A New Batch of Mead

New labels and matching bottles in 750 and 375 ml. Uncle Beth’s Old-Fashioned Mead is movin’ up in the world.

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A Mothy Day

I had every intention of checking on the bees. I’d gotten the smoker out and everything. When I went to open the plastic bin we keep the bee suits in, however, I found some unwelcome guests. They were everywhere, and the bee checking had to be postponed.

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It wasn’t hard to find the source of the problem. We were storing the bee suit bin on top of another bin with some old frames of comb in it. And those frames, wouldn’t you know it, were completely full of wax moths.

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Wax moths are a perpetual threat if you’re storing used comb without bees to protect it. Fans of the blog may remember that our hive was infested with wax moths last spring, after it was abandoned. Wax moths are rarely a problem in active hives, because the bees will drive them out before they can take hold. But if the comb is unprotected, like in the empty hive or the shed, moths are almost certain to move in.

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Despite their name, wax moths don’t actually eat wax. A frame of unused foundation in the same bin was untouched. What the moths like is the thin, protein-rich skin that’s left behind on the cell walls by the bee larvae when they emerge as fully formed bees. Think of it like a bee amniotic sac. Moths lay their eggs in the wax, and those eggs hatch into grubs that burrow through the wax, feeding on these old protein skins.

Because they’re disgusting.

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I thought the bin we were keeping the frames in was tight enough to keep the moths out. I thought wrong. Here you can see a few of those little grubs on the move.

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And here are some adult moths.

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Will and I dragged the bins outside to clear them out. We wiped out all the bugs and their bizarrely stretchy webbing.

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The moths clearly started in the bin with the frames, but they’d been migrating. I found a few little cocoons in the bee suits.

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I picked off all the cocoons I could find and shook everything out. For good measure, I took the suits home and washed them. I sprayed the bins down with the hose and let them dry in the sun. I’m pretty sure we’re moth-free.

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As we were working, a few of the bees came over from the hive to see what we were up to. This one found a single globule of honey on one of the frames.

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Some others flocked to the honey that dripped out of the frames onto the ground. They will have drunk as much as they could hold, then carried it back to the hive to store.

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This wasp showed up for the free food, too.

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So what became of the frames? I didn’t want to keep them around so full of moths, but I couldn’t stand the idea of throwing away all that good wax. I brought the frames home and tried to render the wax in my kitchen.

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Stay tuned for that tale of hardship and woe.

Beeing Along Nicely

Last week we went in to check on the bees and take stock. Things are looking good, though we did notice this beautiful and disgusting phenomenon underneath the hive. Some opportunistic spider has set up shop under our screened bottom board. Maybe he’s after mites, maybe he’s after bees. Whatever he was after, what he got was all that nasty debris that’s fallen down out of the hive. Poor guy.

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We swept out the cobwebs and opened up the hive. My last time in I’d taken off a “full” honey super and replaced it with a new one. Unfortunately, the full one was none too full, and the new one is filling up slowly.

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So where is that honey? Turns out a lot of it is in the top hive body. Whoops. This deep frame is totally capped.

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As is this one.

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The capped honey has such a satisfying, smooth look to it. I genuinely don’t know what this little huddle of bees is up to. Since the honey is all capped, I don’t think there’s any work to do in this part of the frame. They’re probably talking to each other, but about what? If anyone has a guess, I’d love to hear it!

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This frame is closer to the center of the box, and it’s much busier. The very top right corner has some capped honey, but the bulk of the frame is full of brood. Some of it is capped, but you can just make out the white grubs in a few of the uncapped cells. You can also clearly see a drone with his big eyes and body, a third of the way from the top. Winter is coming, and this poor guy doesn’t have much time left. Pretty soon he’ll be too much trouble to feed and will be driven from the hive.

