Monday, September 20, 2010

A Bottling Tip

I noticed a day or two after bottling my first batch of honey that a foam developed at the tops of the jars. In some instances a trail of bubbles could be noticed running up a shoulder of the jars.

I guessed that this was from air introduced to the honey as a consequence of the extraction process. The radial extractor I used spins the frames and centrifugal force throws the honey from the comb against the sides of the extractor. It seems logical that all this spinning and throwing would result in some air getting mixed in with the honey.

I let the second batch of honey settle in the bottling bucket for 2 days before attempting to bottle it. This resulted in a frothy layer developing on the surface of the honey in the bottling bucket but crystal clear honey flowing into the bottles. As we came to the end of the bottling, this froth was limited to the last couple of jars which we'll use ourselves.

This second pass, Maureen also processed the wax from uncapping the honey and from burr comb collected throughout the season. It started out as a very messy process but Maureen learned quite a bit along the way. You can see some of the processed wax on the left side of the photo above. Maureen has agreed to provide a guest posting this week with some insights on what she learned.


Saturday, September 18, 2010

Uncapping & Extracting Honey

I thought it might be fun to create a video showing the process. It was! I'm also creating my first blog post from my cell phone. Not fun! I hope you enjoy the video and find it instructive.

While I'm at it, here's some of the hive inspection we did at Clare before extracting the honey we pulled from Galway.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

First Harvest

It was Saturday afternoon and I was tired, having just driven three and a half hours from Lancaster, PA but the weather forecast dictated: get some honey now or wait several days. I decided to give it a go.

I loaded up the front end loader of my tractor with a couple hive bodies, a towel, fume boards, a bottle of Bee-Quick and the standard hive inspection tools and headed for the apiary.

The activity at the hives was amazing to behold. There was little doubt that these were two healthy bee colonies and the fall nectar was flowing.

It was upon viewing this busy scene that my anxiety level suddenly picked up. I was about to disrupt these perfectly happy bees on this perfectly beautiful afternoon. And I was going to take some of that honey they were working so tirelessly to create. And I had never done it before. I had read a great deal about it but I had also learned how different real life can be from what you read in the books.

"Get in there." I told myself.

I set the fume boards out in the sun to heat them and I lit the smoker. I opened Galway hoping to find capped honey in the top super. If the honey was ready, the plan was to use a fume board to drive the bees out of the super and then pull the entire super for harvesting.

I pulled the first frame and took a look. It was about 70% capped. Not good enough. I set it on the frame rest and pulled a second frame. It was fully capped. I made an instant decision. I wasn't going to pull entire supers. I was going to pull frames and I was starting with this one.

I gave the frame a shake downward toward the hive entrance to clear some of the bees. Then I reached for the bee brush and gently brushed the remaining bees from the frame. Once clear, I walked it over to the tractor and set it in one of the hive bodies in the loader. I then covered it with a towel.

The die had been cast. I was into it now and my anxiety went up. As I checked the remaining frames in the top super I was disappointed to find that they were not quite sufficiently capped to harvest. A frame doesn't have to be 100% capped but it should be at least 80% capped; otherwise, the honey might have too high a water content and would be more susceptible to granulation, or worse, fermentation.

I replaced the first frame and then pulled the top super and set it aside while I examined the 5th story. The first frame of the fifth story was fully capped. I shook and brushed the bees from it and deposited the frame in the towel draped hive body in the front end loader. The second frame was also fully capped and I repeated the process. The third frame was also fully capped. As I finished clearing it of bees and depositing it with the others in the loader I took a look around to assess the overall situation in the apiary.

Bees were out of the frames and all over the outside of the top super that I had set aside. And as I peered into the hive I could see clumps of bees covering oozing honey from honeycomb built on top of the top bars of the 4th story. That comb was probably attached to the sides or the bottoms of the frames that I had removed from the 5th story and as I pulled the frames it tore the comb and released the honey.

I thought about removing the entire fifth story and smoking the bees down into the 4th and clearing the top bars of the oozing comb. But where would I put the 5th story? The bees were all over the outside of the 6th story so not on top of that.

As I considered my options a thought came to mind: "No hive visit should be over twenty minutes." It occurred to me that in all my slow and deliberate work that the clock had run out on my visit. My anxiety kicked up a notch. I still had to get the hive back together.

I decided to stop at just 4 frames. I replaced the frames I pulled with new frames and foundation so the bees wouldn't be building burr comb all over the place. I set them in gently so that the bees on the 4th story top bars didn't get crushed. I then smoked the bees down into the 5th story and smoked the bees back in to the 6th story that lay beside the hive. I put the 6th story back in place; shook the bees off of the inner cover and put it back in place and finally placed the telescoping cover back on the hive.

I then took a number of long, slow, deep breaths. I commented to Maureen that my lack of experience caused me some heightened anxiety. She responded that it really looked like I knew what I was doing. Maybe it was a combination of inexperience and being tired that caused me to feel anxious. Whatever the reason, I was happy to have order restored. I thought about going in Clare and checking for a couple more frames but I looked inside the smoker to check the fuel and it was about gone. Truth be told, I was glad the smoker was about out.

By the way, the bees were well behaved throughout my visit. They did not seem overly defensive as I had read they can get as the days get shorter and their honey stores grow. I worked without gloves, wearing a veil as my only protective gear and was never stung.

We took the 4 frames back to the house and immediately began the extraction process. I'll fill you in on the details of that much less stressful process in my next post.


Monday, September 6, 2010

On honey labels and where our food comes from

I did get some feedback from a fellow beekeeper regarding the new honey label I'm planning on using. She cautioned: Beware. Cornell says consumer research says people don’t want to be reminded where the honey comes from. Bees on labels are not recommended.

