Friday, August 31, 2012

The Full-Moon Honey Offering and a Blessing

I have told the story before but I am going to tell it again. Buddhists from India and Bangladesh celebrate a special full-moon observance, Madhu Pumima during the month Bhadro (August/September). It is celebrated as a joyous day of unity and charity to the temples with the giving of honey and fruit in remembrance of Buddha's retreat into the Parileyya Forest to reunite two monastic factions who were locked in a heated debate. The disciples could not be reasoned with so Buddha went into solitary retreat as subtle encouragement for them to work out their differences.

While in the forest Buddha was attended to by an elephant who fed him fruit each morning. A monkey saw the elephant serving Buddha and brought a honeycomb to offer. Buddha received it but did not eat the honey, so the monkey took back the honeycomb and considered it. Seeing bee larvae inside, he took them all out and then took only pure honey to offer. This time Buddha accepted it and ate the honey. The monkey was so excited he began jumping from tree to tree and fell to his death.

The monks, who had split into two groups agreed to make up their differences and make peace and sent a representative to Buddha to invite him back to the city. The elephant was so heartbroken to see Buddha go and died right then and there. The elephant and the monkey, after dying were reborn as devas in the Tavatimsa heaven.

To commemorate the events of the forest Buddhists bring honey and fruit to local monasteries and celebrate unity and peace. So it was particularly fitting that we held our blessing to coincide with this traditional festival.

 Minnesota is home to the second-largest Tibetan exile community in the U.S. and is also home to a traditional Buddhist monastery. Gyuto Wheel of Dharma Monastery, the first western branch of Tibet's Guyto linage was created under the guidance of His Holiness the Dalai Lama with a two-fold mission. In addition to daily practices in meditation and mindfulness, including the often-recorded multiphonic chanting and creation of elaborate butter sculptures and sand mandalas, the Gyuto monks share instruction passed on directly from the historic Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, while also preserving the unique traditions of the Tibetan monastic life preserved in Exile. In addition to offering teachings the monks will preform traditional Tibetan Pujas, or blessings for any number of occasions.

So last night, in observance of the Blue Moon which will come to its full phase this morning, we  invited the Monks to come and bless our honey crop and enjoy an offering of honey from our 2012 crop. I had originally planned a Puja in the bee yard back in June but something came up and the event had to be rescheduled. Now that the bees are in a more agitated state with little to no nectar flow and robbing by bees and humans I thought it would be best to spare the Monks a possible sting.

Paula and I picked up the monks at 5:30, along with my good friend Pema who served as a translator and cultural ambassador, making sure I had the Khata's folded properly and guiding Paula and I through the blessing.

We gathered in our "honey room" where stacks of boxes full of frames packed with honey stood front and center. I spent hours cleaning and organizing the honey room not only for the blessing but our extracting party on Monday as well. The Gyuto Monks are gifted in chanting prayers, blessings and mantra's. The unique and powerful multiphonic chanting fills rooms, activating the body and mind to transcend mundane discriminative thought and bring about an integrated state of enlightenment. The transcendent beauty of their chants, combined with the dramatic power of traditional monastic dance serves to heal, inspire, and transform. Our little honey room was filled with harmonic chanting! For me it was a visceral spiritual experience.

When the blessing was done we did a short extracting demonstration for the monks so we could offer honey right off the frame for them.

 We made an offering to the monks to take back to the monastery and eat as well as a little jar for their alter.  I  also gave them a candle Paula made from wax we collected  during our first year of bee keeping. We also showed the monks a wonderful slide show Tina put together show casing our bee keeping activities and then sat down to a traditional Indian dinner which I have to say was over the top and they loved it. Tina brought Ziva Jane and Tashi Losar out to meet the Monks and they were a big hit as well.  To end the evening we had our exchange of Khata's and the Monks gave us each a set a Tibetan prayer bead and filled two of our honey jars with blessed water from the Puja.  The blessed water can be taken down to the bee yard and sprinkled on our hives to extend the blessing for healthy bees, healthy land and forgiveness from the bees for robbing them of their honey.

