Tag Archives: Beekeeping

Solar wax melter

In a comment yesterday, Ed mentioned reclaiming wax after the harvest is done.  For lots of people, honey is what they think of when they think of beekeeping.  There are tons of other things that beekeepers can harvest or use from the beehive though.  Wax is a big item on that list.  In one of yesterday’s pictures, you can see that wax capping that covers mature honey in the honeycomb.  When I extract the honey, I have to remove those cappings with a knife to allow the honey to be removed from the comb.  Some folks might be tempted to throw all of that wax away, but those wax cappings add up quickly.

When we process honey, we uncap the honeycomb on the frames, place it in the extractor, run the extracted honey through a kitchen strainer to remove cappings and pour it into a bottle.  That is the extent of our processing.  Besides making a more pleasant looking honey, we run it through the strainer to harvest the wax cappings in particular.  So, I collect the wax cappings from when I use the knife to uncap the comb as well as the little bits of cappings that come out in extraction and let them drain (as both are covered in/full of honey still).  The bees are given access afterwards and they complete the bulk of the clean-up for me.

After the bees have their time, the cappings get thrown into my solar wax melter.  It’s basically a black wooden box with a baking pan and a bread pan inside, covered by a sheet of plexiglas.  The box rests at an incline so it faces the sun properly.  The baking pan has 3-4 small holes drilled in one edge at the bottom of the incline, and the bread pan sits under those holes.  As the sun passes through the plexiglas,  it heats everything inside like crazy, just like any greenhouse would.

The honey begins to melt and runs down through the small holes into the bread pan.  Any bee parts or other detritus are too big to flow through the holes.  Honey sometimes flows with the wax but the melted wax floats on the honey very nicely.  After everything cools, the wax hardens and comes out very clean.  I pull the wax out, feed any honey to the bees and marvel at how awesome the wax looks.  And let me tell you, the smell is incredible!

So, once the honey is cleaned (and yes, truthfully, it sometimes takes a few runs), it can be used for anything where wax is needed.  Usually, people make candles but folks also use it in soap, for quilting and woodworking (as a lubricant) and for handlebar moustaches!  Honey is a major crop from the bees, but wax is also significant and just plain cool.  And what better wax to process honey than with the help of the same sun that allowed the bees to make it in the first place!


Your honey for nuthin’ and your licks for free

We harvested honey this weekend.  We usually seem to pick the hottest day of the year to harvest.  It’s not because we like to do it on the hottest day of the year…it just works out that way.  So, my father-in-law came over on 6:30 am Saturday at my request.  “We’ll start early and beat the heat.”  Of course, it didn’t occur to me that the sun isn’t truly up then.  Bees get pretty testy when they are disturbed before the sun is shining bright in the sky.  It’s also best to give the worker bees time to get out into the field.  Fewer bees in the hive come harvest time is always a good thing.  So, our early start didn’t exactly start how I expected but we still did get going with the harvest.


My father-in-law holding honey in the comb and an edge-on piece of comb

I have previously sworn off smoking the bees and the smoke/no-smoke argument is a religious debate amongst beekeepers.  Personally, smoking bees leaves me with a bad cough and I can never find rolling papers anyhow.  Um, no, actually, smoking bees with a smoker is what I mean.  After last year’s episode, I decided that for the harvest, I would return to using smoke.  As much as I hate to admit it, I am certain that the smoker made our harvest easier.  For most interactions with the bees, I still do not think that using a smoker is necessary, but harvesting is not a typical interaction.



Brood (aka baby bees) on the left, honey on the right.  Don’t confuse them on harvest day!



So, we pulled off all of the honey from the hives and promptly headed off to a soccer-palooza in the heat of the day.  It was fantastic to…uh…have a break in the middle of honey harvest.  After 4 or so hours of  ball kicking, we returned to the honey-house and worked until every drop of honey was extracted, bottled and/or licked from our sticky (but exceedingly clean) fingers.

Click: Honey Flow Video                             Click:  Bees Cleaning Honey Supers

It’s great having bees.  We don’t pay for honey any more, but I am not sure you could say honey is free.  We definitely take our licks and they seem to be free though.  My back is sore and my arms are tired.  All told, we harvested around 150 pounds of honey which is much less than I expected or hoped for but it’s better than none!