I appreciated the feedback but at the same time I was flabbergasted. It must have been the Cornell School of Business that was giving that advice. Or perhaps, Cornell's School of Pragmatism. But not Cornell's School of Agriculture or their community outreach program, Cooperative Extension, which educates many in our communities throughout New York State.

Don't remind people that bees make honey? Don't remind people that chickens make eggs? Don't remind people that cows make milk? An ignorant public is in the best interest of business? It is hard to believe that educational institutions are espousing this, especially leading educational institutions like Cornell.

New York State has been working to define a Standard of Identity(SOI) for Honey. This is because of adulterated products entering the market. It seems that not everything being sold as "honey" comes from the honeybees. I wonder how many consumers are aware of this?

The Empire State Honey Producers Association has a resolution endorsing the efforts of New York State to arrive at a Standard of Identity for honey. The very first item in section 1 of the proposed SOI states: “Honey” means the natural sweet substance produced by honeybees from the nectar of plants or excretions of plant sucking insects on the living parts of plants, which the bees collect, transform by combining with specific substances of their own, deposit, dehydrate, store, and leave in the honeycomb to ripen and mature.

I like the idea of reminding the public about where my honey comes from. The beauty of the honeybee is to me the best part of the honey. It enhances the flavor. My labels will always have pictures of the lovely creatures who created the sweet, healthy product within.


Thursday, September 2, 2010

My plan versus the bee plan

It seems the bees and I are not on the same page. I guess we're not reading the same books. Unbeknownst to me, my plan began unraveling when I reduced from 8 to 7 the number of frames in the 4th story of Galway.

By reducing the frames and spreading them equidistantly the bees were supposed to draw out the comb further in each frame to close the distance back to within 1/4 to 1/8 of an inch between frames. Bee space -- remember?

Well, I spread them and added a 5th story and when the bees drew most of that I reduced the frames in the 5th story and added a 6th story. It wasn't until a couple of weeks ago as I was readying for harvest that I went down in the hive and discovered the bees were operating with their own plans.

I had decided that I wanted to harvest the 4th story first -- it was the early summer honey that was produced from the millions of Bachelor Buttons in the meadow. From what I had read, Bachelor Button honey is a pinkish white honey and I really wanted to harvest some. So my plan was to bring the 4th story to the top of the hive and put the 6th story which had yet to be drawn into the 4th position -- a simple swap. That would make it easy to monitor the Bachelor Button honey and harvest it as soon as it was capped. Brilliant!

A couple of weeks ago I initiated the swap. When merely looking down into the 4th story from above everything looked good. The comb had been drawn out further just as my plan had called for. But when I removed the 4th story, there was brood comb and exposed brood all over the top bars of the 3rd story.

It seems the bees had drawn out the comb at the very top of the frames but they also built brood comb up in between the frames from the top bars of the 3rd story. Perhaps the 4th story frames were not hanging straight up and down in the hive body and there was more space in between the middle frames that allowed them to do this.

However they managed it, the lesson was not lost on me. I need to get down into the hive and examine individual frames and not just look down from above. I proceeded with my basic plan of swapping the 6th and 4th stories. And today I got back in the hive to see how things were going. Once again, the bees surprised me.

Much of the 6th story is full of capped honey but the center frames also have capped brood in the centers of each frame just as if they were down in the brood chamber. There must have been brood comb remaining in the 4th story when I moved it to the 6th story. So I'm giving up on my plan of harvesting supers full of honey and I will focus on harvesting frame by frame.

I may add a queen excluder between the 5th and 6th stories to let the brood hatch out and not have to worry about the queen continuing to use it for new brood.

Oh, and Clare. I decided a couple weeks ago to let Clare build its strength in preparation for winter. I put a feeder on it and have been feeding 1:1 syrup for the last few weeks. I'll change it to 2:1 in a few weeks. Its doing good but I've decided not to try and harvest anything from it this year.

Lastly, just in case you think I've been goofing off all of August, here's a sneak peek at the new website for selling honey that I may actually harvest someday: If you look closely you'll also get a sneak peek at the label for that yet to be bottled honey.


Sunday, August 8, 2010

Getting ready for the harvest

Unless my hives are discovered by a wandering bear, I'm going to have some honey to harvest this year. Black bears have been seen in the neighborhood but the most recent sighting was a few years back and even then, it was at the edge of woods. To my knowledge there has never been a sighting in the open meadow.

I was encouraged to put up an electric fence around the apiary to keep bears out and I did so but after my dog was shocked (twice) I disconnected it. It's been a few weeks and the dog seems to have returned to normal and she seems to be staying clear of it so I may reconnect it. I've seen the damage bears can inflict on an apiary so I know the gamble I'm taking. I also know the guilt of seeing the dog reluctant to walk in her own backyard. She's not exactly sure where the boundary is so she won't come near that section of the yard.

Assuming I successfully wrestle the bear issue and I do indeed have honey to harvest, how do I get it away from the bees? I've been considering this issue lately.

Harvesting Methods

There are a number of methods to separate the bees from their honey ranging from simply shaking and/or brushing the bees off a frame at a time to using a leaf blower and blowing the bees out of an entire section of the hive body(also known as a honey super or simply a super). Some methods use odors to drive the bees out. Some methods called bee escapes use one way doors that let the bees go out but not back in.

Like most everything else in life, there are pros and cons to each method. The physical methods of removing the bees by shaking, brushing or blowing while immediately effective can and do annoy the bees and irritated bees are not pleasant to be around. Bee escapes take time -- typically a couple days and require at least 2 trips to the apiary. Also, if the bees are out of the honey too long without the beekeeper harvesting it other pests can move in. Using odors to drive the bees out -- well, this method stinks (and you can use too much and drive the bees out of sections you are not harvesting or too little and not drive them out at all.)

So what method do I plan to use? I'm going to try the bee escape method first. If that works effectively I'll stick with it but I'm also not opposed to the method that stinks if I can get the right product. "Fischer's Bee Quick" is said to be very safe and effective.

