Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Who 'Ya Gonna Call?

Catalpa tree with colony of feral bees

When my friend Susan heard about a swarm of bees in a tree in Upper Arlington, she called me to come with her to check it out. Swarming is something that happens when bees get crowded in their hives, primarily in the spring. The later in the season, the less likely the bees will be able to successfully relocate in a hive box and store enough honey to survive the winter. Since my last call about swarming bees a couple of weeks ago actually turned out to be nasty yellow jackets, and since it is way late in the summer for bees to swarm, we had no idea what we might actually find.

Nevertheless, Susan packed a ladder and her bee gear and I bought along all my protective clothing. In the surreal way life sometimes imitates art, as we rang the Upper Arlington doorbell I felt like we were a cross between the Keystone Cops, Ghostbusters and Winnie-the-Pooh. Trish, the homeowner, led us to her backyard. Even from the house, I could see bees zooming around about 12 feet up in a huge old catalpa tree.

Sure enough, just like my bees hang out on the front porch of my hives, there were hundreds of honeybees gathered around a silver dollar size hole in the trunk.  Just chillin'. This was not a swarm, but a natural bee tree, a first for Susan and me. It is likely that these bees were a spring swarm and the scout bees found this terrific catalpa tree with a nice hole. A perfect home!  The tree is probably hollow and is now filled with honeycomb, honey and brood. Trish had noticed the bees all summer and was not alarmed about them, but was willing for Susan to capture them and take them away.

See them now?

I will ask about this in the beeyard tomorrow evening, but I believe the only way to capture these bees, including their queen, is to cut down the tree. As far as I know (which really isn't much), until the tree dies or splits, with some luck those bees will overwinter and just keep on beeing a feral colony.  If they survive the winter, next spring it is possible the bees will make another queen and half the bees will swarm.

Trish, keep your eyes on those bees on warm days in the early spring. Who 'ya gonna call?

Meanwhile, back in my beeyard, this over anxious beekeeper didn't listen to the more experienced beekeeper who told me to keep the new queen cage taped closed for several days.  I wanted the queen to be released before I left town last Thursday so I removed the tape and stuffed more fondant in the passage.  When I opened the nuc last Wednesday, what was left of the queen was in the queen cage along with a dead worker.  The honey in the frames had all been robbed out. There were dead bees on the bottom screen.  Sadder but wiser (and poorer), I disassembled the nuc and put the frames with brood back into the other hives.

The other hives were buzzing.  I had mixed up sugar water with Honey B Healthy, a delightfully fragrant mixture of essential oils that is good for bees, and had planned to start feeding the bees.  The fall flowers are yet to bloom (especially goldenrod, a significant source of nectar) but if my nuc had been a going entity, those bees would have needed to be fed and if I feed one hive I need to feed them all to prevent ugly robbing behaviors. The frames in the three other hives had lots of honey, mostly uncapped.  Without a refractometer (tool to determine the water content of the honey) I can't tell if uncapped honey is ready to harvest.  Since the syrup was already made, even though the three colonies would probably have produced more honey for me to harvest, I officially ended the harvest season in Worthington by feeding my girls syrup and pollen patties.  I will not harvest this adulterated honey.

Two of the 3 hives have deep boxes as their bases. I noticed that most of the frames were empty. I did find some stored bright yellow pollen and the smallest bit of brood in the deeps, but it is clear that the queens prefer the medium hive boxes.  As the frames in the upper boxes fill with honey stores, the queens will be forced to return to the deeps to lay their eggs.

Because it has been so dry, the bees were hungry and not happy about me fooling with their colonies.  There was lots of zooming about and I used plenty of calming smoke.  Still, one of the girls gave up her life to protect her hive and I got the slightest bit of a sting through my glove on the top of my right index finger. Her heart wasn't in it (nor was her stinger) so the tiny red spot was gone in 24 hours.

2012  5
2011  13

Thursday, August 16, 2012

How Sweet It Is!

There are 20,000 kinds of bees, but up until a moment ago, I thought the European honeybee is the only one to produce honey.  Wikipedia says there are a few others that do, too.  Since Wikipedia is not the bee all, end all authority on anything, I'm sticking to the thought that honeybees are the only practical source of honey. I just returned from a COBA meeting and my bee mavens assure me that only honeybees make honey in any useful amount.

I have been getting a lot of questions about honey.  One of my South Carolina friends commented about fresh honey.  Since honey doesn't spoil, freshness  is not an issue with honey. Honey has been found in Egyptian tombs.  And yes, it was still good!

