Bee Mama Missive: Dark or Light?

The girls are at it again!  Buzzing, foraging,

…occasionally stinging (only when I invade their space), and making masses of ooey, gooey, delicious honey.

Not long ago, in response to the bees filling up their second boxes and working diligently on combing out their third boxes, Bee Daddy and I decided that it was time to extract some honey from the hives, giving the ladies a bit more elbow room to do their bee thing.

We checked both  Mufasa and Scar and all seems well.

In fact, they’re growing quite a bit this summer; lots of capped brood and squishy larvae in all sizes.  Both queens are laying eggs out the wazoo for the next generation of workers and this generation of  workers are moving the honey production (and everything else they do) right along.


See these dark, round beetles on the side of the box and scattered amongst the bees on the top?

They’re Small Hive Beetles, Aethina tumida, an invasive pest of honeybees and scourge of honeybee keepers.  They were obviously skedaddling away as we smoked and opened the hives.  I didn’t even see them in the photo until I was placing the copyright, but the devils were there, planning their evil takeover of the hives.   I’ll be posting more about them another day, but I just wanted you to get a good look at these bad bugs.  BAD BUGS!!

We opened the hives in late June,

…and saw lots of bee activity and comb galore.

Gorgeous, honey-filled comb!  I’m hungry.

When we extract, we always leave some full comb and rearrange the bars so that there’s one full bar with comb adjacent to another bar without full comb, in a checkerboard fashion. This gives the girls room to maneuver and work on combs throughout the box.  The checkerboard also allows us easier access when checking the hive.

Because our Warre hives use top bars and no frames, our bees make interesting comb at times.

This comb looks like the girls just came out of geometry class after learning  how to make circles, and wanted to practice and show off their new skills.

Extracting comb is messy.  When I do it, anyhow.  This time, some honey spilled. These gals went down in a goo of glory.

A few bees went for it and, well, a sad end, but what a way to go!

As I gain experience with this beekeeping nonsense, I wised up and rather than cutting the comb and stuffing it into resealable bags, covering myself and everything else in honey, I’m now using reusable plastic containers.

Duh. I don’t know why I didn’t think of that before, but my life is now easier on extraction days.  Equipment readied,

…and here’s the final product.  Ta da!!  We extracted just under one gallon of honey.

Can you guess which is the spring honey?  If you shouted  The left one!!  The left one!!  (and your family members are now looking at you with concern), you’d be right.  Other than bees take honey from different flowers at different times of the year,  I haven’t quite nailed down the reason why our spring honey is lighter and more liquid than the fall honey.  The jar on the right is the last of the fall honey, which we’ve almost finished, and it’s remarkable how different the two kinds are.  Of course, I know what the bees are foraging from my gardens, but they travel upwards to three miles, so I have no idea of the entirety of what makes up the honey product  Funny story: at one of the first beekeeping meetings we attended, another beekeeper mentioned that a local university will test for nectar sources of honey samples.   A friend sent honey to this university and the top nectar source was a non-native plant (I don’t recall what) and the second source was cannabis.  A woman raised her hand and asked where she could buy that honey.

Honey does taste different–depending upon nectar sources and time of year.  Both the fall and spring honey from my darling bees is exquisite–it tastes nothing like what’s  sold at stores.  The fall is richer and thicker and the spring is lighter, more fluid.  I’m guessing that there’s some evolutionary reason behind the thicker fall honey.  After all, the bees create it to sustain themselves during the long winter and it makes sense that fall blooming flowers might have a richer nectar component than at other times of the year.  But truthfully, I have no idea. I’m just going to enjoy both spring and fall honey, weight gain notwithstanding.

After I crush the comb and extract the honey, I always leave it out for the bees to clean up.  They’re quite efficient and gobble every last drop of honey I missed.

To quote from a favorite movie of mine, said by the character played by James Stewart in The Philadelphia Story  The queen will have bread and honey at the usual time.

Bee Mama Missive: Bees–They’re What’s For Dinner

Paraphrasing an advertising tagline from the American beef production industry, I think Bees-they’re what’s for dinner is applicable  to the Summer Tanagers, Piranga rubra,  who are visiting my garden.  In the last month, I’ve observed at least three different Tanagers flitting around my back garden.

You’ll have to excuse the photos–I’ve yet to take a clear pic of any one of these stunning birds, but the male is pure bright red, the female is yellow, and the red/yellow combination is an immature male.  I have no idea where they’re nesting, but these eye-poppers breed in Central Texas and surrounding areas west, south, and eastward during summer.

When I first saw the birds, all three over the course of a weekend, I was baffled about why they were landing only on the house side of the Shumard Oak tree and nowhere else in the garden. They’d land in the tree, hop from branch to branch, moving constantly. Occasionally one would flit to the Retama tree or, more likely to the electric/cable wires adjacent to the Shumard.  Eventually each bird would fly back to the neighbor’s tree, or beyond, which is the direction they always come from.  I couldn’t figure out what they wanted from that particular spot in the Shumard.  The Husband mentioned off-handedly, “Maybe they eat bees.”

Really?  The birds and the bees?  One is the hunter and one is the prey?   I checked the Cornell Merlin phone app while I was watching the Tanagers that Sunday afternoon and Summer Tanagers are, in fact, bee and wasp eaters. The Tanagers were landing in the Shumard just above where the honeybee hives are located.

Who knew?

