Mite Fight

It’s hot out. So hot that I’ve been afraid to go into the hive. The last thing I need is to pass out face first in a pile of bees.

This morning, before the sun got too high, I went down to the hive to do some much-needed maintenance. Since I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, I brought along my boyfriend Ben to do the heavy lifting.

It was his first time going into the hive, and he was a little nervous.


Our first order of business was to replace the honey super. Last week we’d put a triangle board under the honey super to clear the bees out. The triangle board gives them an easy way out of the super, but an almost impossible way back in. It’s really effective if you want a bee-free honey super, but I was worried that if we left it too long they might get crowded and be in danger of swarming.

They did look tightly packed through the screen of the triangle board, but it may just have been early enough in the morning that the foragers hadn’t left for the day yet.


We removed the honey super and set it a few hundred feet away so the bees wouldn’t steal it right back from us. Then I removed the triangle board.


I removed most of it, anyway. The bees sealed it tightly to the frames below with propolis and wax, and a whole side of the triangle pulled free of its nails when I lifted it off. This is coming out of their wages.


I was determined to do a successful sugar shake mite check this time, since my last attempt… left something to be desired. I shuffled through the top hive body frames for one full of brood. It took me four frames, because the first three were solid capped honey! It’s a good thing we didn’t leave the triangle board any longer – it seems like they’ve really been stocking up.

When I finally found a brood frame, I gave it a good shake over a pot. The bees dropped in, and I knocked them all into one corner and scooped ’em up in my measuring cup. I got a slightly shy half cup, which I dumped into a mason jar and set aside for later.


Today we went for the slightly unorthodox method of treating for mites before testing to see if we needed to do it. Is this responsible beekeeping? Nope. But the day was getting hot and the bees were getting ornery, and it was a lot easier to test the bees in the shade after closing up the hive. For philosophical musings on why this probably is okay, hold out til the end of this post.

We dug deeper and lifted off the top hive body, because the mite treatment has to be applied to both. A while ago we put a shim between the two, hoping for some cool burr comb. The bees have been playing along, making this very cool structure that’s about the width of the frames but almost perpendicular to them.


I cleared away the burr comb and applied the Hop Guard. What it is is a pack of foot-long cardboard strips soaked in something with the consistency and messiness of hot molasses. This stuff oozed everywhere. The packaging is covered in warnings about getting on your skin, but by the end of the day I had it all over my hands and legs. (That being said, I washed it right off and seem to be fine. I don’t condone eating a spoonful of the stuff, but the danger may be over-hyped).

The instructions said to apply two strips per 10 frame hive body, draped 4 inches apart over two central frames. There they are!


We replaced the second hive body and draped two more strips in that one. Then we topped it off with the queen excluder and a fresh honey super to catch the fall honey flow. We closed up the hive and beat it out of there. All that was left was to give those bees in the jar a good shake.


The round piece of screen I was given at bee school fit perfectly into a wide mouthed canning jar. The mesh in the screen is just the right size to let mites out and keep bees in.


Even if the bees really want to get out.


We dumped a few tablespoons of powdered sugar through the screen and shook the jar up for a couple minutes. It was a like a grotesque snow globe.


Once the bees were good and coated, we turned the jar on its end and shook it hard over a white piece of paper.


Between the white paper and the white sugar, the dark mites stand out pretty well.


Reasonably well, at least. Can you spot the one in this picture? Zoomed in this much, he’s actually hard to distinguish from the tiny sugar clumps’ shadows. He’s in the horizontal middle, just south of the vertical middle. If you look very closely you can see his little legs in the air.


In case you were worried, no bees were killed in the testing of these mites. They were a little dazed, to be sure, but they came out of it okay.


I dumped them out right next to the hive. Once they got their bearings, they should have flown right back into the hive. They’ll have a wild story to tell their friends as they get licked clean. This day will pass into bee lore, and the powdered sugar will probably be turned into honey.


So how many mites did we find? 4. From a sample of 300 bees, that’s an infestation rate of 1.33%. For this time of year, that’s actually remarkably low. In all honesty, we probably could have held off a while on treating. Given the way it went, though, I’m glad we did.

The thing is, all hives have mites, and the reasons to delay treatment hold a little less sway over us than usual. A lot of treatments are toxic to humans, meaning it’s a good idea to continually test mite levels while collecting honey, then harvest the honey and treat only when the mites get out of hand. Hop Guard, on the other hand, supposedly does not contaminate the honey, so there’s no need for strategic timing.

