Wednesday, October 12, 2011

My Adventures in Honey Extraction, or "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let Gravity Take Over"

October 9, 2011: Extraction Day! The time had finally come to harvest the honey I had been anticipating for the past year and a half. I left work in a hurry to get out to the apiary before it got too dark to open the hive. The honey frames were nice and heavy, and almost completely full, with the exception of the two on the ends - but even these had a very respectable amount of capped cells. Once the bees figured out what I had come for, they were less than cooperative, but patience and fortitude in the face of a very unhappy swarm prevailed, and I made off with four of the eight frames in the Blue Hive's honey super.

I had spent the previous week building a homemade drill-powered extractor, and while it worked beautifully during its test runs with two empty frames, it failed to meet expectations once the heavy, honey-laden frames were clamped in. But we needn't get into that. My design flaws were minor, and with some small modifications, I'm confident that it will work properly for the next harvest. I didn't feel the need to expend any further time or energy to fix the extractor when I had half my crop waiting there already, so instead, I resorted to the "crush & strain" method. It's less efficient and more time-consuming than using an extractor, but I didn't really have much of a choice.

A honey extractor is, essentially, a large centrifuge. Within a stainless steel barrel, an appropriate number of frames are secured to a central vertical rod, which spins them at high speed and forces the honey out of the comb and onto the inner walls of the cylinder. The honey is then allowed to collect at the bottom, and a valve (called a honey gate) is then opened to pour it out. There are several advantages to using an extractor: it's fast and clean, and manages to remove almost every drop of honey from the comb. Furthermore, the comb itself is left intact - though with the cells now empty - which means less wax to strain out, and also saves the bees the time and effort required to build it up again when the frames are restored to the hives. The crush & strain method, on the other hand, is slow and messy, it destroys the comb, and leaves a significant amount of honey unrecovered. However, it's cheap and easy to do, and provides a lot of wax to be collected by the beekeeper, if desired.

So, instead of using my newfangled contraption, I used the age-old method and set to work slicing all the comb off the frames into a strainer atop a 5-gallon bucket. Once I finished removing the comb from the four frames, all there was to do was wait for the honey to drip through, occasionally crushing and stirring the pile of wax in the strainer in an attempt to separate out as much of the sweet stuff as possible.

 I let the comb sit in the strainer overnight, and disposed of the wax the next morning. A couple of days later, I returned to the hive to remove the remaining four frames, and repeated the process. All told, I ended up with about 2.5 gallons (maybe 30 pounds) of honey from one medium 8-frame super. Not a bad bit of work for a single colony in a single season - and the honey is the best I've ever tasted. I couldn't be prouder of the girls of the Blue Hive. In the spring, I'll replace their super so they can start the process again, and the Yellow Hive, which will then be a year old, will receive a honey super of its own. I should hopefully have the kinks worked out of my extractor by then, and next year's harvest will yield twice as much.

But the saga doesn't end there! Here's a little bonus story for you:

I had planned to return to the apiary the following day to retrieve the remaining four honey frames, but as the morning was cloudy and chilly, I decided not to disturb my bees until the afternoon, when their mood would improve with the weather. In the meantime, I had left the freshly-extracted frames on Ginny's driveway. Sometime before the sun had come out, though, some nearby bees had discovered the frames, still slowly dripping with raw honey ripe for the taking, and had told all their friends. By the time I was aware of this development, the frames were covered with tens of thousands of bees. The air in Ginny's backyard was thick with them, and the sound was intense. It was quite a dramatic scene. There was nothing we could do but wait until dark, when the bees would have returned home with their spoils. I was happy; I felt good about having helped a local, likely wild colony prepare for winter, and my sticky frames got cleaned for free.

