Wrapping Up and Heading Out

Took care of the various and sundry “final housekeeping” tasks on the hives in prep for my big trip (M and I leave for a three month trip through Europe on Monday).

Beekeeping 2700First order of business was to punch some of the ventilation holes in the bottom boards that Mike suggested. I borrowed a 2-½” hole saw from Morgan, picked up a bit of hardware cloth (which is what they call “screen” at the hardware store) and grabbed a staple gun at just bore right in. It was a little freaky, the big hole and permanence of it, but I’m really hoping it will clear up the moisture problems I’ve had in the hives overwinter past years.

While I was at it, I tacked on some tin Mike gave me to the top cover. I let the edges go out a quarter inch past the edge of the wood and just bent it down slightly instead of tacking it flush, in the hopes that the water will run to the edge of the tin and then fall, clearing the hive bodies altogether. I think a significant source of my past water problems has been from water running down the edge of the bodies, then climbing in the cracks between the hive bodies through surface tension.

Finally, Michelle and I have been clearing out our cabinets in preparation for renting our house out to three Buddhist women who will be staying in it while we’re gone (they’ve agreed to take care of our cat, Fourth, but I’m hoping the bees will be able to take care of themselves for that spell). In the process, I came across three almost empty containers of crystallized honey, one of them (gasp) store bought. Rather than go through the trouble of decrystallizing such a small amount, I put it out for the bees to clean up.

I’m always amazed at how fast they work. I put out a ladle and spatula covered in honey (from some jarring) with it, and within hours, they were spotless clean. One of the jars was cleaned out, too, and I’m sure the other two will be spotless, save for a few flecks of wax that made it through a strainer, by nightfall.

You can see them at work in the pictures below (I wedged the jars between the hives). I especially like the motion of the yellowjacket (a constant scavenger about my hives) in the picture on the right. Click through to see it large.

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This is likely my last post until we head out. I’ve made contact with a couple beekeepers in Europe, so I hope to post some dispatches from there. Again, if you’re a beekeeper in Europe and you’re interested in giving some Americans a tour, drop me a line at jordan (at) hive-mind.com.

Honey Harvest, Part III

Picked up my harvest from Mike today. Ten gallons, 113 lbs of pure golden brown honey. And ooo-la-la does it taste good! Michelle and I did a comparison of the 2005 batch to this year’s. The difference is pretty subtle, but it’s there: this year’s has a slightly deeper flavor, I think because there’s less water in it.

Mike did me the favor of marking the moisture content on the lid, .16. That’s perfect, because bacteria and yeast and such can’t grow in honey with a moisture content of less than .18.

Beekeeping 2697In picking up the honey, I also picked a few more tips from Mike. He advised a couple things with regard to feeding, for example. First, he suggested that instead of putting my feeding jars on top of the inner cover, I put them directly onto the frames themselves. Just less territory for the bees to cover.

He also suggested that up here in the Pacific Northwest, he pulls his feeders off before he puts his first honey super on (I’d been advised to keep feeding them until they stopped taking the sugar water, which was often deep into June or even July). Reason being is that the bees will go to the nearest food source, which in this case is the sugar syrup, which ends up distracting them from harvesting nectar. And I don’t want them storing converting sugar syrup in the comb.

Mike, sweetheart that he is (teasing from his lovely wife Bev notwithstanding) also installed the eight-frame spacers for me in the supers I left with him. And gave me some tin to wrap my top covers in. Thanks, Mike!

I stacked up the “wet frames” (the ones that had been harvested and are still sticky with residual honey) on top of my two hives to let the bees clean them off. I’ll pull them off next week sometime.

I also talked with Mike about combining my hives, but in the end I decided against it. The main reason is that I’d want to kill the queen from the weaker hive if I did so (rather than risk the chance that the queen from the weaker hive killed the queen from the stronger hive instead of the other way around) and, as you may remember, the queens I have weren’t marked with a daub of paint as they typically would be, meaning finding her would be quite hard.

Instead, I’m going to leave them an extra super of partially filled frames of honey and let ’em tough it out. Good luck, girls!

How’s That For Timing?

DollarEuro This is not the article you want to wake up to as you’re planning your three month trip through Europe (unless, I suppose, you’re European): Dollar Touches Another Low Against Euro – New York Times, Sept 21, 2007.

Not only did it fall to an all-time low against the Euro of $1.41 to one euro, but it fell to even against the Canadian dollar! Even! It used to be a buck forty Canadian to one U.S. dollar. I’d head up to Vancouver and live like a king! Now, what? I’m a pauper! Wiped out!