Bee Quick is used with something called a fume board. You spray a little on the fabric side of the board and then place the board above the super you want to clear. The fumes drive the bees down lower into the hive without harming the bees and leave no residual traces to adversely affect the honey being harvested.

Extracting the Honey

Once I've separated the bees from the honey, the next trick is separating the honey from the comb. Early on, I decided I wanted to extract the honey from the comb while leaving the comb intact rather than simply cutting the comb into sections and packaging it, or crushing the honeycomb and straining the honey from the crushed comb.

When I put together the frames in the hive, I reinforced the beeswax foundation with crisscrossing wires to help keep the honeycomb intact when subjected to the forces of the extraction equipment (see photo).

If I were going to package cut comb honey I would have used a very thin foundation (or no foundation at all) and I would not have used wires to reinforce the honeycomb. Likewise, with the crush and strain method of extracting honey, the wires would not be used. Neither of these methods requires a major investment in equipment to implement but the downside to them is that the bees have to start from scratch when working on the next honey crop because the honeycomb is forfeited in the processing.

It was because of that big downside that I decided I was going to extract the honey from the comb while leaving most of the comb intact. The comb can then be returned to the bees to clean up and refill. And because the bees don't have to expend as much energy and resources in creating honeycomb they are able to produce more honey in less time. The big downside to this method is the cost of the specialized equipment used to get the honey out of the comb -- the extractor.

An extractor is a type of centrifuge. The frames of honeycomb are placed in the extractor after the wax cappings covering the honey filled cells have been removed. There are special heated knives (and fork-like devices called capping scratchers) used for removing the wax caps, but regular bread knives and household forks have also been used.

When the extractor is loaded the frames are then spun, slowly at first because the frames are heavy with honey and even though the honeycomb is reinforced with wire at it's core it could still break apart under the stresses. As the honey is thrown out of the comb by centrifugal force to the walls of the extractor the frames become lighter and the speed can be increased. The honey flows down the sides of the extractor to the bottom where it flows through a valve called a honey gate, into a bucket fitted with 3 filters (coarse, medium and then fine) to filter out any bits of wax and the occasional honeybee.

The honey then rests in this bottling bucket for about a day or so to allow any air introduced during the extraction process to rise to the top of the bucket. This frothy topping is then skimmed prior to bottling the sparkling, pure, raw honey. The bottling bucket is fitted with a honey gate at the bottom to facilitate the bottling process.

After the extraction process, the frames are still wet with remnants of honey. These frames are returned to the hive where the bees readily clean them up. The wax cappings removed in the extraction process can be melted down and used in the creation of candles, lip balm and other products.

The extractor I decided upon will extract 6 frames at a time. It's the Ranger model from Dadant. I picked this particular model for a couple of reasons. Dadant has an excellent reputation for building a quality extractor. Dadant has a store less than an hour away. The extractor is big enough for my immediate needs and the used equipment market seems very good should the need arise to sell it and move to a larger extractor.

So now you know my plans. I may attempt my first harvest next weekend. I'm hoping the bees will have at least 1 super of capped honey ready by then. Keep your fingers crossed.

Oh, one more thing. The website and honey label are under construction. Hopefully they'll be ready for unveiling in the next couple of weeks.

Six high! My, oh my!

The girls keep working and the hives keep growing. In my optimism at the beginning of the season (and to minimize shipping costs) I planned for the best I could hope for in hive growth for first year colonies started from packages. I figured 6 stories would be the maximum. I may have underestimated. As of Saturday I have one hive body left in my supply.

Clare is doing great. The 3rd story is fully drawn and they've started work on the 4th. I decided to add a 5th just to make things roomy after Roger Hoffman, a beekeeper a couple miles down the road wrote me last week: "Major flow just starting up so if you don't have a couple empties on, get them on top ASAP." Must be the goldenrod. Rock and roll!

Galway had quite a bit of the 5th story drawn so adding the 6th seemed prudent even though I wasn't quite ready to reduce the number of frames in the 5th from 8 to 7. I need to wait until the frames are almost completely drawn before making that adjustment. Why? It helps the bees to develop the comb the way that I want instead of letting them get creative on there own.

As for the 4th story of Galway, the one that I did reduce from 8 to 7 frames, the bees have drawn it out completely and beautifully. That extra space between the frames has been filled with comb and that comb has been filled with nectar but it is not yet ready for harvesting. The bees are still drying it out.

When it became apparent that I would be harvesting some honey this year, I began searching in earnest for extracting and bottling equipment. And I've been toying around with label designs. Of course, when you design a label these days, you need to have your website listed -- so that got me thinking about creating a website for honey sales.

It just keeps going. And I keep going with the flow.

I've made my equipment choices and reserved my website. I've set up an account with Google for use with Google Checkout so I can offer honey for sale on line. I'll be doing the same with Paypal. The label is still a work in progress but it's coming.

In my next post, which I've started, I'll detail the equipment I selected and the reasons why. But I think at this point it's important for me to say that I don't really plan on getting into the honey business as a money making venture but I do want to thoroughly explore all the various facets of this fascinating new hobby.

Saturday, July 31, 2010


I awoke this morning to temperatures in the 40's -- upper 40's yes, but still there was a hint of summer losing its grip.

Where once there were millions of bachelor buttons slowly unfurling in pinkish purple plumes, now the fresh blooms have dwindled and spent blooms bring a deepening brown shade to the meadow. So have most of the daisies given up their petals.

The black-eyed susans linger, their petals tinged in a tired white; the goldenrod is coming on strong and the Queen Anne's Lace is everywhere.

Summer has matured -- too soon for me but the bees are unfazed. I walked slowly through the meadow to see what they were up to. Bachelor Buttons were still the flower of choice. Good to the last drop, I guess.