Some more important considerations than freshness are:

Know the beekeeper
You don't need to personally know the beekeeper, but it doesn't hurt.  If you know who is keeping the bees you can ask about her beekeeping philosophy.  There is a wide range of acceptable practices when it comes to beekeeping, but I prefer the ones that are free of chemicals.  Integrated Pest Management enables the beekeeper to use natural products like confectioners sugar and essential oils as well as mechanical traps to control common hive pests and fungi.  Some chemicals can't be used when there is honey to be harvested in the hive. There are certainly reputable beekeepers who correctly use chemicals to manage their hives, but unless you know your beekeeper, you won't know if these chemicals were properly handled.  

Got allergies?
Buy local honey.  It is thought that because bees pick up pollen and bring it to the hive that people with seasonal allergies benefit from eating local honey. There are traces of those allergens in the honey. Some beekeepers collect pollen from the pollen baskets of foragers returning to the hive.  This pollen can be purchased and ingested and is also considered therapeutic to allergy sufferers. Bees travel up to five miles for water, pollen and nectar. That's local.  Even if you don't have allergies, do your local beekeepers a favor by buying their honey.

Read labels
Whether you buy at a local farmers' market or especially if you buy at the grocery store, read the label to find out where the honey comes from.  What you absolutely, positively DO NOT want is honey from Asia.  I have seen a documentary about how some Asian "honey" producers feed cheap corn syrup to their bees.  The bees eat it and make "honey" but we call it adulterated.  It looks like honey, but real honey is made from nectar.  Some beekeepers, including me, feed their bees sugar water from time to time in order to sustain a new hive or to help the colony store enough food for the winter, but bees are fed after honey is harvested, not before, so what is extracted is real honey.

Eat it raw!
When honey is spun out of the frames at harvest time, it drips into a barrel shaped container with a gate at the bottom to allow honey to drain into another bucket with a double sieve at the top. This strainer catches bits of wax and anything else not honey. This is all it needs before it is bottled.  Some beekeepers heat the honey before bottling. This is not necessary and if the honey gets over a certain temperature it changes the essential properties and destroys beneficial enzymes.  It's still honey but it has lost something in the processing. How do you know? Ask the beekeeper if he heats the honey. Those who do think it's fine to do so, so they'll tell you.  Because you have no way to know if the temperature was controlled, buy someone else's honey.

Some honey is sold with chunks of honeycomb.  If you have ever had it that way, you know how wonderful it is to bite down on comb and to feel the honey squish out of the cells.  When I was a kid we used to chew the wax like gum and then spit it out, but I now know that the wax is perfectly edible.  Go ahead and swallow it.  

I have tried a product that contains honey, propolis, pollen and beeswax all mushed up in the jar.  Propolis is a very sticky gluelike substance that bees make from pine sap.  Any cracks or crevices in the hive are sealed with this stuff which is why we need to use a small pry bar to pull out the frames and unstick the stacked hive boxes.  It is also edible and has therapeutic qualities when eaten.  I can't remember what the stuff is called but Whole Foods carries it.  Very raw. Very unprocessed. Expensive stuff. It does taste good.

When bees draw out honeycomb on a new foundation, it is creamy white.  As generations of brood are raised it darkens the comb.  The frames get moved around the hives as needed, so sometimes honey is stored in new, white comb and sometimes it is stored in comb that is brown because brood has been raised there or because honey has been stored there. One of my fellow beekeepers told me tonight that when she has frames of honey with snow white cappings, she slices off the cappings to harvest the honey, saves those honey-laden cappings in a jar and shares it with her family. It is the equivalent of comb honey without the hassle of trying to make comb honey. I might try that instead of draining the cappings for days or putting them out for the bees to go bonkers over.

Varietal honey

Pale, pale yellow spring honey

My jar of Humboldt Fog honey--spring above, fall below

Golden, late summer honey

Van Morrison sang, "She's as sweet as tupelo honey." What is that, anyway? Honey is named for the kind of flower from which the bees have collected nectar. If you watch bees you'll note that when they are visiting blossoms they stay on one kind of flower. When the clover is blooming and its nectar is flowing, they collect from clover to clover to clover. When the black locust and honey locust trees are blooming in the spring, the bees love it and collect just that nectar. Same for dandelions, honeysuckle, blueberries, lavender, goldenrod, etc., plants that grow around here in Ohio. If the beekeeper takes honey right after the lavender nectar flow then she will have lavender honey.  Back to tupelo...the tupelo is a gum tree that grows in northwest Florida, the only place where tupelo honey is produced commercially. There are bee hives all along the river swamps in this area and when the nectar flows in April and May, the bees produce this very delicate, light amber honey. Each variety of honey has its own distinctive taste and color. Honey that is light in color is light and delicate in flavor. The darker the honey, the stronger the flavor. Clover honey is light (but not as light as my spring honey) and buckwheat is very dark. Other varieties you will find at grocery are sage (one of my favorites) and orange blossom. When honey is harvested once a year it is a combination of all the nectars the bees have collected from many different flowers.  We call that honey wildflower.  When you travel look for honey that's local to wherever you are.  It won't do a thing for your allergies but it will make your tongue happy. It's all good.