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We managed to spot the queen, busy laying in one of the middle frames. The white thing is the remnant of one of our Hop Guard strips, with another week and a half left in its 30 day period of effectiveness. I’m no expert, but it looks to me like its effective days have passed. I’d read about Hop Guard I and the need to replace it when it dries out, but I was under the impression that Hop Guard II (what we’re working with) was an improved version that would last for the full 30 days.

Whelp. In a few days the month-long period will actually be up, and I’ll do another mite count to see if it’s been effective or not.

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This strip isn’t as empty, but it looks pretty dried out. In fact, it looks like the bees have covered it up with wax… I have to say I’m skeptical that this is doing much. On the plus side, our mite count was so low to begin with that it may not even matter. But we won’t know anything for sure until we take stock of the current mite population. If worse comes  to worst, we can always treat again in the fall.

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No great changes were made during this inspection, but we got a good sense of where we stand.

We know that the bees are storing just as much honey in the hive body as in the honey supers. Next time we go in, we’ll take a couple of those full deep frames and swap them for empty ones. We’ll get some honey, and hopefully the queen will lay in the empty frames. In the meantime we’ve left both honey supers on top of the queen excluder, so with any luck they’ll fill those up some more.

We’ve seen that the queen is healthy and still laying and doesn’t seem to have been hurt by the mite treatment. Unfortunately, we’ve also seen that the mite treatment may not be living up to its potential. Only time will tell on that front.

In any event, the colony itself seems healthy and productive. The bees’ numbers have soared since we got them in the spring, and just like last year’s colony they’re extraordinarily cooperative.

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I’m coming up on two years of beekeeping without being stung.

 

Strawberry Wine Forever

Back in May I started 5 gallons of strawberry wine. It’s September now, which means it’s time to bottle!

Actually according to my post-it, I should have bottled back in July. But a little extra ageing never hurt anybody.

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I siphoned all the wine into my huge bucket. I had hoped that using extra strawberries during fermentation would leave some residual sweetness, but I hoped wrong. It was extremely dry.

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I like sweet wine, and I think the strawberry really benefits from the sweetness, so I mixed up some honey in warm water and added it as the wine was siphoning.

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I put in 5 Campden tablets and 2 1/2 tsp potassium sorbate to keep the yeast from going after the new sugar source.

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With a bucket full of wine, I started bottling.

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My parents drink more than I do (though that’s not saying much), and they diligently save their empty bottles for me. I like the motley look.

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The bottles full, it was time to cork. Technically, I have a corker. In the strictly legal definition of the word, I do. It is, however, terrible. With one hand you have to squeeze two handles together to compress the cork, and with the other you have to press down on a lever to drive it into the bottle. All while not shooting your open bottle of wine off across the room. I tried to use it myself. I really did, and I just didn’t have the strength. My roommate Will stepped up to the plate and just barely managed it. What a man!

My birthday’s coming up, and I think I know what to ask for.

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It was a real struggle, but we got there in the end with 8 regular bottles and 8 double-wides. I’ll have to order up some new labels.

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I think I’ll call it Uncle Beth’s Fancy-Ass Wine

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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Even if the bees really want to get out.

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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.

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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This is as spooky as beekeeping blogs get.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

A Trip to Bee Town

Another day, another glowing bee report!

We went into the hive again this weekend, and the bees couldn’t be doing better. This frame, taken from somewhere in the middle of the box, is almost completely covered in capped brood, with a band of capped honey in the top left corner.

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This one has more of a smattering of capped brood – maybe that means it’s older and a lot of the larvae on this frame have already emerged. Last time we inspected we spotted the queen but no brood, which meant she may not have mated yet. She clearly has now, which means her sole objective is egg laying. She has enough sperm stored up in her body (bees do it a little differently than we do) that she’ll never need to mate again. Barring a swarm, she’ll never even need to leave home.  IMG_4992

Just one frame over we found uncapped brood. Look carefully inside the cells. See those white C-shapes? Those nasty little maggotty things? Those are baby bees! If you look closely, you can see that they get progressively bigger from left to right. That means the queen worked her way from right to left and the larvae on the right are just that much older and, therefore, bigger. It takes just 21 days to go from a tiny egg to a fully formed bee, so every minute of development counts!

