Extracting the Flavor Of The Year-Honey

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Flavor of the Year

It is official. According to Firmenich, a private Swiss conglomerate that has produced perfumes and flavors for over 100 years, honey is the flavor of the year for 2015. Recognized for its unique flavor and versatility, Firmenich believes that this should elevate honey flavor to “classic” status like vanilla and chocolate. I read this news the day that I extracted my honey and thought it appropriate when I was absolutely covered in it.

Bee Swarm in my yard
Bee Swarm in my yard

The Big Event

Honey extraction is a process that requires patience, time, and tolerance for bee stings.  After babying the girls- feeding, monitoring, re-queening, splitting, and just plain worrying about them- now is the moment of truth.  How much nectar did they deposit in the combs for me to rob from them? And “robbing” is the right term because the girls work hard at it. According to the National Honey board the average worker bee will produce 1 1/2 teaspoons of honey in her lifetime. And one hive has to fly 55,000 miles to produce one pound of honey! For more amazing honeybee facts, check out The National Honey Board. 

Bees on honeycomb
Bees on honeycomb

This year was a banner year for me, over 120 pounds of honey from 2 1/2 hives. The “half hive” swarmed early in the spring, so wasn’t as strong as my other two, but there was still enough to harvest some honey. The two strongest were Nucs and that is the way to go for me from now on. Nucs are simply frames of honeycomb that a mated queen bee is already laying eggs, and brood is hatching. In contrast, a bee package that I order in the mail comes with a queen that hasn’t yet been introduced to the thousands of worker bees that accompany her in a “package”.  Go to A Bee Nuc or Package to see the difference and advantages. Nucs hit the ground running, and packages need to build up.

Bee package which includes a queen and 12,000 to 15, 000 bees as a starter
Bee package which includes a queen and 12,000 to 15, 000 bees as a starter
Installing a new Nuc package into a hive body
Installing a new Nuc package into a hive body

It is always an anti-climax when we finally remove and extract – kind of like Christmas – lots of build up and anticipation, and then it is over quickly and we are mopping up the mess.

Installing a package in the spring
Installing a package in the spring

Extracting

After removing the bees, see Robbing the Bees-A Honey of a Day to see how to do this tricky part, we are ready to spin out the honey. I never do this in the house as you will be bringing in unwanted guests (hanger-on bees), so set up an area in our garage. Wiping down everything with soapy water and laying down large plastic drop cloths and we are ready to go.

A perfect capped frame of honey
A perfect capped frame of honey

Using a heated knife to remove the wax coverings and a fork that looks like a hair pick, the cells are opened up so that the honey can be flung out.

Using a heated knife to remove wax cappings
Using a heated knife to remove wax cappings in our garage
Using an uncapping fork to remove wax covering
Using an uncapping fork to remove wax covering

Think of a large metal trash can with wire shelves inside that spin around and you have a honey extractor.   An attached motor will turn the merry-go-round inside, flinging the honey deposited in the cells onto the side of the trash can, dripping down to the bottom where it will exit through a gate valve.

Honey is deposited in a mesh sieve that filters out debris
Honey is deposited in a mesh sieve that filters out debris

Honey pours out into a large clean food grade bucket that has a mesh paint sieve to filter out all bee parts and debris.

The wax cappings are very tasty and we dive right in and start snacking.  Grabbing a dollop of warm fresh honey comb that is dripping with honey  is luscious!

Wax cappings full of honey
Wax cappings full of honey

 Aftermath

Once the honey is all extracted, I take the frames and set them up in front of the hives so the bees can wring every last drop of honey from them. The bees, once they discover the free honey, go crazy and buzz around the yard.  I am sure not to have guests over when this happens as it can be quite unnerving if you are afraid of bees.

We set up the extractor and all the tools in front of the hives also so the bees can finish cleaning.  I use the wax to make beeswax soap and candles. Go to Beeswax-Honeybee Gift to see how I process and use beeswax.

2 lb block of beeswax
2 lb block of beeswax

Filling up the buckets was exciting and we were surprised after weighing one to see that it contained 68 pounds of honey! We quickly filled another with the thick amber honey. Honey flavor and color depends on the terrior and pollens that bees collect, and has different “notes”, kind of like wine. This years honey is definitely darker in color than last years and has a wonderful flavor.

