Rub-A-Dub-Dub

If you follow Bee Mama Missives, you might remember this contraption from the end of 2018.

Along with the new extractor is a frame knife for breaking the comb and freeing the honey during spinning and a mesh for catching the honey prior to bottling.

Its looks are fuselage-like, but is a sweet thing:  it’s our new two-frame honey extractor and in the not-too-distant future it will be recruited into action.  At the top, you see the nearly, but not completely, flat cover; just below and to the right, is the handle which turns the cage holding the frames of honey.  The spout at the bottom–with the poetic name honey gate–is typically closed, except after the frames full of honey have been whirled and twirled.  When the handle is rotated (more about that later), the freed honey will fling to the sides and bottom of the extractor, ready to flow out in glorious, golden goo.  We’ll capture the honey in a bowl, first straining it through the mesh, then bottle it for friends, neighbors and ourselves.  Yippee!

As soon as our weather cooperates–this coming weekend, I hope–we’ll open our two Langstroth hives, Buzz and Woody, to see how the ladies and their queens have fared since our last meeting in mid-October.  In that last 2018 hive check, both hives had plenty of honey:  each had one 10-frame brood box loaded for bear (no actual bears here, just frames packed with honey), plus a smaller box on top, full of the sweet stuff.

Lots of honey, which the bees probably slurped a fair amount of during these past chilly, wet months.  But until we peek in, we don’t know how much honey, if any, is left.  Plus, the honeybees could be (probably are) gearing up for action with the queen laying eggs and honey production ramping up.  So it’s time to prepare our extractor for the removal of whatever honey is left, which will also allow the bees more room in the comb for the next generation.

This is a small, two-frame extractor.  We’re hobbyist bee keepers and don’t need anything particularly big or extravagant.  It’s a manual extractor, but there are plenty of Internet videos instructing how to attach a drill to the handle, thus converting to a less manual, more automatic honey-getter.

Hope it works.  No doubt there will a Bee Mama Missive post in the future if it doesn’t.

Ahem.

Like any food equipment, it’s a good idea to wash before use, so wash we did!

Flat cover removed, let’s peer into the extractor bowels and look at its innards.  The flat bar across the top holds firm the mechanism for the handle which spins the basket.  As well, in the center of the flat bar is affixed a spindle which spins the basket-with-frames when the handle is turned.  The basket runs much of the length of the extractor body.

Insides dismantled and removed, the lid and handle are washed and left to air dry on the counter.

 

Bee Daddy (flashing a double thumbs-up) displays the ready-for-washing frame basket.  This is where the frames are placed in the extractor to remove the honey by centrifugal force, either by arm or drill force; we’ll figure that out when the time comes.

 

The chasm of the extractor’s body is deep.  It looks pretty and shiny, but I don’t want any honey spilling and filling into it without a nice, soapy scrub and a good, hot water rinse.

You’ve probably noticed that we’re not in the kitchen where normal food-related equipment is washed.  The extractor is too big, too tall, too weird for the kitchen.  So the bathroom it is and the rub-a-dub-dub commences.

Inside.

Outside.

Once washed, we let basket and drum dry on a clean towel before reassembling the extractor.    It now waits, clean and at the ready, for the bees, or more accurately, their honey.

 

As for the honey makers, each day’s march toward spring sees increased activity as they gather pollen and nectar.  It’s early days in the season, but it has begun.

And the flowers?  They’re opening up for business, too.

Giant spiderwort, Tradescantia gigantea

Swarm!

Don’t get excited, it happened four weeks ago and didn’t change much, though it was fun to watch.

Honeybee hives procreate by swarming and the swarming season lasts from spring into summer.  Swarming is the natural, normal act  of a queen leaving a hive, taking upwards to 70% of the workers with her in order to establish a new hive in a new place–that is how honeybee hives reproduce or procreate. Many people are frightened of swarms, but in fact, honeybees are at their gentlest when they swarm:  they have no home, honey, or brood to protect and are docile as they and their queen look for new real estate.  If you’ve ever seen photos of people with bee beards, those bees are swarming and are not in the least scary, they just look scary.  (Really dude? Insects–with stingers–on your head?  What are you thinking?!)

I mentioned in Sugared Bees, Anyone? that we found supercedure cells (emergency queen cells) in Buzz, so is that where the swarm came from?

Nope!

I don’t think so, anyhow…

What I witnessed weeks ago was an energetic and buzzy bunch of bees vacating the hive in droves, wings vibrating and roaring, and bees filling the air.