Of course, the title to this post is a nod to the awesome Dire Straits Song linked here!  Nothing at all to do with bees unfortunately…

More info about my bees and beekeeping

Honeybees – splitting a colony

The number of bees in a honeybee colony ranges depending on the season.  Sometime in the middle of the honey flow (April-July or so here in WV) a good colony will have somewhere around 60,000-80,000 bees in it.  In the middle of winter, the colony will only have 20,000 or so bees.  Typically, the more bees there are in a colony, the more honey they can make.  So, sometime around the end of January or the beginning of February, the queen starts to ramp up her egg production and the colony starts to grow in number to get ready for Spring.

My helper

Most queens are egg-laying machines, capable of laying up to 2000 eggs per day.  When a hive gets too full of bees, spring fever hits and the colony makes preparation to swarm.  Swarming is a natural reaction to over-crowding and is the typical way the species propagates.  The old queen and a bunch of workers (half give or take) will leave the hive and find a new location.  Prior to leaving, the workers make several queen cells (they feed fertilized eggs/larvae the proper amount of royal jelly and the larvae will turn into a queen) so the remaining colony will still have a queen after the swarm leaves.

Lots of worker brood in the pupal stage...changing from larvae into bee. The flat cardboard-colored covering gives it away
Note the white larvae. Once the eggs hatch, the resulting larvae eat and eat and grow into pretty large "worms". They eventually are capped over (see above picture) and pupate. This stage is the conversion from "worm" into bee.

An observant beekeeper will watch for the Spring build-up and may consider splitting a colony that grows too big.  Swarms are a lot of fun to watch and to catch, but a beekeeper runs the risk of irritating his neighbors or losing the colony to the wilds.  I prefer to split a colony before it gets the urge to swarm so I can retain all of my bees.  So, last night I split a few of my “booming” colonies.  I simply take 3-5 frames with a mixture of bees, brood, eggs, pollen and honey and move them to a different hive box.  I make sure to leave the queen in the original location.  The original colony will remain strong as the queen finds she has lots of room to lay more eggs (in the empty frames I put in place of the ones I removed) and the colony will make lots of honey.

Notice the different bands...the outer bad has a somewhat wet looking yellow cap over the honeycomb. That is capped honey. Inside of that is a yellow paste down inside the cells. That is stored pollen. Inside of that band is more capped brood. The "nest" always has these bands of honey, pollen and brood.

The new colony will feed royal jelly to a number of eggs (in essence, making their own little swarm condition without actually flying off) and end up with a queen in 3 weeks (if all goes well).  The split probably won’t make honey this season as they have to hatch a queen and wait for her to get to full egg-laying capacity, but they should be strong going into the Fall.

Lots of pollen stored by the hive. This is protein for the bees and essential for raising new bees

I was able to find a few queen cells in the original hives so I took them and put them in the splits so I know there is a queen already pretty far along in the development process.  These splits have an even better chance of having a good queen and growing rapidly since they won’t suffer the 3 week delay to make a new queen from scratch.

Too bad it is blurry but this is one of the queen cells I found...a new queen in the making!

I make splits every year and have great luck at it.  I will probably re-queen these splits later this season or maybe next spring as I want to maintain genetic diversity, but in the short term, I now have more colonies than I did 2 days ago and I will almost assuredly make more honey than I otherwise would have made.  Honeybees are so cool!

Top bar bee hives

Back in the time of Robin Hood, Friar Tuck used to keep bees in a straw skep. Bees were plentiful back then so beekeepers could just reach in to a skep and grab a gob of honeycomb and go on with business. If a beekeeper wanted to harvest all of the honey, they simply destroyed the hive (sometimes by placing the skep over burning sulphur… yummy honey I bet). Anyhow, in 1851, the Reverend Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth invented a beehive such that bees would build orderly honeycomb on frames that could be removed and inspected.  Honey harvest no longer meant that the bees had to be destroyed.  Frames could be removed, honey extracted and the frames replaced.  This type of hive is the one most people think of when they think of a beehive…you know, the white boxes out in a field.