Another reason to wait is that mite treatment can be pretty hard on bees. If by some chance your mite levels never get high enough to have to treat, it’s better not to treat. Supposedly Hop Guard is gentler than other products, though, so it should be okay.

We got burned by mites last year, so we want to go in guns blazing this time. Our number one priority is getting these bees through the winter, and hopefully this knocks their mite levels low enough that they stand a fighting chance.


It was a good and productive day. It was only a little sweltering, and Ben survived his first bee excursion. He says he even had fun.

Burr Comb and a Failed Scoop

I promised we’d be back with the bees soon, and here we are!

When we last left our heroes, we’d given them a honey super and some more time to build burr comb in the shim between the hive bodies.


They’ve been hard at work since. About seven of the ten honey super frames have been filled up – this one is mostly capped. The honey starts out very moist, and the bees leave it open to evaporation until it’s distilled down to about 18% water. At this point they cap it with wax to stop the evaporation. We don’t want to harvest honey that’s mostly uncapped, since it’s likely to ferment. This frame’s probably alright, though.


Setting the honey super aside, we tackled the top hive body. Our plan was to cut out some of the burr comb and put it in a jar to display for educational purposes. Unfortunately most of it was full of brood, but in the name of educational purposes you can let your scruples slip a little bit. We lifted a few of the frames, one at a time, and cut away the burr comb from the bottom.

Incidentally, the capped cells all have the larger, bumpier look of drone brood. Varroa mites tend to prefer latching onto drone brood, as their development in the cells takes a few days longer. One very low-impact means of varroa treatment is to give the bees special frames designed for drone brood, wait until it’s all capped, and then destroy it. So we may have inadvertently done a little mite treatment of our own.


Speaking of mite treatment, I was anxious to try out the sugar shake method for myself. I’d brought a half cup measurer, and I was somehow under the impression that enough bees had fallen into our tub with the burr comb that I’d be able to scoop them in easily.

I was wrong. They were too spread out, and the comb kept getting in the way. I got more bees on me than in my little measuring cup, and they were getting angrier by the minute. I could understand why – I felt like some kind of deranged god shoving them around in their own honey.


Next time I’ll do it right and knock a whole frame into the tub. Turns out bees in small numbers don’t move as a liquid.


As we were moving through the top hive body we spotted the queen. It was very good to know we hadn’t knocked her off with the burr comb.


At the end of the day it was a messier hive dive than we usually have. A little bit of honey spilled on the deck got cleaned up immediately.


Likewise, a bee who didn’t survive the manhandling got cleaned up immediately by a passing wasp. Wasps can be carnivorous, and this was an easy meal.


I found another wasp on the outside of the hive. I was worried that the honey spilled while collecting the burr comb might attract invaders. But at the time of writing this, almost a week later, the bees seem fine.


Even if robbers are about, our colony seems pretty tough and capable of defending itself. Here are two little guys shaking their butts outside the hive to mark their territory with pheromones. They, unlike the happy bee on our sign, mean business.


We’ll be going back in again soon. I’d like to do a sugar shake that isn’t an embarrassment and, assuming it’s going to show that we have too many mites, we want to get treating. I’ve just ordered a shipment of Hop Guard, a relatively new mite treatment regimen that’s derived from hops. It’s only just legal in Rhode Island this year, but I’ve heard good things from beekeepers just over the Massachusetts line where it’s been available longer. It’s supposed to be gentler on the bees than some other options, but still effective. And it doesn’t contaminate your honey, which is a big plus.


I’m not advertising for Hop Guard. In fact I’ve already read complaints that its instructions are unclear and it dries out so quickly that you have to apply it three weeks in a row for it to work. But I’m excited to try. If all goes well, maybe this will turn into and advertisement – both for Hop Guard and for its necessary workarounds.

Tales of Bees Past

A few weeks ago we went into the hive to check on the bees’ progress, but I never got around to writing about it. This means, incidentally, that almost every bee you’re about to see is dead of old age by now.

Even this one.


This is as spooky as beekeeping blogs get.


We went in to check on the state of things and, if the state was good, to add a honey super. Until this point we’ve been letting the bees focus on building up their numbers. Once they get established, however, it’s time to start concentrating on honey production.


