It’s been a few months since I last wrote about the bees, and since then we’ve had a very soggy cold start to the spring. I had been waiting to open up the hives and do a quick inspection until we started having some days above 60 degrees which we finally made it to over the last couple of weeks. I took off the upper layer of burlap and wood shavings from the hives which helps to reduce moisture inside the hive over the winter. I had been worried about the moisture inside the hives with the record setting last few months of rain we’ve had, but aside from some mold on the underside of the top hive covers they looked good inside. I did a quick inspection of each hive by only removing a couple of frames in the top hive boxes, as I did not want to disrupt them too much while they are still in the early stages of rebuilding the hive after the usual winter die off. Each hive is a little different, but they all seem to be doing well. Our second hive that we started in 2014 from a split of our first hive, is consistently the strongest hive. This is Hive Rosemary, and the queen in this hive must have some great genes because this hive is always the quickest hive to build up its population and start putting away honey. True to form this hive looks the strongest of the three hives again this year. The other two hives, Hive Rosalind and Hive Buttercup, also look good, and on sunny days there is quite a lot of activity outside all three hives. All in all I’m very pleased with how our hives have done over the last four years since we started beekeeping. We are fortunate to live in a location with plenty of forage plants for the ladies, and thankfully we have not experienced any losses due to pesticides or any of the other problems that have plagued bees for so many years. I take a fairly low maintenance approach to managing our hives, I don’t use chemicals to treat for mites, and I don’t remove very much honey from the hives, but we have plenty of honey for us and healthy bees, and that’s good enough for me!
One of the things I really enjoy about living on the farm is the change in seasons. After a long cold winter, and many days of mucking about in the rain and mud doing chicken and turkey chores, it is so exciting to have that first feeling that spring is around the corner. Even before the first spring bulbs poke up through the ground, the birds and the bees provide the first signs that spring is in the air.
It is always a thrill to see the bees make their first appearance outside the beehives on the first sunny days in January and February. This past winter was an unusually cold, snowy, and wet winter, and I waited anxiously to see if all of our beehives would make it through until spring. Bees can survive the cold weather we get in the Pacific Northwest just fine. It is the wet weather, and in particular the moisture inside the hive, which poses a greater risk to them than the cold. When I get the hives ready for fall, there are a few things I do to vent moisture from the hives and try to prevent condensation from occurring in the hives. Even though the hives are not very active in the winter, I do check on them after every cold snap and snowstorm to clear snow away from the hive entrance and to clear dead bees away from the bottom of the hive so that the dead bees don’t block the entrance. It is normal for quite a lot of the bees in the hive to die over the winter, and every time I brush the dead bees out from the bottom of the hive there will be several dozen. At times I’ve seen a large pile of dead bees right outside the hive entrance after the bees have done a bit of housekeeping themselves and removed the dead bees from the hive. Even though it’s normal to see a pile of dead bees outside the hive, it does make me worry at times, and so it is with baited breath that I anxiously await the first sighting of bees outside the hive. The bees made their first appearance in mid-January this year, on an unseasonably warm day, and there have been a few other days since then when the bees have also been out. I am happy to report that all three of our hives have survived the winter thus far.
The behavior of the chickens and turkeys provides another clue that spring is around the corner. As the days start getting longer, the chickens start laying eggs again. Many of our ladies are approaching old biddy status, so they are taking a longer vacation from egg laying than they did when they were younger. From early November through January, we were only getting a few eggs a week from the few hens that laid during the winter, but by the end of January many of the ladies were starting to lay again. The chicken yard, which had been pretty quiet during the winter, was now filled with the sounds of the “egg song” as the ladies leave the nest box and announce their proud achievement. Our roosters and Ringo the turkey have begun enthusiastically courting the ladies again thanks to the annual spring rise in hormone levels. The turkey hens should begin laying eggs by March, and soon we will be inundated with their jumbo sized, beautiful cream colored eggs with brown speckles. Turkeys do not have as long of an egg laying season as chickens (which is why turkeys are not used for commercial egg production), but we got approximately 175 eggs from our two turkey hens last year, so we should have our hands full with the eggs from five turkey hens this year. Their eggs are delicious when eaten just as you would eat chicken eggs for breakfast, and they are also great in baking. I am really looking forward to having turkey eggs again, and this year I will also be selling them along with chicken eggs. As the weather allows, I’ve been getting the garden and greenhouse cleaned up and ready for the start of gardening season, which thanks to my birds and bees I know is right around the corner!