I've never really paid so much attention to the plant life in the meadow. I have a lot to learn about what blooms when and what the bees like and what they don't. It seems they are no longer interested in the Queen Anne's Lace. Too bad -- we have plenty. I hear they really like goldenrod so we should be in good shape for the rest of the summer.

This morning I took a picture of a bee on a Bachelor Button -- nothing special and yet it seemed so special to me. The flower was tucked under the meadow canopy, hidden from everything but the honey bee and the dappled sunlight. It was in its final show of beauty as evidenced by its loosening petals. So too was the visiting bee an aging forager as evidenced by her tattered wings.

Two ordinary living things -- and a third -- unnoticed except by each other and the dappled sunlight -- a sacrifice to something sacred.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010


It's been a few weeks since my last post. I was out of commission for awhile but the bees haven't been.

On Saturday, I checked on Clare and the population was up, the 3rd story was close to fully drawn and things looked good. I added a 4th story and pulled the feeder.

In Galway things were that much better. The 4th story was fully drawn and loaded with uncapped honey.

I pulled one of the frames and used some homemade frame spacers to evenly space the remaining seven frames in the 8 frame hive body. Why? Nothing is ever simple but the reason in a nutshell is that it makes it easier to harvest the honey. It has to do with leveraging something called "bee space." Here's how it works.

Bee space is the space between comb and parts of the bee hive that allow a bee to pass through. It measures 1/4" to 3/8". If anything in the hive violates bee space, the bees will fill it with comb if it exceeds the 3/8 inch or glue it shut with propolis if it is less than 1/4 inch. Propolis is a resinous mixture that honey bees collect from tree buds, sap flows, or other botanical sources.

So by giving a little extra space beyond the standard 3/8-inch spacing between the frames, the bees will draw out the existing comb further and fill it with more honey, thus closing the space between frames back to within bee space. When they cap the honeycomb, the caps will protrude beyond the wooden edges of the frame. This will make it easier to remove the caps with a capping knife when it comes time to harvest the honey.

After rearranging the 7 frames of the 4th story, I took the frame I pulled and used it as one of the frames of the 5th story. This will encourage the bees to move up and begin drawing the comb in the new addition.

We finally got some rain over the last week. That should keep things blooming. The lack of rain in the weeks prior had kept me from having to mow the lawn. Maureen would take issue with that -- she's been "encouraging" me to mow. I look at the lawn full of clover and these little yellow flowers that the bees love and I am conflicted. It gets crazy, doesn't it? So now I mow at night when the bees aren't foraging. And I mow as infrequently as possible. And people keep commenting on how nice the lawn looks. Seems like I've struck a balance. I think Maureen would agree albeit reluctantly.

One last thing before I close regarding Queen Anne's Lace. We've all seen that beautiful weed blooming all over the roadsides and meadows. I wondered if the bees liked it so I went looking yesterday and found that they do. I brought up the topic with a fellow beekeeper and she asked if I was sure the bees were working the flowers or just curious about them. It seemed to me they were working them but I did some web research to see what I could find.

I was surprised to learn that Queen Anne's Lace is also known as wild carrot and that its taproot is indeed an edible carrot. My grandmother probably knew it but I never did. Oh, and yes, the bees like its nectar.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

So Why Bees?

The question I get asked most often about my new hobby is "Why?" Sometimes, they ask it as a two part question: "Are you crazy? Why would you ever get bees?" Then there's the approach that implies the question and suggests an answer: "Well, that's one good way to get out of hosting family parties!"

Well, we're still hosting plenty of family parties and the hives have become part of the attraction, creating a serene view from the back patio into the meadow. So that's not the answer.

When my daughter Kara heard the question posed she responded quickly and confidently "I know why!!" I couldn't wait to hear the answer.

"You watch out for my glasses and I'll watch out for your bees."

I knew immediately what she was referring to and smiled to think of it. Years ago I was out on the tractor mowing the yard. I had a new pair of prescription glasses in my shirt pocket. At some point the glasses bounced out and were somewhere in the 5.25 acres of yard. I figured I'd look out for the glasses as I continued to mow.

As I mowed and closely examined the yard I became very much aware of all the bees on the wildflowers that I was mowing down. I slowed the tractor and tried to let the bees get out of the way. And then I made the deal: "You watch out for my glasses and I'll watch out for your bees."

For the rest of the 4 hour job I focused on not mowing down any bees. It made the job longer but much more interesting. At the end of the job, I hit a bump that knocked something loose. I stopped the tractor and there on the ground were my glasses. The frames were a bit twisted but I straightened them and wore them for years. And to this day I brake for bees.

Over our 10 years here in the Meadowlands we have slowly allowed more and more yard to revert back to meadow. We've spread wildflower seed to help things along. And over those years, we've become more in tune with the life in the meadow: the bluebirds and tree swallows, goldfinch and robins, the red winged blackbirds and black capped chickadees; the hawks and the meadow mice, rabbits and woodchucks and the occasional visitors like fox and pheasant. I'd like to see more of them.

So why any of that?

It seems it comes down to an awareness of loss; an awareness of my own mortality and a need in me to embrace that mortality and to engage life; to rediscover the wonder I knew as a child.

It's funny. When I plant a tree now I wonder who will be enjoying its shade. It's not morbid -- it's simply true. I don't dwell on it nor does it discourage me from planting trees. On the contrary, I smile to think of it and probably plant more trees because of it.

I'm putting the brakes on this explanation. I'd end up writing a book. Suffice it to say that life has tenderized me -- worn me down and built me up again into something different. The new me likes feeling at one with his surroundings. Being a beekeeper makes sense to that new more tender me.

A tender -- there's a gentleness to it that I like. I am not so much a beekeeper as a bee tender. And come to think of it, that isn't a bad way to live. Bee tender.