We opened up the top hive body and took a look. This frame against the outside wall was still bare.


A little farther in, though, production was in full swing. We’d put a shim between the two hive bodies, hoping the bees would build some interesting burr comb to fill in the empty space. And they did! Here’s some of it, hanging off the bottom of the frame.


This next frame has hardly any burr comb – the structures hanging off the bottom are 100% bee. And that white arc across the top is all capped honey.


Since the bees seemed to be moving right along (and running out of room), we plopped our honey super on top, with the queen excluder (the metal screen in my hands) between it and the hive bodies. This will keep the queen laying in the hive bodies and allow the workers to store honey in the honey super.


Some beekeepers don’t believe in them, but anything that keeps grubs out of your honey sounds good to me.


The bees are still happy and healthy. (At least they were last time we checked). Soon we’ll be going back in to scope out the honey and the mite population.

I hope they haven’t gotten too used to us being gone.

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.


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.

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 the Fox Point Community Garden 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 the community garden’s blog, too. Go give it a read!

The Road to Honey

The bees are living the good life. 20150706_122814

At least they seem to be. It’s high summer and they’re producing well, which means it’s time to start messing with them. On our most recent trip in, the plan of action was to take stock of life in the hive and, if all was well, install a honey box.

A honey box is a slightly squatter version of the boxes the bees live in. The main difference is that it’s separated from the rest of the hive by a queen excluder, a sheet of metal mesh that the worker bees can fit through but the larger queen bee can’t. That means no eggs can be laid past it, and it can be devoted to honey. Not all beekeepers do this, but it seems a whole lot easier to me. Here’s ours: the excluder will obviously go under it when we place it on top of the hive.

Our first order of business was to pretty up one of our old honey boxes. This meant scraping away all the propolis. Propolis is a hard, waxy substance (not to be confused with wax) that bees make to cement their hive together.

20150706_122104My friend Tommy, of previous mulberry
, was visiting, so we set him to work scraping propolis off of the honey box and frames.

Poor guy. It was his birthday.

We went to the zoo afterward, though, so it was alright.

Propolis is popular as a dietary supplement and all-around healer. We saved all of our scrapings in an envelope that I put… somewhere. As soon as I find it I’ll try concocting a balm.

Once the honey box was prepped, we donned our suits. Kim always wears a full suit, and we managed to get Tommy fully outfitted. I always wear a full coat, veil, and gloves, but the rest of my outfit is a little more improvised.

20150706_123400I had already tucked my jeans into my socks when we discovered some holes worn through in a particularly bee-vulnerable area. I didn’t want to go all the way home for new pants, and I certainly didn’t want inner thigh stings. We had a roll of masking tape in with the equipment, and when needs must…

I wasn’t doing much with my dignity, anyway.

All passages to tender flesh sealed, we opened up the hive and took a look around. The bees have been producing famously. The queen is laying eggs at a good rate and the workers have started making honey. A couple of the frames were already noticeably heavy with it. With any luck they’ll take this new honey box and run with it.

20150706_125621The last few times we’ve been able to find the queen, but this time she was hiding. This isn’t particularly worrying – there are thousands of little guys crawling around in there, and you can’t let yourself get down just because you didn’t find a specific one. It’s mainly good to find her because it shows she’s active, but with all the eggs and larvae present, it’s easy to intuit.

We also know she’s doing well because we haven’t found any queen cells. These are big, peanut-shaped protrusions on the frame, and each one holds a larva that’s being fed royal jelly – the goop that gives a queen that special queen flair (and ability to lay a whole hive’s worth of eggs). One of these larva will emerge before the others and, as her first royal act, she will murder all her proto-queen sisters in the womb. Bees are rough. This can happen when the previous queen is dead or just not very good at her job, so a lack of queen cells is a nice vote of confidence from the colony as a whole.

Queen cells may also be laid in preparation for a swarm. Bees swarm when they’ve20150706_125640 filled up their hive – the existing queen leaves, taking roughly half the population with her to seek greener pastures. The remaining colony stays behind with a freshly hatched queen. Our plan, if this does happen, is to steal the new queen before the swarm and raise her up separately in her own little queen nook. This way we’ll have an extra queen in our pocket if ours suddenly dies or a neighboring beekeeper loses theirs and calls in a favor.

It’s also another interesting way to play God.

I’m cross-posting this bee update on my community garden’s blog. Go check it out!