I am happy to report that our three beehives, Hive Rosalind, Hive Rosemary, and Hive Buttercup, all did well this year. We started our newest Hive, ruled by Queen Buttercup, this spring, and I spent most of my time in the bee yard this summer following its progress and making sure it got off to a successful start. I did quick inspections of Hive Buttercup about once a month, checking to see that the new queen was laying eggs and that the bees were putting away enough honey and pollen to get them through the winter. I’ve been feeding Hive Buttercup a simple syrup to boost their honey production a bit. Since this is a new hive, it’s population is smaller than our other hives so it doesn’t have as many worker bees to collect nectar for making honey. Feeding them a simple syrup allows them to put away more honey for the winter than they could if they had to depend solely on the nectar they collected. Feeding a new hive is the only time I feed my bees, the older hives are capable of storing enough honey to feed themselves through the winter, and I always leave a lot of honey in the hives over the winter to make sure that the bees have more than enough to get them through the winter.
Our two older beehives pretty much took care of themselves this year, so other than checking them a couple of times during the summer to make sure they had enough room in the hive for storing honey, I pretty much let them do what they will. There are a few important chores to do at the end of summer/beginning of fall to give the hives a better chance of surviving the winter. If there are unused boxes on the hive, it’s a good idea to consolidate the hive into fewer boxes over the winter so that the cluster of bees can keep themselves warm easier, and there is less cold space in the hive. Over the summer, my hives are typically four boxes high – two deep hive boxes for the queen to lay eggs in, and two honey supers on top for the worker bees to store honey in. In the fall, I consolidate the two honey supers into one box, and if there is extra honey beyond what will fit in one super, then I harvest a few frames of honey. Since our winters are so wet here in the Pacific Northwest, it’s also important to take measures to keep the hive from getting too damp inside. I put a piece of burlap on top of the inner cover with pine shavings on top, so that as condensation occurs on the underside of the roof of the hive, it will fall down onto the shavings and burlap and be absorbed rather than dripping down onto the frames of the hive. Lastly, I also prop up the inner cover very slightly with a toothpick to give the rising warm, moist air a way to escape from the hive. I am glad that I had time to get the hives winterized last week before this line of storms moved in, as we’ve already had about five inches of rain in the last several days.
I did harvest a bit of honey this summer, and I just got around to extracting it. It really amazes me what an efficient method of storing honey the hexagonal honey comb is. I removed three frames of honey from our strongest hive this year – this is Queen Rosemary’s hive, they are slightly more aggressive than the bees in the other two hives, but they are a strong hive, so there’s the tradeoff. I bought myself a new piece of equipment to make harvesting the honey easier this year. It’s called a bee escape, and it is a narrow frame with a maze on the bottom that you place in the hive below the honey super that you intend to harvest honey from. The way it works is that the bees can move down through the maze, or the bee escape, to access the box below, but they cannot figure out how to move up through the maze into the box above. So after you install the bee escape, within a couple of days, the box above the bee escape containing the frames that you intend to harvest should be mostly empty of bees. I thought it would just take a couple of minutes to install the bee escape so I got a bit cavalier and did not bother lighting my smoker. The honey super that I intended to remove in order to install the bee escape was stuck very tightly to the hive box below it, which is not uncommon. After trying to pry the boxes apart for a minute or so, I noticed a few guard bees were getting agitated and were flying around me, then moments later one stung me on my thigh through my pants. I decided to go light my smoker and removed my gloves, which must be when a sneaky bee took the opportunity to climb up my sleeve into my jacket. I didn’t notice it at first, and went about lighting my smoker, putting my gloves back on, and returned to the hive. I began trying to remove the stuck box again, and it wasn’t long before I noticed there was a bee in the hood of my jacket! I ran from the hive, frantically unzipping my jacket, and yelling for Sean to come help me. I’m sure it was quite a hilarious sight to behold, but thankfully I don’t think anyone saw me. Sean removed the bee that was stuck in my hair, it didn’t sting me, but it did dislodge it’s stinger somewhere in the process and died as a result. Amazingly, this day was the first time in my 3-1/2 years of beekeeping that I’ve been stung while working the hives, and it was my own fault for not being prepared. I went on to harvest the honey the way I have in the past, by brushing the bees off the frames with a long stiff feather (I use a turkey feather), which works remarkably well, and despite hundreds of bees usually flying in the air I’ve never been stung doing it this way. Three frames of honey yielded us 8.75 pounds of honey, which is a bit more than 3 quarts. An amazing amount of honey to be stored in just three frames, all due to the incredibly efficient shape of the honeycomb.
