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…


Bees Be Nice

I haven’t written about my honeybee hives in a while and thought it was high time I catch you up on their antics.  Both Langstroth hives, Woody and Buzz (seen below) are humming along beautifully, though spring saw each as quite cranky.    In our first early spring hive check, both hives were full of busy bees with lots of larvae, meaning that the queens were doing their job.  By late March, our bees turned mean.  Really mean.  I couldn’t go near the hives without one of the scouts harassing me, which usually ended in (at least) one sting for me.  Dreading the necessary hive checks, we suited up and popped into each hive a couple of times over the course of a few weeks and found that both hives had developed queen cells.

One cause of a hive developing queen cells is that the hive is full of bees, larvae, and honey and too crowded.  Another reason that hives might grow queen cells is that the original queen has died or is critically ill and not laying eggs.  For a hive to survive and thrive it needs a constant replenishing of eggs, larvae, and adults.   Guessing that Buzz and Woody were crowded, we first pulled off Buzz’s queen cells, thinking that was the cause of queen cell development.

We misread the clues.  When we checked again two weeks later, the workers had created more queen cells. We realized that the queens in both hives were probably dead, so we let nature take its course.  Worker bees can and do make their queens when necessary;  after all, honeybees know their stuff.  It takes two weeks for a queen to develop in the hive, then she exits for her mating flight, which lasts up to a week.  Afterwards, it’s back to the hive for her and the start of her career of egg laying.

Buzz was the hive with the most developed queen cells and so learned our lesson and let Woody do its making-a-queen thing. Within a month, both hives were calm and happy with their respective new queens and back to their gentle selves.  Honeybees are aggressive when they’ve lost their queen, but gentle when they’re queen right, meaning that they’re living with a healthy, active queen.

Both hives have two kinds of boxes, brood and dadant.  The deeper boxes are primarily for brood, but also contain some honey.  The dadant (shallower) boxes are only for comb and honey.  If you look closely at the hives in the photo, you’ll notice double wood pieces between the top brood box and adjacent dadant box.  That’s where the queen excluder fits into the hive structure.  The exluder is a metal mesh in a wooden frame in which the mesh is large enough for worker bees to climb through–and up into–other parts of the hive to continue honeycomb making, but too small for queens to get through, so their egg laying is limited to the brood boxes.

What can I say?  Queens are fat bottomed girls.  Thanks, Queen.

Honey creation is what honeybees are driven to do, whether or not the queen is in the box.  Excluders allow the worker bees to make honey in the upper boxes while the queen is  unable to crawl in and lay eggs on the comb.  With a box of pure honeycomb, beekeepers are then able to take honey without damaging larvae or possibly injuring or killing a queen, which is a win for everyone.

In Woody, the bees have combed out the frames of the bottom dadant and made honey in several frames.  The top dadant also has comb, but with no honey; we probably added that box too soon, though no harm done.  In Buzz, its lone dadant is nearly full of honey and we’ll add another dadant soon.  I expect to extract honey from dadants of both hives by fall and that will give us a chance to finally use our honey extractor  purchased some months ago.

Buzz’s one dadant is full of honey; we’ll add another soon.

But we won’t have to wait until fall for new honey–we extracted some from our original Warre hive, Scar.  Scar’s top box was jam-packed with thick comb and gooey honey, so we cut chunks of the sweet stuff off of six of the eight top bars.  Removing honey from a Warre hive is a messy job which spills plenty of honey into the hive and displaces bees.  For about 48 hours, some members this remarkably productive hive stayed outside the hive structure, though I noticed yesterday morning, most were back inside early in the morning.

Because the Warre hives holds top bars and not frames, the honeycomb must be crushed and the “extraction” involves a solid afternoon of work, squashing comb and sieving honey.  This past weekend, the result was nearly a gallon of honey!

These are 9 of the 11 jars of our newest honey collection.

In our four years of beekeeping, the Warre hives–specifically Scar–have delivered all the honey we’ve ever extracted.  While a difficult hive to check, Scar has proved a wonderfully prolific hive and its honey is liquid gold!

This mid-July finds our honeybees nice-n-sweet, ignoring me when I’m in the garden, and making delicious honey.