Once again I am bee-less

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When I cracked the hive open this afternoon there were maybe a dozen bees inside doing the last of the cleanup.

Apparently my stolen bees were a nomadic race. They moved out again, and this time to parts unknown.

Sad face.

— Amanda

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Oh, honey . . .

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Honey straining out of crushed comb in the hot sun. Smells like victory!

I am harvesting honey for the first time in my three year career as a beekeeper Honey straining out of crushed comb in the hot sun. Smells like victory! but the honey is not technically mine. It might be, soon. Or maybe not.

Inigo Montoya would suggest that I sum up, but I prefer to splain.

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Matt felled a tree a few weeks ago that, instead of going crack whoosh thud, went crack whoosh thud BZZZZ. It was a cedar with what loggers affectionately call “cat butt” (a defect in which the tree curls in on itself giving the trunk a C-shaped cross-section). Trees with cat butt are often hollow inside, and this one was no exception.

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L to R: “The Mrs” (the skidder) and me, “Wifey”. Matt’s women at work.

The boys called me in to suit up and steal the bees. At first we thought that a baited hive set nearby would do the trick. The idea was that since their home was dramatically compromised they would prefer to live in the nice hive body that I set out for them, replete with frames of drawn comb (meaning that bees had built cells on the foundation which, in this case, were empty and ready to fill with pollen and honey and babies). Oddly, they ignored it and continued life as usual in their log –even though having the log on its side instead of standing meant that their once free-hanging comb was now lying, compressed together by gravity, on what was once their wall (and was now their floor), preventing them from accessing the majority of their brood and food.

So last weekend we cut into the log again and removed two long wedges like we were cutting up a watermelon. I stole as many occupied sheets of comb as I could and put them in the super, but I could not locate the queen because the log’s rotten interior was full of channels and crevices and crenelations that I could penetrate with neither my veiled vision nor my sticky-fingered gloves. So now we hope that these bees (who we have begun to suspect are not all that bright) will get the picture and move their queen into the hive and take up residence there since their old house is now wide open to the elements and predators.

We’ll see.

In the meantime, I am using the “crush and strain” honey extraction method on some of the honey-filled comb I stole from the log. I don’t have an extractor and you can only use one of those sweet machines on frames of foundation because this wild stuff has no wooden frame to fit into the extractor’s armature. So I’m following the centuries- (millennia?) old procedure of smashing the comb into a pulp and then straining it through open-weave cloth. In my case, I’m using a particular variant of this method that I found on someone else’s blog (which, of course, I cannot locate now that I want to link back to it), in which the smashed comb goes in a mason jar which is then covered with straining material (in my case, a jelly bag) and secured with a ring, and then inverted on top of an empty jar. I then wrapped the join with masking tape and set the hourglass-like contraption out in the burning noonday sun.

I don’t know what these bees got into, but this honey is intensely fragrant and has the kind of full-bodied fruitiness I associate with wine or mead. It may well be the best honey I’ve ever eaten. It makes the “clover” crap I got at the grocery store taste like cough syrup*.

Next I learn how to melt down the wax.

— Amanda

*Real, actual clover honey is great stuff, but a lot of honey labelled as “clover” is the product of miscellaneous, unknown, or blended varieties. This is what my beekeeping instructor referred to as “Mutt Honey” and the Italians more lyrically call millefiori or thousand flowers. Also, the cough syrup taste of my store-bought honey, because it is very pronounced, may be due to bees harvesting maple nectar.

Cancel the coronation

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My double-marked Italian replacement queen: last known photograph.

This is the super-condensed, ultra-succinct version of a long, drawn-out saga.

I bought a new queen bee last Tuesday (the 4th) and installed her without a hitch. That Thursday I reopened the hive to be sure that the girls had freed her by eating through the little marzipan plug keeping her in her cage.

No.

She was dead.

I took her back to the apiary supply store, intending to get another queen, and ended up abandoning all hope. After about an hour of discussion with the boys at the store it was determined that my colony is hopeless with or without a queen because I don’t have enough workers left to keep the hive at 95 degrees so that the brood can hatch. If there’s a queen in there (and likely there is and that’s why the workers committed regicide on my lovely replacement) she can lay as many eggs as she wants but none of them will hatch, which means no more baby queens and no more baby workers and by the end of the summer the current population of the hive will have died off of old age.