(Please excuse the lame video.  This swarming business was totally unexpected and once we (and they) were deep in, I hastily tuned to my camera’s video recording, which I’ve never used.  As if that’s not obvious.)

Within a few minutes, the bees clamored around a limb of the Red oak tree under which Buzz resides, where they clustered together with a measure of calm and quiet for about 20 minutes.

Snuggled up

Then, after a respite of tree-hugging, the bees were once again airborne, reversing their flight direction,

…and eventually, crawling back into the hive.

What??

The whole event, from the first mass of bees leaving the hive, to stragglers marching back in, lasted about an hour.  It was awesome!

But was it a swarm?  The bees left the hive in swarm-like fashion, but returned to their home base.  I think that’s a honeybee hive procreation non-starter.

When honeybees swarm, it’s the “old” queen who leaves to establish a new hive. leaving a new queen and some workers, both queens-n-workers ready for honeybee action and hive building.  That’s all fine and good, but in our Buzz, the “old” queen is a queen that we purchased last June who is marked (with a white dot for 2016–yearly color markings are an industry standard), and whose wings are clipped.

Clipped wings, folks.  She can’t fly.

So what happened?  Did she leave the hive with the worker bees and go into the tree?  Or, was it all some sort of honeybee joke?

We have some theories, but we don’t really know.

Once queen cells (the normal ones, not the supercedure ones) develop,  beekeeper wisdom is that the bees will swarm and there’s nothing that a keeper can do to prevent it.  My experience (which is limited) suggests otherwise. We’ve pulled off queen cells before and added space for the honeybees to grow and have avoided the natural process of spring hive swarming.  We attempted to do that with Buzz two weeks prior to the non-swarm swarm, but apparently, mis-timed or mis-applied our swarming-fix. So the procreation pheromones revved-up, the bees engorged on honey, and the word in the hive was GO!

What happens to a queen who can’t fly off with her workers, the ones that she messaged through her pheromone directive that it’s time to fly the coop? Maybe she waits at the front door, waving at them to come back, or perhaps, she plops off of the landing board and onto the ground, where her attendants surround her.

Lots of bees pouring out and onto the ground.

And might this be that clump?  The clump of buzziness was there for the duration of the tree-bound bees, but they crawled back into the hive with the others at the end of the adventure.

Bees clumping on the ground and near the entrance of the hive.

Fewer bees,

… and fewer still. They’re almost all back into their hive.

Imagine the bee-conversations taking place on that tree branch as the swarming workers are awaiting the arrival of their queen:

Do you bring Queen Buzz?

No!  I thought you had her!

I thought Beatrice Bee or Brittany Bee escorted her out!

Did we lose her?? Where is she?!!  Where’d she go?!!  Did one of those dreaded Summer Tanagers eat her?

Oh, man–look!  She’s still on the ground–what do we do?! No queen on the branch, what’ll we do?

BUZZZZZZZZZ!   I guess we’d better get back down there, Queen Buzz must have changed her mind.   Bummer, I was really looking forward to new digs.

And with that community decision, back into the hive they all went–presumably, with their brave, but clipped, queen.

What we know is that there was one “old” queen (who can’t leave the hive and who, for whatever reason, wasn’t  laying eggs) which is why there were supercedure cells in Buzz. What we saw when we checked a week later, was a brief glimpse of a queen–unmarked and presumably victorious over the others who would have also emerged from the supercedure cells–who disappeared down into her realm of hive frames.

Unfortunately, since that event, here as been little-to-no-new brood in Buzz. Obviously, the old queen is kaput and apparently, the new queen is not interested in fulfilling her queen gig–or she’s kaput too.  Maybe she just couldn’t find the right guy, or guys.  To save this hive, we ordered a new queen who will be delivered in early May.  I need to forewarn the new postman.

Woody hasn’t swarmed, but like Buzz, apparently had a queen who decided that egg-laying is for the birds after her initial early spring egg-laying frenzy.  Fortunately for us, BeeWeaver’s headquarters is in a neighborhood 15 minutes from my house and I was able (with a whining email to an accommodating and kindhearted apiary owner) to acquire a new queen for Woody.

With two new, strong queens, both hives should thrive–making bee babies and lots of honey.

These honeybees–they’ve produced much drama and no small amount of comedy this spring.

Honeybee forager working a Gulf penstemon bloom.

So it is when honeybees share the garden.

Sipping water from a birdbath.