When we dropped the Monks off at home they took Paula and I into to see their prayer room and alter. I have been to the monastery a few times but I am still in awe each an every time I enter this sacred place. To top off a perfect night on our way home we were guided by the nearly Blue Moon, high in the sky, nearly full, shining brightly and talked about how wonderful the evening was. We both agreed, this is a must do for every harvest. As I sit writing this the now full moon is shining low in the sky right outside my window and I am filled with a since of contentment, peace and joy. I am just a little closer to  the spiritual part of the bee keeping that drew me to this place to begin with. I am grateful to have my bee keeping partner Paula who loves this as much as I do and grateful for my connection to our Tibetan  American Community. I want to extend a special thank you to Pema for all her work in helping make the night go smoothly and my friend Nancy who helped coordinate the Puja.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Extracting: Take One

Finally we get to use the extractor. We have enough honey this year to make good use of this fun piece of equipment. We have five full boxes of honey to pull, some deeps and some shallows. Since we are hosting an extracting party on Labor day we wanted to have a dry run today. Mostly I wanted to pull from the the uncapped frames or minimally capped frames to check our moisture content. I have had the boxes in a closet for a few weeks with a dehumidifier trying to lower the moisture content. When I checked it two weeks ago it was about 18.9, not low enough for my comfort. Today, so far we are measuring between 15 and 16.5. I couldn't be happier. I can tell too, the honey is thick and slow, not thin and runny.

As you can see I am nearly giddy. I got a new electric uncapping knife and it is the bomb!! So much easier and faster than the knife we have been using which is a standard uncapping knife that has to be heated in hot water every time you take a swipe. This just pulls the capping off and it drops down into our uncapping tank. There is a fair amount of honey in the caps so we will let it drain for a few days, strain the honey and the wax capping debris and then freeze the wax for candles later in the fall. Paula was much better at uncapping than I was. It isn't as easy as it looks and you don't really want to go too deep with the knife. Below you can see a frame Paula is working on that is really dark. This frame is from a brood box and is full of pollen! The honey has a slightly more robust taste to it as well, based on the finger full I took.

Once we had three frames completely de-capped we slipped them into the extractor. We have a tangential crank extractor that is basically a centrifuge with a cage inside a drum to hold the frames and then spun round to throw the honey out of the cells by centrifugal force. The honey runs down the inside of the drum and is drawn off into a container through a gate at the bottom. Both the electric knife and the extractor help preserve the structure of the combs so they can be replaced in a hive after extraction. It saves the bees a great deal of work! We will also return the extracted frames to the bees so they can clean them up as well.

We like to strain our honey and I think most people appreciate that. So the honey leaves the extractor and goes into a five gallon bucket that has a series of mesh strainers. The honey passes through the strainers but the bits and pieces of wax, comb and bees stay behind. The five gallon bucket has a gate  from which we can dispense honey into jars. I must say, we have a nice little operation going here. The cats stayed out our our business and we finished about a box and a half in less than four hours. It was a great dry run.

 I did a few things to make the process run smoothly. Since our honey room is essentially our back room in our condo I  cleaned everything out but our extracting equipment. I set up a long table with all of our supplies, pales, strainers and equipment including a crock pot set on the keep warm mode full of steaming water and a pile of wash cloths to help keep our hands clean. I covered door knobs in plastic wrap and put newspaper down on the floor, keeping a stack of newspaper handy to cover any honey drippings. The last thing you want is to track honey through the house on your shoes. We made far less of a mess than our previous two years and crock pot was pure genius.

I am glad we are having a party, mostly to get some help with the labor of extracting the honey but also because it will be a really fun way to end the summer.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Deep down in Katrian's Drone Den

It is a busy week for me. With almost 15 gallons of honey to harvest I have to rearrange my canning schedule. The last two week of August, when I usually start my canning routine will be completely consumed with the honey harvest. So in addition to trying to get down to check on the bees I am in full gear with the caner and over my head in tomatoes. But I love it. There isn't much work to do in the bee yard per say but we do need to inventory the hives so we can plan for overwintering.

I've heard rumblings of a goldenrod nectar flow. Can I just say if indeed there is any goldenrod nectar coming in I am glad we pulled our frames early. Goldenrod honey sticks like wet sweat socks. As far as I am concerned the bees can keep that nectar for themselves. Driving down, I did notice the the yellow bloom along the ditches but I also noticed plows out mowing the ditches depriving the bees of any last minute sources of nectar from the goldenrod. I know, the ditches are an eye sore, people are allergic . . . but seriously people the bees need the pollen and the nectar even if it is stinky! My hives don't smell and my bees are angry as all get out so I don't think they are bringing in any goldenrod at all.

Paula is out of town this week so our back-up beekeeper Colleen came along. Colleen is a good worker and fearless. August can be a hard month to inspect the bees. When the nectar flow stops and beekeepers are taking honey the bees go into a guarding mode. They are very aggressive and difficult to deal with. Since we have pulled as much honey as we are going to take the inspections now are to determine what honey stores are in each hive and where we need to move honey to for wintering.

On this particular visit I wanted to go deep into Katrina's Drone Den and see what kind of stores she has and try and spot her queen.  The bees were very agitated and annoyed with our snooping and somewhat combative against our helmets and veils. I get a little uneasy when they are like this,  recalling the 15 stings I got last August. I don't need another National Geographic Photo op!

