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Posts Tagged ‘bees’

Honey Harvest

This actually took place a few weeks ago on May 24th. I’m a bit late writing it up.

In the early spring our bees begin their busy season by collecting pollen from nearby willow trees. Next comes blackthorn and soon after comes dandelions, with several other early blooming things added to the mix.

If we had neighbors, I’m sure they would probably hate us because we never cut down our dandelions until they have gone to seed. In early spring, our yard is a blanket of golden yellow filled with happy buzzing bees. They need the pollen and we just happen to like dandelions :O)

Here in our village we are literally surrounded by fields which is common in Germany, crops are planted on nearly every patch of ground that isn’t used for housing, or forest land, or grazing land, that’s the only way to support such a huge population in such a relatively small country. Here in our village the main crops are wheat, oats, rye, barley, corn, rapeseed, potatoes and sugar beets. Rapeseed is the earliest flowering crop and it makes up a large percentage of what our honey is made of.

This is a shot of the fields just on the other side of our fence, just behind our berry patch. Just one of many rapeseed fields in full flower.

I did a post last year which shows more of the actual honey extracting process, you can find it in my old blog, here (scroll down to the May 22nd entry). This year I was out of town when Peer harvested the honey but a friend took a few pictures for me.

Many of the beekeepers in our area do 2 harvests a year, they harvest in the spring and then again in the summer. We did that last year but we ended up having to feed our bees with commercial “sugar water” so that they could survive over the winter. That didn’t make a whole lotta sense to us, for one thing it’s expensive to buy, it’s not sustainable, not to mention that we don’t need all that honey so why not let the bees keep it? From now on, we’ll only harvest once a year, in the spring.

Anyway, here is the honey after it has been extracted from the comb and filtered. Peer is pouring it into a large bucket which has a spigot at the bottom designed for filling small jars.

Peer’s assembly line :o)

Since we don’t sell our honey, we don’t need a special room for this, our honey is only for us and our friends and family, so we do it the old fashioned way and just use our kitchen..

Mmmm, honey….

We ended up with 80 jars from 3 hives which is not necessarily a big harvest, but it’s more than plenty for us!

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We had our second swarm of the season yesterday. It came out of the same hive that swarmed last weekend, this one was much larger. This time the bees settled in a blackthorn tree just behind our house, about 10 feet above the level of our roof.

If you click on the picture you will get a larger view.

Peer couldn’t reach them from this side of the tree so he had to go around back and using a ladder he cut away some of the branches and then tried to knock them into a swarm catching bag. Unfortunately it didn’t work, he needed about 3 other hands to do the sawing, hold on the the ladder, grab the branch and balance it, etc. We had to go to a dinner party so we had to leave them….when we came home, unfortunately they were long gone.

An update on the artificial swarm that I told you about a few days ago…

The day after we added the queen, the bees were able to set her free and became quite happy and content once again. Peer moved them from the cellar, into their new home yesterday and they are doing really well. They are beginning to fly and to do all the usual “bee stuff” so all is well once again, in our little kingdom :O)

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While I was playing with my new leetle friends the other evening, Peer was creating an artificial swarm…

In our little village of 400, there are 2 beekeepers. Peer, who has 5 hives (soon to be 6) and the other beekeeper, who has kept bees here for about 30 years and has on average, about 15 hives. His bees are about a 1/4 of a mile away from us.

The other beekeeper stopped the other night and offered Peer one of his queens which he was going to kill off in order to replace her with a stronger one. She’s a good queen, but this beekeeper, who does quite a bit of experimenting with breeding, etc., likes queens who can produce huge colonies…this little queen apparently doesn’t.

Perfect! This would allow us to fill another one of the new hives.

Since the queen would come to us without any other bees at all, we needed to collect enough bees from our own hives to make a good sized colony for her. You can do this by creating an artificial swarm.

This is our swarm box, it’s what you catch swarms in and where they can stay for a short time until you get a real hive ready for them. The hole on the top is where you can put a jar of honey so they have something to eat. We poked lots of tiny holes in the lid of the jar so the honey will drip out very slowly. The screening in the front is a queen excluder. The worker bees can crawl through and into the box, but the queen and the drones are too big and can’t fit through. We need to use the queen excluder to make sure we don’t accidentally add a queen from one of the established hives into the swarm.

So Peer began by smoking the hives really heavily which causes the bees to immediately take up as much honey as they can carry (they think it’s a forest fire and so load up with honey before they are forced to leave their home). In a real swarm the bees are all loaded up with as much honey as they can carry which they will use to feed the hive until they can begin producing food for themselves again. In an artificial swarm you have to fool them into loading up with honey.

