We Did It!

Honey is here!20150810_142221

After giving the triangle board a few days to work its magic, we stole the full honey box right off the top of the hive. We got all suited up, lit two smokers, set the honey box in a wagon, wrapped it in a sheet, and booked it on out of there.

We needn’t have worried. The bees didn’t even seem to notice that we were making off with a month’s hard work, and the honey box was completely deserted. The triangle board could not have worked better!

Actually, it could have worked a little better. The bees who left late must have been tipped off that something was up, because some of the honey had disappeared. After a certain point, every bee must have taken a bellyful of honey when she went through the triangle board. It’s not a huge loss, though, and it’s likely just been moved to the next honey box.20150810_141555

We brought the honey box back to Kim’s house and set to work spinning. I’d heard of “spinning honey,” but I’d never known what to picture and certainly didn’t think to take the term so literally.

When the bees declare a cell full of honey, they cap it off with a layer of wax. It’s almost as if they know what we’re up to and are trying to make it harder on us. To clear a path for the honey to slide out, we have to remove every single cap. For the first frame we used a tool that looked like a pointy afro pick to poke them out. For the next frame we tried out an electrically heated knife that came with the rental equipment. It was a lot more effective. It was like running a hot knife through butter. Except the butter was wax.

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Once the first three frames were uncapped, we initiated the next phase. This contraption is the extractor itself. A tall cylinder with a hand crank on top, it’s a lot like an ice cream maker. Inside are three wire racks, each of which holds a frame. It’s like an ice cream maker with a rotisserie chicken cooker inside.

With the frames loaded up, it was time to spin. And spin is exactly what we did.

Turning the hand crank whirls the racks around and the honey, uncapped, gets flung out of the comb by centrifugal force. It hits the walls of the cylinder and slides down to collect in a reservoir in the bottom. I gave it 200 cranks in one direction, flipped the frames, and gave it 200 in the other direction. I threw in another 50 for good measure at the end. Honey

Here I am getting into the spirit of things.

Between the hot knife and the spinning, we got a nice two-man procession line going. Before long we had all nine frames extracted and were ready to move on to filtration. At this stage, the honey contains a lot of wax and more than a few stray bee parts. You gotta strain. Disastrously, our rental equipment was missing its filter! My huge brewing straining funnel stepped up to the plate, though, and performed admirably. You’d never even know it wasn’t part of the setup.11872238_10206296204155550_5329416799319933996_o

We let the honey drain out of the extractor into the funnel, then through the funnel’s mesh into the bucket below. Honey doesn’t move fast, and the day took on a slower pace from this point forward.

When the extractor was empty, we could move the bucket and funnel mess up to the table and begin bottling into 1 lb and 1/2 lb jars. I also set aside three pounds to make into mead. 20150810_160935

We opened up a bottle of my previous batch of mead to sip while the honey drained. I have to admit, this honey has a richness to it that the store-bought stuff I’ve been using in my mead lacks. I’m so excited to brew with honey I’ve actually raised and harvested myself, but I’m afraid this will ruin me for the cheap and easy method.

So it goes.

I’m also becoming more aware of the tremendous range of flavor honey comes in. So many mead recipes I’ve read call for specific blossom varieties, a distinction I’ve never really taken to heart. I thought there might be notes of specific flavors that came through mainly to those who were looking for them. Kim and I sampled a few different honeys, however, and I was bowled over by how different each batch was. We tried a jar from our garden in the spring of 2013. (The last jar in existence, Kim said. There’s a dark finality in small artisinal batches, man). It tasted, for all the world, like flowers. Way beyond slight notes. 20150810_162330

Then we tried a jar from the fall of the same year. From color alone, you could tell something was different. It was dark. Almost brown. And it tasted, I swear, like autumn. It was smoky and so rich. I’ve never had honey like that.

Then we tried a store-bought bottle from the Caribbean that Kim had been given as a gift. She says once you become an acknowledged “bee person,” people start giving you honey stuff. I’m alright with that. This bottle was completely different. It was dark, but not thick. And while it was sweet, of course, it had a spiciness to it. It was almost hot. I’m not sure I’d put it on my granola, but it was fascinatingly different.

But enough of my poetic honey waxings. (Thank you ladies and gentlemen, I’ll be here all week). 11857549_10206320240276438_2126174302_n

All told, we collected about 30 pounds of honey. Not bad at all for just one month with the honey box! At this rate, we may very well get another harvest in. We’ll be selling the honey within the community garden and using the proceeds to offset bee costs.

Maybe buy a hot knife of our very own.

I’ve also posted this on my personal blog. Go have a look!

 

 

Robbing the Hive

The bees must be so confused.20150808_110149

Soon we’ll be harvesting the nearly full honey box, so we’re taking care of a few things in preparation.

