping bees. I don’t have that problem, but I have an Epipen, just in case. I fall into the middle category, what’s called a “large, local reaction.” After the initial sting, the site swells well beyond the actual sting—often a painful raised welt up to eight inches across, that is painful, itchy and lasts up to a week. It makes me a little sick, too. I have to keep taking antihistamines until the swelling starts to abate. Things can get ugly if I am multiply stung.

There’s some good advice about how to handle a sting. First, get away from the hive. A stinging bee releases an alarm pheromone that attaches to the site of the sting. Other bees may zero in on it, and continue in a defensive attack. Rick and I work as a team, but if one of us is stung, the other closes up the hive for the day. Second—waste no time removing the stinger. Even unattached to the bee, the stinger continues to pump venom. Use a dull bladed object to scrape across the site of the sting. Do not use tweezers, as squeezing the whole assembly can result in injecting more venom. After the stinger is removed, you can gently squeeze the sting site to eject any venom still near the surface of the wound. Ice it, as soon as you can. Take an antihistamine—Benadryl or similar, to stave off any excess reaction. I use an herbal antihistamine called Hista Block, that doesn’t make me so drowsy. Depending upon the level of swelling (and discomfort) you can also take an analgesic. Some sources suggest using a topical spray, but others warn of possible cross-reactivity at the wound site, so I don’t. Most importantly, take these steps as quickly as you can. Time is critical in warding off the body’s defense to the venom—our defenses are the biggest problem. Depending upon your level of reaction, you may consider medical intervention if you have multiple stings. Afterwards, make sure you launder the clothing in which you were stung because the pheromone on your clothes can inspire later hostile actions by the bees. (Nobody told them not to respond to the outdated alarm.)

This is how I cope with the sting potential when keeping bees. I have beekeeping friends who do not react as I do, who handle their bees without suiting up, without even wearing gloves or a veil. I envy them. One friend actually welcomes beestings, because he claims they alleviate the arthritis in his hands!

Work smart and bee prepared. That’s my motto.

Of course none of this helped over the weekend when I was rescuing some tiger lilies from a construction site. Really, it wasn’t theft; they’d been bulldozed and would have died but for our valiant efforts to rescue them. Unfortunately for me, the bulldozer had disturbed a nest of Yellow Jackets.

Yellow Jackets are a whole different story, than bees. They are just rude! They sting, without warning—and a single yellow jacket can sting repeatedly! (Which it did, as I ran a quarter of a mile down the road, to escape it.)

Days later, I’m just recovering. The good news is that we got the tiger lilies planted, so there’s some reward for my experience.

 

 

 

 

It’s Working—

A.V. Walters—

I asked my landlady for the contact information for the farmer who leases the fields surrounding us. She reacted badly to the request—assuming, for some bizarre reason, that I would say something to him that would jeopardize her long-standing arrangement. She refused to give me his number, but told me where I could find him, half way across the county.

I had no such ulterior motives. I keep bees. He sprays pesticides. Though I have registered my bees with Fieldwatch, many farmers are not aware of it. I merely wanted him to give me a heads up when he plans to spray.

Before I could get contact information, the farmer showed up to prep the soil for corn. My landlady shot out to talk to him, like a bat out of hell, before I could get there. She was waving her arms and pointing at our property, jabbering. I walked out calmly to introduce myself. As soon as I was within earshot, the landlady lowered her voice, finally shutting up as I approached.

“Hi, I’m Alta. My husband and I have the parcel across the street.”

“Hi, I’m Dennis.” He reached out of the tractor cab and shook my hand. I handed him a slip of paper with my contact information.

“Are you putting in seed today?”

“No, just prep. The corn’ll go in tomorrow.”

“Good. If we know beforehand, we can close up the bees and avoid any pesticide issues. I’d appreciate if whenever you spray, or seed, you could give us a call, the night before.”

“Sure, I work with Julius the same way. You know Julius?”

I’ve never met Julius, but all the beekeepers in the area at least know of him. He’s a beekeeping institution and has mentored most everyone who keep bees in this county. “Don’t know him, but I’ve heard a lot about him. Good things.”

“Yeah. He’s a great guy.” He scratched his head. “I get the spray, but why do you need to know when I put in seed?”

“Most seeds, especially corn, are pre-treated with insecticides. Just the dust from those seeds can kill bees.”

“Yeah? I never knew. I’ll have to talk to Julius about that one. You new to bees?”

“It’s our second year—but we lost all our hives over the winter. We just installed our new bees this week.”