After giving them a few minutes to load with honey, he opened our strongest hive and lifting out each comb from the honey room box, he gently brushed the bees into the plastic container and then sprayed them with a mist of water so they couldn’t fly back into the hive. He did this with our 2 strongest hives until he had collected a good amount of bees.

He dumped the bees into the swarm box…

And then the real fun began…

The bees couldn’t fly but that didn’t stop them from wandering all over the place. Peer sat here with his bee brush and his water bottle and waited patiently while they slowly crawled into the box.

This is after 1 hour…

After 2 hours….

I finally went in at this point. Peer ended up waiting for 3 hours before everyone except the drones were in. The drones he dumped back into the hives. The artificial swarm went into the cellar for the night. They need to realize that they don’t have a queen anymore which they definitely realize after a night in the cellar all alone! I checked in on them yesterday morning and they were furious, very agitated and very loud!

When Peer came home yesterday evening he went with the other beekeeper to catch the queen. They then brought her back here and put her into a small cage with a piece of candy to block the entrance. Then they set the cage into the swarm box and put them back into the cellar.

The reason that the bees needed to spend the first night alone is that they have to know they don’t have a queen, if we would have put the new queen in right way, they might have killed her. By the next morning they knew and so were ready to accept a new queen. But still it is best to let them get acquainted slowly. With the queen in a cage, they can sense her and touch her and begin caring for her, but she is still sheltered a bit from them. They will spend the next day or so eating the candy away so they can free her, by then, the hive has bonded and can be put into a real hive together. I peeked in on them again this morning and it is like a totally different group. They are very calm, quiet and content now that they have a queen again.

I think tomorrow they will be ready to transfer into their new home.

As the title implies, we will NOT do this again. While it does work, it is a real pain in the butt and pretty stressful for the bees too. In future I think we will rely on natural swarms to fill the new hives.

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We’ve been anxiously awaiting one so that we could begin establishing the new hives that Peer built

Sunday was our lucky day!

Hives tend to swarm on warm dry days between 11am and 2pm, at least they do around here. Peer noticed the swarm beginning to build around 1:30pm. They fly in something like a funnel shape, round and round, directly above the hive until most of them have gathered. At that point they flew straight up and onto a branch at the very top of a 100 ft oak tree…just perfect! No way we can reach them way up there! So we thought we had lost them. We walked away disappointed and went about our business.

About 10 minutes later, Peer sticks his head in the doorway and tells me there is another swarm forming! Yay!

We stood on the porch and watched them, but they gradually seem to be dissipate…”how strange!” we thought. I had a pair of binoculars and started looking around the tops of the branches for the first swarm…it was gone! Well, that meant that the swarm we thought was a second swarm was really the first one, but why did it return to the hive? Then it dawned on us. We still have one of the original queens that we bought last year. She has a wing clipped and can’t fly! So when the swarm left, she simply fell out onto the ground and then crawled underneath the hive. The swarm didn’t realize this at first but then they found her and gathered with her underneath the original hive….some of you might remember that this is the same thing we had happen last year.

So here they are, all crammed up underneath the hive…

It’s hard to see exactly what is going on from this picture so here is a front view of the hive…

The only way to get them out is to move the whole hive, which is REALLY heavy!

We waited until about 6:30pm when the hives were slowing down for the night. Peer had a friend come over and help. He’s a friend who is thinking about getting into beekeeping so we thought this would be a great experience for him :O)

They’re getting ready; putting on veils, lighting the bee pipe, etc. They wear light colored clothing because the bees are not as disturbed by lighter colored clothing…I of course chose dark blue for the occasion…lol! They only chased me off a few times, but none of us got stung…Jens, Peer’s friend, did get some nettle stings which are actually worse in my opinion.

The first thing Peer does is spray the bees with water. This gets their wings wet and they can’t fly until they are dried off again.

They can’t move the hive all in one piece, the honey room on top is full again and so the whole hive is way too heavy, especially for trying to lift it in the ackward position that it is in, so they move it in sections.

First the top, which is the honey room.

Then they move the main 2 rooms…looks easier on the picture than it really was!

Now that the hive is out of the way, Peer sprays them down again…

And dumps them into a plastic container.

Once he has the majority in the container, he dumps them into their new home.

There is really no easy way to get the bees into the new box properly. He dumps them into the upside-down wooden box, but then he has to turn that box right-side up again. Anyway, it is really hard to do without squashing some bees no matter how carefully you do it, you just have to hope you aren’t also squashing the queen. After this first time, Peer has an idea for how he might do this part differently next time.