First we put together a new honey box to replace the one we’ll be thieving. A lot of last year’s honey box frames fell prey to a moth infestation, and rather than risk carrying any eggs over, we bought and constructed all new frames.

All bees need to get going is a nice hexagonal pattern. Really, they don’t even need that, since the hollows in old trees they might frequent in the wild don’t have anything quite so factory-perfect. It’s a good nudge in the right direction, though, and it encourages them to build in a way that keeps the frames easily extractable. 20150808_104829

This is what a frame looks like before the bees have their way with it: a big flimsy game of Q*bert.

A lot of beekeepers buy these sheets printed in plastic, but we’re going au naturel and using sheets printed in pure beeswax. After the frames have been used, we put them in a solar wax melter, and it’s much easier going if the whole thing just melts away without plastic getting involved.

With our new frames assembled, we opened up the hive. This time Kim let me do all the prying open and heavy lifting. I took off the cover and set aside the existing honey box. Here the bees are spilling up out of the top of the hive body and through the queen excluder among the burr comb they’ve built between it and the honey box. As you can see, I’m still rocking my stupid taped-up pants. They’re my bee pants now.IMG9583171

Rather than go poking around in the hive body, we set to work building up all our new layers. It’s all about getting in and out quickly before the bees get too aggravated. Our colony is outrageously good-natured, and every time we’ve managed to accomplish our goals before they get territorial. They’re so friendly, in fact, that I have yet to be stung.

Actually, I have never been stung. Ever.

The day might come that I learn I have a severe allergy, and that’ll be the end of an illustrious career. I hope not.

Anyway. We put the fresh honey box (the white one here) on top of the queen excluder. The lighter tan strip on top of the honey box is a shim. It’s just a wooden frame with a circular hole drilled into one side. To keep the bees from returning to the honey box, we have to close off the door that normally sits above it. The shim makes up for the lost airflow.IMG9595091

The thing I’m putting into place on top of that is a triangle board. Under that hole is a piece of mesh covering a series of wooden triangles. Here’s a good picture if that lame explanation meant nothing to you. It’s essentially a one-way bee maze: easy to get out of but hard to get back into. Finding her normal door closed, a bee makes her way through this maze and either out the shim hole or down into the new honey box. Ideally, this happens dozens of thousands of times until all the bees have evacuated.

On top of that we put the old, full honey box. And on top of that we put the lid with its door sealed. On top of that we put two cinder blocks to hold the whole thing down in case of heavy winds. It is very nearly my size now. I was fine disassembling and reassembling the hive. I wasn’t overcome by the weight of the honey or the swarm of bees. But when it came time to put the full honey box back on top, I couldn’t do it on my own. I was just too darn short to lift something that heavy and that full of bees that high.IMG9593391

I may or may not be allergic to bees, but I most definitely am and always will be five foot two, which might put an end to an illustrious career if bee hives get any taller than this.

I hope they don’t.

I’ve published this on my personal blog, too. Go check it out!

Honey on Tap

Two bee posts in a row? But how? 20150801_113442

Truth be told, my last post was about events of a few weeks ago. Today’s is about today. So, through blog magic, you get to see the results of nearly a month of honey box action!

Before going in, we always thoroughly smoke the bees. Using this great little steampunk contraption we slowly burn pine needles, pumping the bellows occasionally to create nice puffs of white smoke. Once you’ve let the needles burn for a few minutes, the smoke changes from hot to just warm and, for bees, intoxicating. It has a real calming effect on them that beekeepers have known about and exploited for centuries. And it really does seem to work. 20150801_112412

After giving the bees a few minutes to get drowsy, we prised open the hive. We set the honey box aside for a moment and examined the top box in the hive body. This is where the queen ought to be laying and new bees growing up big and strong. These frames were covered in honey that had dripped down from the honey box. A very good sign.

We took a peek inside the top hive body: no sign of the queen this time either, but there was a huge amount of brood (egg cells), as well as larvae and some honey and nectar. Basically all evidence of a healthy and productive colony. 20150801_114135 (1)

After that it was into the honey box.

We could tell just from lifting it that the bees had been at work. Honey ain’t light.

The honey box is working exactly as we were hoping it would. Of the ten frames, two and a half are completely filled with honey and capped, meaning the bees have declared it done and sealed it off for storage. All the rest of the frames have at least some honey in them. This couldn’t be going better.

The bees are working at a very fast rate, which means we have to take our next few steps fairly quickly. For one, we’ll want to add another honey box so they have plenty of room to expand and won’t slow down production or move honey storage back down to the hive body. For two, we’ll begin our honey extraction. We have a special excluder screen that fits under the honey box and allows bees out but not back in, because honey collection is easier when thousands of bees aren’t involved. 20150801_114623 (1)

Or so I’ve heard.

I’ve cross-posted this one with my personal blog, too. Go give it a read!