I’m on the swarm list, which means that if the guys get a call from a distraught homeowner with a swarm in their yard and they remove it they may call me to see if I want to give it a permanent home. I’m pretty far down on the list, though, so I don’t hold out much hope for becoming a foster mom to 50,000+ honey-barfing babies.*

Once again (and you must all be getting tired of hearing this): I learn the hard way, but I do learn. I’ll try again next year.

— Amanda

* They do barf honey. Worker bees store nectar in a “honey stomach” (an enlargement of the esophagus) where they add enzymes to convert the sugars. Then they regurgitate it into cells and evaporate excess moisture before capping it. The wax is extruded from four glands on their bellies and is converted from honey and other carbohydrates.

Amanda is acquitted!

I am no longer guilty of beeslaughter.

I thought that I had starved out my colony; that is, I had put their food too far from where they were clustered and they didn’t eat enough over the winter. (Over winter they form a ball of bees in the center of the hive and keep warm by vibrating their wing muscles without moving their wings. In true socialist fashion they rotate from the inside to the outside of the ball so that everyone gets a turn. They are very reluctant to leave this ball, which is centered around the queen. So reluctant that if food is too far away they won’t eat it.)

When I did the first inspection of the year I found no signs of life: nothing but mold and decay and gooey little bee carcasses. I’ve been in a funk ever since because I didn’t just kill one animal – I killed thousands. Probably on the order of fifty thousand. Insect genocide. Oh, yay.

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This is what caught my eye when I was mowing the lawn.

But today I spotted bees hovering around the entrance to my hive!

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I did a complete hive inspection and confirmed that, yes, there are a few bees still living in my hive. Maybe on the order of one or two thousand, which is not many.

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A relatively healthy frame of honey. It’s not all capped and some of it it’s moldy, but most of it is good bee food.

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A not-good frame of honey: mostly moldy and mildewy. The honey itself is dark and watery and smells unpleasantly vinegary.

I also found honey, though most of it was fermented and nasty.

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This is what was left of the infamous burr comb stalactite. I’ve been working around it for two years now. Since no one was living in it or storing food there anymore I gouged it all out and left it on the lawn for the bees (and birds and other insects) to clean up.

And, at last, I was able to scrape out and remove the last of the burr comb that has been plaguing me for so long. (See previous posts here and here.)

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This extra large cell on the edge of the comb is a supersedure cell: where the girls were cooking up a new queen. I found four supersedure cells but no queen!

Now the problem is that I have a teeny weeny colony without a queen! I searched every frame and every cell and I am quite confident I didn’t miss her. Beez Neez, the local apiary supply company, is closed on Mondays, but you can bet I’ll be calling them tomorrow. June and July are prime time for requeening – which I will need to do because the workers can’t reproduce without one – so there may be some left. Failing that I can freak out the mailman by ordering one online. I have to be quick because I have no idea when the old queen died and therefore, no idea how old these bees are. Spring bees usually only live for about 2 months. And I found no brood (babies) in the comb, so there are no more kids a’comin unless I gets them a momma.

— Amanda

Autumnal beekeeping

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Four pint jars of 2:1 sugar syrup cooling on the kitchen counter. By the time they are at room temperature they will all be as clear as the jar on the right.

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The jars in place, upside down in the feeder over an inner cover that allows the bees to access only the perforated jar lids, not the whole box. I think this particular model of feeder is exclusive to Beez Neez Apiary Supply, where they make them onsite.

Other beekeepers are harvesting honey this time of year. Not me. I don’t think I’m working the girls hard enough. (Actually the problem is my timing. I didn’t put on a honey super at the right time of year.) But I still have seasonal chores. I have removed the entrance feeder that I use during the summer to water the bees (thus keeping them out of the neighbors’ swimming pools) and tapped in an entrance reducer (to prevent both drafts and pests) and I threw another shallow super on top of my hive to house my top feeder.

