Sunday, February 27, 2011

Seeing and Tasting Yellow

It took a long time but finally I was able to identify the unusual flavour of our spring honey.
It was dandelions.

Now I didn't make this decision on my own. I had experts help me. In other words I took a jar of honey to the local bee meeting and said, "Help! I can't figure out why this honey tastes strange."

Let me back up to the day in July when we extracted the honey from our two hives (the nucs were new at this stage so we didn't extract from them until the fall).

After uncapping and extracting, I lifted the lid on the extractor and there was a strong smell coming from the honey. To my mind it smelled like tomatoes or like chili peppers. It was quite strong, and so was the flavour of the honey.

I wondered where my bees had gone off to. There are some greenhouses within 5 miles so I began to wonder if someone was growing tomatoes.

By the next day the smell from the honey had mellowed considerably. Now it's February and I must say the honey seems to have come into its own. At first it tasted so different that we decided that honey would be for our personal use.

People used to store bought honeys wouldn't be used to such a strong flavoured honey. Also even small beekeeping operations blend their honeys so the distinct floral source isn't so strong. But we had kept our extractions separate so we had different flavours.

The beekeepers at the meeting really liked the honey. I was encouraged. After careful tasting and a lot of though they determined the flavour is dandelions.

This honey has a nice amber colour and I have to say it's not crystallizing, whereas my fall honey crystallized within a couple weeks. I use it in my tea each morning and I've grown quite fond of it (translation: I won't be sharing it with anyone :)

I wonder if this spring's honey will be dandelions again. I can't wait.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011


There are more mice on this earth than humans.

They've done well for thousands of years by hanging around us humans.

We don't feed them on purpose but somehow the little things find a way.

Their bodies are made of cartlidge which allows them to squeeze through tiny spaces - like the small entrance of an entranace reducer.

I haven't had mice in a hive... I hope that's something I never experience.

If the bees did sting and kill a mouse inside the hive the carcass would lie there and rot. It's too heavy for them to remove. So instead the bees will leave the body in place and cover it entirely with propolis, thereby sealing it away from the clean hive.

Last fall, the lid on one of my plastic bins didn't fit down tightly. I had jammed too much bee equipment in there - rim spacers, extra inner covers, queen excluders, etc., and a couple green drone comb frames.

And that was a mistake.

No less than five mice moved in. I discovered it in the fall when doing a pre winter clean up of the bee yard.

They'd made a grass nest and of course the smell of urine was pretty strong... one more thing to clean up before winter.

Then I removed extra equipment so the lid fit down snug. Lesson learned.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

How to Light a Smoker

Where there's smoke you'll often find a beekeeper.

A smoker kit containing a waterproof plastic pail with a lid is very handy to keep your smoker fuel in. I fill mine with pine wood chips (pet bedding bought at a pet store) and newspaper.

Take a string and tie a BBQ lighter to it. That way you'll always know where your lighter is.

[This is my brother's son Ben. He's from Australia. He visited us a few summers ago and fell in love with a Canadian girl. Now they're both back in Aussie together].

Here are smoker lighting tips as I learned them in an intro to beekeeping course:

1. Open the smoker, making sure the bottom pan is laying flat inside. Drop in 3 handfuls of pine chips in the bottom.

  1. 2. Add in crumpled newspaper on top of the pine chips. The smoker should be no more than half way full.

  2. 3. Light the newspaper and use your hive tool to push it down into the smoker. Why burn your hands if you don't have to?

  3. 4. Add greens to the top such as grass, cedar, leaves (note: never use poison ivy because the smoke is deadly). The greenery will ensure that only cool smoke exits the smoker. It will also prevent any sparks or flames from burning the bees or falling into your hive.

5. Close the smoker lid and then begin to work the bellows to keep the smothered flames alive until the chips catch fire.

A well lit smoker will smoke all on its own for a good 30 minutes. While working be sure to keep an eye on the smoker and give it more puffs of the bellows as required to keep it going.

[This is my sister's son Codie who after watching Anut Bard (Aunt Barb) hive some nucs reported he is no longer afraid of bees.

When done if the smoker is still going, dump the contents into a fireproof pail and pour water on them. Never pour water into your smoker.

If you don't choose to empty the smoker when done, push a wad of greenery into the spout. This will smother the smoker. The dry wad can be used as fuel when you light it next time.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Long Cold Days of Winter

Finally the sun came out and I thought it'd be a good day to visit the bee yard.

