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!

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

 

 

Robbing the Bees- A Honey of a Day

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

It happens every August – 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 55 pounds from my one remaining hive.

I started out with 2 hives this season, one tanked and the other one hummed along – not boiling over with bees but – steady, eddy. So, 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.

Yes, it was 92 degrees when we extracted, a requirement so that the honey flows quickly and smoothly

Removal of the Supers, Sans Bees of Course!

First job is removal of the top boxes or supers with the excess honey that I want. I open them up and smoke the bees to get them to head down into the hive and put on a lid covered with Fisher-Bee-Quick. No, I didn’t make that up. It is a liquid in a spray bottle that smells like almond oil that you spray on the lid with a cardboard insert to saturate with this fragrant oil.  Evidently, bees hate the smell and will try to put as much space as they can from the odor.

Firing up the smoker with a propane torch, an essential tool in beekeeping
Tools at the ready – A lid lined with cardboard saturated with Fisher-Bee-Quick, bee brush, smoker, frame puller, torch, and hive tool. I am ready to go!

I remove the outer and inner cover of the hive and place the lid with the Fisher-Bee-Quick insert on top, and start using my propane torch on top to heat the entire lid to a high temp that will dissipate the almond odor throughout the entire hive. Note that the lid is covered on the outside with tin which will not burn. The whole point of this exercise is to get the  bees off the supers so I can steal their honey.  I have tried a blower (they get mad), brushing them off with a bee brush (too slow), and a special escape board which once the bees go out, they can’t come back in (way too slow). The spray works like a charm.  It just takes about 10 minutes for the bees to react and leave.

Smoking the hive
Using the propane torch on top to heat up the hive

After heating the lid thoroughly, I remove the lid and peak in.  Bees have scampered! There are a few stragglers, but that is good enough for me and I load the entire super box into a wheelbarrow nearby.  It easily weighs at least 50 pounds which is a good sign – lots of honey! I cover the super up with a piece of canvas as I don’t want any stray bees to come and investigate. After taking the super to the honey staging area and off loading it on a tarp, I go back for the second box.  After both boxes are sitting on the tarp, we are ready to remove each frame and place in the extractor to spin.

Supers on the tarp – Removing one frame at a time to go into the extractor

Extraction

After removing each frame from the hive, my helper (husband), takes a heated electric knife and slices off the wax cappings to reveal the honey deposited into each cell.

Helper who is afraid of bees!
Slicing off the wax cappings on a funky frame

The wax cappings are very tasty and we dive right in and start snacking.  We grab a dollop of honey comb that is dripping with honey and start chewing.  We suck out all the honey and spit out the wax. Luscious!

Honey extractor with motor attached
Honey extractor
Honey extractor (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After uncapping, each frame is placed into the extractor on a rack and we turn on the motor and it starts to spin.  The extractor is kind of like a washer machine.  If everything is balanced and even, the extractor runs fine.   If one frame has lots of honey, and one doesn’t, then the whole extractor wobbles and I have to lean on it to steady it up so it spins evenly. After spinning for about 10 minutes, I stop the extractor and we turn all the frames over.  Each side has to be extracted fully to get as much honey as we can possibly get out of each frame. The extractor, as it spins, flings the warm honey to the sides of the extractor and it slides down to the bottom and accumulates.

I lifted up the flap of the extractor to peak in at the spinning frames

While we are extracting and grabbing gobs of dripping honeycomb, the bees are flying like crazy around us.  There is no way to get rid of all of them before extracting, and they drive my husband wacky, and he keeps swatting at them.  I just tell him to take it easy, that the bees aren’t aggressive and are just looking for a way to get back to their hive. But he is on edge.

Honey in honeycombs
Honey in honeycombs (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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 zing around the yard.  Good thing that my dog is oblivious and I have no friends over! 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.

English: Honey bees cleaning the last of the h...
English: Honey bees cleaning the last of the honey off of a comb which has been processed. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Aftermath

Everything is left outside for the bees to clean, and they take any honey that we missed back to their hive.  The bees have to have enough honey stores to last them through the winter, so I made sure that there were frames of honey left in the hive that we didn’t tap.  Plus, the bees have some time before it gets chilly to store some more honey, and I will start to feed them in late October for insurance that they do make it through the winter.

Bottled honey

Bottling

The next step, after the honey has settled in the large food grade bucket for a day or two, is to bottle.  I sterilize my containers in the dishwasher, an assortment that I have collected over the years, and start filling them up. I have small 12 ounce plastic bee skep ones and 16 ounce plastic ones that I fill for selling and gifts.  For home use, I just use large glass jars and fill them up with 5 pounds of honey. We can go through about 30 to 35 pounds of honey during the year. We are a honey loving group!  Bottling can take me a week as I don’t do it all in one sitting.

We finished the extracting thoroughly sticky and tired but no one got stung!  I looked at the honey color, and since the bees forage from a variety of flowers, I call it wildflower honey and some years it is darker than others.  I would say this year it is darker than usual.

