Friday, September 27, 2013

Creating My Personal Honeyhole.......Or My First Season of Beekeeping

PART I:  Installation

Keeping with my tendencies to gravitate towards activities associated with the granola lifestyle, I decided to try my hand at beekeeping this year.  I began this new adventure in January by ordering my hive while the snow was still flying.  It was a bit intimidating browsing through catalogs and websites filled with beekeeping paraphernalia, but I eventually put an order together.  I ended up buying a single hive composed of two deep brood boxes and two honey supers.  I had initially intended to start with two bee hives, but at my husband's insistence I stuck to just one.  With placing the hives behind our greenhouses, he was worried that we'd experience a significant increase in honeybees around the store, which could interfere with our customers' shopping experience. So one hive it was.  If all goes well this summer, maybe I'll add another next year.  Along with the brood and super boxes, I also ordered additional gear like a smoker, suit and attached veil, hive tool, a hive top feeder, etc.
Before and after placing my hive order, I spent hours researching honeybees, and I even took a UW-Extension course on beekeeping. Whereas some people have a "learn by doing" attitude, I prefer to gather as much knowledge as possible before delving into something new.  Once spring came around, I felt pretty confident that I could get my hive up and running.  I had all the equipment I needed, the hive was painted and assembled, and I had the perfect spot picked out for the hive.  Its home would be about fifty yards behind the greenhouses nestled in a grove of pine trees so the bees would get eastern exposure and have good protection from winter winds.

My hive in early spring:  assembled and ready for a colony.
Next, it was time to order some bees, so I contacted a local beekeeper I had heard about.  She has lots of hives and sells honey related products at farmers markets in the area.  She takes orders from local beekeepers for packages of bees throughout the winter and provides a pickup location for them once they arrive in April. 

Before picking up my bees, I had done a lot of reading on the topic of hive installation, watched several YouTube videos, and I even took the opportunity to help out another beekeeper I knew with her own installation.  So when I got the call that the bees were ready to be picked up, I felt pretty prepared.  Beehives  don't seem to require much work during the summer season; most of the effort seems to be the initial installation of the bees in the spring and the honey extraction in the fall. 

The bees came in a 3-pound wooden package with the queen suspended inside in her own cage along with a can of sugar syrup to feed the bees during their journey.
A 3# package of bees.
It was a cool April day, so the bees remained in a tight formation around the queen in order to keep her warm.  After bringing the package of bees to the hive, my first task was to open up the hive and remove a couple frames in order to make room for the bees and the can of sugar syrup.  After prying the sugar syrup out of the bee package, I placed it inside the bottom brood box of the hive in order to provide the bees with some extra food while they adjusted to their new home.
Removing the sugar syrup.
I next removed the queen cage and made sure that the queen was present and alive.
The queen cage removed, which was surrounded by attendant bees.
Before hanging the queen cage inside the hive, I carefully removed the cork on one end and replaced it with a piece of marshmallow.  This would allow the attendant bees to slowly eat through the marshmallow and adjust to their new queen's pheromones before releasing her from her cage.

The queen cage.
Removing the cork from the queen cage.

The cork has been replaced with a marshmallow.
I then used a thumb tack to secure the queen cage to one of the middle frames of the hive.  I hung the cage vertically between two frames, which would allow an easy escape once her attendants ate through the marshmallow.
Securing the queen cage to a middle hive frame.
I next had to transfer the rest of the bees into the hive box.  This was done by giving the box a good rap on the ground in order to knock the clump of bees to the bottom of the box and then shaking the bees out of the box and into the hive.  I repeated this several times until there were only a handful of bees left inside the package.

After successfully transferring most of the bees into the hive, I then carefully replaced the frames I had initially removed for the installation.  I then put on the hive top feeder, filled it up with some sugar syrup, and replaced the hive cover.

