Tag Archives: bee

Totally late on this post! Sorry about that.

With two different types of comb, we used two different extraction methods to get the honey. For the two frames pulled from the Langstroth hive, we used a two frame drum extractor. This holds the frames and you spin them to force the honey out. The natural comb from the top-bar hive will not work in this type of extractor, so it has to be crushed to release the honey.

For the Langstroth frames, the first step is decapping. This removes or breaks the wax cap the bees place over each honey cell. If the cap is in place when extracting, the honey cannot come out!

Decapping honey frame
Sarah decapping the honey frames.

I think most people use a decapping knife for this, but the inexpensive starter kit I purchased came with a tool that looks a lot like a many tined fork that you rake over the cells to cut through the cappings. It worked pretty well, so we will likely continue using it.

We caught the cappings and any honey that drizzled out in a cookie sheet. I've seen a number of better ways to do this online, but had not had the time to try to build something. I think that is something I will do next year, as this was a bit messy.

Once the cappings were removed, the frames went into the extractor. Our extractor fits two frames. It has a handle that you crank which, in turn, spins the frames around. You start out slow on one side, flip the frames over, and go slow again. You can then flip the frames over and go fast. Going slow at first helps prevent damage if you wish to reuse the comb in the hive.

Honey extractor in use
Sarah spinning the frames on the honey extractor.

As you spin the extractor around, the force flings the honey onto the sides of the extractor where it slowly finds its way to the bottom. It's pretty good exercise!

It takes a while, but eventually everything finds its way down. There will be bits of wax and maybe some pollen in the raw honey, but these will be filtered out. That cheap-o kit I purchased came with a pretty decent strainer to get the bigger things out. It is actually two strainers that connect to one another, a larger mesh first to get out really big things, and then a finer mesh below to get smaller items.

Filtering the honey
The honey goes through a mesh filter.

For the most part, that's it to extracting from the Langstroth frames. The comb from the top-bar hive is completely built by the bees. It can be an odd shape or size and it doesn't have the rigid frame around it, so you can not use the extractor to get at the honey. Instead you crush or chop it up to release honey.

Cutting up honey comb
Roger mashing the hell out of honey comb.

We used nothing more than a potato masher in this process. No special tools needed here.

Straining mashed comb
Straining the mashed comb.

We then moved the results into the strainer. As the honey filtered through we stirred up the wax from time to time to let any honey trapped on top get through. This process definitely took longer than the spinning extractor, but since you are cutting up the entire comb, you do get to reclaim more wax. The general rule that I've read both in books and online is that you get more honey from a Langstroth hive, since the bees spend less time building comb on premade foundations, but you get more wax from a top-bar hive. So far, this first year has certainly borne that out.

One gallon of honey
Just a bit over a gallon of honey extracted.

In the end, from the three frames, we extracted a bit over a gallon of honey. Not sure if that is normal or not, and frankly, don't really care. I think it is awesome that we were able to get any in the first place.

Once all of the honey was in the bucket, we did a final filter by passing the honey through a cheesecloth. Because this process can introduce a lot of air bubbles into the honey, we let it sit overnight before doing anything else. This also gives anything that made it through the filters time to either float to the top, where it can be skimmed off, or sink to the bottom where you can avoid it while bottling.

When we checked back the next day, there was very little to skim off. Between the mesh filters and cheesecloth we seemed to have removed anything that might be a problem (there's always some pollen in honey - it's good for you!)

We got thirteen jars of beautiful golden honey. It has an amazing flavor. Can't make any claims on where the nectar came from, it is truly a mix of whatever has been blooming. All I can say is, it beats store bought soundly!

Jars of honey
Finished jars of honey in the window sill.


Ok, so a lot has occurred in the past few days, so this is going to be broken over two posts!

This past weekend was the day of reckoning for the two hives we have been working with this summer. Time to crack them open and rob those bees of their precious, golden treasures. Since these were first-year hives, we knew we were not going to be getting a lot. Our plan was to take two frames (or combs in the case of the top-bar hive) from each hive. We would then leave a brick (errr... loaf?) of bee candy in each to help the bees replenish their suddenly dwindled honey supply.

