Wannabees Thinking About Honey Bees

A bee swarm is a thing of beauty
My honey bottles
My honey bottles

Ummmm…..that’s sooo good! I hear that phrase over and over when someone tastes my home-grown honey for the first time. Their face lights up and a look of delight transforms them when they dip their fingers into the sticky sunshine. Most people are used to the purchased plastic bear of generic clover honey (sometimes adulterated) available at the local grocery store. For me it was a taste of local honey which began my revelatory journey towards keeping bees over 20 years ago.

Pulling out a perfect frame of honey
Pulling out a perfect frame of honey

Attending a local beekeeping club classes set me on the right path, with loads of information on bee biology, choosing the right equipment, and lots of help setting up my first two hives. There are free on-line courses available and excellent books on the subject, but I found that personal hands-on help was the most valuable. For ‘Wannabees’ who have sat on the fence for years, and pored over glossy bee catalogs, my bee journey might help you take the first steps. But be warned, you have to order bees now, for the spring. Most bee suppliers are sold out of bees by early March.

You can order bees by mail
You can order bees by mail
One of my newly installed nucs last spring
One of my newly installed nucs last spring

Cost   

What does it cost to get into beekeeping? Costs can be steep the first year, as you are paying for equipment, plus your bees. But then it levels off. At a major retailer of bee equipment, you can pick up beginner kits for a complete setup for around $400 which includes tools, hive bodies, and equipment. That doesn’t include the most important part though – your bees. Bees could run you anywhere from $130 to $200 per colony, depending upon colony size. So, we are talking about $500 per hive and I suggest that you start with two. You are more flexible with two (a stronger one could help a weaker one) and you won’t be devastated if one doesn’t make it through the winter. The total cost just doubled but the advantage it gives you the first year is worth it.

I recommend that you start with at least 2 hives
I recommend that you start with at least 2 hives; the tall one has supers on top for excess honey; the shorter one isn’t as strong

Factor in buying large amounts of granulated sugar to make up sugar syrup for feeding. When floral nectar is in short supply or unavailable, like early spring or late fall, bees draw on their honey stores in the hive. During these times, it is important to feed your colonies because when stored honey in the hive is gone, the colony will starve.

Time

I use entrance feeders
Entrance feeders full of sugar water

Your first spring of beekeeping will suck up the most time. Everything is new, you panic over nothing, and you are driven to open your colonies a little too frequently. You will be installing new packages of bees, hovering worriedly over your new babies, and feeding them sugar syrup every day to get them going. See my post on Installing Packages or Nucs of Bees or Honeybee Nuc 101.

Beeswax that I have poured into molds
Beeswax that I have poured into molds; Go to my post on Beeswax Sachets

Leveling off in the summer, your time is more likely to be spent observing and peeking into your hives, and adding extra boxes as the colony grows. If you are using disease medications (I do it organically), you are spending time applying chemical controls.

Inspecting an open beehive
Inspecting an open beehive

Extraction of your long-awaited honey surplus will take a full day in the late summer. It involves removing bees and boxes, uncapping honey from frames, spinning the honey out, and the most time consuming of all-cleanup of a sticky mess. See my post on Spinning Honey  or Beeswax-Honeybee Gift.

 

Straining raw honey
Straining raw honey

A few hours is involved in Fall and Winter, wrapping your hives for winter, and feeding more sugar syrup. I am using a new product for wrapping called, Bee Cozy which streamlines the winter process greatly. Over the entire year of beekeeping, I estimate that I spend at least 30 – 40 hours tending to them.

Bee Cosy on hive
I love using the Bee Cozy, which is insulated,  in the winter
Setting up hives in the spring
Setting up hives in the spring

The wonder of the symbiotic relationship of flowers, bees, and nature continue to fascinate me and make it worth my time. When my bees visit my year round greenhouse in Maryland on a mild winter day, I am amazed! Amazed that they can zoom in on one orange tree that is blossoming from several thousand feet away in the dead of winter. And the unexpected events that happen (like swarming) causes me to marvel at honeybee behavior and never get bored with it.

A bee swarm is a thing of beauty
A bee swarm is a thing of beauty

My bee journey took me other places too-like becoming interested in all pollinators and how our native pollinators as well as the imported honey bee are in decline and need our assistance to survive. I learned what plants were beneficial to pollinators and established a meadow around my bee hives to supplement their foraging diet. See my post Grow These For the Bees Garden Plan.A meadow surrounds my beehives

I still love opening my bee hives -thrilling to the sight of their collected honey full of nectar and pollen foraged from close by. Smearing honey on my toast in the morning has given me a new appreciation for all their hard work; To produce 1 pound of honey, 2 million flowers must be visited. I savor the flavor!

After extracting, the hives go crazy
After extracting, the hives go crazy

So, if you are still thinking about it after reading about the cost and time, look up your local beekeeping club and get started!

Spinning Honey

Setting up the extractor which looks like a large metal trashcan in my potting shed

Big Event

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 50 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. The other hives didn’t have enough to extract as the bees need collected honey to survive the winter.

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

My two nucs and one package were humming along with our wet weather bringing on a consistent 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 Nuc involves transferring frames from a working mini hive into a larger hive body home
A Nuc is a miniature working hive

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 cappings, 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
A perfectly capped frame of honey

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

After extracting the bees are very active

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.

Weighing my wax harvest

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

 

 

Extracting the Flavor Of The Year-Honey

IMG_1084

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

 

 

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

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