Weighing honey
Weighing honey

Giving the honey a few days to settle, I start bottling the honey when the weather is still warm, over 75 degrees. If honey gets too cold, it won’t flow properly into my jars.

Bottled Honey
Bottled Honey
Bottled honey
Bottled honey

 

 

Swarming of the Bees

Yes! It is that time of year (Honey Flow) when the bees build up quickly. Before you know it you are looking at a huge moving bee mass perched on a tree branch like the one below when you come home from work. And you must do something quickly before they move on to roomier and more distant pastures! 

Honey Flow

Honey flow is a term used by beekeepers indicating that one or more major nectar sources are in bloom and the weather is favorable for bees to fly and collect the nectar in abundance. For me in Maryland, honey flow happens when the black locust is in bloom, starting in mid May into June.  I can see the heavy creamy white hanging blossoms dangling from the trees lining the wooded roads around my house and I know that my bees will be in tip top form ferrying nectar to the hive and capping it with wax to make honey stores for the winter.

Black Locust blooms
Black Locust blooms

This is the beginning of the peak honey-producing season, when bees, taking advantage of the pollen available from spring blooms, make as much honey as they can to store for the cold days of winter ahead.

Bringing nectar and pollen into the hive
Bringing nectar and pollen into the hive

With the coming of spring a couple of weeks late this spring, I haven’t worried so much- but honey flow arrives quickly when I really busy with the garden and my landscape business that sometimes I am taken by surprise by swarming activity. If you ask any beekeeper how to prevent swarming, you will get 10 different answers and opinions. Other non-beekeeper friends who don’t understand will ask me, ” Why don’t you want your bees to swarm?  You can increase your hives !”  The answer is really simple.  Say goodbye to any honey production for that year! And there is no guarantee that you will catch the bee swarm.  The bees have a mind of their own.

Swarm Production

As a beekeeper, I am sometimes called by a panicked home owner when a huge ball of noisy bees appears in their backyard. They are afraid of them stinging and just want the bees to go away or be killed. In fact, swarming bees are loaded up with honey and are very unlikely to sting. They are not dangerous and are just looking for a new home.

Peanut shaped swarm cell

Queen bee in the makingSwarming is a natural duplication process for honey bees to form a new colony.  When a colony is bursting at the seams in their home with little room to grow, the bees will raise a new queen on their own. The old queen will take off with up to 10,000 to 15,000 bees from the home colony and fly a short distance and cluster on a tree branch, shrub or other object to form a large ball or cone shaped mass which can weigh 10 pounds or more.  The queen is usually centered in the cluster and scout bees leave looking for a suitable new home such as a hollow tree or the walls of your house! The swarms can stay in their temporary location for several days as the scout bees do their job and find a new home.

A swarm starting to form

The Big Event

I have observed a swarm in progress from my hives several times and it is very impressive and exciting.  One of the signs that precedes a swarm is the sound! The tone of the hive increases greatly in volume and the bees start to exit in a huge undulating wave from the hive body and head for some nearby structure- usually a tree, to land. The bees seem to have a unified purpose and know exactly what to do.


The Honey Bees have made a bee hive on the bra...The new queen that the hive produced in preparation for swarming, will remain with the original colony in the hive and the remainder of the worker bees and start building up a viable hive once again. But they are a much smaller population so won’t produce that honey surplus. Beekeepers try to avoid a swarm because it splits their population and reduces the likelihood of producing honey to harvest that season. The advantage to swarming is that now you have two hives instead of one but again you have to put off harvesting any honey because both colonies will need honey stores to get through the winter.

Capturing a swarm
Capturing a swarm

Capturing the Swarm

If the swarm is from a beekeepers own colony the beekeeper will try to capture it and put it in a new hive. But if it is a wild colony that swarms it can land in a unsuspecting homeowners yard and they start calling 911 in a panic. If a beekeeper gets the call, and the swarm is not that far off the ground, the beekeeper can knock the swarm with a firm yank into an empty hive box and take it away. As bees can be expensive, about $125 for a laying queen and brood, beekeepers are usually delighted to take them off your hands. Sometimes beekeepers will charge the homeowner a fee, especially if the swarm is located in a difficult to access place. Go to http://thegardendiaries.wordpress.com/2011/11/09/hiving-a-swarm/ to see a slide show of me hiving a swarm.

