Saturday, January 29, 2011

Take Your Cap Off, Honey

Many things we finally figure out how to do right but only after the fact.

I made a mistake. But I get ahead of myself so I'll tell you that part in a minute.

I bought an uncapping tank last summer. It's a wonderful tool for the hobby beekeeper and easy to use. I got mine from Benson Bee located in the Ottawa area.

A wooden bar that rests securely across the top has a screw sticking up in the middle. That's where you rest the end of the frame while you're using your uncappi knife. You can then swivel the frame around with one hand without having to lift it.

When you run the hot knife up the combs the cut off sheets of comb slide off the knife and drop into the waiting tub below.

The tank itself is two tubs made of a very heavy food grade plastic. They're built so that one sits inside the other. Between the tubs sits a metal grill that looks a lot like a queen excluder.
When the cappings are cut off they fall and rest on the grill--so in effect an uncapping tank is actually a really big strainer.

As the combs sit the honey drips down and is collected in the second tank which has the all important tap. After the cappings have been left to drip for a few days, you stick a pail under the spout and let the honey pour 0ut.

Unless you're me. This is where the mistake part comes in. We did an extraction and I left the cappings to collect later. Dad emptied the honey into jars. Then we did a second and third extraction shortly after (working with 4 hives). Again, Dad got the honey into jars.

But we left the cappings until "later". That was the mistake part.

The amount of honey we ended up with was overwhelming. Dad and I were busy scrambling for containers, jars, etc. We were so focused on the honey we forgot about the cappings.

The honey sat long enough in the cool basement that it crystallized into a solid mass.

Nothing is wasted but it'll be a difficult to clean it up. I could really use a hot sunny day for that but that'll be a few too many months from now.

I like the tank. The inside tub sits on ledges in one of two positions. In the higher up position there is more room underneath for the cappings to collect.

I've just got remember to remove them.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Wonderful History of Honey Extraction

Over a hundred years ago, honey was either eaten straight from the combs or they were crushed, usually by hand, and left to drip to extract the liquid honey which was then put in jars.

The beekeeper would cut chunks of honeycomb out of straw skeps. People dug their spoons into the combs and ate it--both the wax and the honey.

Back then, they didn't know of a way to remove honey from the combs without destroying them.

But the honeycombs had a secret that it would soon be revealed... by a child.
Imagine yourself as a child in 1869. Your father is a Major in the Italian army and he gives you a basket with a string on the handle.
Inside the basket is some honeycomb with the caps cut off and you've been asked to carry the basket.

Would you hold the basket carefully? Or would you do what I'd do? I'd swing that basket around by the string.

That's what the Major's son did. He swung that basket around and something happened--something important--the honey was thrown out of the honeycombs by the centrifugal force of the swinging.
The Major noticed the messy honey all over the inside of the bakset and he noticed the empty undamaged combs.

He saw that it was possible to throw honey out of combs without crushing them. No one had realized that before.

He then set to work to make a machine that would throw the honey from the combs by spinning them just like the basket on the string.
That's where the first honey extractor, came from.

We still use the extractors to this day. Some have hand cranks and some are electric but they all spin the frames of honeycombs.
Once the combs are empty they are given back to the bees to refill. It's less work for the bees because they don't have to make the honeycomb all over again.

After his discovery and invention Major Hruschka decided he'd like to become a beekeeper.
And he did just that.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Juicy Bugs

Last spring when I opened the hives for the first time I noticed something.

My bees were big. They were kind of fat looking, but in a healthy way.

Like chubby toddlers I watched them hanging around on the frames and bars of the hives. The young ones would come out to fly--but they weren't very good at it. Not yet.

And they were bursting at the seams thanks to a short winter and quick and hot spring.

They gobbled their sugar water and pollen patties like well behaved children.

As spring moved quickly into an even hotter summer I noticed that the bees were looking different.

They were out flying and foraging. They weren't toddlers stumbling around when trying to fly. They were an experienced work force.

Like a prize fighter, they were fit and trim from all that flying to forage.

They'd lost weight while they laboured.

I think about them now as snow covers the ground and they eat from their stores.

Will this be a fat bee spring? I hope they aren't going hungry.

I wish I could crack the hive for a look, but with temps at -21 and windchill of -25, this is the coldest weekend we've had in southwestern Ontario.

I guess that's an advantage that beekeepers in warmer climates have. They can open their hives to check on the bees and give them supplemental food if necessary. (winter feeding has been a topic of discussion lately on the yahoo beekeepers' list).

Here in the cold white north, I make plans and resolutions for the 2011 fall/winter. I'll take the supers and treat much earlier. I'll leave them an extra super. I'll make fondant boards for them just in case (fondant candy placed on the small space on the inside lid of an inner cover).