This style is not the only type of beehive though. In the United States, laws require that bee hives have removable frames for easy inspection. Beyond that, it does not stipulate how those frames must be arranged.

So, some new web friends of mine have sent me some pictures of their Top Bar hive. In this type of hive, bees are encouraged to build their own honey comb from scratch (not on wax “starter” comb that most Langstroth beekeepers use). The shape of the honeycomb frames is typically like a blunted triangle rather than a rectangle like a Langstroth hive.  A TBH encourages lateral colony growth (as opposed to vertical in a Langstroth hive) and many say healthier growth.  Please enjoy these pics and narrative by Bob and Gail, beekeepers who use both TBH and Langstroth hives!

from Bob and Gail…

Here’s a couple of natural comb shots.  As you can see from knowing the Lang- there’s no side or bottom bars, there’s plenty of brood along the bottom of the comb and honey along the tb.

taking off the cover. The TBH is horizontal compared to its neighbor Lanstroth hive.
Inside- 31 Topbars and one backboard.
a well-formed natural comb. The top third is capped honey while the bottom third is capped brood.
Holding the comb upside down to inspect both sides. The comb must always be held perpendicular to the ground or it will break off the topbar. Turning and rotating the comb around so that it is always vertical takes some getting used to.
Notice that the bees are "chaining." They are linking together by their feet, setting a pattern for building the shape of the comb. No side bars or foundation required.
a closer view of chaining
Inside the hive, the bees are chaining between two combs. Notice that the TBH has a screened bottom.
All three of our hives looked terrific.  We didn’t see any mites
and have used no chemicals.  Our second TBH is being fed because they
lost their queen, had to create their own so they had a small
population during the flow.  We noticed a number of bee carrying white
pollen which we think is from a cotten field just down the road.  We
saw two pollen-laden foragers doing a waggle dance- isn’t that fun?
Hope these photos reveal more than they conceal.
Bees have a great sense of smell. Bob's handlebar is waxed with a cosemetic containing beeswax so this hitchiker found him irresistible. Now when he observes the hives he has a droopy 'stache. When asked how he would manage to keep his handlebar up since becoming a beekeeper he replied, "Willpower!"

So, why bother? Here’s a great narrative by Bob and Gail that explains it perfectly!

We’re in the honey!

After the first unsuccessful attempt at harvesting honey this year, we decided to give it another go last weekend.  I had removed about half of the honey from the hives the weekend prior (before things went south).  I suited up again this Saturday to finish removing the honey on the remaining hives…not one single sting while I was removing the rest.  Not one!  That’s the way it is supposed to work!  I am not sure I would recommend it, but if one has normal freakin’ bees and works slowly and deliberately, one could almost work the bees buck naked.

Anyhow, I pulled the rest of the honey and we extracted on Sunday (with the help of my family!)  I nearly fainted as Isaac and Abigail both actually helped with the process.  Typically they swoop in and swipe bits of honey, then retreat to unknown locations planning their next attack.  But this weekend, they actually stuck it out for an hour or so!

Some years we get different colors of honey.  Different nectar sources produce different colors of honey.  This year, all of the honey was the same color.  That doesn’t mean that all of the honey came from a single type of flower…just that all the types of flowers they worked happened to make the same color of honey.

We have converted our honey frames over to plastic Honey SuperCell frames which I cut to size to fit in the shorter honey boxes.  There are many advantages to these type of honey frames but one thing that is both good and bad is that the bees don’t draw out the honeycomb too thick.  Really, they don’t draw it out beyond the depth of the plastic that is already drawn.  That’s good in that I don’t destroy any honey getting the frames out, but bad in that it means it’s harder to cut the cappings off.  Rather than using a knife to remove the top caps of the honey comb, we had to try something new this year – a capping scratcher.  That’s basically a fork with long thin tines that we drag over the sealed honey cells to break open the honeycomb so it can be extracted.   (All that may be confusing…basically, I can’t use a knife any more to open the honey cells…now I need to use a fork)

We spent about 4 hours on Sunday and extracted about 193 pounds of honey this year.  I am pretty satisfied with that especially considering I destroyed 25-40 pounds of honey in one of the hives I had to kill.  It’s exhausting work but we really enjoy the family time too (right family?  right?)  Like so much at this time of year (i.e. the garden), I love the build-up and the harvest but even more-so, I love its completion!