We have happy bee news at the farm this spring. Not only did both of our hives survive the winter, but we have added a third hive to our bee yard. I bought myself a third hive for a birthday present last fall and had been looking forward to getting it set up for several months. My plan was to do a hive split with one of our existing hives to establish a colony in the new hive, but I had to wait until spring when the bee population increases in size before taking the split. I had been watching the activity levels steadily increase outside both of our existing hives on the warm, sunny early spring days we had been having. I wanted to be sure to do the hive split before the start of swarm season, so that we didn’t lose bees to a swarm when we could be moving them into the new hive instead. Before doing the hive split I wanted to do a thorough inspection of both hives to figure out which one was stronger and then take the split from that hive. That meant removing all of the boxes from both of the hives and really getting a good sense of what was going on inside each of the hives. Most of the time I do the hive inspections by myself, but if I need to remove entire boxes from a hive, I like to have my husband help out to do the heavy lifting.
We waited for a warm sunny day at the end of March to inspect the hives and do the hive split. Sean had the great idea to set up the trail camera so we could get some good photos. We inspected our oldest hive first, which we started in 2013. We took off the cover and inspected the honey super, which is one of the smaller boxes you add during the peak nectar flow when the bees are bringing in lots of honey to the hive. I always leave a super on over the winter to make sure the bees have enough food stores to last through the winter. There was still quite a bit of honey in the super which was good news for the bees and good news for us. Since the bees are already starting to store honey this spring, we can harvest some of the honey left in the hive from last winter. There were lots of bees bringing pollen into the hive, and we saw Queen Rosalind in the hive during the inspection. I usually don’t see the queen during hive inspections, so it’s quite a thrill on those rare occasions when you do get to the big queen bee walking around on one of the frames. There were several frames of capped brood (developing bees) in the hive, which means the queen is healthy and laying eggs, but most of the brood was on the smaller frames in the super which is not ideal since when you split a hive it’s better to take the bigger frames from the deeper hive boxes. Everything looked good in the hive, so we closed it up and moved onto inspecting the next hive.
Our second hive was started from a split we did in 2014. This is Queen Rosemary’s hive, and it has always been a strong hive. This hive also had quite a bit of honey in the honey super. There was also quite a bit of brood in this hive, and it was in the deep hive box where it should be. This hive also had lots of bees bringing in pollen, and it looked like the population was a bit larger in this hive so we decided to take the split from this hive. We took three frames with brood and eggs and two frames of honey and pollen and put them in the new yellow hive. We also shook a couple of frames of nurse bees into the new hive to tend to the developing brood. Before closing up Queen Rosemary’s hive, we did a bit of housekeeping. The wax on the frames that the bees use for storing honey tend to stay light in color, but the frames that the bees use for rearing brood tend to get very dark over time. We replaced a few of the darker frames as well as adding frames to make up for the ones we transferred to in the new hive, and we closed up the hive.