A few last things to know about honey

  • While honey does not spoil, eventually it will crystallize and become sugary. Re-liquify it by putting the bottle into a bowl of hot water.
  • Cream honey is honey with air whipped into it, delicious as a spread for bread. Carmen Conrad, of Conrad Hive and Honey in Canal Winchester makes fabulous cream honey, including flavors.  My favorite is jalapeƱo. Look for Carmen and Barry at the Clintonville Farmer's Market on Saturdays.
  • Honey is good to put in you and to put on you. It has loads of antioxidants and is antibacterial.  It is soothing for coughs and sore throats. Google honey home remedies and learn more ways to use this great gift from the bees.

2012  4
2011  13

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Robbery, Carnage, Mayhem

Before I get to the carnage and mayhem, I will write about the sweet harvest.  This happens to be the linear order of what occurred.  I intended to leave Hive 1 alone on this harvest day because of the piggyback arrangement with the weak hive.  I knew Hive 4 had a full honey super when Susan opened it a week earlier so that was the place to start.  Last year, a full super in this same hive location (different bees) turned into a disappointment when I opened the hive for harvest only to find that the bees had eaten all their honey. True, it was theirs, but I was astounded to discover that they didn't leave even one sticky drop for me.

Earlier in the week I saw that some of the frames had capped brood, but when I examined the frames, there was only wall to wall capped honey.  The bees had emerged, a good thing because I don't want brood in the honey.  I don't know what the queen was thinking, going way up in the top super to lay eggs.  She is supposed to stay in the bottom two boxes.  Apparently, she didn't get that memo. I took nine frames of honey from this hive and headed to the garage where Harvey had set up the extractor. The bees were so very calm in spite of the fact that I was robbing their honey.

Harvey went next door so the neighbors could watch the harvest.  Jenn came over with her two oldest, ages six and eight or so.  They have eaten this honey but wouldn't dip their fingers into the comb to taste. All kids know that food comes from the grocery store, not from neighbors' garages. They did both enjoy taking turns cranking the extractor and they got a crash course from me in bee fundamentals. Always a teacher.  Harvey was a big help and wielded the hot knife, slicing the caps off the comb. The whole harvest runs better with help than when I did it alone.

I replaced the empty frames in the hive and opened Hive 2.  There were four frames with capped honey. One frame only had capped honey on one side but the cells on the other side were empty and dry, so I included it in the harvest.  Many other frames had honey, some capped, some not.  It is easy to see the glistening honey in the uncapped cells, and tempting to take it, but the moisture content of the uncapped honey is too high and if it is harvested, it will mold. There is a fancy gizmo that can measure the moisture content so the beekeeper knows if she should take the honey, but an even easier way to tell is to trust the bees.  They take nectar from the flowers, pass it to other bees who add magic enzymes and ultimately it is stored in cells.  The bees fan the honey with their wings which evaporates the moisture.  When the honey is ready, they secrete wax and cap the cells.

All in all, we harvested 30 pounds of beautiful, sweet honey.  It is darker than the spring honey but lighter than last year's fall honey. The later in the season, the darker, and stronger tasting the honey. This weekend, when I reorganize Hive 3, I will harvest Hive 1 and check Hive 2 again.  I am hoping that the girls will have capped more of the honey that wasn't quite ready last week. It's a shame that all the hives couldn't be harvested at once because the work is messy and the cleanup is, too. Since Harvey did the bottle filling, this harvest was far less messy than when I did it myself in June. He has a steady hand for filling and wasted very little.

About the robbery, carnage and mayhem...

When the cappings are trimmed off the frames, honey oozes out of the cells and drops into a container that catches both.  This is a slushy, sticky mess of wax bits and honey and we pushed the cappings to one side of the bin and tilted it to let the honey pool.  After straining, we filled a one-pound bottle with this honey but there was plenty more trapped in the bits.  When we were finished filling the main harvest, we put these still wet cappings into the strainer and let them drain. There are solar devices that melt the wax and separate the honey but I don't have one of those. I decided to spread the cappings out on foil and let the bees come and get it. I put the foil on the new stone counter on our deck. They would take the honey just like they collect nectar from flowers and return it to the hive. I tried this last spring but the bees never really showed an interest in it.  That was then. After this very hot, dry summer, the bees were hungry for the easy food. Within 10 minutes, the deck was zooming with bees. They were all over the cappings, all over the deck, banging into the windows and door.  We're talking THOUSANDS of bees.  It wasn't safe to go out the back door. This was what is called robbing and it was mighty to behold. There were bees locked in mortal combat. There were maimed bodies on the deck, dead and dying.  Also at the feast were bumblebees and two kinds of wasps. Hours later, as dusk approached, it had calmed from frenzy to merely cranky and I went out to take pictures. The video is a Sunday school picnic compared to the earlier scene.  Also in the video is the bin that held the cappings. I knew if I put it out for the girls to clean up there would not be a bit of stickiness left.  They did a great job.

