The path to honey

The path to honey is a long and arduous one. Arguably it starts in September after you’ve extracted your summer honey. Then the beekeeper can treat for varroa and prepare the colony for winter. As the cold nights draw in mouse-guards go on, insulation can be put in the roof and the long wait to see whether the bees will survive winter begins.

Come spring, if all goes to plan and your bees have emerged healthy and well, you may be able to put supers on in April or May. The bees fly high and far, gathering nectar wherever they can. You inspect and wait, making sure the queen is laying and preventing any swarms occurring.

Finally, after much heavy lifting, stings, breaking of nails, splinters, sweat and pain, hopefully the bees have managed to fill and cap a super(s). Now is honey time. But your efforts are not over yet. In fact, some of the worst times are still to come – do any beekeepers really genuinely enjoy honey extraction?

Honey frame before uncapping

The job that faces you first (at least for frames built from foundation) is to uncap the heavy honey frames, using a knife or uncapping fork. This is best done in hot weather (to help the honey flow) in a room with all the windows closed (to stop the bees and wasps coming to get their honey back).

Frames ready to uncap

Here’s the resulting wax cappings. These can be given back to the bees to clean up and then turned into candles or wax blocks afterwards. Ideally nothing goes to waste. The heady, almost boozy scent of the honey rises around you. A few licks are all it takes to start feeling slightly sick from the sweetness. I understand why bees go into a robbing frenzy if honey is spilt around the hives – it’s an enveloping, intoxicating smell. Your hands are covered with gooey, sticky honey by this point – probably along with your clothes, the floor and everything around you.
Wax cappings

Once you’ve uncapped the honey, now you can spin it out. Last year we got to this stage and put the frames in Emma’s extractor, only to find nothing came out. We had extremely stubborn, viscous honey. It must have been thixotropic, which means that it becomes temporarily fluid when shaken or stirred but a gel again when left standing. We got all sorts of sceptical looks from other beekeepers who hadn’t experienced this when we told them about it! People kept asking whether we’d uncapped the frames properly or said we weren’t putting enough welly in (despite it being an electric extractor which span faster than any human!).

In the end Emma had to stir each cell individually with a sterilised key to get it to flow out – see her post, ‘How to extract honey too thick to spin out of a perfectly good extractor‘.

This year my allotment honey was a dark, rich brown. Would it spin out?

Two uncapped allotment frames

Allotment honey uncapped

Much to our relief, the answer was yes. We took turns cranking the handle around, with Emma’s boyfriend John joining in at one point too. A tiring job but at least we could see results as the honey gradually built up at the bottom of the extractor. We drained the extractor after every super of frames, as it can only be used whilst on the floor and then must be lifted up onto a surface so that the honey can flow into a container below. If you extract too much honey before draining it, the extractor will be extremely heavy/impossible to lift!

Oozing honey from extractor

The honey you can see oozing out above is lighter honey from our apiary hives. Emma has some more photos of the extraction at http://missapismellifera.com/2015/07/25/a-beekeepers-notes-for-july/

The job is not over yet, as the honey must be filtered through a sieve to remove wax particles before finally being bottled. I hope this post conveys some of the work hobby beekeepers go through to produce honey and explains why local honey costs more than the mass produced supermarket kind, which has been churned together from multiple hives and sometimes even from colonies in several different countries. This process, in combination with intense micro-filtering and pasteurisation by heating, usually results in a loss of flavour.

By the way I’d be interested in hearing from other beekeepers as to how you store your honey. I saw keeping it in a fridge or freezer recommended in a magazine this month, as at under 4.5°C granulation stops. Have you ever done this? And what did your family think about the fridge or freezer being full of honey?!

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Book review – Do beekeeping/The secret to happy honeybees by Orren Fox (2015)

The Do Book Company publish books designed to help you learn something new and motivate you to do it. Other books in their series include ‘Do Sourdough’, ‘Do improvise’ and ‘Do grow’. They gave me this book to review – one of the perks of being a beekeeper is you occasionally get free books about beekeeping!
The secret to happy honey bees cover

I was impressed when the book arrived, as it is beautifully laid out, with lots of colour photos, pencil drawings and recipes. It also has that fresh new book smell!