I tick off the days on the calendar and think about ordering pollen patties, just so I have them on hand when that warm day comes.

Soon I hope.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Soap Bubbles and Honeycomb

Honey bees make their honeycombs like a soap bubble.

If you drew honeycomb cells you would draw them with six sides - in a hexagon.

When bees draw comb, they actually start off by making the cells round.

They're somewhat like what a single soap bubble looks like. Round.

A soap bubble will stay round until it touches another soap bubble. The bubbles latch onto each other, sliding together. The round sides turn into flat sides--six sides--a hexagon.

Next time you wash your hands you can watch this happen. Show your kids this trick by creating a single bubble and then sliding other bubbles next to it.
Kids love this one and it's a great way to get them to spend a little more time with the soap and water.
But how do the combs change shape?
The bees take care of that. They warm up the combs, until they melt a bit.

They warm them to between 37 and 40 degrees Celsius.

Once warmed the tension of the adjacent cell walls, cause the cell walls to shift into a six sided hexagon shape.

New combs are white and clean.
Golden or dark brown coloured combs are older combs that have had had lots of foot traffic. Tiny foot traffic.
Like a rug in the front hall, they get a little dirty with thousands of feet treading on them.
After thousands of bees walk over the combs month after month, all their sticky little feet leave stains on the comb which turns them brown.

Why is this structure so amazing that people copy it in design and architecture?
If the cells were square they'd hold the most liquid but not be as strong and they'd take more wax to create. The hexagon creates the best storage size with a minimal use of wax. Isn't nature conservative?

This information was discovered in the amazing book: The Buzz About Bees written by Jurgen Tautz that's available on Amazon.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Benefits of Politics

Some would say there are few benefits to politics.

They might be right.

But beekeepers will nonetheless advise you to get to know your local politician.


Your mind might jump immediately to noble reasons like petitioning the government to fund more research into bee illnesses or to stop the use of pesticides.

All very good reasons.

But no, their first bit of advice is to get to know your local politician, especially just after an election. Win or lose, he or she will have all those plastic corrugated signs to dispose of. You can save them from the trash by offering to collect them.

These signs are perfect to make sticky boards to put under your Varroa Screens. Note: They cut more easily with a box cutter blade than with scissors.

I put a small hole and a strong cord through the end of mine so I have a pull cord to remove them more easily.

Another use is to put on top of your outer cover, secured by a couple bricks.

They can create a 3 or 4" roof over the front and/or back of the hive. They create shelter for bees that are hanging around the front stoop and on hot days they give shade to the bees.

We also found the very handy to use as a lid for a super.

They were a quick and light weight solution to an immediate need to cover both underneath and on top of a super. Those bees will get back into the super in a hurry if you don't cover it top and bottom.

But don't forget to do the petition thing to. It's pretty important.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Not Thinking About Bees

A thick blanket of snow has covered the ground since the beginning of December.

We even missed a few days of work. Children got three days off school. They weren't sad. Neither was I.

The bees are wrapped in their hives, snug as bugs in a rug.

The queens will finally get a vacation. They certainly deserve one.

Santa and his reindeer have come and gone.

We've eaten a lot of turkey.

Christmas trees have been taken down.

The fireworks are done, the champange sipped.

Happy New Year everyone!!!

The over-eating is finally easing down. The scales have not.... +++ I'll deal with that later.

Things are slowing down--not really but I remain hopeful--and now I have time to devote to other things.

I don't have to think about bees every hour of every day. I can take my mind off them. I can think of other things. I can do other things. Like deciding where I will hang the crochet bee that a friend gave me for Christmas.

Like redecorating the bathroom with an aquamarine theme...

using this glass honey dish.

Later I'll relax with some knitting. Maybe I'll make a vest or a scarf using this lovely pattern....

Before bed I'll relax and have a milk and honey bath.

Finally I'll have time to catch up on some reading. Something like this....

a book about how business would be so much better organized if only we copied the bees. I agree.

By the time I'm done all these things it'll practically be spring.

Then I'll have to start thinking about bees again.

Monday, January 10, 2011

2011 Beekeeping Resolutions

Don't wait for the last minute to get equipment.
Maybe all spring you were able to get equipment the day before you needed it. Then suddenly in mid summer you'll find the supplier is out of stock and you can't get what you need. This happened last year with supers. My hives had their supers almost full and I couldn't get any medium supers or frames with foundation. You can often find supplies farther afield but shipping costs really add up. Plan ahead and make purchases in winter too. That way the costs are spread out more.