We made our way all the way to the bottom brood box. Three queen cells, lots of brood, no queen sighting and maybe two frames of honey. I was looking for a marked queen which was probably narrow minded, maybe this was the hive that swarmed back in June and re-queened herself.  I went ahead and removed the queen cells and a tuns of really crazy comb and brood formations off the frames. I will admit, I was a little careless. The hive appears to be queen right, has plenty of room and obviously not enough honey for winter. I am not sure what the queen cups are all about and I hope we are not headed for a late summer swarm. Regardless we will have to raid either Crazy Comb or The Turquoise Bee and move some frames of honey over if we want to over winter these girls. I guess we were a little greedy in our harvesting.

Next week we will do the same in Colleen's Royal Ruckus, go deep and assess her honey stores. We saw her queen last week so it will really just be a matter of determining how much honey she has and needs.

After that I'd like to think about combining Mr. Abbott with one of the two hives we are going to overwinter. She just isn't mounting any sort of population and without any honey her bees starve to death over the winter. Might as well strengthen another hive rather than loose the bees. It would me sacrificing a queen however and god knows I hate that!

The hard work will be getting to the bottom of Crazy Comb and the Turquoise Bee at just the right time to take honey from them for the other hives without creating a situation for robbing. We will have to think that one through.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Mission Complete All Our Frames Are Pulled

Five full boxes! Barring some miraculous capping action in the next few weeks we are done pulling frames of honey. Paula and I went down to the apiary today to size up what was what and decide how much more we could afford to take. I still feel like we are missing honey but we really don't have any evidence of robbing so my detective hat remains on.

Our over all game plan is to over winter Katrina's Drone Den and Colleen's Royal Ruckus. They are both new this year, well tempered with healthy queens and good honey stores. In fact, we caught a glance at The Yellow Lady in Colleen's Royal Ruckus today. It was really nice to see her. We took a brood frame or two of capped honey from each of these hives and slipped in frames without foundation to replace them. We didn't take much from the supers of either since there wasn't much other than comb and some nectar.

We also went down to the first brood box in Crazy Comb and took another two brood frames full of really nice dark capped honey. The population in Crazy Comb seems less than robust with obvious evidence of major hatching and no eggs. We do have some brood so the hive has been queen right until at least two weeks ago I am guessing and may still be queen right, who knows. We are not going to over winter Crazy Comb so any more frames of honey will be moved before winter to Royal Ruckus or Drone Den. No point in wasting good honey. I am still speculating that this is the hive that swarmed the end of June and obviously re-queened itself (for the second time).

We peeked in Mr. Abbott as Paula wanted to see what was going on. Nothing new with this Ferrell like bunch of girls.

Finally we went down as far as the first brood box in The Turquoise Bee. I am so ready to put these girls to bed. While I didn't get stung they remain an ill tempered group of girls who have no idea I have poured my heart and soul into their very existence. We took two frames of honey from the brood box and a few super frames out of her as well. She has a box full of nectar sitting on top that the bees simply won't cap. They can have another three weeks to work but that is it. Any honey left in The Turquoise Bee will get moved over to the hives were are overwintering.

 Last August the bees really didn't cap anything so I am doubtful they will do much more. If they do bring any more nectar it is bound to be golden rod which stinks like hockey socks and the bees can keep that for themselves. Right now, I think we have our crop and it is a beauty! Most of the capped honey is a nice pearl white but we do have a few frames of really dark yellow. I managed to scape about a cup of honey from the bottom of the Tupperware box that we used to transport the frames home. Just enough to tide me over until we start extracting.

So now we move onto the extracting phase of season. It is going to take some labor to get our crop jarred. Get your muscles in order we are having a party!  I am still working on a Tibetan Blessing with our local Monks. In the mean time its all about getting ready to extract. I finally decided we had enough honey to invest in our own refractometer. By the time I would be done running back and forth to Stillwater every time I want to check the moisture content of the honey I would have paid for the darn thing in gas. So tomorrow my very own hand held refractometer should come in the mail. Takes me back to the early day of my nursing career when I had to test a certain body fluid for specific gravity on a routine basis. At least I will know how to use it.

Monday, August 6, 2012

6 Legged Robbers???

Hum, I am not sure what is going on in our bee yard. It has been about 10 days since I last checked on the bees. I went down then to remove the bee escapes I put on too early. I remember taking somewhat of an inventory. We had at least four supers full of honey that were well on their way to being capped off,  maybe 65% and at least three boxes full of uncapped honey.