Something I didn’t learn in class was that many beekeepers use a different kind of sugar syrup for fall and winter feeding of bees. The 1:1 ratio I have been using is preferred for spring and summer feeding to supplement low nectar flows and encourage brood rearing. This time of year I want the girls to be thinking about socking away stores for the winter, not about swelling their ranks with more bodies that have to be gotten through the tough months ahead. So I am going to try the 2:1 (sugar:water) ratio and see if it makes any difference in the spring vigor of my hive. I want them to be very healthy next spring because I plan to requeen and come hell or high water I’m gettin’ me some honey!

— Amanda

Distract-A-Bee*

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This is as far as I’ve been able to peek into my main hive body this year . This picture is from my first hive inspection of the year in March.

I haven’t been able to perform what I consider a complete hive inspection in ages due to a rookie mistake I made last year that allowed my bees to build a large section of burr comb in one of their boxes. They hung these combs from the the inner cover like stalactites, preventing me from getting the cover off and peeking at the queen. Thanks to last year’s blunder I haven’t seen my queen since the day I installed her.

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This is what the half-full box looks like from above. Lots of activity.

Last week Matt had a brainstorm that will not only allow me to make complete hive inspections (that is, to look at every frame and to locate the queen) but also to harvest some honey! He suggested I steal one of his guitar strings and slice the inner cover off that box like cutting through cheese.

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Every frame in the half-full hive body looks like this on both sides.

So last Friday I took every box off the hive stand and completely rearranged them. (Imagine the consternation in there! I just took their house apart story by story and switched them around to suit myself.) The box with the “stalactite” in it was the original box and therefore it’s packed full of brood, pollen, and nectar (hot damn is it heavy!). I put it on the bottom, knelt behind it, and sawed through all that gooey propolis and beeswax with the guitar string wrapped around my little fists like I was garroting the poor insects. With the inner cover off I was able to put the next hive body (another name for a box intended for the bees to reside and raise young) on top of that. This box is only about half full of capped cells. Then I laid down the queen excluder and on top of that, a shallow box. The queen excluder will prevent her from laying eggs in that shallow box, which I want the girls to fill with honey for me.

Oh, and for those of you keeping track: still no stings!

— Amanda

*Title of this post is the name of one of the subsidiary companies of Confuse-A-Cat Limited from Episode 5 of Monty Python’s Flying Circus: Man’s Crisis of Identity in the Latter Half of the 20th Century.

Simple syrup for you, the (humming)birds, and the bees

Among the many interesting things I picked up in beekeeping class was a method of making sugar syrup that I have found applicable to a lot more uses than beekeeping. Previously, I had always made sugar syrup by heating sugar and water in a pan on the stove, stirring constantly, until all the sugar dissolved. This trick is much quicker and usually has less clean-up.

I make sugar syrup for three purposes: 1) to make sugar syrup to feed my bees, 2) to make sugar syrup to fill my hummingbird feeder, and 3) to make simple syrup to sweeten cold beverages. Ever noticed how granulated sugar doesn’t really want to dissolve in a cold drink? You can heat the beverage, dissolve the sugar, and then re-cool before serving, but this only works if everyone who will be drinking it likes the same level of sweetness. When I make sun tea I like to drink it straight, but Matt likes to sugar the hell out of it. Simple syrup is the answer. Because it’s already dissolved, you just stir it into your drink like you would cream in your coffee. Simple syrup is made at a 1:1 ratio, just like my bee-feeding syrup, which means that you use equal parts sugar and water. To feed hummingbirds you use a 4:1 ratio, or four parts water to one part sugar.

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Step 1: Put the kettle on to boil and measure your sugar. If the mouth is wide enough to accommodate stirring, I put the sugar directly into the container I want the syrup in, such as a quart mason jar for my bees or a half-pint jar for simple syrup. My hummingbird feeder has a very narrow neck, so I put my sugar into a Pyrex® measuring cup since it has a hand-dandy spout.

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Step 2: When the water comes to a boil, pour it over your sugar.

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Step 3: Stir until the mixture is crystal clear.

Let it cool to lukewarm or room-temperature before giving it to bees or hummingbirds and keep it in the fridge if you’re using it to sweeten drinks.

If you made the syrup in the final container you now have only to dry the measure you used for the water, and wash the sugar measure and spoon.

— Amanda