He nodded. “Julius lost a bunch, too. What do you think happened?” During this exchange, my landlady just stood slackjawed. I guess it wasn’t what she expected.

I shrugged. “It was a tough year. Bee losses generally for 2015 were forty-four per cent. I know one of our hives had varoa mites. But we also lost our strongest hive. You know, the warm winter is almost tougher on the bees than a cold one. And of course, we’re all struggling with pesticide issues. It’s tough to keep bees home.” I paused, “It’s a critical issue—bees are responsible for a lot of our food production.”

“Well, don’t you worry. Just like me an’ Julius, we can work together.” He smiled. “I like to eat, too.”

So, of course, I left a pint of honey on the seat of his truck. This is how it’s supposed to work.

 

The Scent of Bees

A.V. Walters

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I’ve wanted to keep bees since my age was in the single digits. My grandfather kept bees. And turkeys. And rabbits. We never knew how many hives he had, because he was forever loading them up into the back of his old Suburban, and carting them around to “someone who needed them.” I didn’t understand why someone might need bees.

He was a quiet man of many talents. He was not a big feature in our lives, because there had been a divorce. For their own reasons, neither my grandmother, nor my grandfather’s second wife, were eager to see a relationship between Grandpa and his grandchildren. The visits were few and far between. But he was interesting and different. He made things with his hands. He was, literally, always trying to build a better mousetrap. He didn’t talk much, but when he did, what he said was solid. Or funny. Sometimes, darkly funny. He thought it was funny to pick up hitchhikers when his Suburban was full of bees.

So, bees have always been in the back of my mind. But, there were always too many reasons why I couldn’t keep bees. In my urban years, my partner was adamantly against it. In Two Rock, my landlord was allergic to stings. (You don’t waste a good landlord, like that.) So the move to Michigan was my chance to finally become a beekeeper. I say “become,” because it takes some time to really be a beekeeper. There’s a lot to learn, especially now, when the bees are in so much trouble.

I’ve joined a beekeeping group. Many of us are “newbees” but in the group there’s a generous wealth of talent and experience—and the rest we make up for with enthusiasm. Our founder is a dynamic young man, willing to share his decade or so of experience.

When spring rolled around, our group put together an order of bees from a supplier down in Holland. It’s a three and a half hour drive to Holland, but our fearless leader, Matt, said he’d do the pick up. There was only one wrinkle, Matt’s wife was expecting their second child—if the baby came early, Matt needed a back-up driver. I volunteered. How hard could it be? Others in the group looked dubious. They teased me, advising me to drive with the air-conditioner on full—to chill-out the bees.

Of course, by volunteering, I somehow guaranteed an early delivery date (for the baby, not the bees.) The day before the scheduled pick-up I emailed Matt—to ask how his wife was doing. “Funny you should ask,” he responded. They were just checking in to the hospital. I was now on-the-hook.

I told my mother, who was horrified at the idea of sharing a ride with hundreds of thousands of bees.

I told my sister, who told me not to pick up any hitchhikers.

I told Rick, who devised a system of bed-sheets and boards—to put over the bees to keep them away from me in the car.

I’m not put off by a long drive. The morning of the trip, though, we lost our spring weather. On the way down, I experienced every kind of weather, driving rain, sleet, buffeting winds and hail. Finally, in Holland, I missed my turn. I didn’t worry; I could just double back—or so I thought. Holland was having its Spring Tulip Festival. Many streets were closed and the town was a maze of festival detours. It’s a pretty little town, and many of its streets are lined with tulips. Lots of tulips. The tourists were there, en masse, dressed for a spring festival despite near freezing temperatures and occasional snow squalls. And, predictably, traffic sucked.

Finally, I arrived at my destination. The bee pick-up was held in the bee-master’s garage. The car area was filled with bee “packages” and the adjacent shop area displayed many bee accessories—wooden-ware, bee tools and such. Bees are sold as three-pound packages, in shoe-box sized wood and screened boxes, each containing approximately 10,000 bees and a queen. They also come as “nucs”—mini-hives with five frames containing all the components of a working hive, bees; a laying queen, brood, drones, honey and “bee-bread” (the mixture of honey and pollen fed to the larvae.) I was there to pick up about forty packages.

The garage was not only filled with boxes of bees, it was awash with loose bees, and beekeepers. Beekeepers are an odd lot. The beekeepers assembled for the pick-up and bee related shopping were oblivious to the loose bees, drifting in and around the garage. Regular folk would flee.