Swarm high up in a tree
Swarm high up in a tree


I have heard of swarms under picnic tables, on grills, on the bumpers of cars, and in the walls of houses.  If they are in your walls, the bees are almost impossible to extricate and should be euthanized. April through June is prime swarming season when the hive is at it’s strongest. If you discover a swarm in your yard, the best thing to do is call a local beekeeper by looking on the internet for the CMBA, the Central Maryland Beekeepers Association which keeps a database of beekeepers interested in capturing swarms. If you are not in MD, just look up Beekeepers in your area and someone will take them off your hands.

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Preventative Steps

Here are my pointers on avoiding this catastrophe:

Ventilation

I like to give the bees plenty of ventilation by not only having the entrance unimpeded with reducers but also by shimming my upper boxes open slightly to give the bees more openings for air flow.

To ventilate, I place matches between the inner cover and hive body
To ventilate, I place matches between the inner cover and hive body

Plenty of Room

 I have already added supers (extra honey boxes) on top of my brood boxes to make sure that the queen has plenty of room to lay eggs. I have stopped using a queen excluder to the horror of many beekeeper friends. I feel that this keeps the queen from going where she needs to go and if she feels restricted, swarm production will start.  When I harvest my honey, if there is brood in the supers, I just move it down to the brood boxes.

Give the bees lots of room
Give the bees lots of room

Young Queens 

Requeen when your queen is a couple of seasons old.  Some beekeepers say every year, but there is so much supersedure going on (bees making their own queen) that sometimes this isn’t necessary.

New queens come in small cages
New queens come in small cages

Splits

Split up your hive early in the season if it is going strong.  This simply means take a few frames of brood with some nurse bees and place them in a new hive.  You can add a new queen or let them make their own.  This can be a gamble because it takes time to make a new queen but by separating the hive you reduce the urge to swarm.

Removing Swarm Cells-Forget it!

Beekeepers recommend to go through your boxes frequently and remove the queen swarm cells that are ready to hatch out new queens.  I think at that point, it is too late. Bees are programmed to swarm and you are swimming against the tide by trying to stop the process. Also, I don’t think it is a good practice to open up your hives too frequently.  Leave them alone!

Sweet Rewards!

The Great Sunflower Project – The Backyard Bee Count

Lemon Queen Sunflowers in my backyard

The Great Bee Count

Within the past couple of years, you might have heard that bees are in trouble, growing scarcer, and suffering from a mysterious ailment called Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD. A variety of culprits have been fingered in causing this syndrome, including pesticide use, parasites, loss of habitat, and diseases. To study bees, both native and the non-native honeybee, scientists decided that they needed a method to determine the numbers and spread of different pollinators. To accomplish this, in 2008 a survey was launched enlisting and empowering local citizens in reporting observations about bees in their own backyard or deck called The Great Bee Count.

Citizen Science

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The Great Bee Count, recruits citizens across the United States and Canada to plant sunflowers and observe all types of bees visiting the flower in a 15 minute time period daily for a week and record their findings on-line.  The first Great Bee Count took place about 7 years ago and countless volunteers recorded their findings to help scientists to check on the prevalence of our tiny pollinators in North America.

Sunflowers are bee magnets
Sunflowers are bee magnets

By creating a map of bee visits, scientists will be able to direct conservation efforts exactly where they are needed.

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The data is called ‘trend data’ and showed that in some parts of the country the bees are doing very well, but in other parts like Florida where pesticide use is widespread, the bees are not nearly as numerous. I participated last year and counted at least a dozen bees on my sunflowers in a 15 minute period daily in my backyard in Maryland which shows that this part of the country is above average ‘bee friendly’!

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Each of the many seeds of a sunflower has been pollinated

 

For an interactive map of the country go to https://www.greatsunflower.org/Map

Now is the time to order those seeds and get your garden ready to plant your sunflowers. Lemon Queen is the preferred variety of sunflower seeds. It is important to check to make sure that the seeds did not receive a neonicotinoid seed treatment or even better, are organic.  The Great Sunflower Project recommends that people look for Renee’s Garden Seeds because they have partnered with Renee for a number of years and she has offered to pass along 25% of her proceeds from seeds bought at her website to the Great Sunflower Project.

