Tuesday, 29 March 2011

March Checks

Both hives have survived the Winter, and have started to lay nicely this Spring. However, both are on some fairly grotty old comb so we have decided to try our hand at a Bailey Comb change on the older hive.

Forewarned is forearmed - and we were lucky enough to talk to a couple who had already attempted a Bailey Comb Change albeit from a different set of instructions (we are following the method laid out in the BBKA newlsetter from last year). Apparently they couldnt persuade their bees that fresh foundation was a good thing and lost a couple of weeks until they had the bright idea to paint the foundation with sugar syrup. We cheated, and did it straight off - and it seems to be working.

We now have 5 frames of fresh comb drawn out in the second tier brood chamber, and were lucky enough to spot the Queen (our orignial rather elderly Queen now) up there too - so we have also managed to add the Queen excluder to keep her above. We are feeding with syrup and there are plenty of eggs. We have added another 2 frames and will check mid week in case we need to add any more.

The second, newer, hive with last year's Queen is slightly less busy. On our original check, we only had 2 frames of brood which seemed quite poor. However, now we are up to 4 and there does seem to have been a huge change in just one week. Annoyingly, their comb is if anything even grottier than the hive we are doing the bailey comb change in - so we are stealthily swapping black comb for fresh foundation and seeing how they go on. I am feeding - although am not sure why - they have so many stores there doesnt seem to be much room for the Queen to lay - hence the fresh foundation which replaces the fondant I did have on over february.

Fingers crossed for a nice oil seed rape crop....

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Oxalic Acid

Nipped out during a break in the rain to check on the bees and administer oxalic acid. As usual, we are late, but decided it was better to do it than not. We did seem to be very lucky in terms of varroa levels last year and this may have been owing to the oxalic acid that was administered for us.

The bees didnt seem to mind at all - and I was very relieved to see that we have one very full hive (bees across all frames) and one reasonably full (five frames or so). Our original hive (with an elderly Queen) was the busiest but also the lightest - so we will get some fondant at the weekend.

That's it for now! Although we have signed up for the Basic course so no doubt will be full of bee thoughts before long...

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

2 Queens, some more honey and preparations for Autumn

Thank goodness, our new Queen has been accepted by the queenless hive... Not only that but she is laying like a trooper and is wonderfully easy to spot thanks to her bright mark (thank you Donald).

Once the hurdle of requeening was out of the way, we proceeded to take off the supers from the hive (we were reluctant to make too many changes at once). We took 4 supers off but none were completely full and only about half were capped. Still, we managed to extract about 20 pounds of honey which is still in the honey bucket for now. This harvest is much darker than the Spring yield and the consensus seems to be that it has a more complex taste.

We are now at the point where the bees have cleaned out the super frames and we are feeding both hives - one at a time as we only have the one (small!) feeder. We have also put Apilife var on both colonies. I was a bit concerned - apparently the colony may become "slightly agitated" during treatment.... However, so far, we have not noticed any reaction. It also says that they might take down less food - fingers crossed as both colonies definitely need it (neither has ten fully drawn out brood frames - I was hoping that the feeding would make them draw them out).

Question: Some of my super frames still have pollen in - am I ok to leave them wrapped in bin liners over the winter or will the pollen go mouldy? Does it matter?

Monday, 9 August 2010

Honey Sold Out...and Issues with a Queen

Have just about recovered from the Nunney Street Fayre where our honey sold out with orders for additional jars taken! The stall looked (I think) quite good with a smoker, bee book, and super frame for display and the all important tasting jar. Liam had raided McDonalds for those wooden coffee stirrer things that I then snapped in half for people to use to taste.

So what did we learn? People were intrigued at the idea of raw honey but I think mostly just loved the fact that our hives were less than ten minutes walk away from our stall. I also discovered that at least four other people in Nunney keep bees that I had no idea about - although bizarrely none seemed aware of the oilseed rape fields that we can see from our hives - but which are in fact, nearer Nunney than we are. Interestingly over the course of the whole day, perhaps just 5 people said they didn't like the texture (granular) so I definitely wont be worrying about that again. A stall nearby was selling Wiltshire honey at £4.20 but nobody seemed at all bothered by our price of £5. Several people mentioned Manuka honey so I suppose if they are paying £7-10 a jar for that, £5 didn't seem nearly as much.

We also had a surprise visit from Donald from the Frome BKA who happened to be visiting the Fayre (just as Liam got slightly carried away and put a sign up saying "Last Jar - £50").

