Setting up the set-up

I decided to take advantage of the fact that I have a clean slate to work with (my hives having died over winter) and fix some problems with my set-up. For one, as previously noted, I replaced my solid bottom boards with Varroa screens.

There were two other problems that needed fixing, though:

  • The palette on which the hives rested was sagging.
  • Because the hives are cramped into the northwest corner of my yard, one hive is shaded on the west by a neighbor’s garage and on the east by the first hive.

My solution was to prop the two hives up on cinder blocks, but stagger them vertically, so that the westernmost hive was higher than the eastern hive. That way, it will be above the shadow cast by the eastern hive in the morning.

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I canted the cinder blocks (and thus the hives) slightly forward to encourage any rain to flow out the front and left enough room in the back to service the Varroa trays.

Now, all I need are some bees, and I just heard from David of the Whidbees that the arrival date is this Sunday.

Carnies and Eye-talians

I’ve got my order in for two 4 lbs packages of bees. This year, I’m getting my bees through the Whidbey Island Beekeeper’s Association (the “Whidbees”), so I had the option of getting Carniolan queens (named for their historical origin in the Slovenian / Romanian / Bulgarian region) instead of the Italians I’ve been getting in years past.

Most American beekeepers raise Italians, so I was a bit wary and did some reading. It seems that the main differences are:

  • Carniolans are more productive foragers, leading to larger yields
  • Carniolans have a higher resistance to illness
  • Carniolans are more more prone to swarming

This last issue shouldn’t be underestimated. I’m an exceptionally lazy beekeeper, and my lassitude and apathy has encouraged my bees to swarm almost every year I’ve had them (e.g., Swarm! Swarm! Swarm! and Return of the Swarm). When they do swarm, of course, that means half the hive leaves, reducing output considerably.

On the other hand, I could try harder (i.e., police the hive for queen cells, make sure they’ve got room, etc.)

So I’ve decided to hedge my bets: I’m going with one Italian and one Carniolan. They should arrive next weekend. Exciting!

For reference, that’s a Carniolan on the left and an Italian on the right.

Crystals and Pam

I wanted to briefly bubble up a couple interesting notes from private messages and the comments section of previous posts:

  • Consensus is that the reason store bought honey tends to stay liquid longer than “craft” honey is that it’s pasteurized. Pasteurization involves heating the honey with wipes out any life in it, both good and bad. This has always struck me as an odd move, since honey is a natural antibiotic. Raising the temperature that much alters the taste and also breaks down the natural enzymes that contribute to honey’s healthfulness.
  • If using a tray under your Varroa screen, spray it with pam or wipe it down with cooking oil to prevent the mites from crawling out. Do not batter and fry them, though, as they lack nutritional value.

I made that last bit up.

Lunch, anyone?

Varroa screen and trayWell, I lost my second hive to the extra cold winter, although I have no doubt that the cold weather merely delivered the final cut, it was mites that left them weakened. To better address the mites this next year, I headed over to BetterBee and ordered a couple of Varroa screens and trays.

The idea is that the mites fall off the bees as a matter of course. Ordinarily, they’d jump on another bee, which helps them spread throughout the hive. With the screen on the bottom, though, they fall through the fine mesh and, lacking the wings of a gnat and the jumps of a flea, they die.

I was amused to see the tray that came with Varroa screen: straight off the elementary school lunch line. I don’t know exactly what I was expecting, some super specialized high-tech plastic tray designed for mite containment, I guess.

$12.95 for the assembled screen and tray. Hmm….

In the tub with my honey

I’m not really sure who this will disturb more, the people who enjoy my honey or the people who get in my hot tub. Either way, I’m feeling pretty clever.

Here’s the problem: properly extracted and stored honey will never go bad (they’ve found edible honey in millenia-old Egyptian tombs), but it does crystallize, because the sugars are supersaturated in the water, so the little flecks of pollen and other natural goodness in the honey causes it to precipitate. Again, it doesn’t make it go bad, but it does make it hard to use, as you have to scoop it rather than drizzle it.

So what to do? Heating it will reliquify it, but you need to be careful, as part of the magic of raw honey is in the enzymes and proteins that will break down if it’s heated too much (I haven’t found any solid numbers, but 120° F seems to be a reasonable upper limit). Also, as you get into higher temperatures, you carmelize the sugars and change the flavor.

Thus, my usual strategy has been to take my jars of crystallized honey and give them a slow, warm bath on the stove. Effective, but not efficient: to ensure that I don’t accidentally pasteurize or carmelize the honey, it can take 4 or 5 hours on low heat, and with only one small stove top, that can mean days to get through dozens of jars.

But wait! I’ve got a hot tub in my back yard. And it’s set to 104° F! Let’s see how it worked:

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Brilliant, just brilliant!

PS Why doesn’t store-bought honey crystallize as quickly? Likely higher moisture content (i.e., it’s been diluted with water).