The publicity blurb says:

“By sharing the journey of 18-year-old beekeeper Orren Fox – who clearly remembers what it’s like to be a rookie – you’ll discover that keeping your own honeybees is easier than you think. Find out:

  • How and where to set up your hive
  • The tools and equipment you need to get started
  • The job of inspecting the hive
  • How and when to harvest your honey

With delicious honey-based recipes shared by talented and resourceful chefs and cooks, including Honey & Co., you’ll learn all about bees and their inspiring world of work and honey production. And may even be tempted to buy your first bee suit.”

Things I liked about the book:

1) Orren Fox obviously has a huge amount of enthusiasm and love for bees. He has put that into the book so that the wonder of bees themselves takes centre stage.

2) He tells us lots of amusing and atmospheric beekeeping anecdotes which would give newbies an insight into what it’s like being a beekeeper. His writing is quite poetic, for instance his honey tastes like “apples, peaches and the Atlantic Ocean”.

3) Though Orren is from the U.S., effort has been put into updating the book for the British market, with references made to the UK notifiable diseases and bee inspectors.

4) The book has been well edited and spell-checked, with no obvious grammatical errors or typos (unlike some beekeeping books in my collection). It’s been professionally done and well put together.

5) There are practical and realistic tips, for instance Orren prepares his readers for bees being a money commitment which you might take a few years to earn back through honey sales. He also takes a gentle approach to his bees, carefully using a bee brush to move the bees out of the way before replacing boxes.

Things I wasn’t so keen on:

There are some sections of the book which I feel are misleading, puzzling or omit important information. For example, page 15 says “The queen is rather easy to find in a hive due to her size”. Hmm, that must be why I have sometimes had to go through a hive multiple times before finding the queen amongst her 40,000+ daughters. Easy? I wish! She could do with being a bit bigger – perhaps the size of a hamster or even a small hedgehog.

Page 16 says “Workers live for the smallest amount of time, just over a month” – this is true of the summer workers busy at their nursing and foraging duties, but not of autumn-born bees, who can live for several months through the winter until early spring.

Page 33 says about wax foundation super frames that “they don’t last beyond one harvest, while the plastic sheets last for many seasons.”  I don’t know what Orren is doing to his frames as most beekeepers I know use their drawn-out wax super frames for several years!

Page 41 has a photo of blackened gauntlets – the most unhygienic gloves possible, which he admits have become gradually covered with propolis, wax and honey, so that his bees have become more and more attracted to them and cover his gloves during inspections. This doesn’t sound like a good thing! His hive tools also look like they could do with a good clean with some washing soda.

Conclusions

This would make a nice present for someone interested in honey bees and who wants to find out more about what beekeeping is like. It’s a nice light read without getting too overwhelming; I can imagine a non-beekeeper reading it for pleasure – which I can’t say about Ted Hooper’s Guide to bees and honey, excellent though it is!

It isn’t a book which a beginner could rely on to see them through their first season or that a more experienced beekeeper could learn anything new from. I say this because there is only one page on varroa mites and one on swarming. So a fun book for a non-beekeeper wanting to find out more about beekeeping, but not the only one they should read before getting bees!

You can find Orren on Facebook, on Twitter at @happyhoneybees and on his blog at http://happychickenslayhealthyeggs.blogspot.co.uk – by the way he has a fascinating post about going beekeeping in Nepal.

About Orren Fox

 

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The beauty of bees

This weekend I have been thinking about how lucky I am to have access to the inner world of honey bees. I must have seen inside hundreds of different hives by now, but I never get bored of watching the bees. There is always some small detail that fascinates me, like one worker sticking out her proboscis to feed another, or a bee with glowing red propolis beads clinging to her legs, or a multi-coloured frame of pollen hexagons that reminds me of a stained glass window.

Brood frame containing honey

At this time of year the honey vaults are particularly impressive. Lacking a queen in their brood box for a month has led to Andromeda’s ladies packing the brood frames with wall-to-wall honey. See how perfectly smooth and white the wax cappings are! And now imagine how impossibly heavy I find their brood box to lift. A frame like this weighs something like 5 pounds (2.2kg) and there are eleven frames in the brood box. They won’t all be that packed with honey but still I can imagine the brood box could easily weigh about 40 pounds (18kg) upwards now.

