Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Honey and Mite Check Challenge

The University of Minnesota has a Bee Squad, and yes, it is as cool as it sounds. They are building an entire building devoted to pollinators, specifically, bees. As part of their ongoing efforts to keep bees safe and healthy, they put forth a Mite Check Challenge for two weeks in October. The goal is to get as many beekeepers as possible to do mite checks on their hives, and report back so they can compile all the information.

Well, since we are "newbees", and we are going to try and overwinter the hive, I thought it might be a good idea to do a mite count. From what I have learned, there are a few key ingredients to overwintering a hive besides a little insulation an prep work on the hive itself. To increase the chances of success for overwintering, a colony should be relatively strong and healthy, that is, have sufficient numbers to overwinter. They should have as low a mite count as possible. And they should have sufficient honey stored up in the brood boxes to eat over the winter.

We also learned that we were supposed to take off the second honey super as well, lest the winter cluster move up into it and damage or kill the queen. So today was also a day to collect the last honey out of the super.

I started out by taking the top cover off of the hive, and finding the inner cover littered with bees!

Inner cover after about ten minutes sitting beside the hive.

This is always a good sign, as it speaks to healthy population.
I removed the frames from the remaining super, brushed the bees off of them near the lower hive opening, and put them in a Rubbermaid tub to bring inside.

Then I took off the super box to look into the hive itself.

iPhone likes to focus on things other than what I want it to...grr...

I was greeted by a large number of bees on the top of the frames. Again, a good sign! I checked a few frames on the top box. LOTS of honey stored in there, it was nice and heavy.

Then I set that box over on the table I had set up, and dug into the middle box. Lots of honey stored in there as well. Then it was time to do my first mite check.

Now, apparently, Varroa mites don't like to cling to bees when the bees are covered in powdered sugar. So awhile back, the U of Nebraska invented a method of checking for mites that went like this...

Get a half cup of bees.

This is much harder than this short sentence makes it out to be. I pulled a frame out of the middle of the box, checked to see if I could see the queen on there, then shook those bees into a shoebox. (I saw all of this on youtube videos, and they made it look a lot easier than it actually is, too.

Then, you are supposedly able to pour those bees into a half cup measure and then into a jar with a mesh top. I'm not sure how it worked so well in the videos, but when I tried to "simply" pour the bees into the measuring cup, the great majority of them took flight and headed back to the hive, or around my head. That first try netted me about a dozen bees. Not enough to do a mite count, since a half cup of bees is 300-400 bees.

So, I gave it another shot with another frame, this one covered top to bottom with bees. I shook the bees into the box and poured a clump of them into the measuring cup, and quickly from there into the jar. By this time, there were roughly five THOUSAND bees buzzing around, wondering what the heck was going on. My heart was racing. Even though I was in my bee suit, this was more bees flying around than usual.

I dumped the powdered sugar in and gently covered all of the bees.

They didn't sound happy, but I figured the sugar was a pretty good peace offering. I also made a mess of the table. But the bees will clean that up, I suspect.

After a few minutes, I shook the jar like a salt shaker (maybe a bit more gently) and shook the mite infested sugar onto a tray. After it was all out, I added some water, and just like in the videos, the mites appeared.

stupid autofocus

Unlike the videos, there were surprisingly few mites in the water. In the videos, they were counting into the tens and twenties. I got five. (The smallest little dots.) There was a bigger black speck of dirt, and a pollen glob (upper left) but that was it! I sent a message to the Bee Squad letting them know my findings, and they responded that our mite count of 1-2 per 100 bees was pretty good! So, they've got a good population of healthy looking bees, lots of honey stored up in the brood boxes. Fingers crossed that they will overwinter well!

Meanwhile, I took the tub of frames inside and started scraping the full frames into the bucket. We don't have a fancy extractor, so we use the old scrape it off and let gravity do its thing method. There was not as many full frames this time, as the bees have been moving honey down into the brood boxes for the winter. But we'll probably get another gallon or so.

 Honeycomb on the frame
 Scraped frames.
 half scraped
 scraped into the bucket, well... into the mesh bag in the bucket
 Hung over the bucket to drain overnight
After just a few minutes. We'll see how tomorrow goes!

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Not Just Honey

Our gravity draining system seemed to work exceedingly well!

We ended up with 2 and a half gallons of honey.
That's 31.6 lbs. of golden sweetness

Then we took the wax/honey mash leftover stuff and put it in an 8x11 glass pan and cooked it at 170F for a LONG time. But what we ended up with was about a pint and a half of now pasteurized honey, and a nice cake of beeswax.

Which I had to break up to get out of the pan

One of my sister in laws is going to take some and make some lip balm and stuff out of it. So I shredded her a pack.

Tastes nothing like mozzarella

Yet another little gem from the hive - we got a little bag of a substance called propolis after we processed the wax/honey mash.
Tastes nothing like beeswax

Propolis is made by bees when they collect sap from conifers and birch trees, mix it with some wax from their wax secreting glands, a little pollen, and- of course- a touch of honey. They use it like glue, to seal holes, connect things in the hive, even create tunnels and pathways. Propolis apparently has anti-EVERYTHING properties. Antibiotic, anti-fungal, anti-viral, anti-inflammatory. It can be made into a mouthwash that can help toothaches and inflamed gums. It can be swallowed in a pill form to help with sore joints, GI problems, allergies, and other stuff. So, we're going to process it by freezing it and grinding it into powder, then mixing with various liquids (water is ok, but there are apparently not many water soluble parts to it) Some people soak it in vodka and use it as a tincture. Whatever we end up doing with it, it should be interesting!