Lemon Queen are the best ones for this project because they have visible pollen
Lemon Queen are the best ones for this project because they have visible pollen

The typical observer saw 2.6 bees every 15 minutes on their sunflowers. Up to 20% of the volunteers observed no bees at all which is very disheartening. Sunflowers were chosen as the standardized plant because they are ‘bee magnets’ and are easy to grow in every state. ‘Lemon Queen’ is the preferred variety because some sunflowers have been developed that have no pollen, but ‘Lemon Queen’ has visible pollen. Even if the grower did not observe bees during the 15 minute interval, that information is valuable also in informing scientists. Keeping tabs on our bees has become an important tool in studying this essential aid to our food supply. Up to one-third of our food supply relies exclusively on bee pollination.

Sunflowers attract many pollinators besides bees
Sunflowers attract many pollinators besides bees

Anyone in North America can participate in The Great Bee Count even if you just have a single container planted outside on a balcony or deck. To find out how to sign up, go to http://www.greatsunflower.org/, register, and plant your sunflower seeds so you can start counting this summer! This is a great project for an ordinary person to have help out the scientific community to study our local bee populations.

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I would love to hear from people who are not in North America to see if there are any similar projects in their country.  Please let me know if you have heard of any or participated.

Go to https://www.etsy.com/shop/TheGardenDiaries
Go to https://www.etsy.com/shop/TheGardenDiaries

Don’t forget that there are many plants that you can plant to encourage bee visits. Go to Plant For the Bees post to see more suggestions.

 

Spinning Honey

Honey coming out of the extractor into a bucket lined with a mesh paint strainer to remove all bee parts

Big Event

It happens every Fall – honey extraction! After babying the bees, feeding, monitoring, re-queening, splitting, and just plain worrying about them, now is the moment of truth.  How much honey did they deposit in the combs for me to rob from them? I won’t leave you in suspense – I extracted 35 pounds from one of my three hives. Two were Nucs and one was a package. Go to A Bee Nuc or Package to see the difference and advantages.

Bee package which includes a queen and 12,000 to 15, 000 bees as a starter
Bee package which includes a queen and 12,000 to 15, 000 bees as a starter

I started out with 3 hives this season – one Nuc swarmed and the other two did fine, humming along with our wet weather bringing on a constant supply of nectar. It is always an anti-climax when we finally remove and extract – kind of like Christmas – lots of build up and anticipation, and then it is over very quickly and we are mopping up the mess.

Installing a package in the spring
Installing a package in the spring

Extracting

After removing the bees, see Robbing the Bees-A Honey of a Day to see how to do this tricky part, we are ready to spin out the honey.

A perfect capped frame of honey
A perfect capped frame of honey

To remove the wax coverings, a heated knife is used to melt away the wax and a fork that looks like a hair pick is used to further open up the cells so that the honey can be flung out.

Using an uncapping fork to remove wax covering
Using an uncapping fork to remove wax covering

Think of a large metal trash can with wire shelves inside that spin around and you have an honey extractor.   A motor attached will turn on the merry-go-round inside, flinging the honey deposited in the cells onto the side of the trash can, dripping down to the bottom where it will exit through a gate valve into a mesh sieve for bee parts and then into a collection bucket.

The wax cappings are very tasty and we dive right in and start snacking.  Grabbing a dollop of warm fresh honey comb that is dripping with honey  is luscious!

Wax cappings full of honey
Wax cappings full of honey

 Aftermath

Once the honey is all extracted, I take the frames and set them up in front of the hives so the bees can wring every last drop of honey from them. The bees, once they discover the free honey, go crazy and buzz around the yard.  I am sure to not have guests over when this happens as it can be quite unnerving if you are afraid of bees!

We set up the extractor and all the tools in front of the hives also so the bees can finish cleaning. The wax cappings are set out along with everything else for the bees to clean, and then I take the wax in to process in preparation for making beeswax soap and candles. Go to Beeswax-Honeybee Gift to see how I process and use beeswax.

2 lb block of beeswax
2 lb block of beeswax

 Giving the honey a few days to settle, I start bottling the honey when the weather is still warm, over 75 degrees. If honey gets too cold, it won’t flow properly into my jars.

Bottled honey
Bottled honey

 

 

Bee Packages are Here!