After doing the hive split, I left the new hive alone for a couple of weeks to let the bees tend to their business of raising a new queen. When a colony decides to raise a queen, they need either eggs or larvae that are only a few days old, and then they will feed royal jelly to the larvae that are chosen to be reared as queens. It is really hard for me to see eggs in the hive because they are so small, so when we did the split I picked frames that I could see young larvae on and hoped that they were young enough that they could be reared as queens or that there were also eggs on the frame. After a couple of weeks I checked on the new hive, and I saw that the bees were building three queen cells, which are large peanut shaped cells that a queen is reared in. This was good news! I checked the hive again in a couple of weeks, hoping to find either the newly hatched queen or that she was laying eggs. I did not see either the queen or capped brood during the second inspection, so I was a little worried that the hive had failed to raise a queen. If that was the case, I would have to add another frame with eggs so that they could try again to raise a queen. If there was a queen in the hive, she would have only just started to lay eggs which are hard for me to see, so I decided to close the hive up and wait another couple of weeks and check back to see if I could find capped brood. When I checked the hive two weeks later, I was very pleased to see a couple frames with capped brood in a nice tight pattern, which means that there is a queen and she is laying eggs! So now we have a third hive here at the farm with Queen Buttercup on the throne, and we couldn’t be happier to have her in our farm family.
This is my third year as a beekeeper. Every year I learn a bit more, and I feel like I’m finally starting to get the hang of it. Our two hives appear to be doing very well this year. Hive Rosalind (named after Queen Rosalind) was started in April 2013, and Hive Rosemary was started in April 2014. The early spring we had this year allowed the bees to get an early start on foraging. There has been a lot of activity inside and outside the hives for the last few months, and there is a good amount of honey being stored for the winter. We have only harvested a small amount of honey the last two years since I wanted to be sure to leave enough in the hives for the bees to survive the winter. I just don’t see the point in harvesting all of the honey from a hive, only to have to feed the bees refined sugar over the winter. After monitoring the hives for a couple of years, I am getting a better understanding of their cycle of storing honey in the spring and summer and relying on it as a food source to get them through fall and winter.
I’m also getting a better sense of how their population cycle varies throughout the year. Last spring I underestimated how quickly Hive Rosalind was increasing in size. Although I split that hive into two hives, thus creating Hive Rosemary, (Hive Splitting Day) in mid-April in an effort to prevent it from swarming, it ended up swarming a month later (Swarm Season). Due to our early start to spring this year, I was keeping a close eye on Hive Rosalind in an attempt to prevent a swarm this year. The bee population increases in early spring to provide more foragers to bring in pollen and honey to the hive. I added another box to the hive in mid-March this year, which serves two purposes. It gives them more space to store honey in the top of the hive, and this frees up space in the lower part of the hive for the queen to lay her eggs. If there is not enough space in the upper part of the hive for the bees to store honey, they will start storing it in the lower hive which means there is not enough space for the queen to lay eggs. When this happens in the hive it becomes “honeybound” and can bring about the decision to swarm. I think this is what happened to Hive Rosalind last year, so this year I added another box a month earlier than last year, and fingers crossed, it does not look like the hive is going to swarm this year. They are busily putting away honey, and I decided there was enough for us to harvest a bit more than we have the last two years.
Last week we removed three frames of honey from Hive Rosalind. The frames are covered with bees when they are removed from the hive, and we use a large feather to brush them off the frame back into the hive. Although it seems like the bees would get mad and refuse to leave their honey, this method works quite well, and it has always gone very smoothly for us. After we remove the bees from the frame, we put it in a cooler to keep the frame free of bees until we are finished collecting all the frames, and then we take them into the house. We use the crush and strain method of separating the honey from the comb, which is just like it sounds. We scrape the honey and comb from the frame, crush the comb to release the honey, and strain it through a fine mesh strainer. Our harvest yielded 7 pounds of honey which came out to almost 6 pints of honey. It was very exciting to finally be harvesting an appreciable amount of honey. Beekeeping is not an inexpensive hobby by the time you add up the costs of the hive, bees, and equipment, and it’s a bit like chicken-keeping in that way. Just like the saying that the first dozen eggs from your backyard chickens costs $500 dollars (or more in our case if you build a poultry palace!) there is probably an equivalent saying that the first jar of honey from your beehive costs $500, but in any case it is well worth it, both for the beekeeping experience itself as well as for the delicious honey.
