Honey Harvest, Part II

September 20, 2007

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.

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