The bee vendors loaded the car for me, concerned that I wouldn’t leave adequate space between the packages. “Bees need air, you know.” The bee-master was concerned that the car wasn’t big enough for the Club’s order. I was concerned that he’d want to put bees in the passenger seat, right next to me.

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Bees, in every nook and cranny.

Finally, after many adjustments, and one sting (not me), the loading was complete. Loose bees hovered in and around my open vehicle. The bee-master saw me unfolding Rick’s driver-protection-sheet, and shot out of the garage.

“Whoa, what’s that for?”

“To cover the bees while I’m driving.”

“No way. There’s too many bees—too much heat. You cannot cover them at all.”

“But it’s freezing out…”

“Good thing, too,” he replied. “I’d keep the AC on full, just in case.”

(FYI—when the temperature drops, the bees settle down and hunker together, to stay warm)

And so it was. I swallowed hard for a long drive with loose bees. I layered up my clothes and drove home with about 400,000 bees in the car, through the snow and sleet, and with the air-conditioning on full. The bees didn’t give me any trouble at all. I wondered what my grandfather would think of that! The bees had to spend the night, in the car. I worried, since it really was cold, but I needn’t have been concerned. In the morning the car was warm, and the windows were steamed up, all generated by the bees.

There was something else, too. Most beekeepers are familiar with the smells of their hives. On a warm day in the bee yard, the hives are redolent with the aroma of honey and the fragrance of beeswax. It’s a clean, sweet smell that I equate with beekeeping. But, that’s not really the smell of bees. In a small car with, 400,000 bees, you get to smell the bees. It took me awhile to figure it out—notes of the musky smell of barn and fresh cut hay, with a hint of tobacco leaf. That’s the smell of bees. I wonder if my grandfather, tooling about in his Suburban full of hives, ever caught the scent of bees.

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And, finally home in their hives.

 

 

 

 

Minding Our Bees and Qs

A.V. Walters

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Ah, The Sweet Smell of… Failure?! How can that bee?

We’ve just spent the better part of the weekend processing honey.  The house smells sweet and clean from honey and beeswax. Unexpectedly, we have a lot of honey. This is honey that was left in the hives so the bees would have something to eat over the winter. The problem is that the bees didn’t make it. We checked the hives a couple of weeks ago and confirmed our worst suspicions; all the hives were dead.

They must have died pretty early in the winter, because they left ample stores of honey. At least they didn’t starve. There’s nothing wrong with the honey, so, once we’d cleaned up the hives, and done our limited forensics, we collected up the laden frames for processing. We had very productive bees. Our mild winter appears to be melting into an early spring, and we wanted the hives empty before we have a bunch of grumpy, hungry bears roaming around.

The late season honey is very different from our first harvest. The honey from early in the season is light, with a floral aroma. The late season honey is thick and more strongly flavored—made with the robust pollen of Black-eyed Susans and Goldenrod. I can’t decide which I like better.

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We’re not quite finished processing, but it looks like we’ll end up with just shy of seventy pounds of honey. Add that to the thirty-five pounds we harvested last fall, fifteen pounds from the Pinta hive, and… well, it’s a lot of honey. Today we had to run out to buy another dozen quart canning jars. (Folks at the local grocery wonder out loud what you’re canning in March. It’s early, even for maple syrup.) The new quart jars, along with every jar and container in the house brings this batch to about 27 quarts. It makes for a bittersweet failure. We’d rather have the bees.

We’ve checked with the experts and the most likely explanation is that our bees succumbed to varoa mites (or to the viruses that the mites carry.) There was some evidence of mite activity in the two smaller hives. Our aggressive hive, Santa Maria, was not so clear a case. It could have been the weather. This winter’s warm/cold oscillations were very hard on local bees. We’re not the only ones who have had losses. Even experienced beekeepers are cursing this winter. It seemed mild, except (quite abruptly) when it wasn’t.

We have cleaned up the hive boxes, and set them ready for spring–we have new bees on order. I’ve also ordered a well-recommended book on natural beekeeping–and I attended a day-long class on advanced beekeeping techniques. I feel almost ready to try again. We’ll monitor mite levels closely. We’ll do mid-season splits (dividing colonies in half, and “forcing” new queens.) Splitting not only increases the number of hives, it also interrupts the varoa breeding cycles. And, we’ll investigate and experiment with natural methods of hive treatment.

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Bees’ combs are amazing structures.

Overall, we can’t complain. The retail value of the honey we harvested has covered our initial investments in bees and equipment. It makes good sense to try again. We plan to start with three hives, and split to six, mid-summer. At the end of the season we can assess the hives’ strengths, and either go into the winter with six, or recombine some for larger, stronger hives for next winter. Unfortunately, the new normal in beekeeping is to expect thirty percent losses–and that’s when you do everything right.