OK, not so bad, but still, crappy timing.

Honey Harvest, Part II

Beekeeping 2581When we left off my last post, Honey Harvest Part I, I’d loaded my three and a half supers of Hive Mind 2007 honey into the back of my Subaru (along with a half super of 2006 honey that I never harvested, because it hardly seemed worth the trouble). That afternoon, Michelle and I took the ride up to South Everett to visit Mike Doleshel.

Mike (that’s him with the black hat, I’m the guy with the pink hair) was an absolute sweetheart of a guy and a trove of information. Before I even got my supers out of the car, I learned:

  • White clover is only a good nectar crop for bees in hot weather climates. They’ll flower anywhere, but only produce nectar when the temperatures hit around 100 degrees.
  • Putting a metal cap on the top cover not only protects the wood from decay, but also heats up and provides extra warmth for the hives (top left below)
  • Moisture in the hive is one of the biggest stressors for bees in this area. To combat this, Mike drilled holes in the bottom board and covered them with screen and also put extra spacers in where the top cover meets the inner cover and hive body to increase airflow (top middle and top right below)
  • Store your empty supers and frames outside in an area protected from rain to combat wax moth: if the temperature stays cool, they won’t grow. Storing them in a warm basement (like I did) just gives them a toasty environment to breed in. Those are his supers lining the back side of his garage (bottom left below)

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He also had a top feeder type I hadn’t seen before (bottom right above). I’d been punching holes in the lids of mason jars and turning them upside down on the top of the hive (with an empty hive body around them) to feed them sugar water, but he had a black plastic contraption that let the bees climb up and drink from a refillable reservoir.

This solves one of the problems I’ve had with the mason jar approach: the bees kept sealing the holes in the mason jars with propolis, and I’d have to poke them clean again with a toothpick each time I refilled. Plus, you can just pour the sugar water straight in, instead of pulling the jars, cleaning them and refilling them each time they drank one dry.

Beekeeping 2615We loaded up my supers onto a dolly and carted them off to his honey shed. It was a small, tidy operation, kept warm by a space heater (the honey flows more easily the warmer you get, so that’s for efficiency, not just comfort) and populated by hundreds of slightly disoriented buzzing bees. They weren’t aggressive, but you had to watch what you grabbed before you grabbed it, because there were on everything.

We spent a good hour or so with Mike starting the process. He showed us how to use the electrically heated knife to shave the wax caps off the honeycomb, then use a barbed hand rake to to scratch open any cells that weren’t opened by the knife before the frames were set into the centrifuge. You obviously want to get as little honey and comb as possible, just taking off the caps, but it’s not as easy as it looks (even if it doesn’t look easy). The trick, it seemed, was to hold the knife at a pretty steep angle and make a sawing motion as you came down the comb.

You can see that Mike’s a bit better at it then Michelle and I. Notice how the caps are coming off in a nice thin curl when he does it (below top left)? And notice how they come off in a honey-soaked clump when we do it? Well, I guess that’s what years of practice (on 50 or so hives) will do. That’s the hand rake in action below on the bottom left, and the centrifuge on the bottom right.

The honey that gets cut off this way isn’t lost, it gets strained into the mix, as well and the cappings themselves are kept and melted down, so nothing’s lost, it’s just as an efficient way to harvest.

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Mike was also a big proponent of 8 frame supers instead of 10. I’d heard of this before, but didn’t realize what a big difference it could make. According to Mike, he gets 25% more honey out of an 8 frame super than a 10.

It seems counterintuitive, right? More frames, more honey?

No so, for a few reasons. When you only put 8 frames into the super, you get more space between each of the frames, so the bees will build out each of the honey cells deeper. That way, less space is spent on the base of the comb, the caps and space in between frames, and more space is spent on the actually cells themselves. Not only does this mean that each super will yield more honey, but it means the bees spend less time and energy building out the cells to hold the honey and more time and energy collecting and storing the honey itself.

As an added bonus, it’s easier to harvest. With the shallow cells I had, we found it hard to get the knife flush against the top of the cells, because the wood of the frame would get in the way. With the deeper cells, you clear the wood more easily and can use the hand rake less (which makes the filtering process easier).

To get the frames to space out evenly, you put an eight-frame spacer on the edges of the hive body where the frames rest. That’s a picture of an eight-frame spacer below.

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We got the centrifuge loaded up with twenty frames and watched while he spun it up. We stuck around long enough to dip our fingers into the golden stream that quickly flowed out (hmmmm…maybe golden stream isn’t quite the right metaphor).