Moving bees

Last week I caught a couple of swarms of bees.  After I hived them, I sort of basically left them where they were so they could settle in (and because I was too lazy to do anything about it.)  After a weekend of talking myself into it, I finally mustered up the will to move them to a permanent location yesterday evening.

Weather radar on Sunday - I live at the blue star...

I happened to take a look at the weather radar and figured I needed to do something and soon as their temporary location was not great, rain-wise.  As always, I wait until just short of the last minute to do stuff, so I scrambled around the house and found some duct tape and a roll of baling twine (as well as a toilet plunger and a box of plastic spoons) and loaded up the man-van to move some bees before the coming storms hit (and I almost made it).

Before I go any farther, let me warn you…what I am about to tell you should not be attempted under any circumstances and is merely a figment of your imagination…I would never really do this ; -)

To move bees, I wad up some paper and stuff it into the entrance which I tape in place.  I do the same with the top entrance (basically a “breather hole”).  Then I wrap a ratcheting strap around the hive and beat feet with it to the back of the van.  There are always bees that hang on the outside and underneath.  Most times a couple of dozen bees seem to outsmart  my tape job too.  Still, I slam the door down and go for it.  You see, if I ever really did this I would not be fearful because, as it turns out, the bees that do escape have absolutely no interest in messing with me.  They see the light through the windows and buzz around as bugs do when caught behind glass.

If I ever really did do this a bunch of times, I would probably be able to tell you that I have never once been bothered by bees with this method and the bees have always been transported successfully and with no damage to me or them.  But, of course, I have never done any of this, right?

Beekeeping is always an adventure.  As always, there are risks when messing with thousands of stinging insects with no moral compulsion towards fair play…but the nature of bees is incredibly fascinating and mostly understandable…or so I have heard…I never do these sorts of things though…

Bees are here! Hiving a package of bees

I keep 11-12 hives of bees.  Over the winter-time, some of them usually die for one reason or another.  This year I lost 4.  Compared to a lot of folks, that is a pretty great survival rate, but I sort of like having a full compliment of hives.  Most years I make splits where I take some bees from a “booming” hive and put them in a new hive box (i.e. from the hive that died).  Depending on the year, I add a queen I get from a breeder or else I add a queen cell that I find in the original hive.

This year we ordered packages from a supplier in NC.  My in-laws drove down and back this weekend and picked up 4 packages and 3 new queens in addition.  On Sunday we installed the bees, made splits, requeened and generally had a good time messing around with the bees.  Installing a package of bees is about the simplest thing a beekeeper can do, but new beekeepers often panic at the thought of dumping bees from a box into the new hive.  I figured I would video tape my hiving a package of bees so anyone who might want to have a look can see how I do it!

Link to Video

(Try this link to video of the above didn’t work on your computer)


We’ve had a fairly cold winter so, unlike most years, I have not been able to simply look outside and see if the bees are flying to know they are ok.  I prepared the bees this fall by treating them with various things to make sure they were healthy, I made sure they had plenty of honey and pollen to eat through the winter and then I crossed my fingers.

Still clustered, but dead

A few weeks ago, we had a warm day and I was able to check the 4 hives at my house.  To my dismay, 2 were dead-outs.  All of my hives at other locations are fine so I was surprised to find some at my house that were gone.  We live atop a hill in Charleston, WV and we get serious wind.  I have a windbreak around them but I suppose that the extreme drafts might have gotten to them.  That is the one characteristic that separates the hives at my house from the ones I have elsewhere.  It has been said that one cannot freeze bees…if they stay dry and not too windy.  If either problem exists, all bets are off so I figured I fell prey to the wind.

Heads down in the cells...telltale sign of starvation

I opened the hives and immediately knew that the wind was not to blame, but rather the cold…sort of.  You see, my bees didn’t freeze, but rather starved to death.  The cold makes bees cluster together.  As it gets especially cold with no warm days interspersed, the bees cannot break their cluster.  Without breaking cluster, they cannot move through the hive either.  Since their honey stores are spread throughout the hive, they need to be able to move around periodically to eat.