After getting geared up we cracked open the Langstroth hive. Even though this hive was three supers deep, the bees had never really moved into the top super above the queen excluder. They had, however, pretty well filled out the two bottom boxes. It wasn't difficult to find two frames that contained just honey.

Honey Frames
Honey frames pulled from the Langstroth hive.

If you want to piss off bees, steal their honey. One managed to get a sting through my pant leg and just above my knee. It only hurt for a second, but itched like mad for a few days - like a mosquito bite from hell.

After that, we took two empty frames from the top box and placed them where the two honey frames had been. Then in went the bee candy.

Sarah with bee candy.
Bee candy placed in top box.

Closed up the box and then proceeded over to the top-bar hive where I failed to take any pictures. Sarah, however, managed to get this awesome shot of me glaring at a bit of tiny comb.

Roger with top-bar comb.
A tiny bit of comb on one of the top bars.

Apparently, I get cranky at tiny combs.

When we had inspected this colony before, it seemed like there were a number of heavy, honey-laden combs. However, this trip we only found one worth harvesting. Sarah cut the comb from the bar into our container, and I placed the bar back into the hive. Like the Langstroth before, a brick of bee candy was placed inside the hive.

So other than my sting, we got out of there pretty unscathed. It did, however, show the different temperaments of the two hives. The bees in the Langstroth hive were very aggressive. They did not like the honey frames being removed and replaced by empty frames. Or maybe they just did not like the intrusion. The weather had been pretty crappy leading up to this, so foraging had been at a minimum.

In contrast, the top-bar hive seemed pretty chill about the whole ordeal, even when the bees that were on the comb we took were jarred from it. They may have had a rough start in spring with robbers, but they definitely grew into their hive and became quite productive.

Once the combs were safely packed away in our plastic storage container we took them home for extraction. I took lots of pictures of that process and will create a separate post for that.

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Ok, while I can honestly say I've never quite "got" this particular Beastie Boys lyric (I'm gonna guess it's *gasp*sexual*gasp* in nature), it's also a fairly accurate description of what the bees have been up to lately: making new comb and honey.

Sarah and I recently opened up the top-bar hive to see how things are going. The answer appears to be "very well." The bees have been busy building new comb and setting up stores of honey and pollen. They now occupy at least two-thirds of the space in their box, with fresh comb both in front and back.

Comb in hive
Comb farthest back in the hive.

This was the furthest back comb. Not much activity on this side. It was a bit more eventful on the other.

Sarah with the bees.
Bees fill comb with honey and pollen.

This side is nearly all honey. There is a bit of pollen near Sarah's finger. This is the dark patch, filled with the blue pollen of local fireweed. Most of the new comb is being filled with honey and pollen. It seems the bees are in winter-prep mode.

In cutting some cross comb we did hit a few spots that let the honey flow. We could not resist tasting and I can say, in all honesty, that it is so much better than store bought. Store bought honey goes through so much processing that it just does not taste the same. I look forward to harvesting time.

We have had quite a bit of rain lately, and I have not seen the bald-faced hornets since the last post. Even though they were killing bees, they were fun to watch. I suspect that something happened to their hive, though I was never able to find it. Yellow-jackets still fly near the hives, but I've never seen them harass the bees. They seem to look for already dead bees. Maybe our yellow-jackets are just freakin' lazy.

Tomorrow, weather permitting, we will go check out how the Langstroth hive is doing.

One of the amazing things about keeping bees is learning about things that are not bees. There is a lot to learn, after all. In recent weeks, Sarah and I have noticed a number of other flying insects interacting with our bees. Usually, not in a good way.

One of our first encounters was about a week and a half ago, while we were checking on the Langstroth hive. We were worried, as we had not seen much in the way of larva the last time we checked, and suspected we may have lost the queen. While this trip proved that assumption incorrect with a plethora of larva, we apparently caught the attention of some sort of wasp.