I went down this morning to do a cursory check and see if it was time to put the bee escapes back on in anticipation of pulling more frames on Wednesday with Paula. I was a little dumbfounded to find what seems to be far less honey in the boxes, all of them. I was hoping to find the top boxes completely capped in which case I was going to put the bee escapes on just below the top boxes. Instead I found the boxes to be much lighter than they were 10 days ago. There are a few frames of capped honey in one or two of the boxes and some honey but nothing compared to what had been there.

Bees will try to rob honey from another hive. Robbing is usually seen in the spring before a nectar flow or in late summer with the nectar flow has ceased. When there isn't another source of nectar bees will look for other sources. Usually stronger hives will rob weaker hives.

What makes me really pause here is that I don't see any significant evidence of robbing behavior. There isn't a frenzy of fighting outside any of the hives. Wrestling at the entrance is a good give away but lack of fighting isn't proof that you don't have robbing going on. It could just mean the robbers have over come the guard bees. I have not found piles of dead bees in front of any hive, another indication a battle has taken place. Most importantly I don't see capped honey torn open, another telling sign. All our hives are strong but one. The strong hives all had plenty of honey,  and it seems like the bloom is good which would mean reasonable nectar sources. I can't see any reason for the bees to go out scouting for alternative sources of honey. We do have a week hive, Mr. Abbott's Little Bee but there has never been any honey in that hive to begin with.

That being said we are down honey, no doubt about it. It is very puzzling. Of course we could have robbers coming in from another apiary, who knows. Bees can be very sneaky which is why I don't see much evidence of anything suspicious. I am going back with Paula on Wednesday and hopefully she will have some insight after she sees the situation. Until then, keep your fingers crossed that more honey doesn't disappear between now and then.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Honeycomb Another Gift From The Hive

We collect it all summer long. Honeycomb, the hexagonal wax cells the bees build on the frames of foundation we place inside the hive boxes. It is here that all the action takes place. In the brood boxes the comb contains the larvae, pollen and stores of honey. Actually the bees will build it, frame or no frame, and they will build it just about anywhere we leave space for them. I will admit, we are not tidy beekeepers and we have yet to master the "respect the bee space" rule. Our bees, they build crazy comb, in fact that is how one hive got its name, Crazy Comb. Every time we would do a hive inspection in Crazy Comb her first year we were dumbfounded by the amount of crazy erratic comb the bees kept building!  Technically it is called burr, bridge or brace comb.

Bees secrete wax to build comb and it takes about 8.4 pounds of honey to secrete a pound of wax so really, it is a very precious commodity. The color of the wax comes from pollen and the cocoons embedded in the cells and the tracking of many bee feet, called travel stain. That is why brood box comb is darker than the wax in supers where the bees are hopefully just storing honey.

I am not going to get into the geometry of the comb. I am a beekeeper not a mathematician. Suffice to say it should be considered one of those wonders of the world.

Burr comb is comb that is placed in globs or bumps or connecting sheets perpendicular to the main frames of comb, or in any small space and is great for drone cells. Burr comb is also called brace or bridge comb. It clogs up hives and makes a mess and good beekeepers remove it to keep the hive tidy and manageable.When we inspect our hives, especially Crazy Comb we try and clean up the mess but it can be tricky. If the burr comb is in a brood box and we can't find our queen we don't want to go poking around with a hive tool, removing comb that a mess of bees are working on. After all Her Majesty might be lurking around and god forbid we remove her, hurt her or worse, freeze her to death.

What wax we do collect all goes into Ziploc bags from week to week.  It gets to be a sticky mess. Periodically I go through the bags, remove dead bees and other junk and transfer the wax to a large Tupperware that goes in the freezer. Our first two years of beekeeping we didn't have more than a frame or two of honey to harvest. The only way to get the honey was to pull if off the frame with our hands which destroyed the comb. Of course we kept it, several pounds total,  froze it and several months later Paula showed for dinner one night with a tiny little tea light candle she had made. I was slightly dumbfounded all that wax had been reduced to two tiny little tea light candles but squealed with delight. This year we have enough frames that we can save the structure of the comb on the frames by using an extractor, basically spinning off the honey in a centrifugal fashion. The combed out frames can be stored over the winter and put back in the hive in the spring giving the bees a huge jump start.

We will cut the wax capping off the frames and combine them with our summer scraps and hopefully  Paula will do her magic sometime this winter turning the mess into a candle or two. People eat comb honey as well. I am not a fan but my friend Patrick prefers his honey with a chunk of comb so I try and cut a chunk of frame comb for him. I am just not a fan of having a mouthful of wax to chew on and eventually spit out when enjoying my honey. To each their own I guess. The bottom line is that it isn't just honey that the hive produces, there is wax as well and in the spirit of not wasting anything I am grateful Paula turns our wax into something useful and fun.