Category Archives: Beekeeping

Bee Story

So this is me trying to blog with only a small choice of pictures. I took some photos off the camera on the boat this morning, then the laptop ran out of batteries. So I went to the in-laws to walk their dogs and finish downloading photos. Clever me with “mommy brain” (I hate this excuse) forgot the camera cord to unload the photos. Have I mentioned before that everything takes longer on a boat? *sigh*

Pender Island has had some terrific fog in the valleys, draping the farms in a gauzy blanket. The maple trees have turned gold and are dropping their clothing like nudists at a beach. And I have put the bees to bed.

This required a bit of shuffling and we finished up on Hallowe’en night.

Moving bees involved very good friends. Because I cannot lift the hives at the best of times. This is not the best of times… (glances at the largely protruding belly.) This involves very good friends that trust your mastery of ductape. Completely. Because these very good friends lift the hives up when they are all taped up, strapped up, and they can hear the buzzing inside the hive. They can smell the honey contained in the hive, to nourish the bees throughout the Winter. And they know what can happen if they slipped on a stick or a pile of gravel and dropped their side of the hive, and the boxes come apart like a toppling Lego castle.

These good friends know this, because they have been there when I have shaken clouds of bees into the air, in an attempt to steal honey, or reclaim a feeder.

See, there’s a lot to being a very good friend of mine. Are you game?

Sometimes I also make my very good friends cookies. It’s give and take… really…

Because I live on a boat, I can’t keep bees on a boat. So I’ve set up a system where I have people host beehives all over the two Pender Isles. In exchange for letting me walk across their land twice a month, I try to send out a newsletter, I let the hosts name their hives, and I promise the first jar from the hive to that host family. The hosts get the beneficial pollinators in their garden, and believe it or not, people love honeybees. They love watching them fly in to the hive, loaded with pollen, and they love to see them sleeping on their flowers.

One of my hosts had quite the poppy patch this year. He went outside one evening to fill up the honeybee’s water dish and saw that the poppies had all closed up for the night. One poppy was waving and bouncing around sporadically. When he approached the poppy, he heard this frantic buzzing from inside. He peeled back one of the petals and out popped a honeybee. The bee fell asleep on the flower and hadn’t noticed the flower closing at dusk. She was trapped in this little red cage and thanks to the generous host, escaped unscathed. I hope she chooses her napping flowers more carefully next time.

With the moving of the bees, they have some new and interesting neighbours.

I hope everyone gets along just peachy.

Winterizing Bees

Did you ever see the movie “March of the Penguins?” Remember that part in the dead on the Antarctic Winter, with all the blizzards, the penguins gather in a clump to keep warm? Then they rotate out so that the penguins on the outside move to the inside, and the warmer penguins in the inside of the clump move to the outside, thus staying relatively warm (or alive) throughout the harsh conditions of Winter.

Honeybees do the same thing. Granted our Winters on the West Coast of British Columbia are nothing like Antarctic Winters. But keep in mind, bees are not mammals. They need to clump together in the Winter, rotating from the outside, around their stores of honey and eat. To me, this sounds like the perfect way to spend a Winter. Heck, have the Queen reading fairy tales, grab your slice of honey comb, and munch down with all your sisters in your cozy little home. Yes Please! (I haven’t found a good reason why we don’t do this! We are far less evolved than we think….)

Before the bees grab their snacks and munch the Winter away, I have to make sure that they have enough snacks. I also have to treat them with antibiotics as a preventative measure. I treat them for mites if necessary (and Only if Necessary. If you treat when it’s not necessary, you give the mites a chance to build up a resistance to the treatment.) and I treat them for American Foulbrood and Nosema. To do this, I make up a sugar syrup mix (2:1 or 1:1 depending on the outside temperatures) and I add fumigillan and oxy-tet into the syrup.

For the mites, I’ve been using Apistan strips. They are not my preferred treatment as they are a chemical compound and there have been a lot of success treating mites with organic acids like oxalic acid or formic acid. I’ve tried the formic pads and I have the applicator for the oxalic acid (because you dissolve the crystals into a steam and it rises throughout the hive) but I haven’t used it this year. I want to make sure I get the technique down pat before I go experimenting on the bees because when you’re dealing with acids, you have to have the proper equipment. But call me lazy, or too busy, but I just can’t wrap my mind around the oxalic acid treatment right now, when I have to suck in to zip up my bee suit. I think and hope that this will be the last year that I refer to the Apistan strips for mite treatment though. Some beekeepers are reporting that mites are becoming resistant to this treatment. And honestly, Apistan is giving money to big pharmaceutical companies who obtain a firmer grasp on our food supply every year. This makes me quite uncomfortable.

This is one of my last opportunities to go through the hives before the temperatures drop so that it’s too cold to be poking around in the bee’s warm little home. I check to see that they have enough honey. Enough honey being about 80 lbs stored per hive. I check to see if they look like their Queen is doing well, if they still have bees of all ages so that they’ll have enough bees to survive the Winter.