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This is the same frame, shifted slightly to the right. A lot of the larvae are big, and four of them have already been capped – those are the four cells around the middle that are opaque. The worker bees seal off the larvae with a layer of wax once they reach a certain size. In the sealed cell the larva will grow into a pupa, something that looks a lot more like a bee than these little grubs. Eventually she’ll become an adult and chew her way through the wax cap, ready to get to work. By mid-June all these gross little worms will be full-grown bees and all the bees in this picture will dead or on their last legs. Bee time moves fast.

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This progression from empty and capped brood to mostly open brood meant we were following in the queen’s tracks. She works methodically, laying from one frame to the next. And sure enough, there she was in the next frame. There’s a little bit of everything going on here. The whole left corner is a swath of capped honey. Coming in from the right is a patch of capped and soon-to-be capped brood. The white dotted queen is bustling around in the middle, above a really nice patchwork of pollen. The pollen will be mixed with honey into a tasty sludge called bee bread and fed to the brood.

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Bee colonies have personalities, just like any animal, and this one is nice and easy going… until we get too close to their queen. We can always tell we’ve pulled out her frame before we see her because the bees get more agitated and aggressive. No stings yet, but there’s a lot of movement and angry buzzing.

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It’s not all babies in beetown. This frame was extra heavy with uncapped honey. The honey starts out high in moisture and is left open to the air to evaporate. As it distills down, the bees combine it into fewer and fewer cells. Once they have a cell full of honey down around 18% moisture, they cap it with wax to stop it evaporating more. At this low moisture content, the honey won’t ferment and can be stored all through the winter. How do the bees know all this? Magic.

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Since the bees are doing so darn well, we made some big adjustments to their hive. We took away their jar of syrup. This is a bit of a controversial move, and a lot of beekeepers in the area are still feeding. There are flowers galore now, though, and our jar looked to have been emptied a while ago. We think they’ll be fine. In the place of the jar we added a second hive body with ten more frames. The bees haven’t quite filled out their current box (two or three frames are still empty) but they’re moving fast and it’d be such a shame to overcrowd them and cause a swarm.

We put a shim between two boxes. It’s just a square of wood two inches high with a hole drilled in it. This should give the bees a little more ventilation and room to come and go.

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We also removed our entrance reducer – this big piece of mesh that keeps out opportunistic mice in cold weather and makes the hive more easily defensible for a new, weak colony.

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This is our entrance now, with plenty of room for foragers to come and go. I really hope our colony’s tough enough to defend all this new open space. We’re probably going to put in a moderate entrance reducer until they build up their numbers some more. For the time being, they seem to be enjoying the new easy landing. Check out the two foragers with loaded pollen pockets! There are obviously at least two pollen sources coming in right now – one golden yellow and one bright orange.

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Here’s another from the yellow source touching down after a flight. She’ll go inside, hand her pollen off to the house bees, and probably turn right around to make another trip. Unless another bee gives her a hot tip about an even better or closer pollen source.

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Like that cool bright orange stuff.




 

Uncle Beth’s Home Grown Mead

Last November Kim and I started a gallon of mead with our bees’ honey. Since then I’ve been racking it occasionally but mostly forgetting about it. I discovered it again recently and declared it ready to bottle.

It was, like everything I make, extremely dry and boozy, so I back sweetened it with 1/4 cup of honey. Booziness aside, I’m very happy with it. It’s so different from the store honey mead and, dare I say it, better. I’d say it tastes richer and has a stronger honey base. There’s also a lot less of it. I’ve been free with the 5 gallon batch of mead, taking it to parties and pawning it off on friends, because 5 gallons is a lot to have of anything. One gallon, on the other hand, filled just 11 beer bottles. Beer bottles are perfect for gallon batches, because they can be portioned out more slowly.