The next day I swept up at least 100 dead bees.   Perhaps this wasn't such a good idea.

A big bowl full of only slightly tacky cappings.  Pure beeswax.

2012  4
2011  13

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Separation Anxiety

One of my girls visits blooming spearmint.
These photos were taken with my iPhone with a macro lens.

Bee-ing away from my bees for 7 summer weeks created some separation anxiety for me. The concept of sustainable beekeeping would have had me leaving those hives alone and letting the queens handle whatever may come, but hands off is easier said than done. I am still too new a beekeeper not to worry. My friend Susan did check on the hives twice while I was gone and I got thorough reports of what she saw.  I knew before I returned to Ohio that generally, Hives 1, 2 and 4 were doing well and that honey awaited harvesting.  I also knew that Hive 3 was weak. This is one of the hives that had gone queenless in May and I knew from the last time I inspected in in mid-June that there were too many drones and not enough workers. When Susan took her first look for me, she found so little brood and so many drones that we knew we had a laying worker.


The queen is the only fertile bee in the hive.  When she takes her mating flight, she stores all the sperm she needs for life.  Worker bees are sterile females; they don't mate and they can't repopulate a hive in a useful way.  Every so often, however, one of them decides to lay eggs.  Since she is sterile, no good will come of this. The eggs are not fertile. The nurse bees care for the eggs as though they had been laid by the queen but since these are incomplete eggs, the only kind of bee they can produce are drones (males).  Drones have one job, to fertilize a queen. They don't scout. They don't bring in nectar or pollen. They don't take care of brood. They eat stored honey.  In other words, they are useless to their colony. 

MEANWHILE, BACK AT THE WEAK HIVE the brood that had been developing when there was a good queen all emerged on schedule.  Without a queen to lay 1,000 eggs every day, with subsequent emergence of 1,000 new workers every day, the hive became weak.  At some point, the laying worker kicked in, the colony's population of workers aged and died (a natural, expected progression) and the colony was doomed.  

I returned to Ohio on Tuesday and Wednesday night found me in the COBA beeyard at Ohio State.  I hadn't looked in the hive yet, but I knew what I would find and I needed advice.  We beekeepers know that if you ask two beekeepers for advice you will get at least three answers.  I asked three beekeepers for advice, got the expected surplus of ideas and mentally cut and pasted my plan. As soon as I had a chance to look in that hive, I found precious little capped brood, no honey stores and a couple of hundred bees.  A healthy hive would have as many as 60,000 bees by now.  

In June, I left Hive 3 with four hive bodies (boxes) just to be sure they wouldn't get too crowded if the colony prospered.  I found that one super had not been developed at all. I removed it. My plan was to add the weak boxes to the top of my strongest colony, Hive 1, the swarm hive. I laid a sheet of newspaper over the top of the uppermost box in Hive 1 and stacked the weak hive on top.  The newspaper trick is to create a fragile barrier that allows the bees from both colonies to adjust to each other.  Without it, the strong hive's guard bees would kill the weak hive's bees.  The barrier would hold for maybe three days, after which the Hive 1 bees would find, and kill, the egg laying worker and clean up any problems in the frames of the weak hive.  As I inspected the frames, I saw a few wax moths, a very few tiny wax worms (bad because they destroy the comb--we weren't there, yet), a scattering of hive beetles and something I am guessing was chalkbrood, a fungus. The bees in a strong hive can keep these problems under control.  A weak colony can't defend the hive. 

One week after combining the hives, I will reassemble Hive 3 in its former location. Because it is so late in the summer, time is not on my side for the bees to create a new queen from the eggs of one of the sister hives. I will buy an Ohio queen and place her in the reorganized hive box with frames of capped brood from my three other hives.  The new queen will start laying 1,000 eggs every day and the borrowed brood will soon emerge, now workers belonging to Hive 3. With luck, I will have a small, but strong, colony to overwinter in a nuc.  We'll see how this turns out.

She was too busy to notice the camera which was only 1/2" away.


The next blog entry will be all about the honey harvest that took place Sunday. Stay tuned for tales of mayhem, carnage and lots of sweet, sticky stuff.


2012   4
2011  13