It wasn't until that evening, when the bees had left, that we saw the aftermath. There were hundreds still left on the driveway, most of them dead, and the rest staggering around, dying. At first we thought they had gorged themselves to death, but when we investigated, here and there we could see pairs of bees locked in combat - one riding another's back, stinging repeatedly. They had not eaten to bursting. This had been a war between at least two competing colonies. Had this taken place in the summer, the bees may not have fought over the honey, since food is so plentiful, and since both colonies were stealing it - but with the scarcity of available nectar in October, what probably started as a big honeybee party ended up as carnage. It was a sad sight, but now I know that we actually played a small part in helping two (or more) colonies survive the winter, despite their losses, which were minimal compared with the number of foragers that returned safely home with full loads of honey.

But now, a moment of silence for those sacrificed in the Battle of the Driveway.

Thanks for reading. More to come soon.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Bee Informed, Part 7: Breeds

The Western Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) is one of four species of honeybees in the world, and the one that American beekeepers primarily work with. Like most other domesticated animals, the species has been tinkered with extensively, and many distinct breeds have been created by humans in order for their bees to possess certain desirable and predictable traits, regarding their behavior, swarming tendencies, honey production, etc. The following is an overview of the most common breeds found in American apiaries, beginning with the most common:

  • Italian (Apis mellifera ligustica):
Also called the "Golden Italian," this is by far the most popular breed. It is considered the best general-purpose honeybee, and as such is the "default" bee used by beekeepers. It is usually recommended to novices. These are what most people think of when they think of a honeybee: black head and legs, and black and orange/yellow bands on their abdomens.

Pros: Easy to work with and docile, Italians are a good "beginner" bee that builds comb quickly and are excellent foragers. The queens are a bit darker than the lightly-colored workers, which makes them easier to find in the hive. They have only moderate swarming tendencies and don't produce much propolis. They exhibit strong hive-cleaning behavior and are resistant to European foulbrood.

Cons: The Italians are a bit slow in their spring buildup, and brood rearing continues during the fall, after the honey flow has stopped. They also tend to build a lot of burr comb, which is a nuisance to beekeepers. Because their foraging area is quite small, they have a tendency to rob other hives, and to leave their own hive to join another (known as "drifting"). They are also susceptible to disease.

  • Carniolan (A. mellifera carnica):
The Carniolan originated in Slovenia, and is often used in eastern Europe and the Balkans. They are light brown to black in color.

Pros: They tolerate cold better than most breeds, foraging earlier in the morning and in cooler, wetter weather. Since they also overwinter well with less honey stores, because the queen stops laying eggs during the fall, they are ideal for higher latitudes. Brood production is also dependent on the availability of food. These have a rapid spring buildup and are excellent foragers. Like the Italians, they are resistant to brood disease and are very calm and easy to work with, but they build less burr comb.

Cons: Because brood rearing relies on food supply, their populations will fluctuate. Carniolans also tend to swarm quite readily.

  • Caucasian (A. mellifera caucasica):
As the name implies, these bees originated in the high valleys of the central Caucasus. They are a silvery-gray to dark brown.

Pros: With a longer tongue than most, these bees can take advantage of food sources inaccessible to other breeds. They create strong, populous colonies and overwinter well by stopping brood production in the fall. They also forage earlier and on cooler days, and are generally fairly calm.

Cons: Caucasians have a slow spring buildup and have a tendency to rob. They produce an abundance of propolis, making it difficult for beekeepers to work the hives. They also produce wet capped comb, which is undesirable for the sale of honeycomb. They are susceptible to disease, especially nosema, and if alarmed, they are difficult to calm again. They are quick to sting.

  • Russian (A. mellifera sp.):
Russian honeybees have only been available to the general public since 2000, and are a relatively new breed. Originating in the Primorsky region, they showed a strong resistance to mites, and have been bred for that purpose.

Pros: Resistant to Varroa and tracheal mites, with a good winter tolerance and good spring buildup. Fairly calm in the hive, and easy to work with.

Cons: They are expensive, and are a bit defensive. They tend to headbutt as a defense, as well as sting. Their productivity can be unpredictable, and they are prone to swarm annually.