Beekeeping 2689We’ll head back up there tomorrow or the next day to retrieve our booty. It takes a while to filter it all through a cloth to remove the beeparts and wax and what-have-you that you don’t want on your toast. Mike estimates we’ll get around 10 or 12 gallons, amounting to maybe a 100 or 150 pounds. He’s charging $.40 / lbs for the extraction, which seems reasonable to me (I’ve seen $.20 / lbs quoted elsewhere, but given the work involved, and the fact that beekeeping isn’t exactly a big money business, I think it’s fair).

And then, we eat!

Finally, a few folks left comments to the last post that are worth reading. One person reminded me that the weird looking comb built on the wax frames was drone comb, and drone comb reuires different size cells than the plastic comb forces, something I’d noted in previous posts. Apparently, you can buy specific (green) drone comb. That might make the plastic more workable. And, as Treeplanter notes, what works one year just may not work the next and vice versa. Bees are crazy critters.

Also, a second to Treeplanter’s note that the queen will tend to avoid laying over the wires on wax-based frames. See the horizontal lines in this photo for evidence. Eventually, though, she got over it. Women.

Harvest, Part I

It’s honey harvest time! It’s honey harvest time!

After a fortifying meal of fried eggs and coffee (sweetened with the only thing a self-respecting beekeeper would sweeten his coffee with, his very own home made honey, natch), I suited up and began the process of harvesting the sweet fruits of my (well, my girls’) labor.

Beekeeping 2462As you can see on the right, I had some high hopes for what kind of harvest I’d see. Look at that! Five honey supers on the hive on the right (Hive 2) and two on the hive on the left (Hive 1; the final box on the top there is a feeder). Why, that should probably yield somewhere between a jillion and a double gadjillion gallons of honey!

OK, maybe not so much, but it does look to be quite a bit. Not all of the supers turned out like I’d hoped, but it still turned out pretty…errr…sweet.

I set up a little work triangle in the back yard:

  • The bee hives
  • A work table a little bit away from the hives
  • A “clean room” area where I would put the supers that had been completely cleared of bees

I’m not so naive as to think that the bees wouldn’t make it over into my “clean room”, but it felt a bit less messy and would at least reduce the number of hitchhikers I’d have on my trip to the extractor later in the day.

I cracked open Hive 1 first. My thinking was that they were less productive (I think because they were getting less sun), so any mistakes I made should be on them rather than on the more valuable Hive 2. As it turned out, everything went smoothly, and no major mistakes were made.

One by one, I carried the supers over to my work table, pulled out the frames, and moved the empty super over to my “clean room”. I took each of the frames individually over to the hive and gently swept all the bees off it with a bee brush (a soft-bristled hand broom). Free of bees, I dropped it into the empty super and moved on to the next one.

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While, like I said, I didn’t make big mistakes, there were a few surprised along the way. First, I was reminded again of why I don’t like plastic frames. Look at the weird laying patter on the this plastic frame in Hive 1. See how the bees are avoiding building up on the frame itself, and instead are building off perpendicular to it? And it may be a bit hard to tell from the picture below, but off to the left there, they’ve built a second, parallel comb with a gap between it and the plastic. Weird, yo.

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I am totally not buying plastic again.

Also disappointing were the number of uncapped frames I found. I got a full, solid ten frame super out of Hive 1 and expected to get four ten frame supers out of Hive 2, but a full super and a half of Hive 2 was completely uncapped.

Uncapped means that the honey is still curing and will have too high a water content to store (it can ferment if there’s too much moisture in it). The bees will keep it warm and evaporate out the moisture and, when it’s down to the right consistency, they cap each of the cells with wax to preserve it. Uncapped cells mean too much moisture means I can’t harvest it. The pictures below are of a single frame, one side capped (on the right) and one side not (on the left).

Ideally, those cappings go all the way to the edge (bottom). The slightly different colored cells in the bottom middle are just from a different point in the season when a different set of flowers were in bloom.

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I put the uncapped frames in a couple of supers and loaded them back onto the hives. If I can’t harvest them, the bees can still eat them. It’ll give ’em a little something extra to chew on over the winter.

As each super was cleared, I loaded it into the back of my car, and when it was all done, Michelle and I headed up to Everett to have them extracted. We got a ton of pictures of that process and Mike, the beekeeper doing the extracting had a trove of information for us on how to improve our beekeeping operation, but it’s late, so that’ll have to wait until tomorrow.

Here’s a teaser, though: he hates plastic, too.