Swarming Fun

A few weeks ago I just happened to be home from work in the middle of the day and looked out the window to find this (click through to watch on youtube for the full impact):

It was the very first time I saw a swarm and the whole experience was remarkable.  After watching it for what seemed like ages, their landing spot became clear.

See all the black dots on the blue sky?  All bees.  I promise.  Unfortunately, that landing spot was the top of a tree to one side of our yard that was not terribly stable.  We didn’t have a ladder that could even reach it.   I called a local beekeeper that I found online.  He stopped by that evening with a bee suit and a ladder and discussion ensued.

Swarm

I stayed on the deck for the intense part of this process as my last few stings required a trip to the doctor.   The local beek headed up the ladder like it was no big deal with a cardboard box and shook the bees off the tree so they dropped down into the box.

retrieval

The box was literally turned upright to put the bees into a hive body that we happened to have in the garage and the box was left close to the hive for any late arrivals who were determined to stay exactly where they were.

Because I was concerned that the swarm maybe missing a queen (she could still be in the tree, or could have been injured/killed during the retrieval), Wayne grabbed a few frames of brood from the big hive (the original source of this swarm) and moved it into the new hive.

Moving Frames

After the move, I was very concerned that we may have moved the queen from the big hive into the smaller one although Wayne didn’t think he saw her on any of the frames.  Only time will tell.

Moving Frames

We made sure the entrance reducer was set to the smallest option and then left it hoping that nature will work some magic.

Swarm Retrieval Complete

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Bee Update

A quick update: It has been ages since we posted – almost a year in fact!  To bring you up to date, we lost our remaining hive on our land to an animal of some sort (bear maybe?).  The hive was completely demolished and on the ground in pieces.   We do still have one large hive at the house which was growing steadily and (as will become evident with our next post) was bursting at the seams.

First Spring Inspection & Sad News

Hives in Morganton

It’s been a long time coming, but last week Wayne finally had time to head out to our land and check on the bees.  The hive stand & hives as he found them are above.  One obstacle hurdled.  There has been some bear activity around our land over the last few years and I was a bit afraid of leaving the hives with no one living on the property and no bear fence.  I was half expecting to find the hives demolished – either from a bear, a raccoon, or some other small animal who felt it was worth the trouble.  It seems we did okay though.

As soon as he arrived, he noticed activity from the hive on the right.  Nothing much at all from the one on the left.  Not a great sign.

He started the inspection with the hive on the right and was excited to see this when the box was opened:

Activity in the Hives

Any activity was a good sign overall.  And after pulling out a frame or two:

Brood Frames

Not too shabby.  The pattern looks decent although they haven’t filled out much of the frame yet.  I don’t believe that’s a swarm cell at the bottom – maybe just funky shaped comb? Wayne did mention that quite a few cells were in between frames and that he broke open several by accident when pulling the boxes apart.  He even thought he got a quick peek at the queen as she was running across one of the frames.

The other hive was the polar opposite.  I mentioned a lack of activity and Wayne was disheartened (but not surprised) to open the box and find this:

Cluster

A tell-tale sign that the bees starved.  The cluster is in tact, but all dead.  He said the frames had bees and he was a bit confused at first but realized they were in their standard starvation stance – heads down in the cells, searching for honey.  The bottom of the box at the screened bottom board looked like this:

Bottom of the Hive

I’ve been reading lots of accounts of starvation on various beekeeper blogs around the world over the last two weeks.  I know it is something that beekeepers just have to learn to deal with periodically, but I’m thankful I wasn’t there to find it.  I guarantee it would have brought me to tears.  It’s been a week now since he went and even looking at these pictures is incredibly hard.  I keep playing the “if only” game: if we’d only fed them one more time….if we’d only been out earlier to inspect the hive…etc, etc.  I know it is pointless.  It won’t change fact that we lost the hive and all we can do is try to be more diligent moving forward with the two we have remaining.

In better news (because I couldn’t stand to end on that note), Wayne did have a chance to visit with the hive in our backyard today and all looks well.  He saw the queen, saw lots of brood and honey, and added a super to give them lots of room to fill.

Here’s to hoping for a successful beekeeping year ahead!