And so, here they are after inverting that top box, everyone is in and it’s time to close up this hive. Before the roof goes on, there is a smaller box which is full of wooden packing material, this acts as a layer of insulation.

Then comes the roof.

The bees are doing their little dance, with butts raised high in the air and wings vibrating which is their way of telling other bees that the queen is here.

This picture shows how different this new hive is in size and shape when compared to our old ones…personally I think it’s really cute and if I was a bee, I’d want to live there :O)

And so, here is the hive a full 2 full days since we moved the swarm in. By the way, this isn’t the complete hive, there are 2 additional boxes that are added to the bottom. As the hive grows, the bees keep building downward. As they go, they fill the top boxes with honey and move the living and hatching areas into the lower boxes. This is opposite of the way it is done in more traditional style beekeeping systems, but it is the way the bees do it in the wild. They seem to be taking to their new home very well. They’re quite busy, flying in and out, doing their thing just as they should be :o)

It will be interesting to see over time, how this system works for us, we’ll keep you posted!

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There is so much to update you on, I’m not sure where to begin, but I think I will start with the bees. This is our second year with the bees, we went into the winter last year with 4 hives and I’m happy to report that we didn’t lose any of them! Early in the spring Peer checked each hive and found one or two that were running out of food so he fed them enough to get them through til the willows began producing pollen and the bees would begin producing their own food again.

I forgot to mention that we moved the bees in the very early spring, before they began leaving the hive. They use to live right beside my studio and our veggie garden. This spot was a bit crowded and made it not so convenient to work in the garden during the afternoon hours because the bees were flying directly overhead. We moved them to a larger, less active area on the other side of the house. I think they like it there and I like having them there :O)

There are many different systems for keeping bees; different philosophies, methods, different hive arrangements and construction designs, etc. Last year we were using the typical framed hives found here in northern Germany, the ones you see in the picture above. These require quite a bit of care and hands-on maintenance. We personally feel that for a backyard beekeeper it’s more beneficial/healthier/less stressful for the bees if they are left pretty much to do their own thing without a lot of interference from humans. We wanted to try a less hands-on approach, after all, bees have been doing their own thing for millions of years without humans telling them how to do it!

We decided to try a different system, one which was designed specifically with this philosophy in mind. The system was designed by Emile Warre’, who was a village priest in France, during the 1920’s. Peer got a translated version (in english and german) of his writings which include the instructions for building the hives and he just spent several weeks building 5 new hives. The biggest difference with these new hives is that they are much smaller, they do not have frames, they have smaller flight holes and they can be built without needing a lot of specialized materials. Because they can be built with scrapes of lumber and things that most people probably have laying around the property, they are called the poorman’s beehive. The next few pictures show the construction process.

The first thing Peer did was to make a shopping list for all the lumber he would need since we didn’t actually have any here that wasn’t already planned for something else. The lumber yard cut all the pieces to the specifications that Peer gave them.

Peer began by building 20 box frames, 4 boxes for each hive. There is no bottom and no top, just the sides.

These are the roofs…

And the bottoms…

After all the pieces were assembled they needed to be treated to keep them from rotting in the weather. Peer used a mixture of hot linseed oil and melted beeswax, which he painted onto every single piece.

Then set them out to dry…

Instead of frames, which have machine formed wax comb (as seen in the image below)…

…this system uses 9 thin slats of wood per box, each with a single strip of beeswax painted down the center. The strip of beeswax shows the bees where, and in what direction they should build their combs, without actually doing the job for them.

First peer melted wax that we collected during last year’s honey harvest and then just painted it on with a paintbrush. He set the pan of hot wax over a tee light so that the wax wouldn’t harden as he worked.

He had to paint 180 of these!

The next step was to nail all of these prepared slats into the boxes, 9 in each box. They had to be nailed so that the distance between each slat was the same so that the bees will build in a consistent manner.

A completed box…

Actually this system calls for 8 slats per box but there is a theory that by using 9 slats, thus creating a narrower working space, the bees will build smaller cells which may greatly reduce the likelihood of mites.

There are a few steps I didn’t capture on film but these were the main ones. After all the pieces were ready, Peer put them together to form 5 complete hives and stored them until we would need them.

What we are going to do is slowly phase out of the old system and as our bees swarm we will move the swarms into the new boxes…now all we need is a swarm!

Stay tuned!

P.S. If anyone is interested in learning more about this system, just drop us a line!

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