Bee Mama Missive: Lumpy And Squishy

Squishy and sticky, actually. But lumpy and squishy are a part of the family lore. When my almost 20 year-old son was very little, he was a picky eater.  He’s not any more, but as a tyke, whenever he wouldn’t eat or even try a new food, his excuse was that it’s lumpy and squishy. So lumpy and squishy became our go-to phrase when we don’t like or want to eat some particular food.

I would suggest that this, …is lumpy and squishy.  But try it?  You betcha!!  This golden glory is what remains of one of the batches of honeycomb that Bee Daddy and I harvested from our honeybee hives recently and that I drained a total of about a gallon and a half of honey from.    I should also add that in addition to being lumpy and squishy, the honey is also sticky and delicious.

Really, really delicious.

After checking our hives recently, we ended up with bags full-to-bursting with honeycomb which needed squishing in order to extract the precious, yummy honey.

If I was a serious beekeeper whose goal was to reap honey throughout the year, I would have a different type of hive (Langstroth) and invest in a honey extractor.  As it currently stands though, my beekeeping goals are about adding pollinators to my local environment and if we get some gorgeous and sweet benefit from the bees, that’s a-cherry-on top for our efforts.

Honey is the byproduct of honeybees, so here I am with roughly ten bags of honeycomb,

…plus some partially filled comb.

Because the extraction is time-consuming (I’ve done this once before after the smaller spring honey harvest), I knew the work would commence over several days, so the first order of business was to store our ziplocked booty.  I placed the bags in bowls and cookie containers and made room on pantry shelves throughout the kitchen.

If we had Langstroth hives, the comb would be built in an actual frame that we could place in a spinner to extract the honey. Our Warre hives demand that the comb be cut out in its entirety in order to extract the honey.  The Warre hive is designed with top bars and the bees build their comb downward from the bar.  Once the bar is removed from the hive, the only option is to crush the comb to open up the cells and let the honey drain and drip. Which is what I did, on and off, all last week.

In batches, as I found time, I broke off bits of comb, place those bits in a strainer then proceeded to crush the comb with a solid wooden spoon as my patience and wrist allowed, then let the released honey drip at its pace through the strainer into this large glass bowl.

Sometimes I left it dripping overnight or set it up the dripping mechanics first thing in the morning while I was gone during the day.  Once I was weary of the crushing and there was a reasonable  amount of honey in the bowl, the more beekeeper-intensive and time-consuming part of the process ensued.  I’d warm the honey for a few minutes by setting the bowl in a large dutch oven with about two inches of heated water, then pour honey through two different tea strainers nestled in funnels, which emptied directly into former salsa, preserve, and jelly/jam jars.

The first pouring or two typically went well and fairly quickly, then the strainers would clog up with honey detritus, like bits of wax which survived the first straining round.  I’d wash the tea strainers to clear the netting, situate the strainers back into the funnels, pour more honey through until I’d finished the batch of honey. A bag crushed completed, bottles filled with sweet amber gold, I’d dig into another bag, crush more comb, wait for the draining honey, and commence straining and dripping.

And so it went for several long, sticky days.    It took most of the week in on again/off again honey work to finally achieve 18, 12-14 ounce jars of honey. By the time this photo was taken, we’d already given some away and delved into a jar ourselves.  Yummmm.  Fabulous honey on homemade buttered biscuits, on warm whole wheat toast, and occasionally on a spoon, directly into the mouth….

Yes, I need to be walking and biking more.

Once most of the honey was extracted and bottled,  with plans for eating and gifting, what to do with the honeycomb?  I’m bothered a bit by the destruction of the comb because it’s so beautiful and so perfect.

It feels wrong to destroy such beauty, but destroy I must if the honey is used by anyone but the bees.

It’s very early spring here with not too much in bloom just yet.  I’d started feeding my bees about a week before we checked the hives because I didn’t realize how much honey was left and I will continue feeding for a week or two more, before spring busts out all over, in full floriferous fashion–to assure the hive has strong start to their brood and growing season.    I decided rather than simply throwing the crushed and abused honeycomb in the compost (which isn’t a horrible idea) I’d set it out for the bees to eat.

And eat they did and still are on balmy days!  Spooned on plates, the crushed comb with plenty of honey still trapped, allowed the bees to engage in binge eating frenzy,

…filling their abdomens with sweet , gooey goodness and returning to their hives with to do what honeybees

Look at ’em go!  Happy, busy honey-filled bees. I placed the bags we’d used in the gardens over rebar,


..and  over ceramic yard art.

I also deposited the bits of broken comb on top of the hives.

