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

De-bugging Buzz

At the end of 2017, I wrote about the death of Buzz the beehive due to a wax moth infestation.    We have plans to re-hive Buzz in April, but winter projects on my to-do list include moving both Buzz and Woody about 10 feet from where each originally stood, and to finish cleaning and disinfecting Buzz from the yucky remains of the wax moth infestation.  I’m pleased to say that I’ve achieved both goals, well ahead of the April re-hiving date!

When we discovered the invasion of wax moths, we removed the offending invaders and most of their accoutrements, therefore the ick of infestation remaining in Buzz consisted primarily of webbing, some frass (okay, lots of frass), and a few possible larvae cocoons.

All laid out on the back patio, ready for the cleaning.

Webbing from the moth larvae, with frass in the mix. The dark spots are frass.

One sneaky cocoon left over from the initial elimination of the insects and their remains.

Another hiding cocoon.

I thoroughly vacuumed each box and all section pieces of Buzz, and then with brush, gloves, and bleach water in hand, proceeded to scrub-a-dub-dub the inside parts of the hive.  In some spots, I used a utility knife to clean out narrow gaps and remove the remains of cocoons.  I certainly don’t want any cocoon hanging around, awaiting release from dormancy for the purpose of reinfection.  If the new hive is strong–which it will most likely be–a re-infestation is unlikely, but just to be on the safe side….

After rinsing the entirety of Buzz with fresh water, I left the dismantled hive out for a few days in the cold to dry out.

The parts shown, left to right: brood box, top lid, another brood box, mesh, base, bottom board.

There are no frames because we destroyed and trashed them–the frames were too infected with wax moth nastiness and not salvageable.

 

Meanwhile, we moved Woody to her new spot in the garden, and placed a marker right next door for Buzz–for when she’s ready.

You’ll notice a bottle of sugar-water on Woody’s bottom board.  The bees are foraging on warmer days, but during this time of winter honeybees are at their greatest risk of starvation.  There’s not much blooming and it’s possible that the girls have used up their honey stores.  It’s too cold for me to check the hives, so the easiest thing to do is to mix up some “nectar” and see if they go for it–and they have!  Honeybees like their sugar!  Well, I can’t criticize, I’m well-known for my sweet tooth, too.

All situated, Woody is buzzing and Buzz is awaiting.

Of course, Buzz has no buzzy bees, so she sits, in decorative mode for now: no bees, no sugar-water, but all nice and clean and ready for spring!

Scar, our Warre hive, is also being fed.

 

In my garden, there’s currently little flowering, thanks to the cold, dry winter boasting of several hard freezes.  However, my three  Leatherleaf mahoniaMahonia bealei, are reliable winter bloomers and the bees are all over the cheery blooms as they open.

How many bees can you count?

Of course the bees also fly 3-4 miles for other nectar and pollen providers.  The honeybees aren’t exactly bereft of blooms, but neither are there bunches of blooms for them to choose from.

I’ve recently planted this green shrub in hopes of providing more winter sustenance for my honeys.

It’s a Sweet Olive Tea tree, or Fragrant Tea OliveOsmanthus fragrans.  I’ve been angling for a winter blooming, non-invasive, and evergreen plant, and happened upon this specimen during a nursery sojourn.  A non-native plant, the Sweet olive tree is primarily known and grown for its fragrant white blooms.  It’s drought tolerant once established and also deer resistant, though (thankfully!) that’s not an issue for me.  The Sweet olive tree is also something that isn’t particular about soil and will tolerate my clay and supposedly will bloom in sun, part-shade, and shade.  The spot I chose in my garden for this large shrub/small tree receives winter sunshine, but is somewhat shady for the remainder of the growing season.  I’m  confident that it will prove a good source of nectar and pollen for my honeybees during winter.  I also plan to add more mahonia to my garden, though I’ll probably choose other varieties than the Leatherleaf for the sake of diversity in plant material.

Honeybee season is nigh, as is the season for native bees.  The first native bees in my garden will be the Blue Orchard bees, who will emerge, buzzing and beautiful blue, from their pollen-packed holes (in bee hotels and masonry) sometime in the next few weeks.

Bees are starting to happen!

 

Bee Mama Missive: Mufasa No More

Mufasa, one of the two beehives that Bee Daddy and I have fretted and fussed over, has died, or if not dead,  is mostly on her way out.  Unlike her namesake, she wasn’t pushed off a steep edge by a rival, but sadly succumbed to an all too common infestation of honeybees:  varroa mites.

That’s what we think, anyhow.  In December, long after our last hive check of the year before the days grew chilly, I was out and about in the back garden.  I noticed some bees crawling along an open space in the garden a little ways in front of where Scar and Mufasa are situated.  Then I realized that it was more than just a few bees–indeed, there were hundreds of bees crawling along the ground.  I observed this massive and confused exit from the hive for several days, reading what I could about what I was observing.  I contacted a leader of the Austin Area Beekeepers Association and he confirmed what I suspected:  my honeys were abandoning the hive because of sickness from a varroa mite infestation. Varroa mites, Varroa destructor, are probably the greatest single threat to honeybees.  The mites have a complicated life cycle, but essentially they  feed on the blood of adult bees and the brood, causing disease, deformities, and general mayhem in honeybees.  I didn’t witness any deformed wings which is a common visual symptom of disease, but Mufasa’s honeys exited the hive in droves and that’s another sign that the bees are infected and dying.