5 Lb jar of honey

I clean the wax by boiling it in my crock pot with water in preparation for making soap and candles.  But that is another post……… Stay tuned.

Cleaned and melted beeswax from my hives

Related Articles

Beehives and Bears: An Accident Waiting to Happen!

Me and brother-in-law in Vermont working his bees

I was introduced to beekeeping in Virginia while visiting my brother-in-law Bruce. He had several beehives and I wanted to try my hand at working the bees before I made the plunge on my own.  Since then, Bruce has moved to Vermont with his hives –  prime bear country. In Vermont, he set up a remote control camera surveying their property and the camera took this picture of a juvenile bear roaming around causing trouble last year. The bear clawed his way up to a two-story deck and knocked over the hives sitting there. There were claw marks on the post “bearing” this out.

Juvenile black bear caught on video camera

Well, that bear must have grown up and/or been kicked out by Mom to sink or swim on his own and come back for more mischief. Bruce’s neighborhood which is pretty rural recently had a rash of bear invasions in the last couple of weeks which included a garage being torn apart. So, I guess it was only a matter of time until the bears sniffed the hives out again! There is something about bears and honey that is irresistible.

Damage caused by bear in Vermont

As you can see, the bear/bears (?) tore right into the hive to get to the honey and larvae. This hive was set up in a nearby field, ripe for the picking.

I found this video on you tube which just goes to show you how impervious bears are to stinging bees. It is pretty amazing.

Could This Happen to Me?

Here in Maryland, there have been several bears spotted within 50 miles of here. Right now, I think the likelihood is slim but there are no guarantees.  I remember maybe 20 years ago, it was pretty unusual to see deer nearby.  Now they are just as common as squirrels.  I live in a suburban area and have a friend nearby who saw a mountain lion on her front porch!  So, I don’t believe that it is impossible that a bear will make a visit.

Turned upside down beehive

Costly Damage

Bears can cause considerable beehive damage, including the destruction of hives and frames to get at that finger lickin’ honey and larvae. I was surprised to find out from news articles that bear destruction is pretty common in northern states, and to the south in North Carolina, Florida and Louisiana. Massachusetts has been getting a rash of hive attacks from bears which I really didn’t think of as being rural enough for bears. But with our mild winter, bears are roaming, so check this out –  http://www.npr.org/2012/04/06/150079405/bears-stuffing-themselves-near-massachusetts-homes

Fortunately for Bruce, the hive the bears attacked was probably dead but had some honey stores that they could have used for the other hives.

An American Black Bear (Ursus americanus) at t...

Prevention

Fish and Wildlife publications suggest putting your hives at least 50 yards from wooded cover.  And virtually everyone comes to the same conclusion – the only effective method for preventing costly destruction is an electric fence. As for Bruce, he has several hives on his deck that are producing and the one that was attacked will be salvaged and set up closer to the house and an electric fence may be in the works.

Hives strewn on the ground

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Beekeeping 101

Taking off a perfect frame of honey

The best way to jump-start a conversation at a party is to tell people you are a beekeeper. Inevitably, people will barrage me with questions about my hobby and how they always thought of becoming a beekeeper themselves. Most people don’t have a clue of what is involved and for people who are intrigued but don’t know where to start, the following pointers should help you decide.

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

 

How To

If you are really thinking about beekeeping, first learn all you can about the basics from experienced beekeepers.  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 the early spring for 6 weeks and concludes with a delivery of a package of bees which you take home and install. There are hands on demonstrations outside which will give you a good idea of how to set up your own apiary. The instructor is the State Apiary Inspector who will teach you basic bee biology, management of colonies, and extraction of honey or as he describes it ” a full year of beekeeping”. The course is excellent with lots of reference materials available and encouragement and mentoring from experienced beekeepers. Even if you are not interested in starting up a colony, the course is fascinating. If you don’t live in MD, just search for a local beekeeping group to take courses from.  Attending one of these courses will help you to become a successful beekeeper.

Cross section of a standard hive
Peeking into the spinning extractor

Cost

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.  For all the bells and whistles, it will cost considerably more. A good extractor alone could set you back $800. I don’t own an extractor as I rent it for $10 from our local beekeeping association.  I would advise starting with two hives so you have a backup if one bombs. I sell my honey but only collect a fraction of the cost of what it takes to set up and maintain my hives.  Also, don’t forget that you will be buying several 20 lb bags of sugar a season to feed your bees! So, don’t consider this a money-maker –  more like a money pit!

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 solar wax melter, which you won’t need right away.   You can also buy used equipment from a local beekeeper to cut down on your start-up costs but make sure that the equipment is disease free. The cost of your initial package of 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.

Setting up and leveling two new hives
Knocking the package bees into my newly set up hives
Just hived up two packages of bees

How much work is involved?

