Scar No More

Bee Daddy and I have hosted honeybees in our garden since April 2014. Our first two hives, the Warre hives Scar and Mufasa, provided sweet honey, pollinator entertainment, and a foundation of education about honeybees’ life cycles and quirky bee habits. I should add that honeybee education is on-going; those critters always present new and interesting issues which challenge their human colleagues. We lost Mufasa to a varroa mite infestation in December 2015, which you can read about here.

Scar continued honeybee life with little interference from its human admirers. The Warre hives were always difficult to maintenance, so we mostly let Scar be. If it was honey-bound, we’d take some to open up space for the bees to continue their obsessive honey-making, but otherwise we left it alone and busy with its bee goings-on.

In autumn I recognized that Scar was declining and I figured that if we enjoyed a typically mild winter, Scar would either rebound in spring, or not. What I didn’t expect was the week-long freeze, accompanied by a half-foot of snow with attending ice, and a couple of nights single-digit temperatures–snowpocalypse.

Poor Scar. It was so weak and had so few bees to keep itself warm, that during the frigid temperatures the remaining bees froze.

When we opened our two hives for the first check of the season a few weeks ago, all of Scar’s honeybees were dead. Huddled in between frames, clustered together on honeycomb, and dropped to the bottom of the hive–all of Scar’s bees were dead.

As sad as the sight was, for both Bee Daddy and myself, the most poignant was the clusters of adult honeybees over the brood, some capped, some uncapped. Even in their last moments, they were protecting the next generation.

In the photo below and toward the bottom right, you can see some bees with their faces at the opening of the cell. Those are emerging, newly adult bees. The rest of the reddish covering on the honeycomb cells are capped brood.

In this photo you can see adult nurse bees, bums up and visible, as they nurture the larvae in the individual cells. Looking carefully, you’ll notice milky coloring in some of the cells. Several show just a dab of milky coloring, while in others, the milky bit is more pronounced. Those are honeybee larvae.

We’ve taken what little honey there was, only netting about two quarts. With Warre hives, we must crush the comb for the honey to drip and it’s impossible to get all the honey. We have four containers with crushed comb and honey which we’ll lay out for the bees at a later date, when there is a dearth of blooms. The bees from our other hive(s) will slurp the honey, creating their own with it, and continue their hives’ lives.

We’ll remember Scar as a remarkably sweet little hive of bees. We almost (almost!) didn’t need smoke to calm them, they were so easy to work around.

Our remaining Langstroth hive, Woody, is full-to-bursting and very active. We’ll soon remove some frames of honey, as they had so much left over after winter. Woody is so full, I expect a swarm at some point and that’s normal spring behavior and just fine: more bees out in the world! In late April we’ll also be getting another “package” of honeybees, a queen and 10,000 workers, thus bringing us back to our two-hives standard.

Just like everything else, death is a part of beekeeping. It’s always sad to lose a hive, but it is part of beekeeping and part of gardening.

Absconded

Honeybees.  They’re good at delivering lessons to those who are arrogant enough to think that we “keep” them.  Each of the five years (happy honeybee anniversary this month!) that we’ve been beekeeping, the insects have taught us something new, forced us to ask questions about their complex biology and our competency, and humbled us with their honeybee prowess.

So what’s on tap for 2020?  For the first time, we’ve experienced the absconding of a hive.  What does that mean? Absconding is when the bees leave the hive–all of the bees, all at once, and with the queen. Why does this happen?  There are many reasons, including lack of food sources, overcrowding, heavy mite, beetle, wax moth load or ant invasion, but it’s mostly unclear why honeybees bolt.  What happened to our hive?  We haven’t a clue. 

Three weeks ago, our honeybee hive, Buzz, swarmed.  A fascinating event to behold, swarming is a normal and healthy event for a honeybee hive.  Swarming is honeybee procreation and usually occurs in spring and early summer. Swarming means is that the hive is ready to make another hive, a new hive.  The established queen sends out her let’s get out of here and find new digs pheromones, and she leaves with a fair number of worker bees to set up a new colony somewhere else, leaving the new queen with the remaining the original worker bees in the old hive.  Basically, there’s one hive, then there’re two hives, and this equals procreation.

As an aside, and since it is spring, you might hear about or see swarms, and you should understand that swarms are not dangerous.   In fact, honeybees are at their most docile during a swarm:  they’ve engorged on honey before they leave the hive (happy, contented bees), they’re hanging out (literally) with their queen, and they have no honey stores or larvae to protect.  Swarming bees are laid-back bees, more so than at any other time of their life cycle.  A swarm might look scary and has the undeserved reputation of being scary, but it’s not scary.  Photos of honeybee fans with bee “beards” are taken when the bees are swarming and not protective of anything; that’s when it’s okay to scoop up a bunch and plop onto your head.  I’ve never placed a swarm on my head or face-nor am likely to do so–but I have picked up a clump of bees in swarming mode and moved them from one place to another.  I’ve also stood amidst a swarm of our own bees.  It’s an unsettling, but incredible experience.  Remaining calm is a must and not because of any issues with the bees, per se, but because humans have an innate fear of bees (those stingers!) and that fear must be controlled if you’re going to hang out with a swarm of bees.  It’s just best not to freak out.