The honeybee expert I consulted called the  honeybees leaving Mufasa, “walkers.”

Zom-bees.  That can’t be good.

Not only were the bees walking out of the hive, but they were dying in droves.  They died along the landing board,

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…and were in piles on the ground around the beehives.

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Sob.

My bees are BeeWeaver bees, touted as  varroa resistant through genetic selection of queens resistant to the varroa mites.  Of course varroa resistant doesn’t necessarily mean varroa proof.  BeeWeaver claims that fewer than 5% of their queens will succumb to varroa mites and apparently, Mufasa’s queen landed in that statistical range.

BeeWeaver bees are the descendants of bees who survived the initial onslaught of varroa mites in the late ’80s.  An idea behind their survival is that they’re particularly tidy bees and they rid themselves of varroa when the varroa arrive–and sooner or later, varroa mites will arrive.  Varroa mites are the biggest invasive scourge that North American honeybees and their keepers must deal with.  Bee Daddy and I have been fortunate–this is the first hive we’ve lost in the almost two years since we began this buzzy backyard adventure.

In fact, in early summer of 2014 shortly after we started beekeeping, we removed a couple of frames of comb from one of our new hives and on some of the larvae  I saw several  varroa mites; I just knew that the hive was a goner right then and there. But true to their varroa resistant genetics, the bees rid the hive of the mites and the hive continued successfully,  despite occasional (some might say, constant) beekeeper ineptitude.

Until now.

I think my mistake was in assuming that my bees were immune to an infestation, rather than keeping a keen watch on the goings-on of the hive, year-round, winter included.  I became a complacent bee keeper.

We treated Mufasa with an organic product called HopGuard II, which is made from hops.

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Apparently, beer helps all situations.

HopGuard comes in a sealed package and contains a series of strips coated with a thick and sticky hops solution.

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We placed two gooey hops strips in each box of each beehive, each draped over a comb.

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Though not showing any symptoms of infestation, we treated Scar because as Mufasa was dying, she was also robbed of her stores of honey (yes, honeybees do that) and it’s possible the mites could migrate from Mufasa to Scar if we don’t stay ahead of the mite situation.

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In this picture,

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…there are lots of bees buzzing around Mufasa (left in the photo), but this was taken after many (most?) of Mufasa’s bees absconded and died.  I’m guessing that the bees are Scar’s bees, or even bees from another nearby hive, robbing poor Mufasa with abandon.

The HopGuard procedure was simple enough, though it’s messy.  I could smell the grainy fragrance for a day or so afterwards.

For the moment, Scar appears healthy and we’ll treat with HopGuard II again when temperatures are appropriate.  I’m sad about Mufasa’s death, but life is full of loss and one must learn from experience and move forward.  If we’re going to lose a hive, now is not a bad time.  Bee Daddy is busy making two new Langstroth hives and we’ll have two new  honeybee packages (mated queens each with 10,000 workers) delivered in April. With our plans in place to hive new honeybees in more easily managed and efficient hives, we were going to let Scar and Mufasa just…bee,  allowing them to swarm (if they want) or to just hang out to pollinate and nectar as they see fit.  For Scar and Mufasa we would become honeybee havers (thanks Debra, at Under the Pecan Trees for that one), rather than honeybee keepers.

There is a bit of activity in Mufasa even now, though very little; the difference between Mufasa (left) and Scar (right) is telling.

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As of this post, I haven’t opened the hive up fully since treating with the HopGuard, but I did peek in about 10 days after treating and things were very quiet, certainly in the top two boxes–I can’t  see into the bottom box.  There was no buzzing and no concerned guard bee coming to the top to check me out, bum in the air ready to warn the rest of the hive of an invader, so I’m guessing there’s little life left. If this winter continues mild, it’s possible that there might be a bit of Mufasa by springtime, but I’m not hopeful about that.  We’ll just have to wait, be patient, and accept the outcome.

In the days that followed the revelation that we were losing Mufasa, I was out dealing with  leaves in the garden.  I spied a probable drowned honeybee in one of my birdbaths.  I hate to see their floating bodies, so I always fish them out and deposit them in a garden;  a garden  seems like an appropriate resting place for a dead bee.  This little girl vaguely waved a leg at me, so I cradled her in my palm in the hopes that my warm skin might revive her,  all the while depositing rakes and other garden utensils in their appropriate places with my other hand.  Within about 5 minutes, she’d revived, was licking off the offending bird bath water and then, without so much as a by-your-leave, she flew off to  her next pollinating date.

The resilience of that little bee was affirming in the wake of Mufasa’s death.  Her drive to live  and continue her community responsibilities and her acceptance of life in that moment, was touching and a good reminder of the importance of purpose.  It’s been a transformative adventure to learn about honeybees–to work in the garden closely with them and to learn about their remarkable lives.  Becoming a backyard bee keeper has also strengthened my commitment to providing for native bees and all the other pollinators so important to the health of our ecosystem.  I’ve loved and planted native plants, focusing on gardening for wildlife in my personal garden and beyond. By actively encouraging pollinators to live and breathe in my gardens by what I choose to plant–or not–I hope to continue an intentional repair of the world, in my own small space, giving respite and nourishment to wildlife despite occasional losses and setbacks.

Lastly, Bee Weaver shared a lovely and locally produced film by  Dylan Tidmore profiling two Austin beekeepers, Tanya Phillips and Chuck Rayburn–and of course, the real stars of the production: honeybees.

Enjoy…learn…appreciate.