Feel the hug.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Added My First Honey Super

Things were looking good in both the colonies today. Clare was showing strong signs of making a comeback and Galway was busting at the seams.

I may still need to give Clare some help but things are going well enough that I am comfortable giving it a few weeks longer before making that determination.

The new feeding method is working beautifully. There have been no drownings. It's easy to service and refill the feeders without smoking the hives and there is better ventilation in the hives because the upper entrance isn't blocked.

I added a third hive body to Clare today. The second story still wasn't quite as full as it should have been but things seem so busy now I wanted to make sure they had the room when they needed it. I did see capped brood, eggs and larvae in Clare and there seemed to be more bees in a more active state than in my last visit to the hive.

In Galway, all 8 frames of the third story were almost fully drawn. As I inspected the frames I was surprised and delighted by the weight of each one. They were laden with honey and it was much more difficult to separate the frames than when everything was new and clean just a couple of weeks before. There was a sticky, thick abundance to the hive that shouted "Life is good!"

I added a fourth story to Galway and pulled the feeder. The colony is strong enough and there is enough of a flow on for the bees to draw the frames of the fourth story without supplemental feeding. And the honey they store in these frames I can harvest!

I hope everyone has a wonderful holiday weekend. Mine is off to a great start!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Back on Track

One full week and nary a drowned bee. I've converted the feeders in both hives to a homemade setup based on something I read from another beekeeper in a beekeeping forum. The new method of feeding allows me to check the feeders every day without disturbing the hives.

Galway is thriving. Four of the third story frames are already drawn. I could be adding a fourth story by the end of next week. When I do add the fourth story, I will pull the feeder from that hive because that level will be for storing honey for harvest.

Clare is a different story. It is not thriving, rather it seems to be merely surviving. It still has only 4 frames of the second story drawn. The bees seem to have stopped drawing new comb and are simply reusing existing frames. There was capped brood and larvae. I'd like to say whether or not there were eggs but my eyes are still having a tough time picking them up.

I did not see the queen but I wasn't really looking for her. Rather, I was looking at the brood pattern, pollen stores, and general condition of the frames. There were no queen cells on any of the frames and the bees seemed calm enough but things just didn't seem quite right.

Now that I've got the feeder issue squared away I'm going to give them a bit more time and see how things go. Clare had the bad drowning problem and they may need more time to recover. Up until the drowning issue both hives were performing almost identically.

I'm going to ask around and see if I can get an experienced beekeeper to help me with the next inspection of Clare. There may be some things I can do to give the colony a boost like grabbing a frame or two of brood from Galway but I'd prefer getting insight from someone more experienced before taking that action. I'll keep you posted.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Feeder woes continue

The good news is that the colonies continue to grow. The bad news is that bees continue to drown in the hive top feeders.

I was quite discouraged on Friday when I opened Clare and found many more dead bees in the hive top feeder. I decided to pull both the feeders and come up with a system which would not allow pooling of the syrup to occur.

In one hive (Galway), I used the baggie approach but set the baggie directly on the frames as shown in the picture above. The bees feed through a slit cut in the top of the bag. I have read much information on this technique and it is supposedly quite reliable. Still, it makes me uneasy because it seems that if enough bees were on the baggie they could weigh down the edge of the slit and pooling could occur in the center of the baggie. I am lifting the cover of the hive once a day to check and make sure this has not occurred.

I am far more comfortable with the approach I used in Clare which was to place entrance feeders directly on the frames. The entrance feeders use mason jars with small holes drilled in the lids. The surface tension of the syrup offers little droplets of syrup through these holes which the bees feed on. The syrup does not leak because there is no venting of the jar, thus a vacuum is created.
Even if these feeders were to leak there would be no place for the syrup to pool, rather it would run down through the frames and out the screened bottom of the hive. And refilling these feeders is simple -- just swap out the jars.

Entrance feeders, as the name suggests, are designed to be used at the entrance to the hive. But when used at the entrance the syrup sits in the sun which shortens the life of the syrup. And you can only feed so much with just one feeder at the entrance. Also, these feeders have been known to encourage robbing when used as designed.

Putting the feeders inside the hive overcomes these issues. I say this as if I am an expert on the topic -- but my expertise, as evidenced by my frustrations so far with feeder problems, comes mainly from what I've read in books, forums and online articles. I'm developing a healthy skepticism about what I read. I'm tending toward using frequent visual verification of what should be happening. I'll let you know how it goes.

If the entrance feeders perform up to expectations then I will switch Galway over to them as well. I'll have to place an order for a few more feeders and lids before I can make that change.

With the new feeding techniques, I've added an empty hive body to cover the feed. I wasn't ready to be doing this so the hive bodies were not painted. I'll paint up a few and replace them.

On the plus side, I added a third story to Galway this week. I'd probably be doing the same for Clare if I had not drowned so many bees there. Things look good in both hives but Galway is coming along more quickly. More good news -- things are blooming all over the meadow. There is heavy clover and the rains have been coming soft and nicely spaced keeping things well fed without disturbing the bees foraging too much. I'm hoping things really begin to take off.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Feeder troubles

When you're just getting a colony established you need to feed the bees regularly to give them the resources they need to build all the new honeycomb for their new home in addition to all their regular activities of brood raising and honey producing. They could do it on their own with what they gather naturally but they may not develop the hive fast enough to be strong enough to survive their first winter.

What do you feed the bees? It's a simple syrup made from equal parts of water and granulated sugar. There are many methods for delivering this syrup and I've been through 3 of these methods in the last few days.

Up until Friday I had been using a hive top feeder on both the Clare and Galway colonies but over the last couple of inspections I started finding dead bees in Clare's feeder. There was no problem in Galway and the feeders are identical.

