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! We’ll also be getting another “package” of honeybees, a queen and 10,000 workers, in late April, brining 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.

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.

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