Except for some very cold days this week in which they stayed warm and cozy in their hives, the bees have worked that honeycomb for honey and are still doing so, though it’s turned cold again. The only thing a beekeeper should feed her bees is white sugar/water mixture and their own honey.  For now they’re getting their own beautiful honey to enjoy and take to their hive for strength, endurance and because they’re honeybees!  The bees can’t reuse the wax, though they are excellent recyclers in so many other ways.  I’ll leave the comb out, crushed and otherwise, until the bees lose interest in teasing out remaining honey, or eat what honey is there. Once the comb is depleted of its honey, it’ll go to the compost.  Or maybe I’ll put out a call the the Austin area beekeeper bunch and give it away to someone wanting to make candles–or, the like.  No more kitchen comb work for me, at least until the next harvest.

And with all those jars of honey tucked away in my kitchen cabinet, I suddenly have all these friends….

Bee Mama Missive: Honeybee Love

As good beekeepers, we follow advice from those who know more than we do–which includes the vast majority of attendees at the monthly Austin Area Beekeepers Meetup.  The advice this month was to open hives, check out the gals, see if they’re starving or if there’s honey left over after winter, and institute swarm management.

That term sounds like something you’d hear in a leadership management course.  Ugh.

Swarm management.  It’s basically crowd control.  Perhaps more accurately, a kind of birth control. A honeybee hive is a superorganism.  A superorganism is a collective of individual organisms which work together as a whole, where the individuals cannot survive without the collective.  The way a hive procreates is to divide itself by swarming into a new hive.  A new queen is anointed, she leaves the hive, taking workers, maybe as many as half the workers, with her to happily settle in a tree hole or ceramic pot, as happened in the garden of a friend of mine.  Swarming is not something we want for our bees. At some point in the future, probably next spring, we plan to hive our bees into one or two Langstroth hives, eventually ditching our Warre hives. That’s not happening this year–we don’t have time to build new hives.

So as part of our swarm management responsibilities and because it’s simply time to see how the ladies are faring, we opened our hives to check for any leftover honey stores, to see if our queens are laying eggs with resulting larvae, and if there are any queen or drone cells developing.

On Valentine’s weekend Bee Daddy and I donned our bee suits,

…fired up the smoker,

…organized our honeybee paraphernalia and got to it.

As a refresher, our hives are Mufasa and Scar.

For those of you who are parents of a certain age, these names will be familiar–from the overplayed Lion King movie which was released in 1994 and by 1995 was on DVD (remember those?) and that a little tiny girl watched while Mommy held the new baby brother.  At least, that’s how it was at our house.

The names were given (in the case of Scar) for obvious reasons–oops that table-saw blade pulled the wood right out of Bee Daddy’s hand, leaving a scar on the wood and a partially numb finger on the Bee Daddy.

Yes, there was lots of blood and a long afternoon visit to our local Emergency Room.

Mufasa is so named because that’s the obvious next choice.

This was the first full hive-check in quite a while as we haven’t opened the entirety of each hive since re-queening last July. This February examination was a complete physical, if you will.  Mufasa was first on our list of hive appointments.  We took off the top box and there was only empty comb.

I knew that already because I’d peeked in there occasionally on the warmer days of winter.  Mufasa has always been our smaller, less hardy hive, so I wasn’t surprised or disappointed that the bees hadn’t mustered the numbers to honey-ize the top box.  Off it went, stored for later use in the season. If all goes well–good flower production and pollen/nectar gathering in conjunction, we’ll pop it back on later in the season.

Then we checked the second, or middle box.

A side story:  In September, as we checked our hives, a comb with full, capped honey broke, which I decided to leave in the box as is, knowing that it wouldn’t be easy to extract once the bees reconnected it to the box.  You can read about the dropped-comb incident here. Now after winter, the time of reckoning is at hand–we must carefully cut each top bar with comb, to check honey stores and brood development. And that check includes the cross-comb developed from the dropped comb.

Oh, the stress of it all.

After slowly and carefully cutting away the comb from the sides and the bottom of the box (which directly attached to the bottom brood box), we were very happy with the results.

Mufasa’s second/middle box was moderately full of capped honeycomb, with some empty ready-to-be-filled comb.

We removed the cross-comb and cut the comb off a couple of the top-bars.

… and bagged some rich honeycomb for later honey extraction work in the kitchen.

We left some comb with honey and some empty comb so the bees have honey on cold rainy days and room for brood and more honey stores–whatever is their preference. Both of those goals are in keeping with swarm management–give ’em room to grow, so some of the more rebellious members of the hive don’t have an excuse to leave home.

Finally, we checked the bottom, or brood box and what good news for Mufasa and tangentially, for us!!

Whoop!! Queen Mufasa (the name suggests a little gender bending there–Mufasa was a dude lion, Queen Mufasa is a queen bee), is ramping up for spring, laying eggs and the larvae are growing and developing. You can clearly see that there are capped and uncapped larvae.