  • Buckfast (A. mellifera, hybrid):
This breed was created by "Brother Adam" of Buckfast Abbey, by breeding Italians with native English bees in an attempt to produce a bee that was more resistant to parasitic mites, which were causing a lot of trouble for English apiaries during the early 20th century.

Pros: Highly resistant to tracheal mites, and resistant to chalkbrood. This is a very docile breed and unlikely to sting in England, but more defensive in the U.S. (The reason for this is that U.S. import regulations prohibit the importation of the pure Buckfast strain, forcing American apiaries to impregnate non-Buckfast queens with frozen Buckfast drone sperm.) They overwinter well, and are not prone to swarming.

Cons: They have a slow spring buildup and are not very productive foragers in the spring.

  • German Black or European Dark Bee (A. mellifera mellifera):
This was the first honeybee imported to the Americas by the earliest colonists (according to some sources, this breed was brought over on the Mayflower), but now are almost impossible to buy in the United States. It is a distinctive brown or black.
Pros: Native to England and Germany, this breed overwinters very well, and tolerates cold and wet climates.

Cons: These bees tend to be excitable and defensive, making them difficult to work with. Moreover, they have a slow spring buildup.

  • Africanized Honey Bees or "AHB" (A. mellifera, hybrid):
I include these on the list, not because they are "popular" (in fact, these are about the least desirable for any apiary), but because we tend to hear so much about them. AHBs are also known as "killer bees" for their high aggressiveness and sometimes lethal defensive tendencies. The Africanized bees are essentially a hybrid cross between Italians and an African species, A. mellifera scutelata, and are sometimes simply (and erroneously) referred to by that name. They were bred, successfully, by the USDA and in Brazil in an attempt to create a very productive, disease-resistant breed, but with the unpleasant side effect of being very easily alarmed and prone to stinging en masse, often for no discernible reason.

Pros: Extremely productive, producing large honey yields. Disease resistant.

Cons: Mean as hell, but indistinguishable from Italians.

There are many more breeds of honeybees, mainly hybrids, that are not included on this list, but these are the most common in use in the United States today. Both of my hives, incidentally, are non-Africanized Italians. I promise.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Spring Forward

Winter is a boring time to be a beekeeper, I've discovered. It's nothing more than a four-month waiting game, and I'm happy it's over. And I'm sure that if I could ask them, my bees would agree with me. I had gone out to the hive a couple of times during the winter, on warmish days, to check on the colony and make sure there were no signs of catastrophe. These visits were very cursory, and I had very little to report, other than the hive was still standing and still inhabited. I did find some dead bees around the hive, though, and some even as far as thirty feet away, frozen on the snow. These casualties were most likely the result of cleansing flights that took too long, or maybe cabin fever. Bees become restless when there's nothing to do, and some may actually have taken flight in a desperate attempt to forage, despite the freezing temperatures and complete lack of flowers, like a shipwreck survivor swimming away from a tiny island because he could swear he sees a ship on the horizon. These fifty or so deaths didn't concern me, though, as a loss of fifty out of 30,000 is a good winter.

But spring has sprung now, and the plants are budding. Vinland Valley Nursery, right next door to my bee yard, is open for business again, and that means so is my hive. And for Christmas, Ginny bought me a new bee house, and on April 7, I received a new package of bees in the mail. I had been looking forward all winter to starting up a second hive, and the time had finally come. After a day at work that seemed longer than usual, I piled the newly painted hive and the shipping container of bees in my car and raced out to the site. It was also the day I could add a honey super to the existing hive. Finally, I can start collecting rent from my tenants!

When I got there, I saw that foraging was in full swing. The old hive was, if you'll excuse the expression, abuzz with activity. Foragers were set to their tasks with renewed energy, and younger bees were taking their orientation flights around the hive. It was as though winter had never happened. I decided to add the honey super to the old hive before setting up the new one. However, I made a couple of amateurish mistakes that day, which made that particular objective impossible. Firstly, I had neglected to take a shower after work, so I was sweaty and likely a bit more pungent than the bees were used to. Beekeeping manuals suggest a shower before interacting with bees, because any attempt to open (or even to approach) the hive is regarded as an invasion. Since bees have such a powerful sense of smell, a sweaty invader is even worse than a pleasant- or neutral-smelling one, and it also allows them to locate you more precisely. The second mistake that I made was to forget to bring my smoker. To be fair, I knew they were mistakes as I made them, but I continued anyway, partly due to impatience on my part (I had already gotten there, after all), and partly in a "what's the worst that could happen?" spirit of discovery. Perhaps you can guess where this is heading.

