Monday, October 19, 2009

A Sweet Thing!

Few experiences I've had equal that of pulling new honeycomb from a perfectly calm beehive, feeling the amazing weight of slabs of honey and seeing them emerge into the light for the first time ever.

I've done this a few times in my life, but only a few, and just yesterday for the first time with unframed comb. It was a lovely day, gentle temperatures, a little sun, plenty of shade, a few flowers still out for the bees to browse on. In keeping with the unframed comb, the come-as-come-may pace of the day, and the wistful awareness of fading warm weather, my honey-taking was incidental and gentle. I worked slowly and took only a very small fraction of what was in the hives. Of perhaps 80 lbs or so of comb, I only took about 12 lbs and left the rest to the bees with wishes of an easy winter and strong start next spring.

My real objective for the hives yesterday was in fact not to take honey, but to fit the hives with new roofs and quilt boxes, replacing the temporary plywood tops I'd had on since April. I use the Warre system for my hives: simple, no frames, excellent construction, moisture/heat management, etc....all of cedar! I have no notion of what the bees feel about these truly cadillac hives I've built for them, but the boxes certainly look sharp and elicit frequent compliments from non-bee garden visitors.

When I pulled the temporary roofs off, I saw quickly that the bees had been very happy and productive all summer. The hives were packed full with honey, completely full, three stories high. That made me so happy in turn that I determined on the spot to sample a little from one of the hives.

The bees were remarkably calm and seemed not at all to bother about my presence nor even about my hands (gloved!) in their hive carefully removing comb. I cut the comb from the box with a kitchen knife where needed and gingerly hoisted it out using a BBQ fork and a big spatula as aids. I used my bee brush to carefully remove the hangers-on. What a treat!

After a quick go-round to provision neighbors with samples, I took the rest inside to the kitchen (which still looks like a sort of Noah's Ark for vegetables owing to harvest season) where I continued to pull lone bees off of the comb and walk them back to the hive to rejoin their sisters.

The honey is delicious. In the comb you can see different honey of varying hues owing to the different nectar flows the bees harvest from across the growing season. There are sparsely scattered cells of pollen mixed in. Their construction skills are beyond compare, exercised completely in the dark to produce weirdly wild and yet uniform structures in flowing patterns built of fragrant and antiseptic materials.

It's all a miracle.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Bees Suffering the Beekeeper

My bees have by all signs had a pretty good first season. They've clearly multiplied (greatly!) and are now happily ensconced in a wildflower lined corner of the garden. I made the decision not to take any honey this year so that they'd have better stores for the winter. I keep waiting for them to post little Thank You notes on my office door or something, but so far...nothing.

This weekend I'll be attempting to redress some early foibles in my hive construction. To get them in early in the season, I put them in their hives with temporary roofs rather than the considerably more pimped out ones I've now constructed: real Warre quilt boxes with cedar shaving moisture buffers and lovely gabled roofs. So, I have to pull the old plywood temp roofs and put the new systems on.

This will be interesting because the bees have hung comb from the old temp roofs. I'll be gently separating the comb from the roof, pulling the plywood, and replacing it with the cool new versions. I'm expecting a lot of buzzing and protestation, but it'll mean much better digs (warmer and drier) for the hives this winter.

But, bottom line: this weekend's intervention will be the result of bad beekeeper planning. My bees do indeed suffer me as a beekeeper, but hopefully not too much! I'll throw in some more wildflowers next spring to make things right.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Entrance of the Bees Into Valhalla

We picked up the bee packages last weekend and put them into their new homes after a marathon session finishing up the hive construction. It all went pretty well (only one sting...for good measure) and there seems to be excellent hive activity so far.

The process of installing bees into a hive is unglamorous and un-gentle. You basically shake the bees out of the container they come in, giving it few sharp raps with your knuckle to dislodge hangers-on, and they fall in a clump down into the readied hive box. The queen (assuming you've purchased your bees...I've hived caught swarms on occasion, in which case the queen is just part of the clump) comes in a small screen-sided cage stopped with a tiny cork on one end. You pull the cork, plug the hole with a finger to prevent her from escaping, and then re-plug the hole with a piece of soft candy that the bees can eat through and place her little cage into the hive. Within a few days the bees will eat the candy, free the queen, and set about their reproductive business. Those few days afford all parties the opportunity to get to know each other well enough to avoid conflict or rejection (death!) of the queen.

I've been reluctant to poke my nose in on my hives again so soon, as they no doubt need time to settle. However, temptation got the better of me a few evenings ago and I cracked the top of one hive to see how they were doing. Naturally, the bees were doing their own thing and had decided to hang some comb off of the roof of the hive. I was delighted that they'd built so fast, but the hanging comb will present me with a minor challenge as I'll eventually have to move it when I add the Warre quilt box and roof setup later.

My starting arrangement involved two boxes on each hive with only the bottom box outfitted with top bars for the bees to build comb on. I put a single top bar in the top box, hung the queen's cage from that, and used the remaining space to accomodate the small tin of food that shipped with the bees. As there's plenty to eat now nearby, I elected not to provide them with any additional artificial food. My fruit trees, several maples, and the red flowering currant are within a few feet of the hives.

I'll be adding a hive box to each this evening and removing the temporary food can as well.

It's such a great thing to see the bees at work. Their place in the garden and in the grand scheme of things is so obvious. It's hard to imagine something making more sense.

Monday, March 2, 2009

A better way for bees?

The date for the entrance of the bees into Valhalla is slated for April 11th. So, I've been exploring and getting reaquainted with the old art of beekeeping lately.

To my good fortune, a friend of a friend of mine happens to be actively interested in a new (old) way of keeping bees called the Warre method which, among other things, dispenses with the whole frame and foundation system I've used in the past. The new approach is supposed to be better for the bees, simpler for the beekeeper, and produces higher quality honey. Also much to my good fortune, my friend happens to be super energetic, exacting and relentless in his craftsmanship, and a nice guy. So, he's already built up a set of these hives (first ones here in the Valley) and even built them to the Demeter Standards near and dear to the hearts of Bio Dynamics tribal elders. So, fancy hives, beautifully constructed, using natural materials, no ferrous metals, etc. Lucky bees.

I'm excited about the prospect of pampering my bees this time around. As I mentioned in an earlier entry, they need all the help they can get these days. The Warre method also results in new comb each harvest, so the honey is top notch. Bees build out comb from scratch using only a top-bar with a little strip of wax to start with. No wires, no foundation, no frame. New supers are inserted at the bottom of the hive rather than the top. The bees build downward and are free to move anywhere in the box they wish...even the queen. Each hive is left with a minimum of 12kgs of honey to winter over. You can read the rest for yourself using the link above.

Now, however, the heat's on because I have to build a set of hives up according to the Warre specifications! Better get busy.