So, Buzz swarmed; she went into my SIL’s tree for an hour or so, then back to our oak tree.

By late afternoon, she was gone from our property.  I have no idea where the bees went, but wish them well in their new home.  Since the swarm, Buzz’s bees looked normal; there were foragers, to and fro, and by all appearances, things looked good.  We should have check the hives a week after the swarm, but rain, then cold, prevented a regular hive check until late last week.  By then, Buzz was quiet.  There were a few bees around, but not many.  Once we opened her up, there wasn’t much to see except a lot of empty comb in both brood boxes and the honey boxes.  While there were some honeycomb cells with pollen stores,

…there was no honey, no capped or uncapped larvae, and a few bees around.  I didn’t see any indication of wax moths, though there were some hive beetles.  Hive beetles are bad news, but every honeybee hive has some beetles; hive beetles (and varroa mites and wax moths) are an unfortunate part of modern beekeeping.  

Could there have been a heavy varroa mite load in Buzz?  That’s certainly possible;  we haven’t consistently checked for varroa mites since last spring; our bees are varroa resistant and the reason we’ve become lazy about checking for mites is that we never saw any.   We lost  a hive several years ago, which you can read about here, to a presumed varroa mite infestation, but it was in late autumn, which is the more typical time for a mite infestation to kill a hive.  Also, Buzz wasn’t “killed” by anything.  There were no dead bees around the hive.  There were simply no bees.

So what happened?  I’ve wondered if perhaps there were actually two swarms, the one we witnessed and another, either before, or after that one.  Other than that, all we know is that Buzz is empty, bees absconded. 

We’re not beekeeping for honey production.  Yes, taking honey is part of this weirdness, but not the reason we started beekeeping, nor why we continue;  honey is a sweet reward, not the ultimate goal.  Therefore, we don’t ignore our hives–never checking them, never heading off problems–but we’ve also learned that too much fussing, too much checking the honeybees is not necessarily best for the honeybees.  What we’ve come to understand is that these critters know what they’re doing and it’s best for them if we encourage an environment that allows their lives to be as easy and productive as possible by providing organic nectar sources, water, and the space to be bees.   We check our hives once every 2-3 weeks throughout our growing season. 

That said, they love messing with our beekeepers’ heads and have tossed a honeybee curve ball to us each and every year.  There’s always something new to learn with honeybees.

Buzz’s brood and honey boxes, abandoned and bee-less, are stacked together in the room where we store the honey extractor. 

Bee Daddy will engage in woodworking magic to repair some minor damage to the frames and the bee hive parts will likely remain sequestered in the house for a year, maybe longer.  Currently, I’m not inclined to purchase a package of bees because a new hive would require feeding with sugar water (to help them get established) which is the ONLY nectar replacement source that should be fed to bees.   With white, refined sugar in shorter-than-normal supply, I don’t want that commitment or responsibility.  If a swarm appeared nearby and was easy to capture, we’d snatch it up, but I’m not going to search far and wide for that scenario. 

We have two, apparently healthy, hives. The Langstroth hive, Woody,

…and the Warre hive, Scar.

If it was my decision, I would have chosen Scar to be emptied.  Scar is much more difficult to manage and when we take honey (which is delicious), it’s a complicated and messy process compared to any similar management of the Langstroth hives.  But that wasn’t our choice; it was Buzz the Langstroth that absconded, deciding that its hive wasn’t safe, or comfortable, or…something.  Whatever was going on with Buzz’s bees, they felt the need to vamoose–and they did. 

Honeybees.  When honeybees are a part of the garden, there’s always a new event to respond to or a different situation to make allowances for.  Learning their ways is rewarding and flummoxing and we’ll continue our education.

Honeybee nectaring on a dewberry flower.

The Big Twirl

In my last honeybee post, Iddy Biddy Swarm, I explained that the recent hive checks of Buzz and Woody demonstrated how honey bound they were and that there was little room for their queens to continue laying eggs, which each must do for survival of the hives.

So you ask: what happened to Buzz’s two frames that were so full of the sweet stuff?  Well, dear readers, here they are, on my kitchen table, jam packed, honey-filled, and ready for the big twirl.

What is the big twirl?  It’s the inaugural use of our two-frame honey extractor which we purchased almost a year ago.

Here she is, in all her honey extractor glory–shiny, clean, and ready to fling.

Let’s talk about the anatomy of a honey extractor for a moment. You can view the exterior as we situated it in our kitchen in preparation for the extraction.  There is  a step leading to the family room and while generally annoying, it now proves useful for our honey hobby. The drum sits on the step, we then placed the honey-catching strainers and bowl just below the extractor’s honey spigot, adding extra height to the drum with a few 2 x 4 blocks of wood. Of course, we laid towels just below this whole business, because…honey.  Even when we’re as careful as we can possibly be, somehow, the stickiness of honey makes its presence known in all sorts of weird ways and strange places.  Towels are a good thing to have around when dealing with honey, as are plenty of damp cloths.