The driveway at the orchard was plowed but the hike across the field was difficult.

The snow was about 1.5 feet deep. It was windy too and about -4C.

There were a few dead bees in the snow, not very many. I wonder if that's an indication of how cold our winter has been or hopefully that most bees that flew out for a cleansing flight were able to safely make it back.

I resisted the temptation to pick up freshly dead looking bees to warm them in my hands. I left Mother Nature to do her work.

Three of the four hives had their entrance clear enough that they could come and go. All the hives have a second upper exit as well, also there so that extra heat can ventilate from the hive and prevent a moisture build-up inside.

I cleared the corner of one of the hives that was snowed in. I'm not sure if there entrance was covered because the bees aren't active or if it's because of it's location.

The bad news with that hive is when inspecting the upper exit I noticed lots of brown poop around the entrance. It looks like that hive has Nosema.

This was the hive I've been worried about. They have their own made queen and in comparing their behaviour they don't 'take their meds' like the other hive does. I gave them Fumigilin in a baggie in the fall but they ignored it and were very slow to take it.

I will be requeening that hive in spring.

Only a few minutes after I was there it clouded over and started to snow and blow.

This is definitely an old fashioned winter with lots of snow and cold.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Video: Life Cycle of the Honey Bee AND Varroa Mite

There's a saying: Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.

There's another saying: Know thine enemy.

All that said, here's an excellent scientific video that shows step by step the life cycle of the bee larvae and the mite.

What was most surprising was seeing the fecal matter that the mites leave all over the inside of the cell.

The proto-nymph stage was the most interesting - that's when the mites are soft shelled and most vulnerable to hive treatments.

This video is a must watch for beekeepers. You can view it on Google at:

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Great News: MAQ mite treament to use during the honey flow

This is a copy and paste of an email received from Kim Flottum of Bee Culture called Catch The Buzz. (You can subscribe to Kim's emails which are great to keep up with the latest news in the beekeeping community).

I don't know yet if these MAQ mite strips are approved for use in Canada or Europe.

This ezine is also available online at


Mite Away Quick Strip (tm) Gets Section 3 Label

The US beekeeping industry will welcome a versatile new product to the varroa mite control tool box. Mite Away Quick Strips™ (MAQS™) was officially federally registered by EPA in the United States as of February 4, 2011, obtaining the Section 3 registration.

The product will be gradually available over the next few months as production ramps up and pesticide registrations are obtained in each state.

MAQS™ is a formic acid gel strip product. Two strips are placed on the top bars in the brood area of the hive. The treatment period is seven days and can be used during the honey flow at temperatures up to 93 degrees F. No extra equipment is required. MAQS™ achieves up to 95% mite kill and penetrates the capping to destroy the male mite and immature female mites as well as the phoretic female mites on the adult bees.

For more information, visit the website at

Smok'in Smoker

We have two smokers.

Dad seemed to naturally gravitate to the job of smoker lighter, and smoker holder.

Me, I prefer to hold the bees.

The first smoker I got was from F.W. Jones a beekeeping company in Quebec, Ontario. They've been around since 1878 and they make a fine smoker.

They come in many sizes but if buying your first one I would suggest getting one that has the basket around it. That'll prevent burning your hands.

Also consider it's size and weight. If you need to hold it for a while and squeeze the puffer it can get heavy.

I saw a nice smaller Dadant smoker and it found its way home with me as well. They're another reputable company that have been around a long time.

Have you created a smoker kit? You probably have. Here's ours (as learned in the Guelph Intro to Beekeeping Course).

Use a good sealing pail and stock it with pine chips (animal pet bedding purchased at the local pet shop is ideal). Pine chips make a pleasant smelling smoke. Also add newspaper to the kit.

Finally add a lighter--but here's where it gets clever. Tie a cord to the handle of the pail and the lighter. That way it won't wonder off just when the bees get mad and you need to relight the smoker. No one wants a missing lighter when the bees are mad.

Once the smoker is lit and billowing nicely, before you close the lid, grab a good handful of greenery like grass and lay it on top.
That will act as your spark screen to prevent the smoker billowing hot ash or sparks into your wooden/wax hive. (I don't even want to think about how horrible that would be).
[Here's Dad in his yellow bee shirt. He's participating in Clovermead's smoker lighting competition].
Another trick I learned from a fellow beekeeper is when you're done with the smoker, take some grass or greenery and wad it up and plug the spout.
Why? It'll help to snuff the smoker out and once it's snuffed it'll relight faster next time with the leftover material inside.
And finally, if you're leaving the smoker in the open bed of the truck while you drive away, make sure it's secure in a metal/fireproof container. And turn the spout to face the tailgate. That way driving wind won't run down the spout and relight your smoker (if you did the grass plug that shouldn't be an issue).

