Monday, September 17, 2012

The work of Fall

It took three trips to the bee yard to collect all of the boxes and frames we needed to remove before fall. Yesterday, after a weekend of funeral events for Tina's father I couldn't have been happier to head to the bee yard with Paula. It has been awhile since we were there late in the afternoon. We tend to do our work in the morning. It was hot and the bee yard was full of activity. We were a little dumbfounded to find the bees completely unwilling to part with the cleaned out boxes. Hundreds of them clung for dear life to both the boxes and the frames. We used brushes to get the off the frames and placed the frames in our heavy construction bags getting tuns of bees trapped in the bags.

They weren't necessarily agitated just clamoring to stay on the frames and boxes. We decided to go ahead and do two full inspections starting with Royal Ruckus. We easily spotter the Yellow Lady in the top brood box. There wasn't much brood, the colony seems to be downsizing although we didn't find a pile of dead drones outside any of the hives but they have clearly moved into a fall mode. The queen  seemed to be sort of wandering the frame, not laying a thing during our watch. We kept her out for several minutes just watching her move about. The other bees didn't seem to interested in her or her activity. We also found our unmarked queen in Crazy Comb in the top brood box. Again, not much brood and she just seemed to be wandering around aimlessly. We don't want this hive to over winter and probably should have done away with her but neither of us had the heart in the moment. I am just still so unsettled about how to manage things.

Once we moved our bags and boxes up to the car it was very evident we had a huge problem. Bees, everywhere! Hundreds of them milling about the car, the bags, the boxes, the equipment. We have had bees follow us up to the car before but not more than a handful and always milling about us! There wasn't a prayer we were going to get the equipment back into the car without getting bees in the car. We finally decided to leave the empty boxes, get the bags into the car and we kept our bee suites on, turned down the windows and drove to a nearby parking lot to reassess our situation. Most of the bees had blown out of the car, enough that we felt comfortable taking off our suites and continuing home.

We returned this morning hoping to finish pulling everything and inspect a few more of the hives. It was a very cool morning with a light mist, darker than usually as the days are getting so much shorter. The bees were quite and docile and we didn't have any battles at all. It couldn't have taken us more than 30 minutes to get our work done and pack the car. Lesson learned pulling empties is much easier in the cool dark morning than a hot fall afternoon. We will have to remember this for next year.

We won't go back for a few weeks. In the mean time I need to do some home work and figure what we want to do in terms of over wintering decisions and management. Paula's daughter is interested in having a hive or two so we may just gift her some used equipment and keep our fingers crossed. If we end up with too many hives in the fall we can give some to Kristen and not get to worried about it right now.  I have the bags of frames siting on the back porch. I am going to wait a few days before opening them and getting them stored for the winter. All the empty boxes need to be scrapped and it is just too cold to tackle the job today. Besides the bags are full of bees right now and our bees suites are in the laundry after a misty muddy morning.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Getting Stung Sucks Big Time

This is what I aspire to. I want to be the kind of beekeeper that is simply fearless and unwavering in confidence. When I began this endeavor I imagined I would be one of those beekeepers who worked the hives maybe wearing a veil, maybe not. Who the hell wore those bulky bee suites?

This of course if Marla, my other girlfriend, entomologist and beekeeper extraordinaire. She makes me weak in the knees and when she speaks I come undone.  Let me reassure my readers, Tina is the love of my life this is just a silly junior high like crush, I am sure we all have them.  Besides, Marla doesn't give me the time of day.  I don't think she even noticed when I was one of about 10 in a crowd of 200 that raised my hand when asked who had a good harvest this year during the Minnesota Hobby Beekeepers Meeting last night. Seriously Marla? I was one of a handful, don't you want to know what I did to get 20 gallons of honey? I may not have imagined donning a bee beard but I surely expected to be opening up hives with my bare hands, unencumbered by additional protective clothing. Then I got consumed by the idea of getting a tic, deer or wood, didn't matter and I went into full combat mode and ordered the bee suite, the veil, gloves and then some.

Well things have not panned out as I imagined.  For awhile I convinced myself I was just protecting myself from the tics. Then I started getting stung and the protective gear got a little more, well shall we say complicated. Now I can not imagine going into the bee yard without my veil, bee suite, gloves and today I am kicking myself in the butt for not putting on the calf high boots I usually wear.