Bees: DC Rescue

My sister, a resident of DC,  sent me along this link and I found it fascinating.  I’m so glad they took the time and energy to save the bees rather than killing them.  Check out all the comb!   City Bees

Bee update: Inspection and Harvest in One

It was supposed to rain early Sunday afternoon, so before lunch we headed out to inspect the hive in the backyard.  I didn’t want to disturb the girls too much, but I wanted to get a general feeling for how they were doing and (if we were so lucky) to grab a frame or two of honey depending on what they had stored.

The Hive

The girls were in a good mood when we opened the box in spite of the continued ant infestation and the presence of a few small hive beetles.  We pulled out some frames from the top super and found them about split – half capped honey, half uncapped.

Capped Frame of Honey

We picked three frames that were fully capped and put them aside for harvesting.  We replaced the three frames with empty frame of foundation.

Frames for Harvesting

We moved down a bit into the second super and it looked very similar to the one above with one exception – one frame appeared to contain brood on one side and honey on the other.  The capped cells may be drones as they were slightly raised.

Brood in the Honey Super

I have no clue as to why the queen would wander up this far, but it was slightly concerning, so we moved that super over and checked the brood chamber.  The top box in the brood chamber was as to be expected.  The brood patterns were fantastic – her royal majesty is filling up almost every cell on each frame.  We didn’t see anything out of the ordinary at all.

Brood Pattern

For kicks, we moved that box and pulled out a few frames in the bottom chamber.  Well, to my surprise, there are frames that haven’t even been drawn out yet!

Undrawn Foundation in Brood Chamber

I’m a bit confused by this and not quite sure how to handle it.  Maybe we added extra boxes to soon?  I suggested to Wayne that she may be working in the second box and feeling full, so she moved up?  Just in case, we grabbed three empty frames from the bottom box and switched them out with full frames from the second brood box.  I’m hoping the switch will encourage them to fill out the empty frames and give our fertile queen plenty of laying room.

We closed up quickly. The girls were patient, but not that patient and they were beginning to ping off our hoods.  We brushed the bees off the honey frames the best we could and carried them onto the deck.  We double checked each frame and found a few wayward bees before carrying the frames inside.

Wayne took a nap while I ventured into honey harvesting again.  It was the same process we described in this post; however, I was distressed to find out that hooked wire foundation is much more difficult to get off a frame.  Following Wayne’s suggestion, I ended up cutting the comb off the frame and leaving the wires intact.

I paid more attention this time and noticed that we again had two very different looking combs.  One was a deep dark color while the other was a light amber color.  I was still unsure as to whether that was two different types of honey, or just darker comb, so I endeavored to harvest them separately.

Dark Comb/Honey

Here’s the end result:

Honey Harvest

You can see that one honey looks slightly lighter than the other, but definitely not the color difference it appeared to be when we harvested it.  The comb, on the other hand, is remarkably different.  I plan to put the wax in two batches out in the solar wax melter next week when the rain here is supposed to stop and the sun returns.  I’ll try to take pictures after it has been cleaned and melted down to show how wildly different the colors are.

In the process of moving the frames inside, we had spilled a small amount of honey on the deck railing  (lesson learned: use a tupperware container or something with a bottom when carrying frames of honey).  The sugary sweetness was drawing quite a crowd of bees.

Deck Railing

Since the bees had already invaded our deck, I added a bucket with the empty frames (post harvest) for the bees to clean up as well.  At some point in the process Sparky decided that he was rather fond of honey and didn’t let the large quantity of bees stop him from getting his share.  He literally stood and licked the frames clean around the bees.

Sparky Fighting for his Share

He was out there for a good while before I heard a yelp and he came flying through the dog door.  Apparently one (or many) of the bees decided they had shared enough.

The harvest result this time?  16 8.5-ounce hex jars or 8.5 pounds of loveliness.  I imagine this will be the last time we harvest this year, so we plan to enjoy it.

Honeybees and Russian Sage

Wayne and I both adore Russian Sage and have it planted in clumps in front of the house.  I walked out the door to the car yesterday and one sage group was literally alive with bees.  It sounded like the plant was buzzing.  I stopped and sat down on the pavement for a minute or two just to watch the bees jump from flower to flower.  They are fast moving and a bit hard to catch, but I did get one shot of a bee at work.

Honeybee enjoying Russian Sage

Happy Sunday and enjoy your week!

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.