With some complicated juggling around of frames and spare boxes I did manage to inspect both Andromeda’s brood boxes and came to the depressing conclusion that either they’ve killed her or she’s just not laying. After finding her in the super and then moving her down into the brood box last weekend I had such high hopes of coming along yesterday and finding some lovely new frames of eggs and larvae. Instead there are three new supersedure cells. I have left them to it, I doubt they have plans to swarm this late in the season. Just hope they can produce a mated queen from one as some colonies are already beginning to kick their drones out.

Emma inspecting a super frame

Above is Emma inspecting a similarly delightful but smaller frame of honey in Melissa’s super.

Bees on natural comb

Due to the various distractions of life and general absent mindedness, we had accidentally left a space in Melissa’s super as well as Pepper’s. In this case they built perfectly white undulating mounds down from the crown-board, so I was able to lift this beautiful comb out and insert a frame in the space. Bees are often incredibly reluctant to leave natural comb they’re working on, so it took a lot of smoking to persuade them to move away so I could ease the comb off. It was very flexible and soft from the heat of the hive.

Bees on top of super

Above you can see the bees busy on the tops of the super frames. At this time of year inspecting is a difficult business as there are just so many damn bees. Around 50-60,000 of them. Everywhere you try to put your hands on a frame, a bee pops up. I have been finding that inspecting without gloves amongst this mass of bees concentrates the mind wonderfully. I am actually getting stung less – because I move my fingers very slowly and carefully to secure a hold amongst the bees. Before I would get stung by accidentally squashing them, but this hasn’t happened now for weeks. The catch is very sticky, mucky hands which are harder to eat cake with afterwards!

Flying bumblebee

The main summer nectar flow is probably over now that blackberry is finishing flowering, but we will still have a little from ragwort, rosebay willow herb, himalayan balsam and then ivy will be the last main nectar crop in autumn. Our focus will now turn to harvesting the honey and luckily Emma has a lovely new extractor to help with that. She has already begun spinning some of the honey out, as you can read in her post Summer surprise. The beekeeping adventures continue!

Bumblebee on pink flower

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Case of the disappearing queen: mystery solved

It is always satisfying to solve a mystery. Even when you turn out to be the culprit.

You may recall me mentioning that Queen Andromeda has been missing in action since I combined her colony with Queen Cassiopeia’s on 6th June, as poor Cassiopeia had turned out to be a drone layer. Two test frames of eggs/larvae kindly donated by Tom had resulted in no queen cells being produced – usually an indication that a satisfactory queen is already present. Yet I could find no eggs or uncapped larvae in the brood box and could not find Queen Andromeda, who had previously been a star layer.

Well, yesterday I looked in my super properly. At first it seemed to be bursting with incredibly heavy capped honey. But then – a tiny bit of worker brood on one of the frames. Could it be?… and there, climbing up a super frame with an egg emerging cheekily from her abdomen, was the elusive, much looked-for, Queen Andromeda. A face-palm moment. She has now been moved down into her rightful home, her two brood boxes.

Poppies and hives at allotments

This colony at the allotment has given me no end of trouble this year but I have learnt a few things from it:

  1. Trust the test-frame. If they don’t make queen cells from a test-frame you put in containing eggs and larvae, you can be pretty certain they already have a queen they’re happy with, even if you can’t find any evidence of her.
  2. If something goes wrong, it’s probably your fault! Beekeeper error seems to cause the majority of queen problems and indeed most beekeeping problems in general.
  3. Inspect supers more closely. I have been avoiding doing this because the bees are so tightly packed in there it’s hard to take frames out without rolling the bees and squashing them, but smoke would help with that. We have discovered a queen cell in the top of Melissa’s two supers this year!

Here’s another amusing thing we found in Melissa’s super yesterday.

Wall of comb

It’s a wall of comb. They have done away with the bottom bee space and joined the top and bottom frames in the two supers together. Such naughty bees.

Natural comb in super

Oh and here is another brilliant example of beekeeper error. This is what happens when you leave a super one frame short in the hottest week of the year. The bees fill the space in for you with a perfect comb which makes it impossible to take the super off to inspect the brood box. We will have to put bee escapes in next weekend and then harvest some cut comb the next day once all the bees have left.