Stacks and stacks of packages of bees, over 400 in all!
Stacks and stacks of packages of bees, over 400 in all!

Catching Up

My two Italian bee packages arrived in MD this weekend and I am very excited. First promised in April, a cold and wet spring in Georgia held up the delivery for an unprecedented two long months. By this time of year, the packages should have been installed, the bees settled in and raising brood, plus storing honey for the winter. There is a lot of catching up to do!

Two packages sitting in the back of my car on the dog blanket
Two packages sitting in the back of my car on the dog blanket

The Pick Up

I picked them up early in the morning from a local supplier who drives them up from Georgia. The two boxes vibrated in my hands with the humming of thousands of bees and I placed them carefully in the back of my car.  A package of bees is simply a wooden frame box covered in screening, with a can of sugar water inserted inside that is dripping sugar water to feed the bees. There are about 12,000 bees in a 3 pound package.

Queen

A can with punctures drips sugar water to the bees on their journey from Georgia
A can with punctures drips sugar water to the bees on their journey from Georgia

Also, most importantly a queen in a queen cage with several attendant bees who feed her, is included in the package. The queen is raised separately from the worker bees so they must get used to her pheromones before she is released to join them, thus the queen cage. The queen had only been with the other bees for a day and a half which is not enough time for them to get used to her. To be safe, she needs to be separated for at least 4 days before they will accept her. So, I need to continue to keep her separate from the hive with the queen cage inserted into the hive, acting as a temporary barrier.

Antique queen cages
Antique queen cages
Queen in queen cage
Queen in queen cage

The Shake Down

I had prepared my hive bodies days ago with cleaned up frames of drawn comb from my old hives. To shake the package into the hive bodies, I made room by removing 4 frames that would go back in when the bees dropped in. I also sprayed them several times with sugar water to calm them and wet their wings, to make it a little harder for them to fly away.

Spraying the bees with sugar water
Spraying the bees with sugar water

Knocking the bees with a hard slam onto the hive body is very exciting. Masses of bees fell in clumps into the hive body and start crawling around in their new home. They seem a little stunned at first but moving quickly, I shook down as many as will come out, and then placed the package in front of the hive hoping that the stragglers will find their way in.

The shake down into the hives of thousands of bees
The shake down into the hives of thousands of bees

The Star of the Show

There is a little cork with a candy plug holding the queen in her cage. I removed the cork and press the queen cage into the soft wax of one of the frames. It will take a couple of days for the bees to eat the candy and release her. By that time, they should treat her like the star that she is, ready to take care of her in return for her laying thousands of eggs over her lifetime. A good strong queen will keep the colony going for at least 2 years before she slows down and needs to be replaced.

The queen cage pressed into a frame
The queen cage pressed into a frame

Closing Up

Inserting the four frames that were removed, I set the inner and outer cover on top.  It takes all of 5 minutes to complete the installation. I stuffed some burlap into the entrance along with a feeder to prevent the bees from flying out and will remove the burlap when things settle down a bit.

A feeder with sugar water and burlap stuffed into the entrance
A feeder with sugar water and burlap stuffed into the entrance

Feeding

Feeding  sugar water to the bees is critical for the hive to build up quickly before cold weather hits. I will do it for at least several weeks, or until I see that they are bringing in nectar and pollen and then will gradually wean them off. The first day they slurped up sugar water made with 5 pounds of sugar!  I am buying 25 pounds of sugar at the local Sams club to keep them fed.

Check Up

Sweet rewards, capped honeycomb ready to be harvested
Sweet rewards, capped honeycomb ready to be harvested

I have a head start over new beekeepers because I already have drawn comb from old hives for them to start depositing pollen and nectar into.  Also, the queen has s spot to lay her eggs all ready and can get a jump start on raising new bees to bring in nectar.

I gave the hives a couple of days and opened them both up to check to see if the queen has been released.  This type of release is called the slow release method and has a better chance of success with queen acceptance. The quick release method of removing the cork and placing the queen directly into the hive can be disastrous with the bees stinging the queen to death, and I have seen that happen. The queen is out and I see the gleam of nectar being deposited into the cells so I am hopeful. I will check in a week to see if I can find any brood and that is my sign that the queen is healthy and working.