I suited up and lifted the cover off the hive. The bees inside were immediately annoyed by my presence, and the volume of their buzzing increased tremendously. As I began to pry off the inner cover, however, they declared war. Within half a second, there were dozens of bees flying directly at my face - and not in the inquisitive way that I was used to. I knew that opening the hive without smoking was sure to trigger an alarm, but I was under the impression that I could get the cover off, slip the queen excluder and the honey super on, and close the hive again in a relatively short amount of time. The fact is, I was completely unprepared, psychologically, for the bees' reaction. I was wearing my bee jacket and gloves, of course, but the sight and sound of so vicious a defense threw me into a near panic. I was forced to retreat several times, and each new move I made toward the hive again sent a new wave of defenders speeding toward my head. And I hadn't even gotten the inner cover off!

When I felt a tiny "zap" on my hand, I felt I was beaten. I retreated farther away, a good 25 feet, to allow the bees to calm down again. The new plan was to regroup and approach the hive one last time - this time to just replace the outer cover on and leave them alone until I could return with the smoker. As I was removing the stinger from the leather glove, I felt something else, a soft tickle on my stomach, under my bee jacket and under my shirt. I don't think I have ever removed an article of clothing so quickly in my life. Sure enough, one of the defenders had managed to defeat my armor and was crawling on my bare stomach. Thankfully, though, it was one that had already stung my clothes somewhere else, and was harmless. I brushed her off and caught my breath for about a minute before putting the bee jacket back on (after carefully checking the inside for others, of course). I then summoned some courage and walked through the thick cloud of very angry bees to replace the roof of their home.

The sting that I had felt through the glove was surprising, but it did not actually penetrate my skin. I'm certain that I was stung many times during those ten minutes or so, but the protective gear did its job. Next time, I think I'll let the smoker do its job too.

I next turned my attention to hiving the new colony. The best spot I could find, as far as level ground was concerned, was about two feet away from the original hive. I decided to work fast. When hiving a new colony, a smoker is not necessary, as the bees in the shipping container don't have a home to defend. They're tired, hungry and confused after their ordeal, but they aren't aggressive. So I got the new hive body set up on its cinderblocks, removed a couple of frames, set the queen cage inside, and poured the approximately 10,000 bees in. The next step was to set the feeder on top and fill it, and finally to place the cover on top. Everything went smoothly, and I set the shipping container in front of the entrance so the remaining bees could find their own way to their sisters. When everything was done, I gave both hives their space and observed the activity from a safe distance. As I watched, the aggressiveness of the original hive subsided and turned into curiosity before my eyes. The colony was clearly investigating its new neighbors while the new arrivals oriented themselves to their surroundings.

...And then there were two. I now have a proper apiary, rather than just a hive, and I will return next week to check on the newbies' (see what I did there?) progress. The first hive will also receive a honey super, whether they like it or not. And they really will like it, they just don't know it yet. Moreover, I will enter a new dimension in my experience as a beekeeper: the management of two hives, and the collection of honey. The hives also have names now, according to the colored squares I painted on the front: last year's hive is the Blue hive, and the new one is the Yellow hive (despite its base color being a light blue). Seeing the two situated next to each other is a beautiful sight, and I couldn't be happier. I'll have more to share in the coming weeks and months of this new season, so stay tuned.

