What's The Buzz?


Bees & Wasps    Beneficial Insects   

What's the buzz?

Welcome to my honeybee blog for the latest buzz on what’s happening in my backyard beehives.

Saturday, a week ago, my friends Greg and his wife Susan came out to help me extract honey!  We got a total of 24 lbs.!

(Now a blog should probably start with the beginning of how you get started and gear up for beekeeping and how you then gear up to extract honey.  But, I only just thought of writing this blog, so I am going to just jump right in-tarsi first- (to use an insect metaphor-insects don’t have feet, but tarsi!) and pick up where the bees are right now in the summer months and how things are going.  There is a definite seasonality to beekeeping and the tasks involved and the flowers that are being visited for nectar and pollen, and I will hope to share that with you along the way as it happens.)

By way of introduction, I’m a hobbyist beekeeper, not a commercial beekeeper; I am however also a training and technical entomologist working here at American Pest in the Government Division; I currently have two small hives in my backyard in Brunswick, MD.

Where is Brunswick you say?  It is a small railroad town where the three states of VA, MD, and WV meet at the Potomac River near (5 miles from) Harper’s Ferry, WV.

Per my friend Greg…About Brunswick, MD - if you’ve never been there, it’s worth a trip if you like quaint coffee shops and railroads; there’s an interesting small museum with an impressive and expansive model train layout.  Brunswick is a small town with some interesting history that includes Susquehanna Indians, the C&O Canal, and the B&O railroad, and now serves as a stop on the MARC train line to D.C.  But most importantly, Brunswick is home to Beans in the Belfry, a Reformed church (built in 1910) that was converted into a coffee shop (my kind of religion) with its full original complement of stained-glass windows.

And per me, we are also currently home to the ten-eleven year old little league baseball MD State champs as of last week!  Yes, they played in that heat! And, yes, they have a female player who hit her first grand slam homer in the tourney last week!

Brunswick is a semi-rural area, and I have a fair-sized backyard, at least by metro DC standards, not huge by any means, but about 50 ft. x 75 ft.  You do not need a lot of space for beekeeping.  You do need understanding neighbors and no prohibitive municipal or HOA rulings!  

The yard is big enough for my Saint Bernard mix Clifford to chase a Frisbee (he’s part retriever!), for me to do some gardening with the bees in mind (mostly roses and various perennials-lavender, blue globe thistle, cone flowers, but a peach tree, cherries, an apple tree, and some veggies) and to have the hives back in the far corner.  There is a small creek (now almost a trickle with all the heat!) that borders the base of the backyard.  The bees use this for water to drink, and then to fan and circulate and keep their hives cool in hot weather.

Keeping bees and managing them properly to be a good neighbor requires a bit of labor, and working full time I find two hives is all I wish to tackle currently.  In the past, I’ve had as many as 4 hives, but since my area is somewhat suburban and I do have neighbors on all sides who are very understanding –especially when I give them a jar of honey each extraction and Christmas holiday; this is a reasonable number of hives to keep.  It also gives you a chance to compare what’s happening in each hive.  You’d be surprised how very different each hive’s personality (read queen) can be!

Sidebar: in the state of MD you must register your hives with MD’s Dept. of AG.  The state apiarist (beekeeper) will do unscheduled inspections of your hives to make sure that all is in order and no diseases, parasites or Africanized (killer) bees are present.  I’ve had such an inspection happen once in 5 years of keeping bees.  But, that’s a story for another blog day!

So back to extracting honey Saturday a week ago…

I had installed 2 new packages of bees this past spring (late March) and was now ready to harvest from one of the hives.  We pulled honey frames to prepare for extracting; we pulled 8 frames with capped  honey, that is wax had been placed over the top of each cell housing the honey in each frame-it appears whitish in color when capped.  If you shake the frame and no liquid falls out from it, the frame is capped and ready for honey extraction.  If liquid does come out, the frame is not fully capped and nectar is still present.  Nectar contains water and water will cause the honey to ferment or go sour.  Honey should have low water content, in our area it should read around 12-18%.  Such honey NEVER goes bad.   It may crystallize, but it is still edible and good.

The honey bearing frames will be in the boxes or hive bodies (called supers) at the top of the hive.  It is kind of a running competition between beekeepers in early to mid-summer to see how high your hive can go.  As the bees gather more nectar and convert it to honey, the supers fill up and you place one on top of the next for as long as there is a flower nectar flow-usually through the first part of July for our area.  (Our drought and heat of last week has likely put an end to most nectar flowing here, except for the occasional clover patch, but even those patches now appear brown and shriveled up.)

There are approximately 60,000 to 80,000 bees, 98 percent of which are worker (female) bees in any one healthy hive (or colony) at mid-summer. The workers bring nectar, pollen and water to the hive, guard it, scout new locations, make wax, feed developing larvae and keep the hive cool in the summer and warm in the winter, maintaining the temperature around the queen (there is only one!) in the mid- 90 F degrees even if it’s below freezing or 105 F outside. The male or drone bee’s sole purpose in life is to mate with a queen and then die after the act.

Most years, my hives have yielded about a total of 80-100 pounds of honey; but, 60 pounds of it must be left behind to get the bees through the winter months without starving or freezing. (Bees don’t leave their hive until the outside temperature is about 50 degrees F-warm enough for them to fly.)  So, you must balance what you “steal” from the hive with what you anticipate for the winter and also how much you plan to feed your bees in August and September to make up the loss.