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, and that there is sufficient room for her to lay eggs in the frames. Later when there is a ‘honey flow‘, which means the favorite flowers that bees prefer are blooming in abundance, you need to add extra supers, or hive bodies  to your hives 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 in subsequent years.  In the 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. Throughout the winter, I clean and renovate my old hive bodies which become gummed up with propolis that the bees deposit on the boxes to seal them tight.

Adding feeders in the fall

Will they sting?

I have noticed a greater presence of honey bees in my flower and vegetable gardens and generally around my property. The bees 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. I have noticed improved production of my veggie garden and love that aspect of beekeeping.

Bee on butterfly weed

How about my neighbors?

Neighbors are definitely a consideration when you start your own hives. The best way to approach this is to let them know of your intent and to educate them about bees, i. e. – they rarely sting and will not cause problems with their family. I also screen my hives with some spruce trees so that they are not out front and center of my property and there is a buffer between my bees and the neighbors. It also helps if you present your neighbors with a gift of honey! Most people are fascinated with beekeeping and are quite curious about what you are doing.

Smoke gun
Smoke gun (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Do you get honey? 

I have 2 hives now on 2 acres of property.  I normally will harvest about 150 pounds of honey from my hives each season and sell it to friends and give it as gifts. It is a fascinating hobby that you can practice on smaller pieces of property, even in a city.

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  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.  Managing your own hives also makes good garden sense as it increases the pollination of your garden and will improve the yield of your vegetable garden. Beekeeping is a big investment in time and money.  Hopefully, reading this will help push you to the tipping point in deciding if this hobby is for you.

Remember, that the honey bee is not native. Honey bees were brought over with the early colonists across the ocean to join the native American bees. But the European honeybee is the only one that produces honey.

My honey

Pets

If you have dogs, especially black dogs, bees seem to target them. My previous border collie Gypsy, was so terrified of bees that as soon as I got my bee hood out of the shed, she fled! My current Border, Tori is totally unconcerned when I look at the bees but I have seen the bees go right for her and burrow into her fur and drive her crazy. So, now I just put Tori in the house when I open the bees up so that she is not tormented.

Bees do not like border collies!
Bear sneaking up on hives in Vermont!

If you live in areas where bears are common, beware! Winnie the Pooh’s favorite food was “Hunney” and bears are drawn to honey like kids to candy. The picture above was taken with a video camera in Vermont of a juvenile bear trying to wreak some havoc with the hives located on a deck.

All the bad stuff

Yes, there are lots of drawbacks.  Your bees will get diseases and mites.  Mites are like little ticks that suck their blood and weaken the bees. As for disease, I couldn’t believe the number of maladies that bees can contract and pests that they attract! There is foulbrood, chalkbrood, colony collapse, wax moths, small hive beetles, deformed wing disorder, and numerous others. The list goes on and on and every year, it seems that a new malady is added! There are various chemical remedies and some organic ones also.  But it seems you are always trying to stay ahead of the latest disease!  You deal with these problems as it happens.

If that isn’t enough, queens are notoriously fickle and hard to find in your hive. The overall health of your hive depends on the state of your queen.  She must be young and fertile to lay those thousands of eggs a day!

To be a good beekeeper, you should not have a fear of being stung and you should also be strong! The hive bodies when full of honey can easily weigh more than 50 pounds. You have to be able to lift them up and move those heavy boxes around by yourself.

But beekeeping is such a rewarding and fascinating hobby, I continue to do it. I have been a beekeeper for 10 years and feel that I have only scratched the surface in learning about this hobby. Maybe in another 10 years, I will feel that I know more about what makes bees tick, but I doubt it. It is always an adventure!

Ugh! A mite on a bee larvae

Related articles

Swarming of the Bees – It is That Time of Year Again!

Honey Flow

With the coming of spring a couple of weeks early this spring, I am getting a little nervous about my bees. The honey flow which is the frantic bee activity of bees collecting nectar from spring flowers will be here very soon. I have a strong hive that made it through the winter and I am on the lookout for swarms! 2012 marks my tenth year anniversary as a beekeeper and I have had my share of swarms from my own hives as well as from the wild.  I hate it when my bees swarm!  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.

Pouring out of the hive

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.

A swarm of s or European honey bees (Apis mell...
A swarm of s or European honey bees (Apis mellifera). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Swarming 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. 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.

Queen bee 1
Queen bee 1 (Photo credit: quisnovus)
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 box 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.

Honey Bees with beekeepers
Honey Bees with beekeepers (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The new queen that the hive produced in preparation for swarming, will remain with the original colony and the remainder of the worker bees and start building up a viable hive once again. 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.

The Honey Bees have made a bee hive on the bra...
The Honey Bees have made a bee hive on the bracket of our window. I clicked this pic during daytime at around 10.30 AM. But when I returned home I was surprised to find that the shape has changed drastically and the hive was flat. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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, they 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.

Bees swarming
Bees swarming (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

honey bee looking for a new home
honey bee looking for a new home (Photo credit: *Psycho Delia*)

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.

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.

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.

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!