Indeed, I’ve watched them fly into the flight path of my honeybees, swooping in, then banking off sharply as if they caught something; I assume the brilliant hunter flew off to an unseen spot to eat.  I’ve witnessed an immature male Tanager flutter just above a Purple Coneflower, where a native bee was hard at work nectaring.  The Tanager hovered briefly, then seemingly decided that maybe honeybees were more easily picked off for a meal and he flew away.

At about the  time that the Tanagers were making daily, or nearly daily, appearances, I also realized that both of our honeybee queens were dead.  I’m not sure what happened to the queens, as they were dutifully laying eggs at the beginning of spring. We might have accidentally rolled them during a hive check (probably) or, they might have simply died or were so weak that the worker bees decided to replace them–that happens.  The previous weeks, as part of my spring beekeeper management, I’d conscientiously destroyed queen cells (that the girls insisted upon making), in order to quell their desire for procreation.  I did such a good job that the ladies were left without their leaders.

Beekeeping is hard.  Especially when the beekeeper doesn’t know what in hell she’s doing.

So I found myself in a bit of a fix: two dead queens, which means two dying hives–and   Summer Tanagers gobbling honeybees on a regular basis.  Even without the hunting birds, the bees are doomed if I don’t requeen both hives, and the Tanagers assure that inevitability sooner, rather than later. What to do?  A quick check on the Beeweaver Apiaries website showed that they were sold out of queen bees until June.

JUNE!!  My hives won’t make it to June.  I emailed  the owner, whom I met last year, explained my predicament and she took pity on me, or more likely, my hapless honeybees.  She immediately ordered two queens sent, via UPS, on an overnight shipment to me.  Beekeepers stick together and help each other.

The queens were to arrive on a Thursday and when they didn’t as expected, I shifted into sleuth mode  to discover where my queens were stranded. UPS claimed that the package was delivered to my address at 9am.  I wasn’t home at that time, but Bee Daddy was and there was no delivery of queens or anything else.   I combed the neighborhood on my bicycle, searching  for a misdelivered queen bee package. I received some odd looks from neighbors when I explained what I was looking for and that proved interesting.  And weird. I won’t go into the details about what I did to find the package of bees, but the queens and their attendants were misdelivered that morning to an address that was one number off of mine and about ten houses away.

Yes, I made a formal complaint to UPS.

The hives were requeened and new bees are hatching as I write–there will be plenty of honeybees for the Tanagers to eat.

WAIT A MINUTE!  That’s not why I have honeybees! I have honeybees so they can pollinate my gardens and the gardens around the neighborhood.  I have honeybees so that I can enjoy and share their incredible honey.  I DON’T have honeybees so the Summer Tanagers can hunt and eat them.

But hunt and eat they do.  One of my bedroom windows is just above where the hives are located.  One morning recently, I opened the window to a gorgeous male Summer Tanager, perched in the Shumard,  gazing hungrily down at the hives.  He was so intent on snagging a bee for his breakfast that he didn’t notice  my movement at the window.

This past Sunday morning, my little Astrud cat was staring at something as she sat on that window sill, as she often does.

Can you see him through the less-than-pristine screen?  The Tanager is poised on top of Scar (one of my hives).  The beautiful avian scamp flew downward for a second, likely to the entry board of the hive, then flew back to the top with his prize: a honeybee in his beak  for lunch.  He mangled my beloved little bee and deposited her down his gullet–while perched atop the hive.  That takes a certain amount of impertinence.

Additionally,  I have  mixed emotions about witnessing the effrontery.

Do I mind the Tanagers hunting the bees?  No, actually, I don’t.  I do feel a little sad about the hardworking foragers, toward the end of their lives, being snarfed down by the gorgeous feathered fiends.  And having hives readily available is tantamount  to shooting fish in a barrel.  After all, it’s not even like the Tanagers have to hunt that hard. The hives are right there and the bees are coming and going constantly, with no thought to their own personal safety–the health of the hive is what drives them.

Meanwhile, the Tanagers have found a pretty sweet deal.

In targeting my honeybees for the benefit of their tummies, the Tanagers won’t decimate my hives.  Yes, they’ll kill some and if they’re around all summer, many.  But the honeybees are in much more danger from pesticide or herbicide use on a plant they might forage from than they are from the Summer Tanagers. I don’t garden with chemicals, but the bees forage within a three-mile radius–who knows what they take nectar and pollen from? The Tanagers will kill some bees, but they won’t cause either of my hives to collapse because of harmful chemicals. The balance of prey to predator won’t be disturbed–as long as all other factors remain relatively equal.

Ahem.  Good beekeeping practices are part of that equation.

So I’m welcoming the Tanagers to my garden and consider myself fortunate to observe these fascinating and beautiful birds.  I don’t see them everyday.  In fact, a couple of weeks passed and I didn’t see any Tanagers.  Then, saw one or two for several days–hanging around the beehives, of course.  Besides bees and wasps, Tanagers also eat fruit, though I didn’t see  them at the ripening blackberries.

Apparently, the Tanagers have plenty to eat.  Truthfully, I rather them dine on the honeybees than the native bees, since the honeybee hives are protected and have a healthy location in which they thrive.  The native bees nest in and around my gardens, but they also nest elsewhere and may not always find such a tolerant and beneficent host.

Beekeeping and wildlife gardening–a tricky balance with those two, but there clear advantages with both endeavors and my garden and the surrounding environment are the winners.

I’m sure the bees are delicious to the Tanagers, but I think I’ll stick to eating honey.

Either way, bon appétit!

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….