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Using the Capping Scratcher

I suppose everybody has their own technique when it comes time to scratch the honeycombs.

Dad and I learned a lot our first year about how to uncap.

Our first year we found using the scratcher to be difficult. It was damaging the comb. Damaged combs mean the bees have to spend a lot of time and energy fixing them.

I was not happy with the result. In frustration I turned the tool over and used it "backwards".

Turns out that was probably the right way to do it.

If you approach the comb with the scratcher tines down in a clawing motion, that's what you get--clawed combs.

With the scratcher faced in a scooping fork position you can just prick and lightly lift off the caps without too much damage.

Don't dig deep or the combs will get torn and ruined. A light scoop is best with the tines held parallel to the combs.

See the video (below) of Dad as he demonstrates.

A beekeeping friend made a point when he said, "You just need to put a hole in the comb." Good point. The cap doesn't have to removed entirely for the honey to come out--the extractor can take care of that part.

So why use the scratcher? If you haven't got an extractor yet and you're not cutting out the combs and doing the crush and strain method then you'd scratch the caps to remove them and then let the honey drain out.

Another use, and this is what we did, is when the bees haven't built the combs out past the edge of the wooden frames--so the hot knife can't get in there to cut them off.

Sometimes a frame will be a combination of both. First we use the hot knife to cut the caps and then for the uneven spots that the knife couldn't reach we use the scratcher.

Note in the video how Dad wipes the scratcher off on the wooden beam on the uncapping tank. Why get sticky fingers if you don't have to?

I'm sure the bees are glad we finally got it right. I'd hate to have been a fly in the hive that first year. I'm sure there was a whole lot of complaining going on.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Using the Electric Uncapping Knife

When I first saw how to uncap honeycombs it was on an instructional video that I rented from the Ontario Bee Association.

So we tried our best to follow those directions. I can report its easier to watch than to do.
My electric knife is the yellow handled one - pictured above and below resting on an empty frame with a bowl underneath to catch the drips.

Note that you will need a place to set the hot knife down when you're uncapping so plan ahead and have a heat proof place to put it. This large metal bowl/empty frame worked well for us.
The wooden handled knife, pictured below, belonged to a friend of mine. I used it the first year. I must say that it got nice and hot and I thought it worked better than my new one.

Here's how to uncap a frame of honey.

This set up uses an uncapping tank to catch the combs. The advantage is the beam of wood across the tank. It has a screw that sticks up and catches and holds the frame while you work.

First hold the frame vertically, catching the bottom edge on the screw. You can swivel the frame back and forth with one hand as needed.

Our first mistake was not turning the knife on early to give it time to warm up. No so with my friend's knife. His was hot in a few seconds (I should have swapped him my new one).
Lean the frame forward and start at the bottom and slide up slowly. Let the knife work the combs, rewarming them somewhat as you slide up. The goal is to cut off the bottom 3" of comb. Then go to the top and work down until you meet the cut off bottom section.

The reason why you lean the frame forward is shown in the video (below) where it's NOT done right. (I could say we set up the demo this way on purpose to show you but... I did have a video of it being done right but I can't find it on my computer.)

If held straight, the cut off sheets of wax will fall straight and land on the frame below, melting the combs there and making a mess. Don't poke your knife in them (like in the video) to remove it or you'll melt more comb. This is where the cappings scratcher can come in handy to lift off the wax.

The knife can slide along the wooden edges of the frame as a guide but if the bees have gone to so much trouble to build the wax out from the edge- don't cut that all off unless you need a ton of candles.

Ask yourself what you want more of: Honey or Wax? The more wax you remove the more the bees will need to put their energies (honey) to wax making and rebuilding. If you give them back a frame with lots of deep combs, they'll spend their time refilling them instead.

We notice that the flat part of the knife can warm up the wax and make it slide off easier. The other advice is to let the heat of the knife do the work.

I hope this is helpful.

If you haven't purchased an extractor--and I can't blame you since there are a lot of expenses the first couple years--there are many commercial operations that will uncap and extract your frames for a fee.