Queen Bee
Marked Queen Bee (Photo credit: Kairon Gnothi (Opportunity Knocks))

The Reward

Since it is so late in the season, I know that I won’t get honey this year but am hopeful for next year.  I compare it to a gardener planting a bulb or seed – Good things come to those who wait!

My bottled honey
My bottled honey

The Dreaded ‘Hive Beetle’ Attacks

Honeycomb of Western honey bees (Apis mellifer...
Honeycomb of Western honey bees (Apis mellifera) with eggs and larvae. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I opened my hive the other day to check on things -removing my last super, and to button everything up for the winter. When I took off the inner cover, I noticed some small black beetles scurrying around on the top bars of the hive and my heart sank.  I knew right away that these were the dreaded ‘hive beetles’ that I had heard about but never had to deal with. Honeybees get a lot of pests, and I thought that I had dodged the bullet on this, because I have never seen them in more than 10 years of beekeeping. But even though I had never seen one, I knew exactly what it was when I saw them dart around the top bars of the combs. How could something so tiny be so destructive? And be in my one hive that was doing do well?

Aethina tumida Common Name: small hive beetle ...
Aethina tumida Common Name: small hive beetle Photographer: James D. Ellis, University of Florida, United States Descriptor: Adult(s) Description: 2003; Grahamstown, South Africa Image taken in: United States (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Life Cycle

Hive beetles, Aethina tumida,  are opportunistic creatures and will seek out weak hives. They fly into the entrance of a hive and lay eggs in the comb.  The larvae hatches and feeds on pollen and honey stored within the hive. When feeding on the honey and pollen, they can leave a slimy mess of honey that can ferment and ruin the honey. Yuck!! I didn’t want those %!!*)!!!! beetles in my hive.


Small Hive Beetle life cycle

The larvae exit the hive and enter the ground to pupate for 3 to 6 weeks, emerge from soil as an adult, and can fly 5 to 12 miles in search of a hive to invade. A severe infestation can cause an entire hive to leave and find better conditions, so I was quite worried. And I saw at least a half-dozen of those darn beetles darting around, so I had to do something before they became too numerous for the honeybees to take care of. I wanted to use non-chemical means so I found a ‘trap’ from http://greenbeehives.com that is basically a bottom woodenware drawer that you fill with vegetable oil.  You place the drawer under the slotted rack (if you have one), at the base of the entire hive and the beetles fall and drown in the oil. Yea!!!!

First I tore apart the hive down to the bottom board.  Here was my opportunity to scrape all the debris off and clean it.

Tearing the hive down to the bottom board

Then I removed my screened bottom and put the new ‘drawer’ with oil in its place.

New wooden ware drawer with oil stacked on top of the bottom board

Then I placed the slotted screen on top to maintain good circulation throughout the hive.

Placing the slotted board on top of the drawer of oil

Then I placed both hive bodies on top and the inner and outer cover to put it all together again.

The newly inserted drawer acts as the new entrance to the hive

The idea is that the beetles in their travels through the hive will fall, especially when the honeybees chase them.  Normally, they would fall to the bottom and come back up to the combs and start wreaking more havoc.  But with the oil at the bottom, they become stuck and drown.  If water was used in place of oil, the water would freeze in cold weather, so oil is the best option. The next day, I pulled open the drawer and voila, there were at least a dozen very dead hive beetles floating in the oil. Hooray!!! It works!!

Dead beetles in the tray of oil

History

I always like to look at how these things start so you can put this in context. Hive beetles originated in sub-saharan Africa and were noticed in the United States in Florida in the late 1990’s and gradually have invaded 30 states, mostly in the southeast. They are a tropical insect so are more active in warmer areas. Here are some interesting facts about them:

  1. First noticed in the U.S. in 1996
  2. Larvae will not hatch when humidity is less than 49%
  3. Attracted to weaker hives and bee alarm pheromones
  4. Females lay 4000 eggs a month for 2 months!
  5. Beetles prefer hives in full sun, not shade
  6. Severe infestation can cause bees to abscond the hive

The best way to avoid infestation is to have a strong, queenright, healthy hive. If the hive is strong, then the honeybees will chase them out. But the beetles are very wily. The following scenario just blew me away:

The beetles have developed the ability to stimulate the mouth parts of worker bees with their antennae, similar to drones begging for food and able to trick bees into feeding them!