Honey bee on buddleia

Meeting this sweet little honey bee was a high point of my Friday lunch break. I was walking along by some ruined roman walls, a busy walkway used by tourists and office workers. Stopping to look at pretty wildflowers growing along the walls, I noticed a honey bee crawling on the pavement. I touched her but she didn’t fly off. This concerned me as she seemed sluggish and so perhaps likely to get stepped on. I put my hand down to her and she climbed on. Cupping her gently in my hands, I carried her to this buddleia flower, as she seemed in need of sustenance.

To be honest, I think she probably died soon after I left her. She seemed barely able to move. But I was comforted that here was somewhere fragrant and peaceful for her to pass away. Better for this tired summer worker to die surrounded by the enveloping heady scent of nectar – her life’s work – than to be trodden underfoot by someone’s unseeing shoe.

Poppy with overfly

In honour of her memory, and in honour of all her hard-working nectar and pollen carrying relatives, here is a pretty poppy.

Posted in Honey, Queens | 22 Comments

A post for bee and poppy lovers

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve joined the London Beekeepers Association (LBKA) mentoring scheme this year. Today I was joined at the Perivale apiary by one of my mentees, Chris. He is doing well and spotted lots of eggs as well as queen Pepper. He also got stung for the first time, so is now properly on his way to becoming a beekeeper.

Chris inspecting 2

Queen Melissa must have given her loyal subjects orders to destroy all records, as their hive records had a distinctly chewed appearance. Perhaps she is hoping to remove all evidence of her age before her daughters decide she is getting too old. Still no sign of queen cells and the bees are well on their way to filling up a second super. They really are the most perfect bees.

Chewed hive records

I enjoyed finding Albert’s new and rather upmarket hive stand.

Posh hive stand

We inspected all three hives and found them queen-right. While Chris was inspecting he noticed that Pepper’s bees had a few cells with dead larvae in – only about ten in total spread throughout the brood box – these looked like bald brood or chalk brood but I think in such small amounts nothing to worry about. Will keep an eye on it though.

Afterwards I had some lunch with Drew and then went on my own to check on the allotment bees. When you are having a hard time in life and things are not going your way, the allotment is a good place to come for some mental healing. Our wildflowers sowed a few months ago have burst into colour, with red poppies waving everywhere. In amongst them bumbles buzzed and chirping sparrows jumped from stem to stem.

Borage and poppies

Borage and poppies

Allotment poppies

Allotment apiary

Our cherries are turning red to match the poppies.

Poppies and hives

Allotment poppies

It’s harder to be sad while watching a bumble feeding on bramble flowers.
Bumble bee on bramble

Can you see how her pollen baskets are grey but with orange coloured stripes running through them? I loved that.

Bumble bee flying from bramble

Inside the hive things were not so comforting. Sadly my troubles with the allotment bees continue, after combining the two hives on 6th June it seems something has happened to Andromeda, who had been laying so well in the nuc. No sign of eggs last weekend so Tom kindly gave me a test frame with eggs to see if the bees would try and produce a queen cell to replace her. They had done nothing with the test frame this week.

Sometimes queens stop laying if there’s not much nectar coming in, but the blackberries are out now and there’s no shortage of food in the hive. It may be that she has accidentally been squashed at some point or something went wrong when combining the two colonies. But as they haven’t tried to make a queen cell from the test frame, is either Andromeda or another queen in there somewhere but not laying for some reason? Another of these bee mysteries. All thoughts or theories welcome.

Honey super

I still inspected without gloves or smoke, but I could sense a change in mood, without the calming effect of open brood pheromones they were more buzzy and irritable than in the past. They also have more honey to defend now. Above you can see them hard at work in the super. It’s not all capped yet but all the frames have been filled and it’s mighty heavy to lift off.

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Summer visitors to the apiary

We had some fascinating visitors to the apiary on Saturday. A dad and his little boy, who we lent a mini-sized bee suit. The little boy had sandals on, so he borrowed his dad’s socks. It was sweet to see an enormous grin come over his face as he watched the bees. Putting on bee suits

We also had a couple from Bulgaria, who had driven two hours across London to visit us in the wilds of zone 4. Alexa and her boyfriend are working in London for a few months and wanted to visit British beekeepers – because they are missing their bees.