While sorting through the frames, one of the workers stung my glove. I brushed her body onto a nearby empty hive box and continued my work. A few minutes later, Sarah called for me to look at something.

wasp with bee
Wasp with dead bee

It is kind of hard to tell, but that wasp is just a tad smaller than the dead bee it is attempting to cart off. It was trying its damnedest to bite the head off of the dead bee, but utterly failing. I have no idea what kind of wasp this is. I am used to yellow jackets, but they are, well... more yellow than this.

A second bee made some valiant attempts to rescue her dead sister, harassing the wasp until it flew away.

Cue to this weekend. I usually have dinner with my mother on Saturdays, and I arrived a little early to check on the bees. As usual, we hung out on the deck for a few minutes just chatting. While chatting we noticed what we thought was a large, dark bee fly by. I didn't think much of it, though she commented that since we had bees this year, she thought she was noticing other insects she hadn't seen before.

After a few minutes of chatting, I got up to check the hives. I could tell from a distance that something was up with the top-bar hive. Bees were weaving haphazardly around the entrance, and the last few feet of their flight path. The entrance was covered with guard bees. As I got closer I could see a few dead bees on the ground.

I sat and watched for a few minutes and noticed two of the dark "bees" occasionally would fly into the area and attack the bees, grabbing them in mid-flight and sending them falling to the ground. Once the bee was dead, they seemed to lose interest and would fly off seeking another victim.

But the dead bees were not left alone. A single yellow-jacket was also flying around, picking through the corpses and enjoying a free meal. What was left over from the yellow-jacket, carpenter ants were picking through and hauling off.

My closest guess to what the dark "bees" where is the bald-faced hornet. Bald-faced hornets will kill bees to feed to their larva. However, if this is the case, these hornets sucked at their job. First, they were not killing many bees; they had a high miss ratio, either missing when they went for the kill or getting run off by defenders. Second, they never ate a single bee while I was observing. Usually, the dead bee would fall to the ground completely ignored by the hornets. The yellow-jacket and ants seemed to be the beneficiaries here.

The hive entrance has been wide open for a few weeks. We initially had trouble with robber bees, so I sealed the entrance until only a couple bees could pass through at a time. This makes it easier for the bees to defend the hive. However, after a few weeks, that issue passed and I opened it back up. Now, faced with aggressive hornets, I sealed it back up again, though not as tightly.

When Sarah and I returned the next day, things were looking much better. The two bald-faced hornets were gone, though a yellow-jacket was still there probably wondering where all the free food had gone. I did see a few carpenter ants, probably wondering the same thing. I'll leave the entrance narrowed for now and see how things go.

So my mother may be right. Or maybe these things have always been around in plain view and we are now only noticing them. Raising bees has certainly brought me more in touch with the sting-y bits of nature.

Too many words, not enough pictures:

Bees vs. Wasps




Letters from the HiveNormally, I wouldn't do two book reviews back to back. Unfortunately, either from being busy or rainy or smokey (there's a butt-load of forest fires going on around Fairbanks), we didn't make it out to the hives for a good inspection last week. However, I did finish reading another bee related book, so there you go!

Today's book is not a how-to. It doesn't cover hive management. You won't get hive building tips or queen rearing advice. Letters from the Hive: An Intimate History of Bees, Honey, and Humankind delivers exactly what the title says; a history of how we, as a species, have learned to live with bees.

Maybe I'm a giant cynic, but whenever I purchase a book purporting to be a history of humankind, I generally expect a thoroughly euro-centric viewpoint.  I was pleasantly surprised to find in this book many tales from around the world. From the Mayan's stingless bees, to the floating barges of hives along the Nile and the giant bees of Asia, the history of honey hunting is a global story.

We've been utilizing the products of bees since the days of prehistory. Some of the earliest petroglyphs and cave paintings depict the gathering of honey comb from trees and steep cliffs. In many places the ceremony (and danger!) of those ancient hunts can still be seen, even in a world of mechanization and mass production.