Wow, how do you deal with a pest like that?

The honeybees cannot sting them – they are unable to penetrate their hard shell.  So, they chase them and the beetles hide in cracks and crevices in the hive. Honeybees are able to contend with fairly large populations of hive beetles, but there is a tipping point where they become too numerous and can be a huge problem, and that is why I was worried. I wanted to nip the problem in the bud and would recommend this method of the oil to anyone.  It was easy and safe, rather than resorting to chemical controls.

Beekeeping Start-Up, How to jump into the world of beekeeping

Bumble bee on flower

Beekeeping has moved from the pastime of fusty middle-aged men to young urban couples and singles. It is trendy now to become a beekeeper! Who could have predicted that? When I worked at the bee booth at the Fairgrounds recently, I was amazed at the young (under 25!) people, both male and female who were into beekeeping!  I was also surprised by the number of people who have asked me questions about beekeeping, who were seriously considering jumping in, but just weren’t sure if it was for them. And yes, it does change your life.  I categorize my life as BB (before beekeeping) and AB (after).  It is kind of like having children.  You are changed from the experience whether you like it or not.

Prize Winning Honey at the State Fair in Timonium, MD

So, I thought I would do a post on what to expect as a newbie beekeeper, because by now I have experienced it all – the mistakes, the outlay of money, the new friends, the frustration, swarms, the deluge of yummy honey, and yes – the stings!

New type of hive that combines top bar with traditional langstroth- The influx of new beekeepers is shaking up the traditional way of doing things

Don’t Try To Do this By Yourself!

If you are really thinking about beekeeping, first learn all you can about the basics.  Oregon Ridge Nature Center conducts a local course by the Central Maryland Beekeepers Association which is called the ‘Short Course in Beekeeping’. It starts in early March every year. At the conclusion of the series, there is a hands on practice with bees and outside demonstrations. The instructor is the State Apiary Inspector who will teach you basic bee biology and  management of  your colonies for the first year. The course is excellent with lots of reference materials available and personal encouragement from experienced beekeepers.

Cross section of a standard hive

Even if you are not interested in starting up a colony, the course is fascinating.  There are local beekeeping associations everywhere.  Just do a google search and you are sure to find one close by. Attending one of these courses will help you to become a successful beekeeper. I have found that the most successful beekeepers are ones who have taken the course and go to the monthly meetings to learn more, and share ideas with others.  The association is kind of like your cheerleading section- when you become discouraged and frustrated, you have someone to bounce ideas off of and give you support. The internet is a resource that I use a lot but there is nothing like talking to hands-on beekeepers. Don’t get me wrong,  experienced beekeepers have vastly differing opinions and practices that vary greatly but the advice is invaluable. There are no right or wrong solutions, so you need to listen, check your references, and then do what you think is best.

Cost

When I contemplated starting a hive, I had no idea of how much it would cost and if I had known, I might not have taken the plunge. The expense of starting up a hive are considerable.  Purchasing hive bodies, feeders, the bee suit and hat, smoker, medications, and various beekeeping tools will run a minimum of $500 to $1000.  The initial investment is steep but once you have your basic equipment, the cost levels off. You can add other items that you need later on, such as an extractor, which you won’t need right away.  Or you can rent an extractor like I do from the Central Maryland Beekeepers Association for a nominal fee.

Smoke gun
Smoke gun (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You can also buy used equipment from a local beekeeper to cut down on your start-up costs but it is important to make sure that the equipment is free of disease. The cost of your initial package of a couple of thousand bees with a queen will run around $75. By attending the ‘Short Course’, experienced beekeepers can help you to obtain the proper equipment that you need to get started. I mostly order my new equipment on-line for convenience.  There are a few local providers of esupplies that I use also.

Work Involved

Hiving a package of bees the first time

Another question that is asked of me frequently is how much time is involved in maintaining your colonies. The lion’s share of your time is spent in the spring to make sure that the hive is happy and healthy. I spend at least a couple of hours a week in the early spring, feeding, inspecting, and manipulating the hives. Manipulating the hives just means you are pulling your hive bodies or boxes apart, making sure that the queen is healthy and producing eggs, and that there is sufficient room for her to lay eggs in the frames.