When I first saw the dead bees in the feeder a few weeks ago I thought I might have left the upper entrance to the hive open and that a robbing situation had occurred. Robbing is when bees try to steal honey and/or syrup from another colony which results in fights to the death as the bees defend their stores.

That could have explained the first instance but I wouldn't have left the upper entrance open again immediately afterward. Still, last Friday when I inspected Clare there were hundreds of dead bees in the feeder. In Galway there was only one. It seemed Clare's bees were drowning in the syrup. Something had to be done.

I tried using an entrance feeder but after a day it seemed it was leaking which would attract unwelcome visitors to the hive. So today I tried something different: a Ziploc storage bag filled with syrup. The bag rests in the feeder. I cut a slit on the top of the bag so that the syrup rises up to the slit but is still contained in the bag. The bees stand on the baggie and the slit acts as a trough for serving up the syrup.

We'll see how this technique goes. I'll check the hive on Friday and let you know.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Local club meeting

On Friday I did the hive inspections. It was hot and I decided to limit my inspections to a quick examination of the second stories and a refilling of the feeders.

If the first colony to start drawing comb in the second story is an indication of colony strength then Galway is outperforming Clare. This surprises me because Galway had always seemed a little behind Clare. Even the activity outside the hive had always seemed a little busier at Clare.

It was the Galway colony that was installed a few days after Clare because we had to wait for a new queen. But as of Friday, Galway had started work on the two middle frames of the second story and in Clare nothing had been done in the upper hive body. Still, both colonies seemed healthy and active. And the weather forecast indicates they should have plenty of opportunity to forage and strengthen in the week ahead.

On Saturday I attended our local beekeeping club meeting. We were supposed to be installing the club hive but the guy supplying the bees didn't make it. Apparently he had a graduation to attend. You'd think that would have brought an end to the meeting in very short order but it lasted for about 4 hours and was very informative.

The meeting was held at the home of two of our club members, Bob Grajewski and Sue Garing. The day and the setting were picture perfect.

We had an opportunity to do inspections of a number of Bob and Sue's hives. They had inserted drone frames in the hives as a trap for mites. The mites like to use the drone cells for breeding because drones take a few days longer to develop than worker bees. So frames are inserted with drone cells. The mites settle in to the drone brood. The beekeeper comes along and removes the drone frames and freezes them -- killing the mites (and yes, the developing drones -- but in the bee world drones are often expendable.)

Of course, before you can take the frames you have to remove the bees that are tending to them. An examination of this drone frame proved worthwhile in that the queen was spotted on it. She was gently removed by hand and lowered into the hive before the rest of the bees were given the shake down.

All in all, it was a very worthwhile meeting topped off by finding and capturing a swarm as the meeting was drawing to a close. When the club president just happened to notice the swarm of bees on a nearby bush it reminded me of a line from an old Chevy Chase movie: "Queue the deer." If you haven't seen the movie Funny Farm, check it out. Good flick. Anyway, this swarm seemed to show up at the perfect time as if on queue. It was a great finish to an eventful meeting.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

It was a long, cold week

I couldn't believe it when I awoke to snow on Sunday morning. There was no accumulation but it did leave a powder white coating on the roof of my house for most of the morning. The next few days were cold and windy and rainy. There was no chance for the girls to get into the field and do any pollen or nectar gathering until Thursday.

I was regretting not using pollen patties to supplement the syrup I was feeding them. In fact, I bought some pollen patties but it was so cold that I didn't want to open the hives to get it to them. Pollen patties are a mixture of real pollen and pollen substitute which provides the bees with some protein, vitamins and minerals. Normally of course, they'd get this naturally as a part of their foraging. And they won't eat the patties when the real deal is available.

I did end up cutting up a patty and setting a piece right at the entrance to each hive. I also reduced the hive entrance to keep the wind and cold out.

Things warmed up on Thursday and there was healthy amount of activity at the hive. Normally, I would have done my hive inspection then but because they had such a rough week I figured I'd give them a day to recover.

As I watched the activity at the hive entrance on Thursday and Friday it seemed like many of the bees were doing orientation flights. In orientation flights the bees seem to fly in circles around the front of the hive, orienting themselves to the landmarks which enables them to find their way home from foraging.

Of course, after all the lousy weather they were probably doing a combination of orientation and cleansing flights. In "cleansing flights" bees take short flights to "go to the bathroom." They can hold it for quite awhile which during the winter it is often necessary to do.

I can hear some curious kid asking so here's the rest of the story. Sometimes during the winter, if they don't get a day above 45 degrees for more than a month... well, when ya gotta go, ya gotta go. You know how it is. Right kid? Everything gets cleaned up and put back in order in the spring.

Anyway, back to Friday and the hive inspection. I think I must have been in shock on the previous inspection when the whole section of comb fell on top of the hive. I say this because when I opened Clare on Friday things were not as I had remembered them last week.

No work had been done in the new hive body I had added so I pulled that off and examined the lower section. It looked busy and healthy but the frames were not drawn as I had noted in my posting last week. Specifically, neither frames 1 nor 2 were drawn. Had the bees undone their work or had I imagined what they looked like last Thursday? I must have imagined it.

I'm guessing the bees must have devoted much of their attention to keeping the brood warm during the cold spell and not much attention to drawing comb. I'm also thinking that when I added the hive body and then the cold weather hit I had inadvertently isolated the bees from the hive top feeder. They'd have to move from the well developed and warmer lower hive body up through the undeveloped and probably quite cold 2nd story to the feeder on top. Not much syrup was consumed during the past week which suggests they had a problem getting to it.

The section of comb I had wired to an empty frame was intact and actively being worked by the bees. There was an abundance of capped brood but not much pollen or nectar. They may have been living off that for the past week.

Conditions in Galway were comparable to Clare: lot's of capped brood, little pollen or nectar and not much syrup consumed. It was a tough week for the bees.