Fun Fact: Honeybees born in the Summer live for approximately 6 weeks. Honeybees born in the Winter live for approximately 3 months, to get them through the Winter. This means that the Queen (in my part of the world) stops laying about November, depending on the temperatures, and she resumes laying sometime between January and February.

It’s a relief knowing that I’m almost done with the bees for a bit because my back is having a harder time bending over. But through the Winter, I always miss the bees and I’m always so excited to get back to them in the Spring. Now, this is where my anxiety cues, when I look through the hive for the last time, I try to “guess” if they will survive the Winter. The Winter is where you have the biggest losses as a beekeeper. Last year on Vancouver Island, beekeepers (commercial and hobbyists) showed losses up to 90% of their hives. That is catastrophic if you are trying to make a living keeping bees. Last year I was really lucky and I had no losses. I also only had 4 hives to look after. This year I have 23 hives and I can already tell you that more than a couple will not make it through the Winter. It’s gutting to say that.

This hive, Valkyrie, will not be making it through the Winter in her current condition. We opened her up and were surprised to still see that she has drones in the hive. Usually the drones (male bees) are rudely butted out of the hive by now. Yes, I’ve actually seen a worker bee take a drone by two legs and chuck him out the entrance, off the porch and down into the waiting jaws of wasps. They show no mercy to their men when it comes to their Winter food. See, the drones don’t do much, other than sit around and eat and wait to be beckoned by a Queen for mating. I know, it sounds like a pretty sweet life to me too. Until Autumn arrives and they are unceremoniously excavated from the hive.

Valkyrie had far too many drones, and some spotty drone babies still hatching out. That’s a good sign that there is no queen in the hive, as the Queen is the only bee in the hive that has the ability to lay worker-bee -or Fertilized- eggs. The worker bees can lay unfertilized eggs that turn into drones. There are many reasons why a Queen could have died. She could have been squished by a clumsy beekeeper (gasp! Never!) or munched by a wasp, or she could have swarmed late in the year and the bees didn’t have enough time to raise another Queen before the cold wet weather comes.

So what now for Valkyrie? She will be added to another hive, so that another hive of bees can benefit from the honey remaining in this hive.

This hive, Lucinda, is looking mighty fine for Winter. She’s got lots of happy bees, lots of honey, a plump little Queen who is getting her daughters ready for the Winter ahead. It’s so cheering to see a healthy hive. Equally, it is so sad to crack open a hive and see things that just don’t look right.

Keeping bees for me, is really intuitive. I watch how the bees are moving around, interacting with me the intruder, with each other. I smell the hive to make sure it smells sweet and healthy. I really like how the bees react to what you’re doing in the hive audibly. The hum of the hive are good tell-tales as to how happy they are. It’s like listening to them gossip and wondering if you made the news.

I’m very lucky that my bee suit is baggy enough to fit a winter jacket under. Because I’ve got more than that hidden under that zipper! Beekeeping pregnant is an adventure in itself. You’re leaning over a hive, trying to ignore your back, when you feel a kick and the bees who have landed on the belly of your suit, fly off, rather astonished. Can the bees hear the extra heartbeat in the strange white suit? Are the bees kinder to me because they recognize the swelling, that they have only seen in their own beloved Queen?

I dunno, but I know that I remained unstung the whole day, which was a pleasure.

A Friday in the life of…

It’s Friday morning. I awake at 6am from bleeting cats. After letting them in for their breakfast, I boil the kettle for French press coffee while I could hear my husband stirring upstairs. After bringing him a steaming cuppa’ java, and checking my email, I put on a huge pot of water to boil for making sugar syrup. It’s August and this means there are far less flowers for the bees to suck on. So the feeding begins. Did you know that Costco 40kg bags of sugar cost approximately $33. And in full feeding time, that may last me a week for 23 hives. Greedy bees!

Then I pull my bee-suit on over my growing belly and my pjs and tromp out to the hives behind the house. I crack the first lid open with my fancy new hive tool.

This is my cool new hive tool. It works great. I got it from Bees ‘N Glass. I try them for my every beekeeping need. This is not only because they give great service, but they have become friends, they are teachers and they host a herd of barn cats where we managed to procure our lovely balls of fluff.

The smell as you crack a hive lid is intoxicating. Especially in the Summer when the bees are drawing their wax comb and filling it with sweet honey. In the early morning sun, there are few smells that compare to the warm golden smell of honey wafting from a calmly buzzing hive.

After checking on my flower-girls, (the beehives behind my house are all named after flower names) I have second breakfast with my husband and perhaps a cup of tea. Then I proceed to the blueberry field hives. They are 4 in a row, Rapunzel, Lucy, Beatrix and Adelaide.

After spotting Rapunzel and her very extended backside, (Rapunzel let down your golden bum…..?) I load up the truck with the supplies I need for my outyards. I have 10 hives that are not on my property. Sometimes it’s inconvenient to drive to all these different spots on the island and it would certainly be faster to have them all in one spot. But I don’t believe that it’s best for the bees on Pender. I don’t think that there is enough food in one place. And I like the fact that if one hive gets a disease, it doesn’t automatically mean it’s spread to all the other hives.