I have been amazed and fascinated by bees since we got our first bee hive two years ago (The Bees are Here). We have been fortunate with our beekeeping thus far, and we added a second hive last year (Hive Splitting Day). As winter turned to spring, I began watching the bee hives for signs of life, hoping that both hives would survive the winter.
I had been spending quite a bit of time sitting in the chicken yard with my ailing rooster Reuben, making sure he was getting enough to eat and drink, when I started noticing something I had not seen before. The bees had discovered his waterer, and despite the fact that there were several water sources closer to their hive (including the one on the back deck pictured above), the bees began making regular trips to drink out of Reuben’s waterer. On the coldest mornings when I would go up to visit Reuben, I would notice several bees had not made it back to the hive the night before and were floating in Reuben’s waterer, waterlogged and apparently dead. I scooped them out of the water and put them on top of the little table in his pen. The next time I came out to visit Reuben, the bees looked better after having dried out a bit, and now they only looked half dead. I picked up a bee, held it in my hand, and gently blew on it. To my surprise, the bee moved its legs a bit. Wow, I thought, these bees were amazingly not dead after not only spending the night outside the hive, but drenched in cold water!
I brought several bees inside the house and put them on a napkin under a lamp. When I returned to check on them a couple of hours later, they had started to recover and were showing signs of life. Gradually they got up on their feet and started walking around a bit. I inverted a plastic bowl over the top of them just to make sure they did not stray too far. I put a drop of honey on a toothpick and soon they were gobbling it up through their proboscis. Now that was a pretty cool thing to observe. After a couple more hours, the bees were all very active and appeared ready to return to their hive. I put the lid on the container and carried them outside to the hive and off they flew to rejoin the hive. This was a truly amazing experience, and I confess that I did do this a few more times. Occasionally when I would be up with Reuben, breathing into my cupped hand, my husband would see me and yell up “Are you giving mouth to mouth to the bees again?” Once the warmer spring temperatures arrived, I saw fewer bees floating in Reuben’s waterer in the morning, and I didn’t feel the need to save every bee. Both of our hives are now bursting at the seems, and now my thoughts have turned to wondering whether one of our hives will swarm this year as one did last year (Swarm Season). Not that that is a bad thing, especially out here in the country where a bee swarm is not likely to cause anyone to panic. A bee swarm is a sign that the bee colony is strong enough to reproduce, and it is also an amazing behavior to observe.
It’s been a good year for our bees at 5R Farm. The hive that we started with in the spring of 2013 survived its first winter, and was bursting at the seems by spring 2014. I decided to split the hive in April (Hive Splitting Day) which is a commonly used method of increasing one’s number of bee hives. It’s also a method of managing the population of the bee hive, and if done correctly, preventing swarming which occurs when a hive is overcrowded. In my case I think I did the hive split a couple of weeks too late since it swarmed anyway (Swarm Season).
I’ve been keeping a close eye on both hives all summer to make sure that the hives were healthy and had a strong population capable of putting away enough honey to get them through the winter. The hive that I took the split from and then swarmed went through a noticeable decrease in its population, which had me worried for several weeks. Thankfully, the queen seems to be a good queen, and the hive population rebounded nicely. Even so, I noticed during a hive inspection in August that the hive did not have as much honey as it did at the same time last year. The amount of honey that a hive needs to get through the winter varies according to the climate, and at least 50 pounds of honey is the recommendation for our location. That may sound like a lot, but if you consider that there are thousands and thousands of bees overwintering in the hive and depending upon the honey they’ve stored as their main food source from October through March or April, then it seems entirely reasonable. This is why I leave the majority of the honey in the hive over the winter, and I only harvested a couple of pounds of honey this summer. The bees need honey for their winter survival, and if there is leftover honey in the hive come springtime, I can harvest it then. Since the hive did not have as much honey as it did last winter, I started feeding the hive a 2:1 simple syrup in August, which would allow the bees to put away additional honey for winter.