However, back home from the show we now have to address a problem with our parent colony. Our sealed Queen cell hatched successfully and we left the hive for the required 3 weeks. However, we then booked a last minute holiday to Turkey leaving on the day when we were due to check to see if the virgin had mated successfully and was laying. On the grounds that we couldn't actually do anything constructive in the time we had left before going, we decided to leave the hive well alone. Then (long story this - sorry) our holiday firm went bust, and we booked a less exotic holiday for the following week. In the meantime, it poured with rain and we decided to put off the check again. On coming back from a damp and drizzly Cornwall, we noticed something was wrong. Very few bees were flying back to the parent hive, and when we opened it up, there were no eggs and no brood. All we could see were bees, stores and masses of gunky grey cells....

Cue mass panic. Us being us, we immediately decided it must be American or possibly European Foul Brood. (Mainly because I couldn't remember which was which). Visions of burning hives and horrified bee officials loomed. We rang Norman. Norman was calm. He pointed out that it was extremely unlikely to be either of the FB's and that August pollen is often grey. We grew calmer. We finished the call with suggestions to smell the grey gunky stuff and to ring Donald to see if there were any spare Queens.

We smelt the grey gunky stuff. It didnt smell. We probed it with a biro. It was clearly pollen. Why didnt we do this first?! Much embarrassment. Still no eggs or brood though. We rang Donald. He asked us to check for Queenlessness and explained that we should take a frame of eggs from our second hive and put it in the first one. If there is a Queen, nothing would happen. If the colony was Queenless, the bees would start making Queen cells from the imported eggs. He also explained that he has a mated Queen, but that she wouldnt be ready to go anywhere for several days.

The situation at present then, is that we have put a frame of eggs in the parent hive. (Which involved Liam, an open bee veil - his this time - and eight over-friendly bees, but that is a whole different story). We will try and check the frame tomorrow or weds but are keen to get the colony Queenright asap so we can begin preparations for Winter.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Honey for Sale?!

I am sitting at the kitchen table putting the finishing touches to my labels for the 20 or so jars of honey I want to sell at the Nunney Street Fayre this weekend. It is a ridiculously small number to sell, but as Liam takes honey in his tea instead of sugar, he refuses to let me sell any more!

We have decided to try and explain the concept of raw honey - unprocessed, untreated/unheated honey which is wholly different from the "commercial" honeys offered by the supermarkets. I know that some people will baulk at the fact that it is granular in texture, but we couldnt bring ourselves to heat it in the oven or heaven forbid, the microwave and so alter the flavours.

We have had some interesting pricing debates too. I have seen Somerset honey for sale at £6 in the local farm shop and £5.50 odd in local delis. We have decided to aim for £5 for a pound jar.

The next few weeks will be busy ones. Tomorrow we need to check to see if our new Queen is laying in the original colony - and we need to feed our second colony who are slow to draw out the foundation in their hive. Once the Fayre is over we will also need to put our names on the list for the club extractor and take off the four supers for extracting!

Friday, 11 June 2010

4 stings and 2 bees inside veil

My last post was positively celebratory. This post reflects on the darker side of beekeeping....

We have been monitoring the hive every 4-5 days to check on the development of Queen cells. Originally, we were waiting to find a well developed Queen cell with an egg inside it and were then planning to split the hive - a process that would have involved trips to a second apiary site in order to have two hives, both with large numbers of forager and young bees. However, our bees did not bee-have and it is a case of too little, too late. True, there are now several million (it feels) Queen cells, but it is now a bit later on in the season, and the wise men of the Frome Beekeeper's Association have suggested that we simply take a nucleus instead.

However, I dont know if it is because we removed their honey, or, more likely, because the weather has been so rainy and stormy here, but the last two visits have been really unpleasant. The bees have been pinging off us and generally been extremely aggressive.

As we tried to find the Queen yesterday to remove her into the nucleus box, I was stung once, and Liam three times. Worse than this, I had the moment every beekeeper dreads when I realised the buzzing was actually coming from inside of my helmet! Thankfully I managed (blindly - as my fist instinct was to close my eyes!!) to grab at a loose piece of veil and squish, and actually got the bee before it got me. However, the result was that I then kept being dive bombed at the precise bit of my helmet where the bee was stuck - and I was so terrified more bees would get in, I was useless for the rest of the check.

Eventually we were forced to close the hive up without achieving anything and come away. Then, as I was about to remove my veil, Liam calmly noted I had another bee wandering around inside my helmet - it had probably been there the whole time...