Buzz, baby.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Beehavior: The Swarm

Spring is almost here, and that means some colonies are soon to be warmin' to some swarmin'. Usually when people think of a "swarm of bees," they think of a noisy, sting-y cloud of angry bees turning a picnic into a panic by chasing everyone in sight, and the only remedy is to reach the safety of the nearest building or body of water. But while it is true that any large group of bees can rightly be called a swarm, I'm referring to the spring swarm phenomenon. (By the way, if you have annoyed a colony of bees enough to make them chase you en masse, it is not recommended that you look for a lake to jump into. Bees may have a brain the size of a sesame seed, but they aren't stupid. If you jump into neck-deep water, you not only slow down your escape, but you also effectively present your head as a convenient target for them. The obvious result of that tactic is being stung and wet. It is much better to run straight for the nearest building or vehicle.)

The other, less dramatic kind of swarm is the spring swarm, a behavior that honeybees exhibit in late spring. Once the weather has warmed and enough rain has fallen to provide good foraging for a colony, it may decide to divide and relocate. This is a natural way that bees propagate the species, and can happen for several reasons: starvation, a disease or other problem in the hive, or more often than not, overpopulation. Colonies don't always swarm, and beekeepers take certain steps to prevent it, mainly by adding empty honey supers to an existing hive, thus keeping the bees interested in filling it rather than searching for more preferable locations. Some beekeepers will also clip the wings of their queens, preventing her from flying, thus ensuring that the colony stays where it is - although in my opinion, that practice is both barbarous and unnecessary.

In preparation for a swarm, the workers will rear a new queen, and before she emerges from her cell, up to 2/3 of the colony, along with the present queen, will suck up as much honey as they can before simultaneously leaving the hive. They then will roost in a large group on a nearby tree, fence, building, car, or anything at all, really, while scout workers search the area for a good place to start a new hive. This can sometimes cause an inconvenience and a bit of anxiety to people if the bees happen to decide to choose a house, a car or a lamppost to rest on, but these swarms are not dangerous. Although a group of several thousand bees congregating on your front door is a disconcerting sight, they typically will spend one or two days at most in that location before moving on to their new chosen hive.

How do they choose a new hive to inhabit? Several hundred scouts, which are necessarily experienced foragers, will fly up to several miles in their search for a promising home. According to Thomas Seeley, chairman of the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior at Cornell, an ideal nest site is a tree or other natural cavity with a volume greater than 20 liters, with a south-facing entrance smaller than 30 centimeters a few feet off the ground. Presumably, there must also be an abundance of available flowers nearby, as well. Once a scout has discovered one to her liking, she will return to the swarm and announce her discovery with the familiar "waggle dance," the same language she uses to report the location of a plentiful source of nectar when foraging. Several scouts will find suitable locations, and will each return to the swarm with their report. Scouts will dance more energetically if the site they found is very promising, and the discoverers of less-than-ideal locations will dance less energetically. Scouts that encounter more energetic dancers on the swarm cluster will eventually decide that their location isn't worth arguing for, and stop dancing altogether. Some have even been seen changing their vote to support the more suitable location found by a different worker. In this way, a consensus is finally reached, and the scout with the most excited dance will have her way, and she will then lead the entire swarm to the new hive that she has found. Once the swarm has arrived at their new home, the queen gets settled inside and the workers begin their orientation flights, memorizing nearby landmarks so that they can begin foraging again. The bees must return to work building comb quickly, as the new hive is usually an empty one.

Whether swarms are considered a nuisance or an object of interest (or even terror) to most people, to beekeepers, they are often considered an opportunity. A hive cluster, often comprised of tens of thousands of bees, plus a queen, is a free colony for a beekeeper with an empty hive in their apiary. If a swarm has congregated on a tree limb or other easy-to-reach spot, all a beekeeper needs to do is to suit up and shake or brush the swarm into an empty box, then transport it back to their hive. Everybody wins. The only risk that a beekeeper takes in doing so is that because the swarm is "wild," there is no way of knowing if the bees are diseased. Still, it's a risk that most are willing to take. So if you see a swarm this spring, don't call Pest Control. Try a local beekeeper first. They, and the bees, will be grateful for it.