Stay ahead of them
If you don't let them get ahead of you then you won't have a panic to catch up. They had all their frames filled and capped and I didn't realize they'd used up all available space. Then I couldn't get equipment to give them more room (see #1 above). Yikes! We were forced to do extractions right away to give them more room.

Stay on top of the Mites
Don't let those pests take down your best hive. It might be booming now but keep an eye on it so it doesn't end up in trouble later. Recharge your sticky boards regularly. It's a balancing act figuring out which is the best mite treatment. Formic Acid works great but its temperature reliant. I'll pay more attention to the weather when choosing a treatment.

Go for Power Every Time
Go for Power when it comes to an Extractor. We run our extractor for at least 20 minutes with 6 frames at a time with our radial extractor. Hand turning for that length of time would be exhausting, especially if you have more than one hive.

Spread Out Your Costs
Buy your equipment in winter too. You'll have more available money and more time between pay cheques to purchase equipment. More time to paint or nail frames together too. There's nothing like trying to nail 20 frames together in the rain while standing in the bee yard because the bees have filled every available cell in their super.

Think Twice about the Relatives
Is your brother eyeing your bees? Is Dad thinking he'd like to help out. Now this may be a blessing to have extra help but remember close relatives can be full of advice and opinions too... Before involving more family members you might want to read I've Created A Monster.

Take the Fall Harvest Earlier
There's no question in my mind that the fall harvest must end earlier. The bees need time to rebuild their stocks once the honey is taken from them and in southwestern Ontario the weather often turns cold by the second week in Sept. I ended up with hives which weren't as heavy as I would have liked. The good news is that I had some supers in reserve so I could give back to them. This year I'll do the last harvest the last week of August, allowing time for the bees to restock and for a decent mite treatment before winter.

Stop Worrying
This will be my most challenging resolution. I have worried about my inexperience and what it can do to the bees. It's a miracle they live through my mistakes. Last winter was not too cold and nice and short followed by a hot summer. Let's hope 2011 is another great beekeeping year.

Here's wishing you the best 2011 ever, even if you don't have bees.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

A Small Matter: Lack of Storage

I'm just thinking about those 25 hives Dad and I thought we could manage.

Now I ask myself where would all that equipment be stored for winter?

Beekeeping involves lots of bulky equipment.

Good thing we're only running four hives.

There's more to think about than just running the bee yard and the time and expenses with that. At first that's the main focus. But then fall comes and you realize you might have a problem: Lack of storage space.

With just four hives I had no place to put 20+ honey supers and extra deeps.

The truck goes in the garage, leaving very little side room. Besides, I didn't want vehicle exhaust fumes in proximity to honey supers.

The wooden ware such as deeps and honey supers can't just be left outside. Mice and other insects would see them as either a food source or a potential home--or both!

Last year I stored my supers in the basement.

Since then I've discovered I've got tiny moths in the house. I'm not certain but it is probable that moths, eggs or larvae were in the frames of wax. Or they could have come in on some other food stuff.

Either way, a better storage solution was needed.

Dad and I made a trip to the local hardware store and purchased a 6'x6' vinyl shed.

During some cool days in November we worked to put it together.

First we built the base, which we soon discovered wasn't level enough. Strong winds and the lack of a level surface caused us to give up and wait for a calmer day.

We levelled the base and the next day was calm and we spent several hours putting the shed together.

We both noticed that we'd worked at it most of the day. Dad said, "You know, we haven't even had an argument."
I laughed and said, "The day isn't over yet. We could have one now if you like."

A week later I removed the clean and dry supers from the bee yard (I let the bees rob them dry). I bought extra inner covers (without centre holes) and I used them on the bottom. I stacked the supers and then covered them with another inner cover.

Three weeks later we had snow storms and ended up with 100 cm of snow.

Everything was covered in a thick heavy layer. In many cases the snow even hung well over the roof edges.

Our roofs are still covered in snow now, but not as much.

The shed held strong and when I opened it a couple weeks later it was dry and clean inside.

I noticed there's even extra room in there. I could probably fit another 15+ supers.

Now there's something to think about. Doesn't more room mean I can handle more hives?

Saturday, January 8, 2011

A Crime Saga: Honey Laundering

"As crime sagas go, a scheme rigged by a sophisticated cartel of global traders has all the right blockbuster elements: clandestine movements of illegal substances through a network of co-operatives in Asia, a German conglomerate, jet-setting executives, doctored laboratory reports, high-profile takedowns and fearful turncoats."

This is the first paragraph to a well written article from Toronto's Globe and Mail.

Read the full article on-line by following this link to Toronto's Globe and Mail: Honey Laundering.