All in all, the process took about ten minutes and went very smoothly.  I luckily had a friend willing to help me out, which made the process even easier.  About three days after installing the bees, I opened up the hive to make sure the queen had been released and that she was still in the hive, which she was.  I then removed the queen cage and the can of sugar syrup from the hive and added the remaining frames that had been removed in order to make room for the syrup.  About a week later, I opened up the hive once more to make sure the bees were making honeycomb on the frame foundations and to see if I could spot any eggs.  There was definitely a lot of comb being made, but I wasn't able to see any eggs inside the cells.  They were probably there, but I just didn't see them because they're so small.  After several more weeks passed, I opened up the hive again.  This time I found the queen and also saw many larva, which meant the queen was doing her job.

Part II:  Inspections

Since April, the bees have been hard at work.  They filled out the empty frames on the initial brood box, so I added a second one in mid-May.  Those frames filled up pretty quickly once the warm weather hit and the flowers started blooming.  I added my first honey super in mid-June, and by mid-July the bees had filled three-quarters of those frames with honey, so I added the second super at that time.    These are the two boxes that I could potentially harvest at the end of the summer.
The late summer hive with two honey supers added.
In early August, I decided I should do a full hive inspection because I hadn't checked the brood boxes since the spring.  According to the books I had read and other beekeepers, I had been neglecting the bees by not checking up on them every couple of weeks, but my summers get real hectic at the greenhouse and when I'd walk back to take a peek at the hive, the bees seemed to be doing just fine. 

I chose a day that wasn't unbearably hot and rounded up my gear.  My pregnant waistline prevented me from fitting into any old pairs of jeans or thick work pants, but I figured my hooded bee suit and some thin yoga pants would be protection enough.  (I figured wrong.)  I began by smoking the hive entrance then lifting the outer cover and sending some puffs of smoke onto the inner cover.  My ultimate goal was to see how many frames of honey were in the two supers and to see what the brood boxes looked like inside.  After letting the smoke settle down into the hive, I removed the outer and inner covers and began using my hive tool to separate the upper super.  The bees are very good at sealing cracks within the hive with propolis, and I had a difficult time getting the supers unstuck from one another.  I finally was able to remove both supers and was happy to see many frames filled with capped honey.  At this point, the bees were getting agitated and started to slam into my hood.  This signaled a good time to calm them down with some more smoke, but my smoker had gone out and I couldn't get it relit.  So I tried to ignore the angry bees and continued working my way down into the hive.  I took out a few frames from the upper brood box and saw more capped honey.  After finally separating this box from the bottom brood box, I struggled to lift it up.  I wasn't prepared for it to be so heavy.  I do a lot of heavy lifting throughout the summer around the greenhouse, so I know I'm not a weakling, but the brood box was almost more than I could manage.  I had finally got down the to bottom brood box and was about to start looking through the frames to perhaps find the queen and check for eggs and larvae, when I got two simultaneous stings on each thigh.  The bees were getting more and more agitated by the second, so I immediately began to reassemble the hive.  I heaved the upper brood box back in place along with both supers but then realized I'd make a rookie mistake and forgot to replace one of the frames I had removed from the bottom brood box.  So amidst dive bombing bees and throbbing thighs, I began disassembling the hive again in order to replace the missing frame.  When I finally got the hive back together, I was drenched in sweat and totally wore out.  I didn't realize beekeeping was such physical work. 

All in all, it was pretty much a failed inspection, but I learned some important lessons:  pack my smoker better so it stays lit when I really need it; wear appropriate clothing when working the hive and don't assume the bees won't sting; and always make sure all frames are in place before moving on to the next box.  Better luck next time!

PART III:  Harvesting

I decided to harvest honey in mid-September on one of the last warm days in the forecast.  The nectar flow wasn't quite done, but my due date was only four weeks away and I was worried that if I waited longer into the season I'd either run out of warm days or--even scarier---days before the baby came.  From what I had read, it's best to harvest and extract honey before the weather turns cold in order to prevent crystallization of the honey, but you also want to harvest late enough in the season that you're getting the most honey possible.  Ideally, the day should have been warm and sunny, but as I was strapped for time, I was forced to harvest on a warm but cloudy day.  I had purchased a fume board and a bottle of BeeQuick earlier in the summer and had my summary of steps to follow for harvesting.  I rounded up my gear and suited up---this time donning a pair of thick work pants.  I wasn't anywhere close to being able to button or zip them up, but they did the job.

