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…

 

Bee Mama Missive: Ramping Up

We’re ramping up for spring and another (hopefully) successful year of honeybee keeping with our two newer hives, Buzz and Woody, and the remaining original hive, Scar.

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Woody and Buzz, the Langstroth hives, are in the foreground and Scar, the Warre hive, resides in the background.

Fresh from a day-long beekeeping seminar that we attended a few weeks back and armed with loads of new and refreshed honeybee information, we’ve been eager to check out our hives and see how the girls fared over winter.  Though it feels a little early in the season, it’s been a mild winter with the exception of a few days in the 20s F (-6ish C) in December and early January.  Our original plan for a first hive check was to test for varroa mites, but it’s either proven too cold (below 65 F /18.3 C) or, as it was this past Sunday, above 65 F, though too humid.  Varroa mites are a serious threat to honeybees and unfortunately most commercial and hobbyist bee hives have some varroa mite levels. The trick is to keep tabs on the mite levels so that they don’t overwhelm a hive and subject the bees to fatal viral overloads. Truthfully,  Bee Daddy and I haven’t been particularly good about keeping a regular check on varroa mites; in fact, we’ve been downright irresponsible about checking for varroa mites.  Partly that’s because we’ve hived honeybees who enjoy a proven resistance to varroa mites (thank you, BeeWeaver!), and partly because…we just haven’t.  I’ve seen mites on larvae a few times when I’ve pulled off comb and last year we lost a hive, Mufasa, to a fatal viral load, most likely due to a varroa infestation.  You can read about that sad event here.

This year, our 2017 bee keepers’ resolution is to be better bee keepers and we will check for varroa at least four times over the course of the season.

Ahem.

It was good to see what was going on in our honeybee hives after so many months.

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This frame has comb and nectar, but little else.

Buzz is buzzing along beautifully and Woody survived winter and though small, is thriving.  The girls have been foraging and bringing in pollen of varying colors:

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The corbicula is also called a pollen basket. I use a Tina-term “pollen pantaloon.”

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I’m enamored with the salmon-red pollen; I have no idea which plant produces it, but wow!

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The bees have also been bringing in lots of creamy white pollen, much of which I suspect comes from a neighbor’s stand of viburnum.

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Creamy white pollen taken from the flowers and stored in the corbiculae, pollen baskets, or pollen pantaloons.

As always, lots of good, old-fashioned yellow pollen is collected–no doubt from a variety of sources.

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Can you count the number of bees carrying pollen?  I counted five!

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Honeybees forage up to three miles and I know that viburnum, rosemary, flowering quince and perhaps a few early trees are in flowering mode.  My Leatherleaf Mahonia, Mahonia bealei,  was certainly one source of nectar and pollen a few weeks ago, but there’s nothing currently blooming in my garden that the honeybees are interested in, though I have seen a few of the tiny wild bees working at some native salvia species that have pushed out some blooms in the last week or so.

Honeybees forage for nectar, which is their carbohydrate source, and pollen, which serves as protein.  A diverse and well-rounded diet is key to a healthy life and honeybees certainly benefit from a diversity of flowers.  That the honeys are pulling in pollen and nectar from a variety of early sources is a good thing.  I planned to take a photo of the comb with differing pollen colors, but completely forgot about that once I was in the hive and looking at the good work of the queen, with support from her workers.

This comb–and it wasn’t the only one–demonstrates  a beautiful pattern of capped brood, meaning that Buzz’s queen is healthy and  laying eggs. The next generation of honeybees is in the works!

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While pulling up some frames to check, I tipped one full-of-comb frame and the comb broke.  ARGH!  It’s not the first time I’ve made that mistake (when will I learn?), but when I’ve done that in Mufasa or Scar–the Warre hives, with top bars and not frames–we had to sacrifice the comb, or if it was full of honey, take the honey.  There is simply no remedy for placing a broken comb attached to a bar back into the hive, because there is no way to “hold” the comb in place. Now that we use Langstroth hives with full frames, a dumb mistake is fixable.

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This frame is mostly capped brood, but there are some uncapped brood (larvae) and there is also some honey in the top right corner.

Three rubber-bands wrapped around the girth of the frame will sufficiently hold the comb in place and allow industrious little bees to repair the beekeeper damage by building new comb and continuing their honey-making or baby-bee tending.

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Unfortunately, some of the larvae about half-way through their development were victims of the comb breakage.  The bees will harvest the doomed larvae as a protein source–bees waste nothing.  Once they’ve rebuilt the comb,  Ms.Queen will probably lay more eggs in the new comb.

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Ramping up indeed!  I was pleased to see that Woody and Buzz seem healthy and next time we open up the hives, we plan to conduct our first varroa mite check for the season.

Sadly, Scar is on her way out as a viable hive.  There were five full combs of honey in the top box–we took three out–but the lower boxes contained mostly empty comb. There is no brood, indicating that the queen has probably died and while there are worker bees busily foraging and still engaging in most of their bee work, there’s no new generation to nurture.  Last year, we decided that once our Langstroth hives (Buzz and Woody) were up and buzzing, we’d allow Scar to atrophy naturally–there would be no extreme measures to keep her going.  Still, I’m a little sad and must admit to a temptation to re-queen her.  But Scar is a difficult hive to maintain and I’ve become quite spoiled at the ease of working with Buzz and Woody in all their Langstroth glory, so I imagine I’ll keep with the original plan and let Scar go. Scar’s bees will live out the rest of their lives over the next month or so and then she will be empty.

I’ll plant something bee-friendly in that shady spot in Scar’s memory: maybe a nice Evergreen sumac, Rhus virens  or Turk’s capMalvaviscus arboreus.