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.

Iddy Biddy Swarm

A couple of weeks ago, early in the evening, I was closing the blinds at a window when I spotted this.

An iddy-biddy, teeny-weeny honeybee swarm.

That’s a first.  In addition to its being a very late swarm of the season–not unprecedented, but odd–it’s just so…tiny.  And, isn’t it kind of cute?

Do you see it?  It hangs from a branch just above and to the right of our hive, Buzz.

Those honeybees!  Every year, they throw something new at us.  Each beekeeping season, there’s some event, some honeybee goings-on, some mischievous behavior,  that we haven’t witnessed or experienced previously with our honeybees.  In baseball parlance (in honor of the World Series–go Astros!), there’s always a curve-ball with our bees.

The girls like to keep us on our toes.

I didn’t see the swarm as they formed and flew to the tree, but had seen buzzy activity (more than normal) around Buzz, so I must assume the little swarm was from that hive.  There are cast swarms that are subsequent swarms after a main, spring swarm.  Maybe this was a cast swarm? I’m still not certain.  There was a major swarm in the spring which situated itself for a few days in the oak tree above the hives, then moved on somewhere else.  I also know that both hives produced their own queens after the established queen died, or was killed due to its weakness. You can read about that here.  But a mini-swarm? Never, ever have I seen that one before.

A day or two later, the tree bees made their way back down to Buzz (some hung out on Woody) and over the course of a few hours, a honeybee battle ensued.  By the next morning, there was a pile of dead bees on the ground at Buzz’s feet.

Sheesh, honeybees are tough ladies!

In our recent hive checks, we noticed that both Buzz (especially) and Woody (less so) were packed with full frames of honey.  We contemplated whether we should take one or two honey filled frames from the second (top) brood box of Buzz and add new frames for the bees to comb out and the queen to lay more eggs.  This remedy would also relieve the honey bound issues.

And so we did.  More about that soon…

 

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