I packed my smoker much fuller this time to prevent a repeat of my last inspection, and headed out to the hive.  I began by smoking the entrance and giving the bees a chance to settle down.  I then sprayed some BeeQuick on the felt side of the fume board and smoked beneath the outer cover to send the bees deeper into the hive.  After removing the outer and inner covers, I replaced them with the fume board.  This contraption has felt on one side and dark colored plastic on the other.  The felt gets saturated with the BeeQuick, which is an almond-scented chemical that is suppose to repel the bees.  As the dark side of the fume board heats up in the sun, it causes the BeeQuick to permeate down into the supers below, which in theory should make it easy to remove the supers sans bees.  I let the fume board sit on the upper super for 3-5 minutes and then took a peek inside.  It appeared the upper super was pretty much void of bees at this points, so I removed it from the hive and set it on the wagon I had brought along.  I covered it with a towel to prevent any honey robbing and then put the fume board on top of the lower super.  While waiting for the fume board to vacate bees from the lower super, I went back to inspect the first one on the wagon.  Unfortunately, there were still quite a few bees on the frames so I had to remove each frame one at a time and used a brush to remove the clinging bees before covering the frames with the towel.

By this time, the fume board had been on the bottom honey super for over 5 minutes, but when I went to remove the box, there were still a lot of bees on the frames.  Again, I had to remove each frame individually and brush off the bees.  Luckily I had brought a large storage bin along, so as I cleared each frame of bees, I put them inside the secure bin.  In hindsight, the fume board probably would have worked better if it had been sunnier, and I probably needed to use more BeeQuick.  After finally getting both supers mostly free of bees, I put the inner and outer covers back on the hive and hightailed it out of there.  At this point I was totally soaked in sweat and wore out once again.  I pulled the wagon with the supers about 50 yards from the hive and took off my gear to cool off.  After rehydrating, I went back to the wagon and noticed all sorts of bees robbing the spots of honey that had dripped onto the cover of the storage bin as well as my hive tool and gloves.  I opened the lid and brushed out some of the bees I had missed and began pulling the wagon out through the greenhouses and up to my car to load.  Before leaving work for the day, I smartly thought to check for any bees flying around my car before getting inside.  Sure enough, there were about half a dozen honeybees clinging to the windows, but they were pretty easy to shoo out of the car.  Once I got home I unloaded the supers and checked once again for stray bees.  The upper super that was covered with a towel appeared to be totally bee free, but when I opened the plastic storage bin of frames from the lower super, there were a couple dozen bees crawling around inside.  I'm not sure how they escaped my brush the first time, but this time I made sure I got them all off of the frames.  I then put the two supers inside my garage and called it a day.

Part IV:  Extracting

It's recommended that you extract honey on a warm day so the honey flows freely from the combs.  Looking at the oncoming cold front, I was forced to extract my honey the first night after harvesting.  I again had a short list of steps to follow, which made extracting look to be pretty darn easy.  I had previously purchased a very basic two frame honey extractor along with a honey bucket and filter.