I was doing my last hive inspection of the year a couple of weeks ago and evaluating how much honey they had in the hive, when suddenly I saw the queen! I had named her Queen Rosalind when we installed the hive a year and a half ago, but I had not seen her since. I knew she was in there and was doing her job since I could see that she was laying eggs in a good pattern and that new bees were developing, and so I had not really looked for her because I like to be as unobtrusive as possible when I inspect the hive. I was going about the inspection when suddenly there she was, Queen Rosalind in all her glory. In one of my beekeeping books it says “as you inspect your frames, it is a great moment when you find the queen. Suddenly, you feel like a real beekeeper.” And it’s true, it was an exciting moment!
The second hive that we started this year built up a large population and was able to put away quite a lot of honey. I have not named this hive yet, and I’ve just been calling it the split hive, but with the excitement of seeing the queen in the other hive I decided that I really do need to name this hive too. It’s just so much more fun to be able to call a hive by its queen’s name instead of Hive 1, Hive 2, etc. I probably could have harvested some honey from this hive, but since I am still learning how much honey a hive needs to get through the winter I decided to leave all of their honey in the hive. Winter is a tough time for bees, with hive losses becoming increasingly common, so I want to give my bees the best chance of survival possible. If both of our hives make it through this winter, I will feel like I’m doing something right. I would like to start a third hive next spring, either through another hive split, or I’d also like to put out a bee bait box and try to catch a swarm. I already have the location for the new hive picked out, so now I get to spend the winter thinking up queen bee names.
I’ve been keeping a close eye on our second year bee hive this spring. The hive made it through the winter with flying colors, and it was bursting at the seams with a very strong population so I split the hive into two last month on Hive Splitting Day. Despite splitting the hive and adding an extra box to the hive, it still seemed like there was a lot more activity outside the hive than I had seen all last summer and since May is swarm season I knew there was a possibility that the hive would swarm. One afternoon I noticed several hundred, possibly close to a thousand bees flying in a wide circle over the hive about 10 feet up in the air. I had never seen this behavior before, but I suspected that they were about to swarm. I kept checking on them every few minutes for a half an hour or so, but I never saw a swarm take shape. It looked like most of them eventually landed on the front and the roof of the hive and later went back inside. That afternoon I took several walks around our property looking and listening for a bee swarm but I found nothing. A few days later I did a quick hive inspection to see if I could tell whether the hive had indeed swarmed. The hive still seemed very full of bees, and there was still a lot of honey in the hive so I rearranged the boxes as I should have done when I split the hive last month, added a second honey super (empty box for them to store honey in), and decided that all was well.
The following weekend when I went down to check on the hive, there was no doubt in my mind that the hive was swarming. This time the bees were again circling overhead, but instead of circling over the hive they were flying in circles over a dense patch of young fir saplings and shrubs, and I could see them flying down into the vegetation and I could hear a very loud buzzing, much different than the usual sound of the hive. I carefully made my way through the blackberry to where I could see the bees flying downward and sure enough, there was a large mass of bees settling in on one of the fir saplings. Rats! I was dismayed that my attempts to prevent the hive from swarming by splitting the hive and adding additional hive boxes had not worked. But at the same time, I was happy that the population was strong enough that they felt the need to swarm, as it is the natural progression of a thriving bee colony.
