Monday, December 30, 2013

What Beekeepers get for Christmas

Every year in January I lament not going out to the hives in December to give the bees some bee candy. Usually by the time January rolls around temperatures are too low to really keep the hives open for more than a few seconds to slip in the disk of hard sugar.

This year we got a wonderful gift of a day that was near 70' and we remembered to go into the hives! And this was right before Christmas too. Bonus!  My DH and I suited up as bees disturbed this time of year are unpredictable.

Cerulean's hive is looking just fine. We are most concerned about these girls as they are the weakest. They were a sweet and gentle as ever.

Star's (daughter of Sunshine) is doing amazingly well. They built wax- yes, you read that right, they had built wax, which is a most unusual task for bees this time of year. When I opened up the hive to slip in the sugar disk, I ran into some wax comb that wasn't there early November. I hadn't opened up the hive that far since, so they've been busy. This meant that the whole top of the hive had to come apart. Their honey super is nearly empty but the hive is still hefty. These girls did  not like having their hive disturbed and flew all over he place. They settled quickly - whew!

Astrid's hive is doing quite well. They are just as gentle as ever. I am concerned that there is a gap in their hive. I've tried covering the gap with duct tape (my favorite fix-it in the apiary) but it won't stick well on the outside of the hive this time of year. I am open to suggestions.

This was one of the other fun gifts I received for Christmas. I have a friend who travels a lot and he got me honey from south Asia and some buckwheat honey. I love the packaging on the honey that looks like a tube of lotion. What a clever idea. The honey came with two beautiful cards that were hand drawn.

Hope everyone has a sweet New Year!
Go bees!!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Baking with honey

I love to bake with honey. This was true even before I became a beekeeper. Honey keeps your baked goods soft and chewy longer than sugar.

Here is a link to one of my favorite honey recipes. I am going to experiment this year with making with just honey as the sweetener. Promise to keep you informed.

Do we have CCD?

A question that we are often asked, is are we having a problem with Colony Collapse Disorder?

The simple answer is no, CCD doesn't usually affect hobbyist beekeepers. Nevertheless, there have been record losses of beehives in this area over the past few years.  A couple of different organizations are working to tease out the causes, but with 30% losses each winter, we aren't far from having no bees.

What is causing this sort of loss?  There are many reasons that all add up to some serious worries. 

1. Weak bees.  Bees are assaulted by various pesticides as they go from flower to flower. In addition, the variety of flowers bees visit is diminishing. 

If you use any kind of pesticide (for grubs in your lawn or pests in your garden) think twice. Is there an alternative that is gentler or can I even live without the pesticide. While these many not directly kill the bees, they can diminish their ability to fight diseases. 

If you only at one kind of food, even if it is healthy, the lack of variety will weaken you.

2. Poor queens. The genetic diversity of bees is diminishing. The queen breeders have smaller and smaller stock each year. 

3. Diseases and pests. With the globalization of beekeeping comes a globe-ful of pests that attack bees. Just in the last year I have seen a rise in the number small hive beetles in our hives. 

4. Poor management. Beekeeping is an intense hobby that requires continuing education. No beekeeper wants to admit that they made bad decisions but it does happen. 

So what can we do? 

1. Support local bees. Buy local honey, reduce or eliminate the use of pesticides in your yard, and plant native plants.

2. Think local bees. Advocate with your neighbors and town government to do the same - support local beekeepers and reduce pesticide use.

3. Support small farmers. Most small farmers plant a greater variety of produce than large scale farms. The greater the diversity of forage, the stronger the bee.

4. Use your charitable dollars. Support organizations like Heifer International and buy bees or Mass Audubon.

Go bees.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Varietal Honey

How does a beekeeper harvest varietal honey?  Once again just like wine, when you have a varietal honey it is from a single source. That means that blueberry honey is harvested from blueberry flowers, orange blossom honey from orange blossoms, and ...well you get the picture.

So how could that work?

A beekeeper will put a honey super, the smaller box where the honey is stored, on top of a hive near at least two acres of a particular kind of flower, say cranberries, just as the flowers are getting started. Then the bees go and suck up all the lovely nectar from the cranberry flowers, bring that  back to the hive, and make honey in the super.

Bees have this really wonderful single-mindedness that varietal honey makers exploits. When a forager  bee has a strong nectar source, think acres and acres of cranberries, she tells all her sisters about it. They go out and enjoy it returning to the hive to tell more bees about it. Soon the whole cadre of foragers is on the cranberry flowers and little or nothing else.

Just as the blossoms are fading, the beekeeper returns to the picture. She cannot be late or the bees will start adding honey from the next flower in bloom in the area. She will take the honey super off and do one of two things. She can put a new super on or move the bees.

The beekeeper extracts the honey and now has a varietal honey, in this case, cranberry honey.  What is the point of doing such a thing? I think it is two things. First taste - varietal honey has a wonderful palate of colors and flavors. Second money - varietal honey commands a premium price. There are some terrifically rare honeys that are quite expensive.

