Archives for category: beekeeping

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Sounds like a political strategy, eh? It’s not. It’s an old-fashioned method of harvesting honey. There are two primary methods of honey processing, spinning (extraction) and crush and strain. What you choose depends upon the types of hives you have and what products from the hive you want to harvest.

Usually we use a frame spinner to extract the honey from the comb. This process leaves you with empty frames of drawn comb, which the bees can repair and re-use. When you consider that it takes about seven pounds of honey for the bees to make one pound of wax, it makes good sense to recycle it.

But sometimes, it makes sense to scrape the frames clean and strain the whole mess to get the honey. Perhaps you also want to harvest the honey and the wax–for soaps, or lotions, or candles. Perhaps, your bees have been goofy and making irregular and wacky comb–and you want a fresh start–so they won’t continue the weirdness. Or, maybe you only have a little to harvest and it’s not worth the set up and clean up for just a couple of quarts.

We had a few frames of wacky comb, so we decided to crush and strain. It’s simple–letting gravity do the work, and requires only the kinds of tools you’d find in any household–a collander, a big pot, and a paint straining net. It’s messy, but then, so is spinning.

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We had five frames of partial, or wacky comb. In total, it yielded two quarts of honey, a worthwhile harvest. We’ll save the full frames for later processing in the spinner. In the meantime, life is a little sweeter for the effort.

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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.

 

1Last week we had to buy honey. Next week, we will run out of potatoes. Last summer’s onion harvest was non-existent. And, in the late fall, I didn’t realize that our new raised beds would freeze earlier than if things had been traditionally planted, in the ground. Fully half of the carrots and beets were solidly frozen in place. We are too new at this to know whether they can be salvaged when the bed thaws. Were we really homesteading, any one of these errors could have spelled a hungry winter.

The honey shortfall isn’t as grim as it sounds. Unlike most, we are spring harvesters. We leave the honey in the hive for the overwintering bees. Spring is the best time to determine what was “extra.” The only downside of our harvest timing, is that we have to watch that we get there, before the spring-cranky bears do. To cover our shortage we bought honey from our local co-op, produced by a guy we know. There’s cheaper honey out there–but you have to wonder. Honey is one of the most adulterated, and frequently counterfeited, agricultural products. Often, what you get in the stores is mixed with high fructose corn syrup. I’d rather buy from a guy I know and trust.

We’ll get better over time. We’ll improve our sorry soils and we’ll learn the ins and outs of our season. Our fruit trees will mature and provide a larger yield. We plan to make a solar dehydrator, but with a grand total of 41 apples–most of which we scarfed up as soon as they were ripe–that may be premature. Between dehydrating, freezing, root-cellaring and canning, in a couple of years, we’ll make it through the winter without so many trips to town. In the meantime, the bulk of our food is still store bought.

Store bought. The impact of that expression has shifted throughout my life. When we were kids and my mother was stretching each dollar, she baked all our bread and goodies. We picked berries and canned all of our jam, apple sauce and winter fruit. Wouldn’t you know that, in the face of fresh baked and homemade, there was a part of us that longed for Oreos and Wonderbread…like the other kids had. We wanted store bought.

My older sisters made all of their clothing–beautifully and impeccably tailored. (I didn’t share that particular talent.) Their primary objective was to make something so perfect that others would not know that it was hand-made. Their skills turned baby-sitting money into fashion. We all learned to knit, and crochet. These were basic, life-skills.

My mother was a gifted and prize-winning potter. She made all of our dishes. I remember wishing that those plates would stack neatly in the cupboard, like at other people’s homes.

And, again to be frugal, my father learned woodworking and built all of our furniture. It was simple and elegant. Or, we bought “rescue antiques” and refinished them back to their former glory. Our home looked nothing like the store bought stuff in our friends’ homes. I’m sure we didn’t fully appreciate it then, that we enjoyed an aesthetic unavailable in the “normal” world. Our family hung with odd people, artists and weavers, potters and do-it-yourselfers. Even when surrounded by all that talent, to us kids back then, there was still an appeal to the quick and easy consumerism we saw around us.

And I’ve spent my entire adult life working my way back to the basic, and frugal elegance our family enjoyed when I was a kid. I’m still rescuing antiques and materials. Rick and I built this house to our own tastes and use. I don’t know if others would see, or appreciate, the things in which we take satisfaction. You see, I have abandoned the quest for store bought.

 

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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.