Our First Honey Harvest

Although we’ve been keeping bees for almost two years now, we’ve never harvested honey.  I made the decision when we first got bees that I didn’t want to become the beekeeper who takes honey and then is forced to feed the bees to help them survive.  We fed a lot our first year because we got our first hive really late in the season and I didn’t want to repeat that process if we can avoid it.  I want the bees to become part of our lives and to live with as little involvement from us as possible.

So, I knew we wouldn’t have the opportunity to harvest unless the bees were doing really, really well and the timing was just right.  As it turns out, the stars aligned this weekend and not only is the hive at the house doing tremendously well (in spite of the recent queen debacle), but we also had just enough time on Saturday to harvest!  It’s early enough in the summer that the girls should have plenty of time to rebuild their stocks and we may even have the opportunity to take another frame or two later in June….we’ll see.  As this was a new process for us, we took a ton of pictures that I wanted to share.

Here’s the hive before we started.  The box that we planned to harvest from is the second one from the top (slightly different color than the others).

The Hive

Our first discovery upon opening the top was that we have a horrific ant problem.  We screen all our top covers, so the bees have been unable to come up and scare off the ants, and they’ve taken over.  We cleaned up the top cover, and Wayne trimmed down the Carolina Jasmine that’s beside the hive and appears to be giving the ants a clear path from the fence to the top of the hive.  We’ll likely need to trim it back again soon to prevent this from happening again.  The good news is that we so no evidence of them inside the hive.

Ants!

Once we got into the second box, we pulled out the frame closest to the edge.  As you can see below, it has been drawn out and they are filling it with honey, but nothing has been capped and it was fairly light still.

Frame of Honey

On the other hand, the next frame over was filled and beautifully capped!

Capped Honey

We also grabbed the frame right beside the one pictured above.  It was incredibly heavy!  Two frames seemed like a good enough start for our first go at this.

We played a game with the bee brush for a while.  I would knock off the bees, they would fly away, we’d go to put the frame in the bucket we brought along, and the bees would wander back….slightly frustrating.  We finally decided to take the bucket with a few bees in it a bit away from the hive to see if we could convince the girls to move on.  So, here’s what we had once we got up to the deck:

Bucket full of Honey

And here’s a picture of the second (really heavy) frame:

Frame of Honey

It should be noted that we don’t actually use full size frames or supers.  My back isn’t great to begin with, so we decided from the beginning to use 8 frame mediums instead of 10 frame deeps.  Much, much easier on me.

After battling the few remaining bees for the frames, we carried our bucket of loveliness inside where I had set up in advance for the honey harvest.  I had collected the tools a while ago based on the crush and strain video that Beekeeper Linda has on her site.   Everything I got was cheap – the container is a catering style pan from a flea market, the silicon mat, knife, potato masher, and spatula all came from HomeGoods.  We put a towel down on the counter to avoid stickiness everywhere.   I also had a bucket set up on the floor from Brushy Mountain that included three mesh strainers at the top and a honey gate at the bottom.  My guess is that I spent $50-60 in total on the equipment.  Not too bad when you compare is to the cost of a honey extractor!

Setup for Honey Processing

Belle Terre’s version of the Crush and Strain Honey process:

Step one: Remove the honey from the frames.  (Ignore Wayne’s incredibly dirty shirt….he had just planted 200+ beans at the land).

Cutting honey from the frames

Step Two: Hold the frames at the right angle so the cut honey falls into the pan.  Keep doing this until all the honey is in the pan.

Honey into Pan

As a side note: I was fascinated by the color difference between the two frames of honey.   The larger frame was incredibly dark and the smaller frame was much, much lighter.   I was trying to think what I’ve seen the bees visiting recently and all I can come up with on our property is the salvia and our lamb’s ear.  I’m not sure if one of those could have produced the dark honey?   That said, our bees spend quite a bit of time elsewhere, so there’s no telling what else they are favoring right now.

Honey in Pan

Step Three: Crush the comb in the pan

Crushed Comb

When this part of the process is done, you have something that resembles a thick honey soup.

Honey Soup

Step Four: Pour the honey soup into the top of the bucket that contains the filters.  The spatula from earlier and a second person comes in handy at this point.  The pan is still rather heavy and someone needs to direct the honey into the bucket (we didn’t want to loose a drop of it!).  Toward the end we used the spatula to scrape all the excess honey off the pan and into the bucket.

Pour Into Pail

Step Five: Let gravity push the honey through the filers and into the bottom of the pail for filtering.  The sun is a great help in this portion of the process.   We put a heavy metal dog on top of the bucket to keep our dogs from investigating.  We left the bucket out for an hour or so before bringing it back in to see what we could bottle.

Filtering the Honey

Step Six: Bottle!  The honey gate was amazingly easy to use and allowed us to increase/decrease the flow of honey.   I had purchased these cute honey jars ages ago and we finally put them to good use.   Notice the small bowl I put under the gate.  I would highly suggest it.  I found that it helped to catch the extra drips of honey and at once point caught a good bit when I had stepped away without properly tightening the gate (oops).

Bottling the Honey

We also had some small sample jars and poured quite a few of those as we have a long list of people with whom we would like to share our harvest.  Here was our first go.  We needed just enough honey to take to a party and to my parents, so we finished up these jars and put the bucket back outside to filter a bit more.