We’ll have to be a lot better about minding our bees.

 

The Reward of the NewBees–

A.V. Walters.

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Perhaps, a tiny basement apartment isn’t really the best place to process honey. After all, it is a sticky business.

Last week, we “harvested” the honey—which was simply removing the frames from those hives we decided could afford to share their honey with us. That’s honey “in the comb and on the frame,” though—nowhere near ready to pour into jars for the pantry.

Some people just eat comb honey—wax and all. It is certainly the most “natural” way to do it—but I have limited patience for that much wax in my teeth. And, it’s messy. There are several options for how to separate the wax from the comb. You can cut it from the hive frame, crush it and filter it—an insanely messy business. Or, you can spin it.

We picked spinning. We bought a cheapie, two-frame spinner, online. It came with no directions. (I guess we’re supposed to know what we’re doing.) We looked at the tools recommended, in the many catalogues and bee sites, and decided to improvise. Our process is based on common sense, not experience. We’re winging it here, so don’t think this is the right way, or the only way, to do it.

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We start with the frames. There are ten frames in each layer of a standard Langstroth hive. Many backyard beekeepers use an eight frame configuration, for lighter, more maneuverable supers (hive boxes.) It’s not a bad idea, but since we went with a mix of used and pre-fab hives, we stuck with the standard, larger ten-frame design. We removed a full hive layer (super or bee box) of honey—so ten full frames. Once you lift a full ten frames of honey, you begin to appreciate why the smaller eight frame configuration has become popular. (We’ll just have to grow muscles.)

If you harvest early in the season, you need to first separate the bees from the frames you want to remove. This is done either with a “bee escape” (it allows the bees to leave, but not come back in) placed in the hive a day before harvest, or by using a blower to remove the bees from of the frames. But, when it starts to get cold, the bees crowd lower in the hive for warmth and we took advantage of this with a late season harvest. We only had a few of workaholic bees on the honey frames, which we brushed off with a feather. (That’s not a metaphor, we used an actual feather.)

We placed the honey-laden frames in a sealed bin (so the bees couldn’t go after them) and brought it inside for processing. The honey is much easier to spin if it’s warm. We don’t keep it very warm in our home, so we had to turn up the heat to a sweltering 72 degrees. We used a sharpened putty knife to skim the top coating of wax from one side of each frame, the “capped” comb—and then placed it in the spinner. Voilà, liquid gold! Then we flipped each frame, skimmed the cap off that side, and repeated the process. We put the “skim,” (a mixture of beeswax, with some honey) into a crockpot. On moderate heat, the wax softens, and floats to the top, leaving honey below. After it cools, we pulled the hardened wax off, and poured off the remaining honey. That way, we don’t waste any honey.

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A two-frame spinner can only handle one side of two frames, at a time. Spun, the honey flies against the inside of the spinner and collects in the bottom as you process. It’s slow and tedious, but it smells incredible. Honey and beeswax—sweet and clean. This very tangible reward is enough to keep you going.

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After it was all spun, it sat over-night. (Though it wasn’t our intention, letting it sit allowed almost all the bits of wax to float to the top, making the next step easier.) We then cold-filtered the honey and put it in jars. (We used paint filters from the hardware store.) Most of our canning jars are in storage, so we’d been saving store-bought honey and peanut butter jars for months. As we filtered, we began to panic. This was much more than we’d expected—and we were nearly out of jars (oh, and lids!) Soon we were using old honey-bear squeeze bottles…and anything else we could find. We ended up with over 35 pounds of honey. (At roughly 2.85 pounds per quart, it left us scrambling.) That’s enough for us for maybe a year—and some gift jars. Not bad, from one hive, in a ‘bad’ year. (According to local beekeepers, this was a low-yield year.)

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Now, we need to do is figure out how to process the wax. We’re thinking, candles. And amazingly, the place is not too sticky.

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And, The Winner Is…

A.V. Walters-

hives

Home, sweet home.

Where is winter? We have no snow. Though the ENSO (El Nino Southern Oscillation) typically gives us a mild winter—this is the most extreme in forty years of Michigan, El Nino tracking. The temperatures are hovering in the mid 40s during the day, some days it’s warmer. If I’d known, I’d have planted chard, and maybe garlic. On warmer days, our bees are out and about, but I have no idea what they’re doing. There’s very little blooming in this odd December weather. I’ve heard that bees enjoy the occasional mid-winter jaunt—out to stretch their wings and to defecate. Like most creatures, they hate to soil the nest.