Checking on a frame of capped honey

Later when there is a ‘honey flow‘, which is when the particular flowers that bees prefer are blooming in abundance, you need to add extra supers, or hive bodies on your brood boxes to handle the extra honey.  Bees normally will not produce excess honey the first year that they are hived as they are just starting out, but will produce extra  for harvesting in subsequent years.

Brood boxes on the bottom with supers and an extra entrance on top

In the late summer and fall, I spend time taking off the supers, extracting the honey and feeding and medicating them to get through the winter.  I set aside one entire day to remove and extract my honey sometime in August or September. Check out my extracting post at http://thegardendiaries.wordpress.com/2012/08/19/robbing-the-bees-a-honey-of-a-day/

Extracting honey by spinning it out
Putting feeders on the hive in October when there isn’t much nectar for foraging

Swarms

Will they swarm?  Yes, of course and you have to deal with it! I have had many swarms from my hives, some that I could catch and some that just were too difficult to hive safely. I have also caught wild swarms to increase my hives.  Swarming is a natural mechanism for honeybees to find a new home when their present home gets too crowded. Sounds like a benefit for the beekeeper as he increases his hives but the downside is no extra honey is produced for harvesting. Go to  http://thegardendiaries.wordpress.com/2012/03/26/swarming-of-the-bees-it-is-that-time-of-year-again/ to see some swarms that I have had.

Knocking a swarm into a hive body

Will they sting?

With my hives, I have noticed a much greater presence of honey bees in my flower and vegetable gardens and generally around my property. They use a nearby pond next to my patio for their water source, so the honeybees are very close to where people frequent. The hives are set about 100 feet from my house.  I have been stung many times as I manipulate the hives or extract the honey because the bees are protecting their territory and that is a natural response.  But if I am working in the garden or just sitting on my patio near the pond they never bother me. Guests have never been stung either.  Honeybees are non-aggressive unlike yellow jackets and wasps, and on their daily trips to collect pollen, nectar, or water, they will ignore you and go about their business.

Honeybee on Butterfly Weed

 The Good

I have 1 hive now on 2 acres of property, but have had as many as 4.  I normally will harvest about 50 to 60 pounds of honey from each hive every season and sell it to friends and give it as gifts. It is a  hobby that you can practice on much smaller pieces of property, even in urban locations.

Bottled honey from my hives- This is unpasteurized, raw honey that has been filtered to remove bee parts

By producing your own honey, you are getting a natural, unadulterated product that has no additives. Your own honey contains nectar from local wildflower sources only, and that is supposed to help people with allergies to pollen. I use my honey and beeswax not only as a sweetener, but for healing and cosmetic purposes, like soap and body butter.

Honey soap
Beeswax candles from my hives

Managing your own hives also makes good garden sense as it improves the pollination of your garden and will improve the yield of your vegetable garden.

The Science

Science and Biology were my favorite subjects in school and with Beekeeping, you become your very own practicing naturalist. You make observations and hypotheses about the bee’s behavior and act on it.  I keep a journal of my activities with my beehives so that I can refer and compare my observations from year to year. Not only can you manage your hives and get honey but you are also helping the environment. Some people pursue beekeeping sidelines and raise and sell new queens, which is an activity that I would like to try eventually.

A larvae queen cell

The Bad

Most people are surprised to learn that honeybees are not native to North America.  They were brought over by the colonists from Europe. It is possible because of this that they are prone to lots of diseases and maladies that you don’t have much control over.  To battle these diseases, beekeepers have used an arsenal of toxic chemical pesticides on bees over the years. I have never used these as I don’t want to handle them, and I don’t want to contaminate my hives with residues of these chemicals. There are organic solutions to some of these problems and I make use of the ones that make sense.

Varroa on larvae, it is like a tick feeding on the larvae

I can’t tell you how many new beekeepers give up after a few years because their bees die over the winter, get diseases, and just disappear.  It can be very discouraging but I have hung in there for about 10 years and have gotten a lot of enjoyment and have learned so much from the experience. Going to the beekeeping meetings, honey festivals, and the State Fair, has really impressed on me that beekeeping is not a dying art, but enjoying a resurgence of popularity. And I have been very encouraged by the new wave of beekeepers who are making innovations and really shaking up the beekeeping world. It is a great sign for the future of beekeeping!

Beekeeping
Beekeeping (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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