2 frame manual honey extractor

I set up my extracting area in the garage and set to it.  I grabbed my first frame and used a serrated bread knife to remove the caps on each side of the frame.  Most books recommend using a heated uncapping knife, but with the small number of frames I had to harvest, I couldn't bring myself to spend $100 on one, but I had read that a good serrated knife would also work.  The uncapping wasn't as easy as I thought it would be (surprise, surprise).  Ideally, the knife is suppose to remove just the outermost layer of wax from the comb, exposing the cells full of honey.  After extracting the honey, there should be intact honeycomb left on the frames for the bees to use again next year.  Until I got a strategy down, I nearly destroyed the cells on the first few frames I uncapped by cutting into the wax too deeply with the knife.  The later frames turned out much better.  I let the wax fall into a stainless steel pot as I uncapped, and these wax cappings were later placed in a colander over another bowl in order to recover honey that was removed during the uncapping process.
A full honey frame ready to be uncapped.
Once I had my first two frames uncapped on both sides, I put them into my mechanical extractor and started spinning it with the hand crank.  If my arms weren't sore from lifting the heavy supers the previous day, they were definitely sore after a night of hand cranking the honey extractor.  After spinning the first two frames for a about two minutes, I took out each one and reversed its position in the extractor in order to pull the honey out of both sides.  To my delight, I started seeing thick, amber colored honey dripping down the inside of the extractor.  I continued the process of cutting off the wax cappings and spinning the frames until I was down to my last two.  I picked up one of these frames and was about to cut through the cappings, when I felt a strong burning on my index finger.  Apparently a single lonely bee was clinging to life on the underside of the frame and had given me a sting in its last act of defending its honey.  Through the throbbing, I removed the stinger and extracted the honey from the last couple frames.

Capped honey
Extracted honey frame.
Once all the frames had been emptied of honey, I placed the honey gate of the extractor over my honey bucket.  I had placed a filter in the top of the honey bucket in order to filter out dead bees, pieces of wax, and other debris that had found its way into the honey.  I opened the honey gate and watched the slow waterfall of honey flow out of the extractor.  It made all the stings, sweat, and sore muscles of the summer worth it to see the viscous flow of honey pouring out. 
Filtering honey from the extractor.
The next day, I removed the colander of wax cappings to melt down at a later date and added the bowl of honey salvaged from them into the honey bucket.  There was a surprising amount of honey recovered from the cappings, probably due to my inept uncapping of the frames.  I left my bucket of filtered honey to sit in our laundry room for several days in order to let the air bubbles rise out the top before I bottled it up.  About four days after extracting, I gathered up some old mason jars and set to bottling my honey.  All in all, I ended up with about 2 1/2 gallons of honey.  Much will be given away to friends and family, but I'll be keeping plenty for myself!

After bottling the honey, I melted  the wax cappings that I collected during the extraction using a double boiler.  The result was very little bees wax, but I'm sure I'll find a use for it.
Melting the wax cappings.
A block of beeswax.

The next day, I took the empty supers and placed them back on the hive.  I had read that the frames need to be totally dry before storing them for winter, and by placing them back on the hives for a few days, the bees will pick them clean of any remaining honey.  After about three days, I removed the supers for good and moved them into my garage.  The last thing to do before winter will be to install a mouse guard on the front entrance and make sure there is adequate ventilation for winter.

Part V:  Conclusion

During this first season of beekeeping, I've learned that nothing is as easy as it appears.  I had a short list of steps to follow for each beekeeping task, and I naively thought they were going to be simple processes.  As it turns out, everything that can go wrong does go wrong when you're a novice beekeeper.  I'm surprised I made it through the season with as few stings as I did (4 total--one cheek, both thighs, and one finger) and with a satisfactory amount of honey to boot. 

The bees will be left on their own this winter.  I've left both brood boxes in place, which hopefully will provide enough honey to provide adequate food stores for the colony to make it until early spring.  I plan on next checking the hive in February or March, and if there isn't much honey remaining I'll start a feeding of sugar syrup.  This may be a moot point, though, if the colony disappears.  With colony collapse disorder rearing its ugly head across the country, many beekeepers are having trouble overwintering their hives.  I'm not expecting much and will be pleasantly surprised if I have a viable hive come next spring. If so, I should have an even stronger colony next season, which will mean even more honey.  If the colony doesn't survive winter, then I'll start the process all over again by purchasing another package of bees.  Either way, I'll have some experience under my belt, which should help things go a bit smoother in the future.  Speaking of belts, my waistline should be back to normal next year as well, which will mean fewer stings to my legs and an easier time lifting the hive boxes.

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