My stings seem to get worse and worse each time I get stung. I would have expected them to temper over time but no such luck.  Paula and I had lofty ideas today, hoping to pull all of our empty boxes, 11 of them. We started with Mr. Abbott, the smallest and weakest hive. Good golly can you say population explosion! The bees had made their way up four boxes and while they did do some cleaning they mostly capped off small bits of honey in two full boxes of frames. Its all patchy and there isn't a prayer we could extract it, nor is it enough that it would be worth moving to another hive. It just isn't worthy of winter food stores. So we got started and dang if those girls didn't get agitated beyond measure. Paula got stung first and left the bee yard while I made a fleeting attempt to carry on but then I got stung and by the time I got to the car Paula got stung again. I got stung in the exact same spot as last time, right over the medial aspect of my ankle joint. I know perfectly well that by tomorrow morning my ankle is going to be so stiff and swollen that I won't be able to walk for a day or so. Paula, well she got stung in the same place on both of her ankles. Typically she doesn't react like I do but both of us felt like we got a hefty dose of venom.

We quickly regrouped and considered our situation, the bee yard now loaded with warning pheromone would not be too welcoming. We'd only pulled two out of 11 boxes. I suggested we go at this piecemeal and take it a hive a visit. Paula agreed but when we got back into the bee yard we decided to try to pull a few more boxes. All in all I think we pulled five which is a good start. The bees did an excellent job of cleaning the frames and the boxes. They are dry as a bone.  We put all the frames inside  four or five large construction bags and just tossed the boxes into the car. When we got in the car we sat in silence for a moment or two, listening to a few bees trapped inside the bags buzzing away. It is such a lovely sound in an odd sort of way.

During our ride home we tried in earnest to talk about the pros and cons of wintering and not wintering the bees. It is such an ethical dilemma for me personally. How can we not try to overwinter all of them? How can we deliberately compromise their ability to overwinter? I am not going to get into the merits of this conversation today, trust me it is a hard one to have. A beekeeping peer of mine likened it to feeling like the sorcerer's apprentice in that Mickey Mouse cartoon from Fantasia in which the brooms kept multiplying and Mickey kept falling further and further behind. Coming out of last winter with two hives that became five. Going into winter now with five could mean 10 in the spring and going into the following winter with 10 could me 20 in the spring and so on and so forth. You can see the problem at hand I am sure. I just want to be a four colony hobby beekeeper, nothing more, nothing less. How do I accomplish that in a way that is responsible and ethical and economical?

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Jarring is a job!

It took the better part of the day and it didn't make a dent in the honey supply. When I was finally done I think I had 70 jars of honey. I love packaging and while my labels are not ideal they work and I like them. It was important for me to have the name of the apiary on the jars and a little explanation about the Turquoise Bee on each jar. Mission accomplished.

Colleen's Royal Ruckus
I also wanted to highlight the hard work of my dear friend Colleen who has come down to the bee yard on countless occasions to help us out, especially covering for Paula when she was on vacation this summer. Beekeeping is physical labor, the boxes are heavy and it really takes two of us to lift boxes and work the hives. Colleen and another friend Katrina both won the hive naming contest so each of them are getting jars that have special tags with the names of their hives on the jar. Hopefully they will enjoy gifting honey from "their hives" to friends and family.

Katrina's Drone Den
It was a sticky mess. The 5 gallon bucket with a honey gate dispensed the honey to fast and in too thick a stream to go from bucket to jar. So, I had to dispense honey into measuring cups and the pour the honey into each jar. Of course dribbles and spills ensued and it was particularly hard to get the jars cleaned afterwords. I am mailing a fair amount of honey off to friends around the US and in France so then there was the job of packing the honey for mailing.

Each jar was wrapped in tissue paper and then went into a cellophane bag before going in the box which then got put in another box for mailing. I am still working on getting everything in the mail but I got a good start and all of my Rosh Hashanah honey should be delivered in time for the New Year's tradition of dipping apples in honey for Rosh Hashanah!

Finally I am going political!  Anyone in Minnesota getting a jar of honey is also going to get a plea from the beekeepers to VOTE NO on the homophobic marriage amendment going on the ballet this fall. This amendment is very personal for me. Not only am I opposed to the amendment but I oppose using the constitution as a vehicle to create policy and law. For crying out loud we couldn't even pass the Equal Rights Act for women in this country through a constitutional amendment. 

Paula and I are headed back to the bee yard tomorrow to pull the frames and boxes the bees have hopefully cleaned up and hatch our plan for wintering. I am hoping to get some good tips tonight at the Minnesota Hobby Beekeepers meeting for wintering and "not wintering" colonies as we only want to winter two of our hives.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Clean Up

It was a great party. By the time my head hit the pillow my feet were pounding but I felt completely satisfied! We had pulled off the best honey extracting party ever and while we sent everyone out the door with one or more bottles of honey we are sitting on at least 15 gallons of extracted honey. Once the house cleared Paula and I finally got a change to sit down, eat and recap. It was a great success and a fabulous way to spend Labor Day. Everyone seemed to really enjoy learning about the bees and seeing the process of getting the honey from the frames into the bottles. Fortunately kids loved cranking the extractor and kept it going for four full hours.