What a great queen she is and how ’bout those workers, eh?

The development of adult bees occurs in stages and is driven by pheromones according to what hives need: workers, drones, or queens.  Capping instigates the final stage in development–what emerges two to three weeks after the egg is laid is an adult bee.  All of these are workers (because of where they’re located and how they’re capped) and the hive will need workers once spring nectar flow begins–in about three weeks.  The timing is perfect!  We didn’t see any queen cells, which is a good sign. Queen cells develop on the sides or bottom of the comb and are larger and oblong–very different from what the photos here show. That no queen cells exist signifies that the bees are content with their queen–she’s healthy and laying eggs and everyone, it appears, is down with that.

We closed Mufasa,

…grinned, did a little dance and high-fived each other, then moved onto Scar’s examination.

It was, essentially, more of the same.  Lots more.  In Scar’s top box, all eight top bars were full of capped, glorious honey.

Heavy, heavy bars of honey.

We removed all eight, cut the comb, bagged it and stored the box for later use.  The second box was similar, though some comb was empty.  We left some full honeycomb, as we did with Mufasa.  The brood box was also full of good news.  Like Mufasa, Scar contained capped and uncapped brood, no queen cells, and stored honey.

I’d call the examination of both hives a good day at the office.  Both Mufasa and Scar have a brood box and a secondary box for expansion.  If the year goes well, the bees will produce enough brood, honey, and comb that we’ll add another box in late summer or early fall, just like we did last season.  I don’t think that far ahead though–there are too many factors and variables in beekeeping.  For the present, in late winter, the immediate future looks good for both hives.  Fingers crossed that success continues into the new year and growing season.

Time to clean up and,

….what do I do with all that honeycomb????

Bee Mama Missive: Honey!

My bees make incredible honey.  It’s just amazing stuff.

Because our bees were overcrowded in their hives, we recently removed one bar with drawn comb from each box and those bars were full of capped honey.  The other frames had some brood or were empty, so we didn’t remove those.  Removing the bars with honey lessens the amount of stored honey for the bees during winter, but we have a long growing season here in Austin and there is still time for the bees to replenish their supply, assuming the hive survives. Bees are excellent little foragers and they’ll rapidly make up the loss of honey.

We were totally unprepared for the extraction of honey from our hives.   As we pulled out our chosen combs of honey, I bagged them in airtight plastic gallon bags and placed them into the freezer until I had time to remove the honey from the comb.

I’m not sure there’s a need for expensive equipment to extract honey from a home bee hive.  It’s probably nice to have a professional extractor and if I’m ever serious about honey production, I’d consider investing in one.   But for this relatively small and unplanned job, we kept things low-tech.

I emptied comb with honey into an old metal colander placed in a bowl.

Do you see how the colander is propped up?  Yeah, that’s right–with tea boxes strategically placed on the edges of the bowl, flanked by jars buttressing each side.  Didn’t I say it was a low-tech operation?

I crushed the comb with a heavy, large spoon and let the honey drip slowly into the bowl.  Bees make beautiful comb.  Perfect hexagons, with firm but malleable texture, honeycomb is a truly remarkable product.  I hated to crush the comb, but it there’s no way around squishing it up to get to the honey.

I didn’t toss out the crushed comb, but stored in the freezer. Sometime in the future,  I’ll melt it down when (if?) I add other boxes to our hives.  We use top bars for the bees to comb-build on and if there is a strip of wax on the bar, like this,

the bees use it as a guide for their comb-building.

Once most of the honey was out of the comb and into the bowl, Bee Daddy poured the honey into a jar through a tea strainer.  The tea strainer caught  any extraneous materials (primarily wax) left in the honey from the first round with the colander.

It’s a messy job.   Sticky honey dripped onto the counters, floors, table–everywhere!  I never quite realized how water-soluble honey is though–it cleans up immediately.  So, while messy, this neat freak (yeah, I am, sorta) didn’t fret too much over the mess.

I washed each jar as we finished.

We bottled almost 7 cups of honey!  Wow!  Sweet, locally produced honey.  Our bees fly within a 3 mile radius of our home, so it doesn’t get more local than that.  We’ve shared  honey and will keep some for future use.  Several people who’ve tasted our bees’ honey think it tastes like peaches.  Interesting.  There are peach trees around, but peach pollen/nectar wouldn’t  comprise but a very small percentage of the honey.  Our bees produce honey that tastes better than any store bought honey that I’ve ever tried–that stuff is just not in the same category at all.

With the deaths of our queens, our bees are struggling a bit.  I appreciate their hard work and am awed by their amazing abilities.  I hope this isn’t our last honey harvest, though I imagine we won’t get honey again for quite a long time.

Thanks bees!  You’re the best!