I considered capturing the swarm and setting up a third hive, or possibly recombining it with one of my two hives if it seemed like the population size of the other two hives could use a boost later in the year. But it ended up being quite a busy few days at the farm with the new baby chicks hatching and a few other farm projects in the works, so I didn’t have a chance to capture the swarm. Also, the position of the swarm was not ideal for my first time capturing a swarm which made me a bit hesitant to try. Overnight the swarm had moved onto the trunk of the tree from the side branch, which would make for a somewhat difficult capture so I decided it was not meant to be and left them to follow-through with their plan.
I had read a lot of discouraging information about how depressing it can be to open up a hive after it has swarmed. Half or more of the bees may be gone in the initial swarm plus any subsequent after swarms. Also, prior to a swarm the bees will gorge themselves on honey in preparation for leaving the hive and going to a new location where they won’t have any food stores. I did a hive inspection a few days after the swarm, and I was surprised to still see that the hive still appeared to be very full of bees and the honey super still had a lot of honey. To be honest, I still have a lot to learn, but with every month that goes by and with every hive inspection I do, I am learning more about the stages of hive development. Both the original hive and the new split hive appear to be successful, and it looks like we’ll be able to harvest some honey this summer.
Today was one of those days where I was excited and nervous all at the same time, it was the day I had decided to split our overwintered bee hive into two bee hives. For the last couple of months I’ve been watching the hive on warm sunny days, and I have been seeing a lot of activity. This is a good sign that the hive is strong and has a good population of bees. Last week I did my first hive inspection of the year. There were a few reasons for the inspection. One was to make sure there was enough honey and pollen in the hive and that they did not need any supplemental feeding to get them through to the start of the peak flowering season in about a month from now. Another reason for the inspection was to make sure the colony was “queenright” which means that the queen is laying eggs in a nice tight pattern and that there are all stages of developing bees (eggs, larvae, and capped brood) present in the hive. And yet another reason for the inspection was to make sure that there was enough room in the hive for the queen to lay her eggs and for the worker bees to bring in and store pollen and honey. So as you can see, it was quite a long to-do list I had for the first inspection of the year.
As often happens here at the farm, things don’t always go as planned. I conducted the hive inspection on a day when Sean wasn’t here, and not long after I started I quickly realized that I could have really used a second pair of hands. The top box on the hive is the honey super. The super is the type of box you put on the hive in the summer when the bees are storing lots of honey. I had left the super, which was almost completely filled with honey, on the hive over the winter so that the hive would have enough food to make it through their first winter. As I started the inspection I could see that most of the honey had been eaten and the queen had been laying eggs in the super and there was lots of brood (developing bees). The next step in the inspection was to remove the super and see what was going on in the hive boxes below, which would typically be filled with brood and lesser amounts of honey and pollen. I gradually was able to pry apart the two boxes, which was quite a challenge since as I’ve mentioned before the bees are quite fond of gluing the various components of the bee hive together with a very sticky substance called propolis. As I lifted the super up and away from the hive box below, I could see that there were quite a lot of bees in the box below. I also could see that the bees had built a lot of comb in the space between the two boxes and as a result there were lots of bees hanging on the bottom of the super that would be crushed if I were to set it down away from the hive to inspect the box below. Drats! Had I been prepared for this situation I could have made preparations to have an empty hive box available to set it on, but I had not anticipated this so rather than risk squishing a bunch of bees I decided to end the inspection for the day and return next week when Sean would be there to assist.
Fast forward a week and it was time for the next inspection. In the last week I had been seeing posts about bee swarms happening, and since the two top boxes in the hive had appeared quite full and I had been seeing lots of activity outside of our hive I was prepared to split the hive based on what we saw during today’s inspection. The queen and the rest of the bees typically move up in the hive as the lower boxes become full of brood and honey. They will also backfill the empty comb as bees hatch and honey is eaten, but once the hive becomes too full for them to go about their business of raising more bees, a swarm is inevitable. Rather than risk losing half or more of our bee colony to a swarm, I had decided that if the lowest hive box was as full as the upper two boxes had been, it was time to split the hive in order to hopefully prevent them from swarming.