The End Result

You can definitely see some air bubbles in the product.  My understanding is that those will rise to the top as the honey sits.

Here’s a picture of the comb when we were done.  It looks quite dry, but when you press on it, it seems to still contain a good bit of honey.  I’ve left it outside (covered of course) to see if we can get anything else from it.  When we’re done I plan to melt in in double boiler and then pour it through cheese cloth.  The beautiful filtered wax will be used to make lip balm and (hopefully) a salve.

Comb

Here’s a shot of some of our bounty bottled, labeled, and ready for giving.  Aren’t they cute?   As a side note, you can see our top bar hive in the background.  Still bee-less, but one day we plan to get that one up and running.

Bottled and Labeled

All told, we got 12 8-ounce jars and 12 1.5-ounce jars from two medium frames.  That’s over 7 pounds of honey!  Definitely a successful first harvest.

A car full o’ bees!

Wayne was kind enough to spend his day off wandering up to Morganton to pick up our bees and deliver them to their new home.   He borrowed my car – much easier to load things in and out of the trunk – added some cedar posts and cinderblocks for a make-shift hive stand, and drove to Morganton.

The place where we pick up the bees is pretty fascinating.  Our guess is that they probably have 30 hives or so and this is only one of two properties.  It turns out we couldn’t pick them up the girls earlier because they had swarmed and the colony had to be built back up before we relocated them.

Someone had closed up our hives for us last night so when Wayne arrived they were all ready to go.  We had been warned they were heavy and Wayne reports they were very right!  Into the car they went….

Car-full of Bees!

I suggested to Wayne that he might want to drive in his bee suit but he felt pretty comfortable without it.  I was on the phone with him and inquired about loose bees and he said it wasn’t a problem….paused…and said “let me call you back.”  Turns out one of two must have wandered out of the hive (or followed the hive into the car) and were waltzing around while Wayne was driving.  They apparently felt that there was no need to be alarmed though and took the drive in stride.

Wayne pulled onto our property, unloaded, set up the cinderblocks and posts (a bit rough right now since he had locked himself out of the shed and didn’t have any tools), and set up the hives.   I sent him with supers as it was recommended we add them immediately so they have room to grow.

So here they are all set up:

Hives

Wayne left the entrance reducers on so that we didn’t have large quantities of bees flying out and getting lost.  Before leaving Wayne reported that many bees were conducting orientation flights….adjusting I hope.

Hives Setup

I plan to visit soon to change out the super on the right so that it matches (yep….can’t handle it like it is).  We’ll give them a week or so to get settled first and then we’ll plan a quick inspection.

Join me in welcoming the new girls to the Belle Terre family!

Bee update: Hive Inspection

We promised ourselves we would do a complete inspection today.  Because of our schedules today, we didn’t get the opportunity to open the hive until late in the evening (6pm).  We try not to open the hives so late for several reasons.  First, most of the bees will be in the hive that late in the day and second, they will be aggravated.  All that said, I’m glad we did it.  I was able to shoot a video and after spending about 20 minutes trying to remember how to transfer to the computer, the end result is below.

I started with a quick external inspection just to make sure everything appeared to be okay at first glance.  You can see tons of activity at the front of the hive.  We then removed all the supers and inspected a few frames from each starting from the bottom and working our way up.   We are quiet at the beginning (not much to say), but do start yapping part of the way through.  We like to talk to one another while we’re inspecting.  It makes for a better learning experience (for me at least).

A few notes:

1 – We didn’t mention it in the video, but you can see another queen cell on one of the brood frames.  I took a picture:

Queen Cell

Since they just re-queened, I don’t understand the queen cells unless they were already feeling crowded again?  Maybe it’s left over from earlier when they re-queened?

2 – We did not see the queen.  That doesn’t worry me at all since they are many, many signs of her activity within the hive.

3 – Although I tried to zoom in, I’m not sure I showed the larvae well during the video.  Here’s a picture that’s quite a bit clearer.  If you click on it, you’ll be able to see various stages of uncapped brood.  As I mentioned, I’m still not complety sure I can pick out eggs, but I may try it the next (sunny) day we inspect.

Bee Larva

4 – After adding the super, we opened the nuc.  If I had thought through it in advance, I would have borrowed a frame or two of brood and moved it into the nuc.  We would have needed to search diligently for the queen to make sure we didn’t move her and then allowed the bees to grow their own queen.  Since I didn’t have the forethought to plan, we instead took the frames of honey and very small number of bees from the nuc and moved it into the larger hive.   Basically, the split failed and we added it back into the main hive.  I left the empty nuc by the hive entrance to allow the left over bees to wander over at their leisure.  At some point we may attempt a split again.

So, here’s how we ended the day:

Dismantled Nuc

So, we’re back down to one hive again – at least temporarily.  We have two hives that should be ready for pickup any day now.

Bee update: Her Majesty has returned!

Wow….it’s not often I get this excited about small white grubs…

Wayne was home early from work and kindly opened the hive today.  It was my drop dead day.  My call another beekeeper in a panic looking for a queen day.  Low and behold, Wayne found larva galore.  The bees were much kinder  now that their queen has returned and is laying again.

Whew.  Big sigh of relief from me.  I swear, they are trying to teach me patience.  Unfortunately for them, it’s not working.  This weekend we’re planning a full hive inspection and I promise some photos/video.