The mild season poses tough questions for us as newbee beekeepers. On one hand, the bees, so far, have not been subjected to the temperature extremes of the past few years. That must be good. On the other, they are out and about and active—potentially increasing their caloric needs. How do we balance this out? It’s like the old question, do you get wetter walking or running in the rain?

We were all ready to harvest some honey in October—but it didn’t get cold. We could see the bees out there, still gathering. So we waited and debated. We are in this, for the bees, and honey is a fringe benefit, not the primary objective. Our first inclination was to leave all the honey for the bees during the winter—perhaps to harvest a little in the spring. Our bee group looked at us like we were crazy. Not only was that a waste (in their view), they added that a hive, top-heavy with frozen honey, was a liability for winter survival. That swung us back towards a harvest. All this extra warm time has only compounded our confusion.

We have two issues: winter-wrap and harvest. In northern climates, beekeepers have a variety of bee protection measures to keep bees warm (other than carting them off to Florida.) There are simple hive-wraps, insulated hive-wraps, or baffled hive enclosures. Then, there are special feeding formulas, and the debate of the protein/carbohydrate balance suitable for winter nutrition. It’s daunting. The catalogues are full of bee pampering solutions, vitamins and herbal treatments. We shrug. Honey is bee food. We’ll leave them with their honey. After all, our goal was to keep Michigan-hardy bees. We selected our bees from Michigan over-wintered stock (not those pampered, Florida snowbirds.) We see over-pampering as part of the problem. As for the winter-housing, we do intend to wrap the hives when temperatures fall into the 20s on a regular basis. The biggest issue is to protect them from wind. Bees huddle and give off heat and moisture during the winter. The northern beekeeper must be careful not to impair circulation too much, because trapped moisture can lead to mold and mildew borne bee illnesses. Really, there are almost too many variables!

Finally, over the weekend, we did an inspection and took some honey. It was winter-warm—low 50s, so the bees were in slow-active mode. Mostly, they ignored us. At first blush, the hives looked terrible. We know that there is a normal fall die-off—but nothing prepared us for the mound of dead bees on the ground in front of each hive. Oddly, that may be good news. The location of the bee bodies (just below the entry) indicates that bees, dying in the hives, are being tossed out the front door—in a normal, housekeeping kind of way. A true hive collapse has few bodies—since the bees just fly away and die, mysteriously. Our active bees, though slowed by winter, look good. And the scouts are doing their jobs. Both Rick and I received “warning thunks” as we disrupted the hives, but no stinging.

We first investigated the two friendlier hives, Niña and Pinta. I’ve been worried about Pinta, since it was the first to slow down, back in October. We have limited experience, so we can only compare the three hives to each other. Pinta seemed listless—and had the most noticeable pile of corpses. But her guards were quick, and the bees inside were clumping in the middle—a good sign. We were disappointed that the top super (a hive box) held only some beeswax comb—no honey. Below, things looked good—plenty of honey and bees. We found the same situation with Niña, the other mild-mannered hive. We decided not to harvest honey from either of them. Maybe we are too conservative, but we’d like our bees to over-winter naturally.

Of course, the winner is Santa Maria, our beehive on steroids. Santa Maria, (our problem child of the summer) calmed down after we added an extra super to the hive. We think the aggressive behavior was just because the bees were busting out at the seams of their space. We’re lucky we caught it, and they didn’t swarm! This is the upside of an aggressive hive. They are industrious! These bees went right to work and filled that entire super with honey. We were shocked. Looking deeper, the hive had more than enough for winter—two full supers of honey! We relieved her of one whole super. (Ten frames from a standard, medium, Langstroth hive.)

This was the hive we were so anxious to trade! We’ll just have to learn to harness that energy, and keep them busy! (I remember parents saying things like that about us as kids. There may be something to it.) With this new appreciation for “busy as a bee,” we closed up the hives and carried off our bounty.

Next, we’ll deal with processing.

Note: I realize that the recycled photo, above, may give the wrong impression about the mild winter. I didn’t take pics when we harvested honey–so I used one from earlier in the summer. I didn’t think of it until later–but our trees are bare and most of the greenery is gone.

Welcome Homebees!

A.V. Walters/Photos by Rick Edwards–

Bee transport next to new home.

Bee transport next to new home.

Opening up the "nuc" box.

Opening up the “nuc” box.

Checking the frames.

Checking the frames.

Stragglers, joining the rest in their new home.

Stragglers, joining the rest in their new home.