We did the inspection today, and the hive was packed with bees. After prying apart the lower two boxes, which was quite a task since we had not separated them since installing the hive a year ago, the bees seemed a bit more agitated than usual. I had to work very slowly and carefully to avoid squishing bees as I worked to remove a few frames for inspection. It wasn’t long before a few of the guard bees began landing on our veils (the hats we wear with the screened front). I also had a few bees landing on my jeans which they don’t usually do. We decided it was time to finish up quickly and close the hive back up. We moved the middle hive box which was full of bees and brood and food stores to the new hive and put an empty hive box on top of it for the new colony to expand into. We also put an empty hive box on top of the original hive to give them some more growing room. Since one of the hives is now without a queen, that hive will need to raise a new queen. The next step for me will be to inspect both hives in a few weeks to look for signs that one hive has a laying queen and that the other hive is raising a new queen. As I’ve come to learn with beekeeping, this will be another one of those tasks that is easier said than done. But I’m doing the best I can, and although the learning curve is steep, it is truly a fascinating hobby and one that I hope to be doing for many years to come.
Our first year bee hive is thriving, and today we inspected the hive to see how much honey the bees have stored for winter. A general rule of thumb for our area is that a hive needs about 50 pounds of honey to feed itself over the winter. Based on our inspection we determined that our hive has put away about 50 pounds of honey, so we decided that we would leave almost all the honey for the bees and only harvest a little bit for ourselves. We could harvest more honey, all of it if we wanted, but then we would need to monitor the hive over the winter to see how their honey stores were holding out, and we would need to feed them a simple syrup solution until the start of the flowering season next spring. We decided to leave plenty of honey to help the bees survive the winter, and next spring if there is surplus honey in the hive we can harvest it then.
I was a bit nervous about conducting the hive inspection today since I’ve read that a hive will get more aggressive at the end of summer since they are protective of their honey stores at this time of year when all sorts of critters, including wasps and yellowjackets try to rob beehives of their honey. In the spring and summer, hive inspections are conducted during mid-day when many of the bees are out foraging, so there’s less disturbance to the hive and there are less bees on the frames during the inspection. At the end of the season at honey harvest time, it’s best to conduct the inspection either early or late in the day to reduce the potential that robbers that are flying about discover your open hive full of honey. So this morning when almost all the bees were still at home in their hive, we donned our bee veils and gloves, lit the smoker, and set about inspecting the hive.
As has been the case with past hive inspections, all of the hive boxes and all of the frames in the boxes were stuck to each other with propolis. The inspection was slow going, and I worked carefully prying apart the frames one by one and calling out to Sean how much honey was in each frame so he could write it down in the beehive inspection notebook for future reference. The bees behaved themselves very well throughout the entire one hour inspection. Then it came time to brush the bees off the two frames that we were going to take into the house to harvest.
There are several ways to remove bees from the frames before harvest, including methods as invasive as a modified leaf blower and putting boards coated with chemicals inside the hive, but the method that causes the least disruption and has the least potential to injure the bees is to shake or brush them off the frames. I bought a bee brush for this purpose, but I received a piece of advice from a fellow beekeeper which was that if you brush the bees off the frame with a turkey feather they don’t get as agitated as if you brush them with the plastic bristled brush, and they don’t get caught in the brush bristles. I don’t happen to have any turkey feathers lying around, nor do I know exactly what they look like, but I do have a great blue heron feather and I figured it would be close enough. The moment was finally upon us for what I thought was sure to be the most challenging part of the inspection and harvest, and I began to brush the bees off the frame with the feather, and you know what? It worked! After brushing the bees off the two frames, we put them into a cooler and brought them into the house.
Sean made a honey strainer out of two 5-gallon buckets and a mesh paint strainer. Although this setup is much larger than we need for this year, we figured we’d give it a test run this year and hopefully we’ll use it to its full potential next year. I cut the honey comb from the frame with a sharp knife, scraped the frame with a spatula and left it to drain overnight in the strainer. By morning we had a little jar of our very own 5R Farm honey as well as a bit of honey comb, and it is the best honey I’ve ever tasted!