The book provides a look at how we have used honey and wax, the primary products of the apiary. From food to medicine, the hive provides for many of our needs. Included are a sampling of recipes from around the world and throughout history. From mead to medicine and often both, we have come up with a myriad of uses for the simple products of bees.

Author Stephan Buchmann is both a beekeeper and entomologist. He is an expert on pollination and the critters that do it, particularly bees. He examines the life and evolutionary history of bees and how we fit into the changing landscape (quite literally) of the bee world. Admittedly, this book, being published in 2006, came just before the onset of major cases of Colony Collapse Disorder, but already it pointed to many of the potential causes, including neonicotinoid pesticides, monoculture farming practices and habitat depletion.

For all of human existence, we have lived with bees, utilizing the products of their industrious work. We are now in the position of destroying a pollinator that is responsible for a large chunk of the food we eat.

Late last month, I was about to go on a week of vacation, so wanted to build the next box for the Langstroth hive. Now, bear in mind, that a hive box is just four sides, no top or bottom. This should be simple. And it seemed simple. But failure is just a measurement away.

Anyway, let's get on with this. I'm gonna build a simple box. Only takes three measurements: height, length and width. Again, pretty simple. Apparently, I'm not good at simple. Below is a photo of the finished box. Looks ok, right?

deep super hive box
A deceptively simple looking box.

Pretty simple construction, three screws per joint. All of the frames fit, sort of. The tightness of the frames in the box should have been my first clue something wasn't quite right. It wasn't until I put the frame on the hive that I realized things weren't measuring up.

New deep hive box doesn't fit
New deep hive box doesn't quite fit!

The box wound up being just around an inch too narrow. It had the right length, but somewhere I either screwed up a measurement, or my math skills betrayed me once again.

I left the box on the hive while I was on vacation. With a few shims, there were no gaps allowing things to get in the hive. But I resolved to come back and build a new box.

Of course, I forgot to take pictures of the building of the new box. But with Sarah's help, we got a new one made. And it fit!

For a bit of fun, we decided to let Sarah's kiddos paint it.

Painting the hive box.
Sarah and her kiddos painting the new hive box.

Not sure which wound up having more paint: the box or the kids. But we had a good time painting in the sun on my mother's lawn. When we finished we set the box aside to allow the paint to dry.

I came by the next day to put the box on the hive, transferring the frames from the too-small box. The new box fit nicely.

New box on hive
Two sides of the new, painted, bee box.
New box on hive.
The other two sides of the new bee box.

We've placed the queen excluder on, so the new box shouldn't be used for brood. Hopefully, we'll see the bees move into their new space, soon.


And then the little shit stung me in the face.

Wait... that's a horrible place to start. Let me back up a bit.

This winter I started dating a wonderful, crazy woman named Sarah. As people navigating that whole tricky thing people call relationships we invariably started discussing things we liked, bizarre obsessions and hobbies. Turns out, we both had an interest in raising bees and robbing them of their sweet, delicious honey. Awesome!

We talked about it, read every book we could get our hands on, scoured the internet for info, and I ordered a bunch of crap online, 'cause that's what I do when I get obsessed with a new hobby. So, in the middle of winter, we had everything needed for bees except for hives and, well, bees.

Eventually, we ordered our bees from Northwest Bee Supply, a company out of Washington that supplies bees to, obviously, Northwestern states. Our bees were set to arrive on April 26. Ok, so now all we need are hives.

Sarah and I had been looking around online at various hive types. One that kept us interested was called a honey cow. The design was based around a hive body made of a half of a plastic barrel. But screw the design. I just liked the name "honey cow." We eventually decided on a standard Langstroth hive and what is called a "Top Bar" hive, similar to the above mentioned honey cow. We chose two hive types to learn more about how bees... uhm... work. Or something like that. If nothing else, building a top bar hive would give me an opportunity to improve my, admittedly feeble, woodworking skills. I'll get into the construction of that hive in a later post.