The clean up, well that is another story! It took the better part of Tuesday morning for me to get the honey room clean up. The extractor went into the shower and took about an hour to clean with hot water, dish soap and more cranking to agitate the sticky mess covering the inside of the tank. While bagging the boxes full of frames I dropped two boxes on my shin. A bloody mess ensued. Tashi Losar found his way into the honey room and got his paws stuck in a puddle of honey and stared running amok. It was a comical scene to say the least. Blood pouring down my leg, sticky honey hands trying to catch and sequester Tashi . . . By noon I had everything under control, cleaned up and the boxes ready to go back to the bee yard.

I wanted to start bottling honey but there are still way too many air bubbles from the extracting. It takes a week or more for the air bubbles to rise out of the honey and it is worth the wait! Clear golden honey in a jar is much nicer to behold than cloudy bubbly honey. So I am waiting patiently hoping I can get my Rosh Hashanah honey delivered in time for the Jewish New Year in a few weeks.

Paula and I went down to the bee yard today to return the empty boxes and frames to the hives. The bees will clean up the frames and the boxes in no short order and we can pull them off and store them in Paula's garage over the winter. It had been several weeks since we checked on the bees, too long for both of us. The bees, well they probably appreciated the break from our poking around but we missed them and we missed being in the bee yard. I am happy to report all five hives are healthy, thriving and queen rights. They all seem to be bringing in some nectar, and we saw plenty of golden rod along the road driving down but no nasty locker room smell in the bee yard. Typically golden rod sticks like athletic socks. There is some new capped honey in some of the hives and all had good brood patterns. We weren't looking for queens just some evidence that the hives are queen right.

We will go back next week and pull the boxes the bees clean and check on them. At some point we will have to shore up our assets, determine if we need to feed them syrup to help build up their winter stores and eventually put them to bed for the winter. If we have an Indian Summer the bees might just keep pulling in golden rod nectar and we won't need to  feed them at all.

In case you missed the video show casing our activities here it is again:

Monday, September 3, 2012

It's a Honey Harvesting Party! Don't Miss The Fun!

I have been planning this party for no less than three years. It is almost like checking an item off the bucket list! We have never really harvested enough honey to showcase our little hobby. Finally, after three years we HAVE HONEY! Oh we have gotten honey in the past, just not enough to host a party showing off our packed and capped frames, demonstrating how the extractor works and offering little bottles of honey to anyone who comes.

I didn't really know this year would be different but I was hopeful. After all, we managed five, count them, five hives. How could we not not get a bumper crop. For years I have been telling Paula about my friend and beekeeping mentor Patty who got 20 gallons of honey one year. Neither of us could really wrap our minds around that until we started pulling frames in early August. Five full boxes, one a brood box, 50 frames in all. Then we knew, we had a bumper crop and the party was on. There wasn't much planning to do after all  I have planned this party in my head for three years. Now it was just a matter of executing the plan.

First up, get the honey blessed! Another bucket list item. I spent days getting the honey room ready, ordered an electric uncapping knife to make the job easier, collected five gallon buckets to store the honey, ordered little jars and labels for the honey . . . endless activity. I roasted two 12 pound turkeys to make pulled turkey sandwiches, made a few gallons of Chipotle corn, black bean and tomato salad, a double batch of sun dried tomato dip, and bars, bars, bars. The food will be good. The company will be fab and the honey will be front and center.

I am sure a sticky mess is about to ensue. Tashi Losar and Ziva Jane are not invited. I don't need little cat paws full of honey running amok but they sure helped with the preparations, stalking the turkey and trying to get into the brownies and making sure the tables are to their satisfaction!

If you can't join us at least you can enjoy the little video Tina made for me showcasing our beekeeping.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

A Photo Essay

Photo by Sue Vruno
My friend Sue is a photographer, and a very good one. I invited her down to the bee yard mid summer to capture some images of the bees. I am somewhat spellbound by what she captured. The detail in her work is captivating. Fortunately our trip was during a major nectar flow so the bees were very docile. Sue was able to take photos while the bees were completely consumed with tending to the brood, bringing in nectar and capping honey. Below are a few of the stunning images she captured. It was a fun day and I am grateful to have such amazing photos of the bees at work. Thanks Sue!

Crazy Comb Photo by Sue Vruno
Sticky business Photo by Sue Vruno
Moving Wax? Photo by Sue Vruno
Photo by Sue Vruno

Capping honey Photo by Sue Vruno
Capping Honey Photo by Sue Vruno
Packing in the Honey Photo by Sue Vruno
Tending to the Brood Photo by Sue Vruno
Photo by Sue Vruno
A Pile of Bees Photo by Sue Vruno