Some honey nearby where they were clustered
Plenty of honey one more frame over...

So, I opened 2 hives and saw the tell-tale signs…bees still clustered together,  many bees with their heads deep in honeycomb cells, and honey nearby, but not right where they died.

I hate for a colony to die, and when it is related to something I might have done wrong, it irritates me even more (fortunately, that doesn’t happen often anymore).  But when it’s due to nature, I guess I feel a little bit of relief.  It’s never fun, but it is a reality of beekeeping.  So, I just hope for warmer days here and there so the bees can move to food and also for a quick Spring!  Come on Spring!

Housekeeping in a beehive

I wrote a bit on this topic over at Not Dabbling in Normal today.  Have a read over there if you get a chance.  So, in general, bees are well into preparing for winter by October.  They gather as much pollen and nectar as they can and they have begun to clean the hive and seal the cracks.  Bees make this amazing stuff called propolis which is much like super glue and caulking…only stickier.  It is made from a concoction of tree saps, wax and bee magic.

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In large areas, bees often fill in gaps and cracks (they are particular about bee space…the only like open spaces of approximately 3/8 of an inch) with burr comb.  Burr comb is basically just large chunks of “free form” honeycomb.  Smaller cracks however, are usually filled in with propolis.  Bees don’t typically freeeze to death in the winter but drafts and moisture can definitely kill.  They take this preparation very seriously.

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I guess it is sort of bad, but we always sort of enjoy another part of housekeeping that bees do.  Male bees serve only as breeders for virgin queens in the early spring and summer.  During the fall and winter months, they do no work in the hive, but rather consume precious food.  Female worker bees are practical and toss the males from the hive.  Male bees are larger than females but, (and no comments here) the females are far tougher.  Females are hardened by work (in a non-Clint Eastwood or Sly Stallone sort of way) and have nasty stingers.  Male bees do not have stingers.  They are lovers, not fighters, remember?    So, as the females drag the males to the edge of the hive entrance, we like to pick up the doomed males for careful inspection.  Though they are bound to die, we like to observe and handle them as we ponder on the marvels of nature.

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Bees are a tough lot, but their simplicity and practicality are sort of beautiful, in a strange sort of way…

Bees gone wild

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In the bee world, I am like Joe Francis. When bees are at their wildest, I am there with the video camera!  A few weeks ago, we harvested honey.  The extraction process does a pretty good job of removing the honey, but it can absolutely not remove all of the honey from the comb.  That leaves the beekeeper with a potential problem.  The remaining honey will draw ants or bears or the Cavity Fairy if stored “wet”.  The remaining honey must be cleaned up.

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How the cleanup is best accomplished is a bit of a religous debate among beekeepers (as is most everything for beekeepers).  The bees do a fantastic job of cleaning the supers and will remove every last drop of honey from them and carry it back to the hive.  The religous debate is where the wet supers should be placed for them to clean.  You see, bees have this funny tendency to get frenzied when presented with a bunch of sweet honey.  They begin what is called robbing.

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The term robbing sort of makes more sense in the other context in which bees rob.  When a nearby hive is weak due to disease, swarming, etc, other nearby, stronger hives will raid the weaker hive and rob all of the honey.  Of course, a battle ensues and many bees die.  It’s not much fun for humans to be around either.  But the stronger bees will rob every bit of honey from the weaker hive, often killing the weaker colony in the process.


(click for video)

So back to the religous part…some beekeepers suggest putting the wet supers a long distance from the hives so as not to encourage robbing behavior between the hives themselves.  Others (like me) say that if all of the colonies are healthy and strong, it won’t be as issue.  The bees will “rob” the wet supers and leave each other alone.  I also don’t have 500 acres to work with so I have little choice.


(click for video)

This second video was taken 5 minutes after I put the wet supers and equipment outside.  The bees smell it very quickly and start to work.  It takes 1-2 days for the bees to clean the supers completely dry.  Afterwards, they quickly settle back into their routine and act like good little bees.  But, like Joe Francis, my cameras are always rolling and I got the evidence to make Bee-Momma proud!