Here's hoping for a nice stretch of warm weather and maybe next week we can catch catch the emergence of some new bees from all that beautiful capped brood!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Houston, we've had a problem

If you recall from our last episode, Clare had some issues with comb where the queen cage had been wedged between the frames. The comb was dangling from the top bar. I didn't remove the frame last week because it looked like the comb would fall right off. I thought the bees might repair it once I pulled the queen cage and in the interim I would seek out some expert advice.

I searched the books high and low, I searched the online forums. I came up empty. I decided not to bother any of the local beekeepers because we had our first stretch of nice weather and I knew they would have their hands full. Any help would most likely have required on site assistance because I didn't have any good pictures of the problem from my last hive inspection.

Today I went back into the hive to see what the bees had been up to. I was determined to get a good look at that problem frame and at least get some pictures so I could take them to a local beekeeper for a review.

At first glance it was obvious the bees had made great progress over the past week. The 8th frame (at the farthest edge of the hive body) hadn't been worked yet but the seventh was almost fully drawn (meaning the bees had built honeycomb cells on it for storing brood, honey, etc.) The 6th and 5th frames were fully drawn and had capped comb.

Then came the problem frame which should have been number 4 but in fact was 4 plus an extra as shown in the picture above. The bees had used the space created by the queen cage to build 2 sections of comb attached to the same frame.

As I slowly turned the frame to examine it closely the extra section of comb broke free from frame and landed on the top of the hive.

I was knee-deep in it now. No time to go hunting for experts. The bees had spent 18 days investing in this comb and the loss of that investment could doom the colony.

I decided the best approach would be to take the foundation out of the number 8 frame and try to attach this section of comb to the empty frame. I had wired the frame so if I could just press the comb into the wires it might support it well enough.

I hung the #4 frame on the support and went to work. I positioned the empty frame around the comb and pressed down but the wires were not penetrating enough so I put one hand under the comb and gently pressed upward. The bees on the underside of the comb were not particularly fond of my fingers pushing them and their comb and one of the bees let me know about it. My first sting while working in the hive. I barely felt it and continued on.

As I tried to bring the comb to an upright position in the frame it felt like it might break apart. I needed more support.

I ran down to the garage and grabbed a roll of framing wire to loop around the frame at a couple points to keep the comb in the frame. Then with the hive tool I trimmed off the excess comb at the bottom so that the bottom edge of the comb fit snugly on the bottom of the frame.

It looked pretty good or at least much better than I had found it. Hopefully my beginner's mistakes do not cost the colony too dearly.

So frame 8 was out and what was frame 7 became frame 8 as everything was shifted over. And the "extra" frame became frame 5. I was fortunate that frame 8 had not been worked and was available for this emergency because frame 1 at the other end of the hive had already been drawn. Otherwise, I would have had 9 frames in an 8 frame hive body.

There's plenty more to tell about today's hive inspection. I haven't yet touched on Galway but the good news is that the girls seem happy and they are doing what they are supposed to do even as I stumble.

Both Clare and Galway are doing well enough that I added a second hive body to each hive. Matt asked how tall they would get. Hopefully they'll get 4 stories high before the end of the season. The first 3 stories are for the bees. They need enough stores to make it through the winter. I can harvest the honey from frames in any hive body beyond those first 3 stories.


Friday, April 30, 2010

Apple Blossom Time

It's the first really beautiful day for the bees and I was delighted to see lots of action at the hives. I went looking for the girls in action in the meadow and was surprised that they were so difficult to find. You'd think that with about 25,000 bees that every flower would be covered with them.

I found that it was easier to listen than to look for them. They are quite loud in the stillness of the meadow. It was very relaxing, dare I say spiritual; the birds singing and the bees buzzing about.

I noticed something else. I was walking more carefully being more observant of where I was stepping. I am beginning to see a benefit to beekeeping that I hadn't considered - a deeper appreciation of the life around me.

I did manage to find some action in the yard and was very happy to see the bees had found my apple blossoms.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Inspecting the Hives

Late this afternoon I performed my first full inspection of both hives. I started with Clare and then moved on to Galway. Yes, I decided my second hive which is north of Clare should be named Galway.

I was hoping to see a thriving colony when I opened Clare. I was very disappointed. There was little foundation drawn and it seemed the most extensive comb in the hive body was barely attached to the top of a frame. It was not drawn from the foundation rather it was flimsily attached to the top bar. It was at the location where the queen cage was suspended. I think we left too much room between frames when we put in the queen cage and the bees decided to create their own comb rather than build on the foundation on the frame.

Again, this was a situation I was ill prepared for. You can read and read and watch Youtube videos galore but there's nothing like the real world to quickly show you how little you know. Should I pull that comb and push the frames together forcing the bees to draw out the foundation? Maybe. But maybe the bees could attach the comb more securely and work with it as it was. This after all was a brood chamber. I wouldn't be trying to extract honey from that frame. I decided to let the bees have their way for the time being and I would seek more advice from the experts. Maybe I can get an expert out to check on this hive which has thrown me 2 curves in 2 visits.

I verified that the queen was released from her cage then pulled the cage, pushed the frames as close together as I could get them without crushing any bees then closed up the hive after adding more syrup to the hive top feeder. On to Galway.

Everything seemed more like I had studied when I opened Galway. If you recall, this colony was installed 4 days after Clare because the original queen was dead on arrival and I had to wait for a replacement queen. I checked the queen cage. She had been released. I pulled the queen cage from where I had it pressed against the foundation with a rubber band. The foundation wax came with it leaving a gash for the bees to repair (photo at top.)

I pulled each of the frames and examined them closely looking for eggs in the wax cells the bees had created on the foundation. There will come a time when I marvel at such a sight -- but for now I was more relieved that it seemed me and the bees were getting things right. I couldn't find any eggs in the drawn foundation -- but not to worry. I was only at day 10 with this colony. It can take the queen a bit of time to get going. I'll check again in about a week.