Harvesting is done using an extractor (this kind of looks like an old-timey clothes washer or a centrifuge) into which you slide the honey frames for balanced weight distribution.  Heretofore, we have used my 4 frame hand-crank extractor.  But, Greg suggested using his new 2 frame econo-extractor, also a hand-crank variety; that’s right, they’re hand cranked, tedious and provide you a workout like none other if you’re extracting a lot of honey!

Since we’re lazy (he prefers “ingenious”), Greg modified the hand-crank on the extractor so that we could use a cordless drill to power it. (You can purchase motorized extractors, but those can run you into the couple of thousands of dollars.  For extracting relatively small amounts of honey only once or twice a year, motorized extractors aren’t critical, but they are nice.  And, you don’t walk around with one arm’s muscle twice the size of the others-think Pop-eye on too much spinach!)  My 4 frame hand-crank extractor ran me about $325 4 years ago.  Greg’s 2 frame econo-extractor ran him around $250 last month.  Many beekeepers go together and order an extractor to be shared by the group to cut down on expense.

The first step is to uncap the frames of the wax cap coverings on the cells holding the honey.  To do this, you use a heated knife; it looks like a bread knife with a cord and plug on the end of it.  It slices right through the wax caps and reveals the honey-containing cells below!  Nothing beats the smell of heated wax and honey combined! You know its honey harvest time when you smell this!  And, I never tire of this smell.

A word of caution: Bees have a keen olfactory sense and will also “smell” the honey and will follow you to wherever you have taken their stolen treasure.  After all, they worked very hard for this liquid gold. One pound of honey represents about ten million nectar-foraging trips, made by countless numbers of bees. Anyway, the honey house, or wherever you are extracting, needs to be free of bees or their ability to enter while you are working!  Screens and doors must be shut.  Even so, a few workers will still come inside and then usually head for the closest window to buzz around.

A honey house should also have low humidity (to prevent water absorption by honey during the process-honey is very hygroscopic) and be at room temperature around 75 F. So, I run my AC the day before and of harvesting and the entire time any open honey will be bottled, etc.
(Honey has a hygroscopic nature, which means when exposed to air, it naturally absorbs moisture from the air.)

Also, this harvesting of honey is a very messy process!  Everything will be sticky.  And, I mean everything! You, your clothes, the equipment and the floor!  Since this is now a food processing area, keep pets out, and wear your hair pulled back.  Expect your shoes to attach to the floor…squinch, squinch, squinch.  Clifford, my St. Bernard mix, as much as I love him, his tail and fur are not considered good complements to my honey! At this point, he becomes a Canus non-grata.   Clifford frowns from the living room while he is roped off from the kitchen during the prep process.

Once the hot knife has been pulled across the wax cappings, I then use a wax comb scraper to scratch/scrape any caps that were not opened by the knife and puncture them.  Then, immediately I place the frames with all the opened caps into the extractor.  I balance them out and begin the centrifugal force (manual or Greg’s electric) that “throws” the honey out of the frames and into the extractor.  Honey, caps, insect parts-think legs or antennae, pollen, etc. all will fall to the bottom of the extractor and accumulate as more and more honey is revealed.

The honey is then filtered through a double sieve apparatus placed atop the 5 gallon bucket and below the extractor’s gate or outlet to remove the caps, other wax pieces, insect parts, pollen, etc.  These are very small mesh filters and it takes a while for the honey to pass through the double sieve and into the 5 gallon bucket below.  This is a good point at which to leave the process to gravity and her action, and to go grab a nice cappuccino or latte at Beans in the Belfry coffee house.  At least that’s what we did!  Time to walk to Beans in the Belfry, order 3 lattes, drink the coffees and relax, and walk back to my house-about 35 minutes.

We returned buzzed with caffeine to find that gravity had worked her trick and about 5 inches of raw honey could be seen as a shadow in the base of the 5 gallon bucket.  Hooray!  This bucket is a bottling bucket.  It has been modified and has a gate at the bottom that can be opened to let flow out as much honey as you wish.  I grab a plastic funnel and my 16 oz. plastic squeeze jar bottles (=1 lb. by weight) and we start a production line of honey bottling.  I open the honey gate and the liquid gold begins to flow out and into the funnel and subsequently into the bottles.  Susan hands me more bottles and takes full ones as I fill them to the proper fill line.  Greg grabs full ones from her and caps them tightly.  We stack them as they are completed onto the kitchen counter.  I must remember to set aside three jars of honey for the upcoming Frederick, MD county fair in September, and also a jar each for each side neighbor, and for my parents, and for me.  And, of course, Greg and Susan have also earned a jar for their efforts by helping me out.

I will rebottle the honey at a future date from the squeeze plastic jars into various sized glass jars for gifts and for sale at upcoming farmers markets and festivals.  At that time I will also affix my personalized label to each jar, along with the tamper resistant cap sticker, and a USDA nutrition label.  

I didn’t tell you that clean-up is a breeze.  You just place all the used sticky equipment down in front of the hives and let the bees clean it up!  They suck every bit of remaining honey dry from the frames, containers, buckets, sieves, extractor, knife, cap scratcher, etc.  And, they do this within about 2-3 hours!  And, in this way, there is no waste.  Any remaining honey is recycled and restored in the hive by the bees and all of the wax is sucked dry and remains dry both on the frames and in the sieves full of mush.  (This wax can later be collected and melted down and molded to make beeswax candles or reworked into fragrant soap bars!)

A day’s work-start to finish about 5 hours-has yielded much in the way of sweet rewards!  24 lbs. of beautiful, tasty, golden honey!  


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