They’re also perfect for my small homemade labels. Technically this was the prototype for the official label, but I think I like it more.

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The Bees Are in Their Bee House

You heard it here first – the bees are hived and happy.

Early this morning the bees were in Georgia, their home state. Then they were loaded into the back of a truck and driven to Wood’s Beekeeping Supply and Academy, where we picked them up.

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Here they are! Three-thousand happy little guys. I’m just kidding – they just got shaken out of their hives to travel 2,000 miles to a cold, wet place. They’re probably far from happy.

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These six in particular must have spent the entire trip clinging to the outside of the package.

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The weather was threatening rain all day, and as luck would have it the heavens opened just as we picked our bees up. We wanted to get them in, though, so we worked very quickly. I poked some holes in the lid of my bee syrup jar. We turned it over, and after a few seconds of dripping, the vacuum seal held. The bees will be able to pull the syrup out when they want it, but it won’t just drip all over them.

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Finally it was go-time. David grabbed the bees and we booked it over to the hive.

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We set them up in our state of the art weatherproof environment.

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And we set to work. Technically I was in charge of this installation, though Kim had my back. Using the hive tool I pried open the lid of the package and pulled out the syrup can. The bees travel with a can of syrup so they stay fed on the road. That’s why they’re so clustered around the top of the package.

With the can out of the way, I could get to the queen. She travels in a much smaller mesh cage with a handful of attending bees.

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She has to be kept separate because the bees in her package aren’t actually part of her colony. Queens are reared separately and put into these cages with a few bees who’ve grown up with and know her. But the 3,000 others are miscellaneous bees from other colonies. They’re literally shaken into the package and given a queen at random.

Bees don’t take kindly to random queens – in fact they go out of their way to kill them. That’s the reason for the separate queen cage (that, and making her easy for us to find). If she weren’t kept physically separate from the strange worker bees, she’d be dead before they left Georgia. Give her a few days, though, and she can spread her queeny pheromones and adopt this new colony as her own.

The key is keeping her in the cage inside the hive, so the colony can’t kill her before they get used to her. The cage comes with a pre-drilled hole in the side, plugged up with a cork. We pulled the cork out to reveal a second plug made of candy. Bees can’t chew through cork, but they’ll jump at the chance to eat some candy. The process takes a few days’ time – just long enough for them to fall under the queen’s sway. By then the queen will have a clear path out of her cage and a hive full of loyal subjects.

I hung the queen cage between two frames in the hive by nailing the attached yellow ribbon to the top of a frame. You can clearly see our queen in the topmost circle with a big white dot of paint on her back.

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The queen in place (you can see the yellow ribbon laid across the frames), it was time to dump everybody else into their new home. I took three frames out of the center of the hive body to make room. We sprayed the bees with some bee syrup to calm them down (because they focus their attention on grooming) and clump them together (because they’re really sticky). Since it was a cold day, we went very light on the syrup so as not to chill them.

Also to help the clumping process, I gave the package a gentle but firm whack against the deck to knock them all down onto each other.

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And then I shook them out. That’s all it takes – a little bit of shaking and maneuvering, and the majority of them dropped out through that hole and into the hive.

I very gently replaced the frames (don’t want to squish the bees below!) and put the inner cover on. On top of the inner cover we placed a second deep hive body to surround the inverted bee syrup feeder (lifted up on pieces of wood to give the bees room to get to the holes) and the package. Not all of the bees came out, and they’d have a very bad time left out in the cold and the rain. We covered everything up with the telescoping outer cover and got out of there.

On Saturday we’ll go back in to check on the queen and make sure she’s been released and welcomed. If she hasn’t been released, we’ll let her out. If she hasn’t been welcomed, we’ll panic and try to find another queen.

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Until Saturday, it’s all up to the bees. I hope they’re warm tonight.