Saturday, September 22, 2012

Of Bees and Beekeepers

This being our second year of beekeeping, we approached managing the bees with firm conviction in our philosophy of "Healthy Bees". Deciding over the course of the long months of last winter that what we really wanted to manage for was healthy bees (honey and other bee "crops" being a happy side effect of our mantra). Our approach to the ominous and ever-present varroa mite was of the mildest and closest to natural product we could find -- thymol (oil of thyme) and a firm conviction that we would not take off every last tablespoon of honey but instead leave much behind for the bees.

We embraced the spring with all four hives surviving and an optimism that, like all farming optimism, would be challenged during the year.

We lost one hive to a drone-laying queen. This is when, basically, a queen runs out of sperm with which to fertilize eggs leaving only her  DNA to create drones.  This condition means that there are no worker bees to create honeycomb, tend brood, bring in nectar, pollen and propolis. Drones' only function in life is to mate and thus they are a terrible drain on the colony. We fumbeled our way through dealing with this finally dumping all the bees out quite a distance away from the hive and requeening it with a strong queen and some bees from another. It survived quite nicely.

One of the hardest things we have to do as beekeepers is not OVER-manage our hives. Especially as new beeks, we definitely were too invasive last year. Even so, watching for signs that the bees may swarm does require some in-the-hive interventions. But we still had two swarm--one almost to the point of the death of the hive. Again learning another valuable lesson about bees -- they have an agenda.

So even with one drone-layer colony and two swarmed colonies, we had one hive that just blossomed (love the pun). The queen was strong, the colony expanded and, wow, could the workers ever bring in nectar. From this hive alone we got 97 pounds (approx. 44kg) of honey.

So we got busy extracting. Now this is really STICKY work! Supers of honey (the wooden boxes that are put on top of the hives) are filled with frames and on these frames, worker bees build comb. Now in the bottom boxes a lot of this comb is used to raise brood -- thus it is called brood comb -- and is very dark compared to honey comb.

In the upper most boxes the workers build honeycomb (although the blighters can get filled with brood if you have an agile queen). This comb tends to be white or light yellow wax, which is also highly prized for candle making.

Worker bees out foraging collect nectar in their honey stomachs and pollen on their legs and backs. All this comes back to the hive for storage in comb. While in the honey stomach, an enzyme called invertase is added to the nectar and converts the the sucrose (type of sugar in nectar) to fructose and glucose. Basically, the bee pre-digests the nectar.

Once back at the hive the nectar is regurgitated (yep honey starts out as bee vomit!) and packed into the comb. Then the process of reducing the moisture content through fanning begins. Once the moisture content is decreased to 17% the bees cap the comb with wax and--VOILA--honey storage!!

This capped comb is how a beekeeper knows the honey is ready. If taken before that at a higher moisture content the nectar will attract yeast and ferment -- but not in a good way like when making mead. The result is a bitter and will rapidly spoil. 

On the other hand, honey at the right moisture level is nearly impermeable to yeast and bacteria so last nearly forever -- as made apparent by findings of edible honey in Egyptian tombs.

With capped honey comes the Beekeeper's greatest day -- extracting day.

More about this in the next blog.......