The hand crank is at the right of the drum (in the photo), near the top.   Before we started, I was skeptical that hand-cranking would be enough to sling and fling the gooey glory from its framed cells, but it proved just fine.

A look inside the contraption shows that the drum holds the basket which holds the frames.  The hand crank is attached  to the main bar, so that when it moves, the whole basket pivots on a vertical pole which spans the height of the extractor drum.

 

An up-close shot demonstrates the thing of beauty that is a full frame of honeycomb. 

Near the bottom the frame, you can see that the bees didn’t cap whatever honey was placed there, but that’s not unusual.  As well, the the wax covering the honey cells isn’t necessarily completely smooth–there are undulations and indentations because the frames sit in close proximity with one another in the hive and the close-knit honeycombs are impacted by their neighbors.  The honey captured and capped on frames isn’t always perfectly smooth or uniform.

We popped Buzz’s two frames in their respective slots for the big twirl.  These frames are brood frames and are 18 inches long, 9 inches wide.  Brood frames are–you guessed it–for brood!  However, a brood frame will have not only brood, but some honey, as well as cells with pollen stores.  As you now see, there was no brood because Buzz was honey bound and there were no honey-free cells (in sufficient numbers)  in which the queen could lay eggs. That’s why we took these frames and added new ones; the queen needs plenty of free comb cells for her many multiples of eggs and when the bees make honey in the majority of cells (because that’s what bees do), sometimes a hive runs out of room.  Swarms happen and even the densest of beekeepers finally figure out that the bees need fresh frames.  Duh.

Other frames, called dadants, are narrower than the brood frames and are only for honey.  In both of our hives, they are the top two boxes.  Theoretically, those are the frames we’ll most likely take in the future, but for this first time, it’s the two brood frames that needed replacing and are our honey extractor guinea pigs.

 

Happy Halloween!  Be wary of the Bee Daddy with an uncapping knife!

The uncapping knife is a necessary tool for stripping the top layer of wax which seals the cells where honey is stored.   Ours is electric which, when plugged in, heats the knife.  And thank goodness for that–a hot knife makes the job of uncapping the wax much easier than if we used a cold knife.  The edge of the knife isn’t particularly sharp and drawing the knife downwards through that layer of wax requires steadiness in order to break through the wax.

I especially like this shot because the wax curls perfectly as Bee Daddy brings the knife downward.

With a firm hand, Bee Daddy and I each took turns drawing the knife downwards, scraping off the very top layer of wax, allowing the wax to fall into the extractor drum.  I must say, Bee Daddy has a knack for uncapping.  I tended to gouge the wax and I wasn’t steady in my strokes.  I also burned my hand a couple of times.  Ouch!  And next time, I’ll pony-tail my shoulder-length hair before extraction.  Because…honey.

Notice in this photo that at the top of the frame, the wax that has been scraped from the cells and the honey which is exposed sits in those cells, shiny and ready for dripping.  Below the knife, the wax still covers the honey cells and is not shiny, but dull.  The honey there isn’t yet free to ooze.

Once we’d uncapped all there was to uncap, it was time to twirl and swirl.

Round and round and round he goes!  Bee Daddy turns the extractor handle for several minutes, occasionally peeking into the drum to check on the spew of honey out of the frames.  Centrifugal force is the power that flings and slings the honey to the side and bottom of the drum.

After only 3 – 5 minutes of turning, we decided that most of the honey was out of the frames and into the bottom of the drum.

Here sit the frames, sans honey.

Even with extraction, there’s still honey remaining on the equipment. It’s impossible to get all of the honey off of whatever equipment is used–no way, no how!  I’m not meticulous about scrapping every bit of honey and always leave plenty for the bees; they’re efficient honey cleaners and they’re quite determined to finish the work. I placed the extractor drum outside by the hives once the bulk of honey was out of the drum,  through the strainers, and into the bowl.

It was a nice set-up for the bees and they worked for the rest of the day cleaning up that bit of honey impossible for us to get.  My other choice would be to wash the whole lot, but that’s a waste of perfectly good honey.  I think the bees deserve the honey as they’re the work horses in this honey adventure.  After the bees slurped the bulk of post extraction honey, I washed the drum and extraneous parts.  To see how I’ve washed the bulky extractor previously, check out the post about the extractor’s first bath.

There was very little wax wastage in this extraction process, which is, after all, the point of mechanical extraction.  Heretofore, because of Scar’s Warre hive design, we’ve always employed a crush-n-drain method, which destroys the beautiful wax and is messy and time-consuming.  Taking honey with an extractor is the bomb!  Easy, significantly less effort and mess, the combed frames preserved for future use by the bees, it’s clear why the mechanical extraction method became the process most beekeepers use.

We extracted nearly a gallon from the two frames.  Fall honey is always darker, thicker, and richer than our spring honey.

The frame removal check was probably our last hive check for this year.  It’s now cool and wet enough that the bees are snuggled in for their autumn/winter respite.  We’ll check them sometime in February and I’ll probably feed them at that time, too.   Then as the days grow longer and the weather warms, the queens will ramp up their egg laying and our honeybee world will be back in action.