All in all, we were both dreading today - where we faced repeating the whole thing all over again.
The aim was to:
  1. Find the Queen and remove her to the nucleus box - this means the parent hive is Queenless and wont swarm once Queen cells are sealed.
  2. Put Queen plus two frames of sealed brood and eggs into the nucleus hive. Forager bees should all return to parent hive. Again, this apparently means that this hive shuld not swarm as one of the constituents of the swarm (Queen, forager bees, young bees) is missing. Hmmm, touch wood...
  3. Put brood frames with foundation in parent and nucleus hives and feed nucleus hive
This time, Liam and I were armed to the teeth. 3 layers of trousers, gardening gloves covered with disposable plastic ones, and my bee smock elasticated waist carefully not pulled down around my hips (we think the bee got in underneath!) Liam built a small fire which we carefully loaded into the smoker - today was not the day for it to go out like normal. Finally we gritted our teeth and went for it.

The bees pinged, they were a bit aggressive, but thankfully today is sunny and there were far fewer bees in the hive. This time, we found the Queen (albeit on the last but one frame) and quickly put her in the nuc with two frames of brood and a shaken frame of bees for company. And then we ran.

Well not quite. We had to go back and feed the nuc because quite honestly, there was no way we were going through the 3 layers of trousers paraphernalia all over again in one day.

Now we have to keep an eye on the nuc, turning the frames of foundation so they draw them out and maybe feeding again. Once established we can try putting them in the second hive and hope they build up into a full colony in the summer.

And in six days time, we have to examine the parent hive for Queen cells, choosing either just one sealed or maybe two - one sealed, one open and destroying the rest.

Fingers crossed!

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

First Crop

A very important post! As the oilseed rape faded from gold to green we arranged to hire the club extractor for a fiver. We picked it up on Sunday, and by Monday, we were ready for action.

We wore old clothes, and sheets of newspaper swathed the kitchen floor, the table and any clear surfaces. We had a serrated bread knife to uncap the comb and some industrial sized baking trays to take the wet cappings. A few jam saucepans were ready to collect any strip drips and we found two sieves to filter out any impurities. Ted Hooper was, as ever, on standby...

Liam went out to take the supers off the hive and managed without too much difficulty. We had used two Porter bee escapes, and these had got rid of all but a few bees. So far, so good.

Next was the problem of what to do with the liquid that came out when you shook some of the frames. Karen, another
Frome beekeeper had suggested we extract this "nectar" first and keep it separate from the honey. We put these frames into the extractor, nervously started it up and got about 4 jars of liquid. The consistency was not at all like honey (too watery) and we were glad that we took the time to do this first. Had we merged it with the honey, I think it might have encouraged it to ferment. Instead, I suspect we may explore the possibility of mead!

Next, we used our everyday bread knife to slice off the cappings from the comb. This was hugely time consuming and I suspect we took off far too much, but we did seem to get a bit quicker by the end. (Although as we finished at twenty minutes past midnight, this may have been out of sheer desperation to get the job done!!) The bread knife was definitely up for the job although we reckon a smaller serrated knife would also be good for small bits of undulating comb - a serrated grapefruit knife perhaps?

We tried our best to follow instructions and load consecutive bits of comb opposite one another into the extractor (for better balance) but in all honesty, it didnt seem to make a
huge amount of difference. We also tried not to get over enthusiastic with our spinning in an effort to preserve the combs and I dont think we did too badly.

Finally, we filtered the honey through our ordinary kitchen sieves - one plastic, one metal, and into a plastic 15kg honey bucket where we left it to settle for 24 hours.

Needless to say we couldnt resist taking a jar to "taste" - and it is good! Very sweet and very long tasting with none of the cabbage taste I was worried about. This first test jar does have lots of bubbles - noticeably more than the jars we
are now bottling up. (Another tip we learnt by accident - by covering the honey bucket top with cellophane, which "rested" on top of the honey, when we came to remove it, all of the air bubbles and surface "scum" was removed with it - far more neatly than we could have done).

We started off bottling into all the jars we had carefully saved over the winter. However, I couldn't bear seeing our precious honey being decanted into jars still sticky from the old labels so we ended up buying some new ones. At twenty odd p a jar I dont think this is too extravagant...

24 hours later, there was still no sign of crystallisation which prompted me to ask Norman if it was definitely oil seed rape honey. Apparently the sweetness is a giveaway - and it might change colour / texture in the next few days. We await developments with interest...

So far we have bottled 23 1 lb jars with another 2/3 of the honey bucket remaining. This gets done tonight.