The Langstroth hive I was happy to find at Alaska Feed Company. I do like supporting local businesses, and this one has been around for a long time. It was pleasing to find out they sold beekeeping supplies. The basic hive kit came with a base and cover, a single deep brood box, and ten frames with foundation. Alaska Feed also sells additional brood boxes and all the odds, ends and tools.

Now all we needed were our bees. And since I haven't posted any pictures yet (I freakin' love to post pictures!) let's move ahead to bee arrival day: April 26.

Back of the bee van.
Back of the bee van.

Yup. That's a van full of bees. A bunch had already been given out by the time we got there. Wouldn't want to be the guy driving this thing, there were loose bees everywhere.

Boxes of bees and (somewhat impatient) customers.
Boxes of bees and (somewhat impatient) customers.

The bees were delivered near Pike's Landing, which made it awfully tempting go grab a bite and a drink. After waiting for a couple of Russian guys to stop haggling (no, you can't haggle for bees. A lesson everyone present learned.), we were given our two boxes of bees. We departed for my mother's house, where the hives had been set up.

The hives together. They were moved about 30 feet apart after this.
The hives together. They were moved about 30 feet apart after this.

I wish I had taken a picture of us dumping bees into the hives. It was a surreal moment where these little critters one usually avoids for fear of a sting are unceremoniously plopped into the middle of a wooden box. Overall, they don't seem to care about the whole ordeal.

Sarah and I had help in the form of her kids. This is an AWESOME hobby for kids to get into!
Sarah and I had help in the form of her kids. This is an AWESOME hobby for kids to get into!

In the hive now, the bees chilled for a bit. We came back a few days later to make sure the queens had been released, and found that they had indeed escaped into the inner reaches of their hives. Since late April, early May in interior Alaska is not known for its abundance of flowering plants (see the snow in the picture above?) we set up a couple of feeders full of sugary water for the bees to feast upon, which they did with relish.

Our makeshift bee feeders. Yes, they are cat feeders, but they seem to work fine. Some rocks in the feed area provides additional feeding locations.
Our makeshift bee feeders. Yes, they are cat feeders, but they seem to work fine. Some rocks in the feed area provides additional feeding locations.

Since then we've been visiting the hives from time to time to check on progress. An additional brood box was quickly added to the Langstroth hive, as they seem to be reproducing really freaking quickly.

We stopped by today to have a look. Sarah pulled one of the bars from the top bar hive.

Sarah pulling one of the bars. Is that comb I see?
Sarah pulling one of the bars. Is that comb I see?

Now, there's something important going on here. See how Sarah was wearing good, proper protective gear? Yeah, I was a cocky bastard and didn't do that. See, last week I'd stopped by to visit my mother and on a whim checked this hive. Didn't have any gear with me, so just winged it. The bees didn't seem to care, and I got away with it.

Not this time. One of those cranky bastards stung me on the cheek. Lesson learned. We knew the bees were riled up about something before we started. There were a bunch gathered around the entrance and they seemed aggressive. Poking around seemed to reveal some other bees, with a different color pattern (mostly dark abdomens, not as pronounced stripes) near the entrance. Perhaps we were in the process of being robbed. I'm still uncertain.

Anyway, karma is a bitch and she kicked my ass, or my face, whatever, today. That said, it's obvious that even after a few weeks, these bees have been crazy busy. The bees were released at the center of the hive and have already built up comb a few bars forward and back. They are collecting pollen and producing honey and more brood. I'm shocked at how fast these queens are producing brood.

bee hive comb
Comb and bees! Lots of capped cells. These girls have been busy!

And that is where we are today. Our goal with this blog is to post the things we see and learn. To complain when shit isn't going right and to cheer when it is. Sarah and I are now 1 to 1 in terms of stings and it is bound to go higher!

Look at this bee. This be if fucking awesome!
Look at this bee. This bee is fucking awesome!