Plus, I get such different scenery at each of my outyards. I have one on the ridge of a cliff that looks out onto the San Juan and Gulf Islands. It’s so peaceful there I can hear the tiny feet of the bees pattering against the frame as I examine them for mites, check that they are making babies and that they have food.

After finishing my rounds, I am exhausted. The baby is kicking and hungry and I’m ready to head home. I have this great idea for a luscious pizza with extra mozzarella.

After fulfilling this craving and sitting down to home-made pizza crust topped with golden bubbling mozza, like a blanket over the chard, mushrooms, olives, artichokes and green-striped cherry tomatoes, Marc and I sit down for a re-run of Dr. Who.

Sometimes life is sweeter than honey. Just by the company we keep.

Smelling Flowers

bee_burnout

Just wanted to recognize that Summer is a very busy time. Make sure you’re making time for yourself and what you love. Time is the most precious currency we own!

Slow down and stop smelling so many flowers!

Honey Harvest, finally!

honeyfromlucinda

My family and friends have been very patient with me in my eccentricities. When I first brought up my interest in beekeeping, they were cautiously encouraging, not sure their required level of participation. As I’ve delved deeper and deeper into the art of apiculture, they have become more encouraging and enthusiastic, and I suspect this is because they saw “sweet things” on the horizon.

I got my first beehive 3 years ago, on July 1st. I knew I’d have to wait at least until the second year before I’d get any honey from her. But she had a rough first year. Not only because of my inexperience, but also because of the problems with her location. She was in the shade, she was bought late in the year, she didn’t have a lot of natural food. It was rather rubbish for her really. So I was just happy she survived her first Winter.

Finally on her third Summer, I opened up the top super to have a peak and found it was wall-to-wall honey! Well, the box weighs at least 55 lbs, I cannot lift it, especially with my protruding tummy. (Go Baby!) So my Honey helped me and got suited up and lifted the super for me, and found the next super down was also 10 frames of beautifully capped honey. Yeepee!

This is my first official extraction. Last year I tried to extract 6-8 frames but I made the mistake of leaving them where the bees could find them, hoping they would clear off. What? Abandon their honey? Never! Yeah, they took it all back and all I was left with were such chewed up empty frames.

There is a story about a beekeeper, he took his honey supers off his hives, took them to his basement. He spent all day extracting the honey from the frames, and went upstairs in the evening to take a break and watch a film. Meanwhile his well-meaning wife came home and went to the basement. She found it very stuffy and humid. Unknowingly, she opened a window to air out the basement. That night, the bees found all the honey that had been stolen from them and stole it back! All of the beekeeper’s hard work was for naught. He woke up in the morning to find not a drop of honey left in his basement. So the story goes…

Well folks, I’ve seen it happen and was much disappointed last year too.

Anyway, this year, I was more careful. It’s amazing how fast we learn when our sweets are stolen!

extractor

This fancy cylinder is an extractor. You can put two frames in and then you spin the basket inside and using centrifugal force, it flings the honey to the sides of the cylinder and drips out the bottom spigot.

insideextractor

cappedhoney

The honey is capped with wax, and that’s how we know it’s done. Honey has a “water activity of 0.6.” This basically means that there is not enough moisture in honey to allow fermentation. So honey cannot go bad. If we take honey that is not capped from the hive, it may not be evaporated enough. Thus you could have honey that ferments in the jar. You may notice that if you have honey in a jar for a really long time, it crystalizes. This is not your honey going bad, it just needs to be microwaved. Or you can stick the jar in hot water and the honey will melt again and become liquid. Most micro-organisms cannot grow in honey if you extract it when it’s capped. The “cappings” -wax- on honey is also pure white and makes excellent candles.

Anyway, you have to uncap the honey prior to extracting it.

uncappingbucket

It’s a sticky process. It’s best to have a bucket to do this in.

uncappinghoney

uncappinghoney2

uncappedhoney

Then you put it into the extractor, spin it, then you let it drain into a container with a filter. We used a cheese cloth as a filter to get out unwanted beeswax, bee legs, pollen etc.

drippinghoney

preppingbucket

honeyinbucket

This picture shows really clearly how the honey is sometimes different colours depending on the flowers that the bees take from. We found that we had some really light honey and quite dark honey in this extraction.

The next time is either to pasturize it (heating it up) or you can bottle it straight from here.

We have yet to pick up our jars so in the bucket it stays for now.

And now you have learned more than you ever wanted to know about the process of honey extraction. Of course on a commercial scale, it’s a little different but the principles are the same.

In other news, we’ve been planting our Winter garden here this weekend. Peas, beans, cabbage, kale, and leeks among other things. We’re getting ready to harvest our garlic. The curly scapes are straightening up, letting us know they are just about ready to be plucked from the Earth. Since planting them in October, it seems like a wait well worth it.

I just have to mention this, I L-o-v-e gardening in a dress!

dress

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And sunhats….

sunhat

Go on, call me a “Fashionista.” I can take it…..