And no wonder. When I asked Alexa how many hives they have, she replied “seventy”. Yep, 70! I thought perhaps they might be professional or semi-professional beekeepers, but no… in Bulgaria they both work full-time then travel 200 miles each weekend to check up on their bees. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what beekeeping does to you. You will go absolutely barmy through love for your bees.

Emma and I inspected and found our bees doing well. The new queen which emerged from a cell after we split Pepper’s hive has begun laying. Pepper and Melissa are continuing to lay beautifully. During the seven years I’ve had Melissa’s bees, the colony has tended towards superseding rather than swarming, so it wouldn’t surprise me if they try to supersede her late in the season this year. I just hope that goes off without a hitch as we’ve been through a lot with those bees and it would be sad to lose their line of gentle, hardy, non-swarmy ladies.

There were sad times at the allotment last weekend, as Cassiopeia turned out to be a drone-layer. She had to be dispatched and the colony combined with Andromeda’s bees, using the ever reliable newspaper method. This has turned it into a monster of a hive – three brood boxes, one super (Cassiopeia was on two brood boxes as I hadn’t quite finished the Bailey comb change). My challenge for the coming weekend is to mark queen Andromeda and reduce the colony down into two brood boxes.

A few photos of flowers, a bee, a horse and a pudding to finish the post.

Bumblebee on foxglove

The bumblebee above I found in the New Forest on Sunday. I found several horses too.
New Forest horse

These little white flowers look a bit like stitchwort – are they?

White flowers

The Barbican has some spectacular alliums this year. The bees adore them.

Alliums at Southbank centre

Alliums

Bees eat flowers, I eat waffles.

Fruits of the forest waffle

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What’s flowering now: late May

It’s been a while since I’ve done a post about what’s flowering now. Today at the London Wetland Centre I found plenty of flowers, so it seemed like a good time. Most people who go to the Centre come away with photos of ducks, swans or otters, of course I managed to  get bees instead!

Carder bee on red clover

Carder bee on red clover

Red clover is just coming out now and I think this is a common carder bee, the only common UK bumblebee that is mostly brown or ginger. The first time red clover flowers it has too long a flower for a honey bee to collect the nectar, but red clover which has been cut and then grown back has a flower short enough for a honey bee to reach the nectar. Ted Hooper writes in ‘Guide to Bees and Honey‘ (5th ed, 2010) that it flowers from mid July to the end of August – which just shows how much our climate is changing.

Carder bee on red clover

Some herbs – always popular with bees – are starting to flower. These little pinky white flowers are thyme.

Bumblebee on thyme

But what bee is this? I think perhaps an Early bumblebee (Bombus pratorum). This one has a wide yellow band on its thorax, so perhaps a male? The Bumblebee Conservation Trust website says “Early bumblebees are a particularly small species and the workers are markedly smaller than other foraging worker species appearing in the springtime. Males have a broad yellow collar that wraps around the thorax, and yellow hair on the face.” Mature nests are small, often with fewer than 100 workers.

Bumblebee on borage

This blue star-like plant is borage, a great favourite with bees. Lots of creamy pollen in the baskets. As males don’t have to collect pollen, this must be a female. Another Early bumblebee?

Bumblebee on borage

Garlic chives

Garlic chives

Garlic chives. You can’t see from the photo but bees were all over these, including a magnificently huge and fluffy common Carder bee.

Dog rose

Dog roses are popular with honey bees.

Yellow flag iris

I saw all kinds of bees working the yellow flag irises that lined the watersides.

Garden poppy

I didn’t see any bees on these garden poppies but included them anyway because they’re so beautiful.

Insect hotel

A pretty impressive insect hotel.

White flower

Now, a couple of flowers I’d like help with. I keep seeing these lovely clusters of white flowers everywhere – what are they?

EDIT: Thanks LindyLou and Lucy Garden for identifying this as the UK’s native viburnum, Guelder Rose.

Pink flower

And what about this lollipop-shaped pink one? Thanks!

EDIT: Thanks LindyLou for identifying this as Bistorta officinalis, commonly known as bistort or European bistort.

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