Hopefully the warm weather is here to stay. Upper 70's tomorrow. Dandelions everywhere. It should be bee heaven. Maybe I'll get a little luck of the Irish for naming the colonies Galway and Clare. Then again, Murphy is Irish as well and I am all too familiar with Murphy's Law.

If you'd like to see all the photos from today's inspection check out

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Opening the hive

Last Friday I opened the hive we have decided to call "Clare" (after the county in western Ireland.) We haven't named the queen yet, because we have yet to confirm that she is performing her queenly duties.

It was windy on Friday and there should be little or no wind when you open the hive. So why did I open it? I was going away for the weekend and wanted to make sure there was enough syrup to keep the bees well fed.

I was surprised to find so many bees clinging to the underside of the inner cover. I expected the bees to be down on the frames. My first week as a new beekeeper and already a circumstance that I was unsure of how to address. I decided not to open the hive any further thinking the bees may have moved upward in the hive because of wind and low temperatures. Matt poured more syrup in the feeder and I replaced the cover.

The low temperatures this week have kept me from re-entering the hive to check on the queen. I did discuss the circumstances I found at the hive with a couple of experienced beekeepers and they said the bees looked strong and that they may already need a 2nd story on the hive. They said to just remove the feeder and brush the bees from under the inner cover down on the top bars of the hive and remove the comb they had drawn on the inner cover.

That's what is on the agenda for tomorrow weather permitting. I will also be making my first inspection of the other hive I installed last Tuesday. I haven't decided on a name for that hive yet but I'm leaning toward "Kerry." I'll name it upon it's first inspection.
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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The New Queen

I contacted Brushy Mountain Bee Farm on Monday about the dead queen I received with one of my packages. Joan called me later that afternoon and told me they had sent a replacement queen via express mail and to contact her when I received the package to ensure they were alive and well ("they" being the queen and her attendants of course.)

At about 10:30 this morning I get a call from the postmaster at the main post office in Binghamton asking me if I was expecting a delivery of live bees. "Yes, I am!" I told him. "Well, they're here. Do you want us to deliver them or do you want to pick them up?" "I'll pick them up and save you the trouble."

I didn't know what to expect when I got to the post office. How do they ship a replacement queen? I was surprised when I got to the window and they presented me with a standard express mail envelope with some holes punched in it. "I hope they're alive." I remarked to the woman at the window. "I won't be opening them to check!" she replied with a smile. I opened the envelope as soon as I got outside. Uh oh. All the bees seemed crammed at the candy end of the queen cage. And nothing was moving. "Not again!" I thought.

But wait a minute ... a little warmth, a little sunshine and the bees started moving. All occupants of the candy plugged cage seemed alive and well. I put the cage in my shirt pocket and headed for home.

I had been keeping the package of bees in my basement while awaiting the replacement queen. Twice a day I'd spray them down with a slightly above room temperature simple syrup mixture to keep them calm and well fed. They seemed in good shape when I retrieved them from the basement and headed up the hill toward their new home. I asked my son, Matt, to grab the camera and photograph my first solo installation of a colony of bees.

It was a beautiful day with a temperature in the upper 50's -- a far cry from the near freezing conditions on Saturday. The installation was a breeze. Matt did a great job of capturing the action which I captioned and posted in an online album.

A perfect day. Two healthy and happy bee colonies. The dandelions are in bloom. Life is good!

(I just discovered that you can embed a slideshow right in the blog. Below are Matt's photos)

Monday, April 19, 2010

Busy bees

So it's about 53 degrees this afternoon and the bees are very active. I'm not used to this, so I am a little concerned to watch for a situation known as "robbing" which happens when other bees home in on a weak colony and raid their food supply (in this case, the sugar syrup I am feeding the colony.) I watched them closely for a few minutes and although they were very active, there seemed no sense of frenzy, no fighting that I could see which is evidence of robbing. Perhaps they are orienting themselves to their new home in the meadow.
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Sunday, April 18, 2010


It came late and it didn't warm things up much, but things finally started looking up on Sunday afternoon. The temperature did reach about 50 and I did see some activity at the hive entrance -- the first activity I'd seen since installing the package yesterday afternoon.
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A New Beekeeper

Today I am a beekeeper. Actually, I kept bees for the 1st time yesterday. That's when I drove to New Columbia, PA, about 2 hours southwest of me here in upstate NY and picked up 2 packages of bees. A 'package' consists of 3 pounds of bees and a queen. They come in a little screened in box all clumped together around a can of simple syrup suspended from the top of the box. There are small holes in the can which allow the bees access to the life-sustaining syrup until they are installed in their new homes -- in this case, 2 brand new garden hives in my backyard.

When I put the bees in the backseat of my car and started the drive home I was surprised at this awareness that came over me. There were living creatures traveling with me. These bees were in my care. It was a strange feeling.

When we arrived home, it was time to install the bees. Bob, an experienced beekeeper from Kirkwood was there to assist me. We opened the first package and removed the queen cage (the queen is in a separate box inside the main box.) Bob examined the queen cage and gave me the bad news. "This queen is dead." It doesn't happen often, a package with a dead queen, but it happens. We closed the package up and moved to the next package. This queen was alive and well and we installed the bees in their new home. The other package with the dead queen we took back to the house. It's in a cool, dark place in my basement and I've sprayed it down with some sugar syrup a couple times. I left a message with the bee supplier and will contact them again on Monday to make sure they expedite getting a new queen to me.

It's been cold since yesterday. I wonder which colony has it worse -- the one in their new home in the backyard or the one in the warmer spot in my basement? Time will tell. But when I awoke this morning, I was thinking about and caring for my bees. I guess that truly makes me a beekeeper.