I also whipped up a little honey butter... because...

Who knew that bees produced so many good things just doing what they do!

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Honey Harvest

It was a day of new experiences for our little clan today. Our first big honey harvest... well, big for us, anyway.

We had previously pulled a lone frame from one of the supers, just to get a little honey.  But since the stars finally aligned for us, we decided to go up on the hill and harvest what we could. There were so many unknown variables that we had a very general plan. But I think things worked out pretty well.

First off, some history. We haven't opened the hive since late July. Most beekeepers would frown upon this, as when you read up on beekeeping, it seems imperative to get in there every week or so and see how the bees are doing. That's how I did it from when I added the bees until early July, when I realized that I had most likely killed my Queen by my frequent intrusions into their world.

In discussing it with my lovely, wise wife, she reminded me that bees have been doing their thing in the wild for millions of years without being checked on by their human overlords every week. She suggested that after we re-queened with a local queen, that perhaps we should keep our hands out of it and just let them be bees. I, being the control freak that I can be with hobbies, hesitantly agreed, keeping to myself my belief that the colony would fail within days.

Of course, she was right, and our bees just kept on keeping on for the rest of the summer. I did peek in on them in mid-July to see how things were going, and was so amazed by their progress that the only thing I needed to do was to put on another super for them to fill with honey. (supers are the shorter boxes that sit on top of the hive. A queen excluder is placed between the hive boxes and the supers to keep the queen from laying eggs in the supers)

Most of our local beekeepers harvested their honey at the end of August/ beginning of September, but for a multitude of reasons, we just weren't able to get it done then. Colder weather set in, and we had resigned ourselves to just leaving the hive alone for the year.

But - this weekend we had a warm snap, temperatures up to 80 degrees! So we decided to try and get a little honey! Other things we suddenly had to think about were whether or not to try and overwinter the colony. We couldn't make that decision without knowing how the colony was doing though.

So we decided to go with the flow a bit. We have two deep hive boxes and a super-turned-hive box at the bottom of the hive. Then the queen excluder, then two 10 frame supers on top of that. If the hive was healthy, we would expect to see a large number of bees all over the place when we opened the top super. As we removed boxes, we would be able to tell how the colony was based on the number of bees in each level.

Another factor of hive health is the nemesis of the beekeeper - the Varroa Mite. Those little buggers will destroy a hive. Signs of infestation include bees with little red mites riding on them, and bees with malformed wings from baby mites growing alongside the larval bees. Hive populations plummet when infested.

I had been a little concerned about Varroa, because we didn't do any treatments on our hive to combat the mites. Our local keepers use various chemicals to fight the mite, and will gladly tell you that they treat their hives without even checking to see what mite levels are because everyone just assumes that a hive will be infested. Since we used nothing, and as the weather cooled down I saw fewer and fewer bees around the hive, I was a little worried.

We decided that if the colony was failing, we'd just take all the honey from both supers. A dying colony doesn't need the stores of honey for overwintering after all. But if the bees seemed to be doing well, we'd take the honey from one super, and leave the rest for the colony for their winter stores.

So the kids and I got the smoker going, geared up in our bee suits, grabbed some tools and headed up on the hill.

I was so very pleasantly surprised to see many, many bees buzzing around the supers as we opened the first one up.
Lotsa bees = Lotsa Honey = Happy Beekeepers!
We had our system all ready to go. I pulled a frame, handed it to the Boyo, who held it while I brushed the bees off. Then he walked it away from the hive a bit where Sweet Pea was waiting by a big Rubbermaid tub. She opened the lid, the frame went in, and she closed it up again. It didn't take long to pull ten frames. We took some from each super, as some of the frames were in the midst of being refilled by the bees. I was able to get a good look, and a good listen, into the hive boxes and realized that the bees both looked and sounded great! the hive frames were covered, and the buzz from inside the hive was really, really loud! We had the numbers, which was a good sign. But how were they with Varroa?

Well, I snapped a few pictures to check them up close later, and guess what I found... or didn't find...
Look at all of that capped honey! Look how pretty these girls look! Look at all of those bees under the excluder! Healthy, Happy Hive!

Look at their little backs. No red dots hanging on there! And look at those wings! Beautiful and well developed! So - I'm not sure if we have a Varroa free hive, but we certainly have healthy and happy bees!

We took our tub of frames into the house and got ready for processing. We don't have a spinning extractor, so we are going to use the scrape and press method. This means simply scraping everything on the frames right into the mesh bag and then suspending it above the five gallon bucket and letting the sweet, sweet liquid gold drizzle down.
Gravity. Much honey. Lotsa wax.

We'll leave that to drain overnight, then give it a good squeeze to get every last drop we can in the morning. So far, it's looking like we've got about two to two and a half gallons in the bucket!

We'll put the wax/honey leftovers in a pot and heat it up. Then dump it into a pan. As it cools, the wax will separate from the honey (hopefully) and we'll be left with some pasteurized honey and a block of beeswax!

That will be for another post though. For today though, we had a fun, educational, and sweet time working with our bees!