Some of my favorites are:
*Lavender - super light and floral
*Clethra - also light and delicate with a delightful aftertaste
*Blueberry - medium colored with a strong fruitiness - rarely crystallizes

A few others I've tried are:
*Manuka - tea tree honey - medicinal and camphory {shiver}
*Buckwheat - dark, mahogany colored - I can't get over the grassy taste

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Honey Terrior

Eating most honey is just plain yummy but my mission is to turn you into honey connoisseurs!

Honey, like wine, has terrior.  There are lots of formal definitions of this but really they mean it has a sense of place. Honey also tastes like a terrior at a specific time too. Stick with me here. Different wild flower honeys taste different depending on where they were made but also when.

Spring honey is always the lightest of the year no matter where you harvest in the northern hemisphere.  Fall honey is the darkest.

Here's how you can taste honey.  Put a small amount in your mouth - half a teaspoon or so. Roll it around in your mouth so it reaches your body temperature. Slowly, slowly swallow it. Breath in through your nose and out your mouth.

Spring or summer wildflower honey is the one you want for toast or in tea. Try it drizzled over goat cheese or fruit. Generally this honey is floral and sweet. Our honey also has a strong after taste of Black Locust.

Fall wild flower honey is darker and bolder. This is the honey you to bake with as its assertive flavor will stand up to other flavors. Try this in apple pie or in a honey cake. Our fall honey has a strong maple like flavor and an earthy finish.

Varietal honey is honey that is made from a single type of flower like Orange Blossom or Blueberry. This is challenging to make as a beekeeper and often commands higher prices as well. Aside from taste, some varietal honeys will crystallize at different rates and may have different antibacterial properties.

If you are interested in a formal honey tasting, let me know. I have led them at the Millbury Public Library in the past. If you are not local to me, I would recommend Red Bee. Marina sells a mini honey tasting kit.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Give Bees a Chance...

Give Bees a Chance.  That's what is on the back of the colorful shirts you can see here at the most recent outdoor meeting of the Worcester County Beekeepers Meeting. This one was in Sutton and it was a nice hot day with clear weather.

Ken Warchol, Bee Inspector and fabulous teacher is showing how to do an assessment for mites.  This isn't for the faint of heart or the casual beekeeper, this is serious science. The idea is that you should test to determine if you you need to treat for mites by sampling about 150 bees from a hive. Ken demonstrated the sampling in a lovely and elegant fashion. Ken scoops just the right number of bees into alcohol and the rest remain undisturbed.

Me, well, lovely and elegant my sampling is not. I shake a frame of bees, nurse bees specifically, into a wash tub and scoop them with a measuring cup.  One cup of bees is about 150.  I knew you'd want to know.

After you have soaked the bees in the alcohol, you strain out the bees and pour the liquid through a coffee filter. Then you count. I love data!

Look closely at the filter. Really closely... there are three mites on the paper. You should treat if you have more than eight or nine mites. This sample is post treatment.  If you treat early in the year, you should retest. 

So how did my bees do? Our girls were fine. We had a good but not crazy high mite load in August so I treated. I did treat all three hives even though it might not have been necessary to treat the split hive (Cerulean's hive). They haven't really had enough time to get high mite levels. Nonetheless, I treated all the hives since they are in close proximity to the other hives.

Treating for mites can take many forms. We use formic acid and this is normally found in a hive but in low levels. We want to blast those nasty mites away from the bees. Blast we did and there are two potential consequence to this treatment in addition to fewer mites. First, and I quote here, the queen will have a  renewed  vigor in laying. That is exactly what happened in two hives. The queens are laying like crazy.

And second, you can lose a queen. That is exactly what is happening in one hive. The queen didn't die from the treatment but it messed with her something fierce. Her laying pattern is terrible and there aren't many larvae. It isn't a laying worker, it is a queen but a bad one. And the workers know it.  They are ready to toss her to the curb. The new queen should be out in the next week and I already have a great name for her. Just wait!

Finally, thank you to everyone who has purchased honey, hand cream, beeswax, and honey sticks. This helps to support the bees. We are not sold out, but there isn't much summer honey at the moment in our store. If you want some, drop me a line. Fall honey, hopefully, will be on the way in another month.

In my next post, I will give you some of my favorite uses of honey.  And it isn't just eating.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013


We extracted honey over the weekend. There are lots of bears, glass jars and a few big jugs.

 We love the  new extractor. It is shiny and works hard but is gentle to the wax on the frames. 

I've had a lot of folks ask how we get the honey out. I use a heated knife most of the time and cut the caps off. This wax is the cleanest wax in the hive and I use it in hand cream and lip balm.

 Once the caps are off, the frame goes in the extractor. Then it goes for a spin, flinging the honey off the frame.   

 Sometimes the knife misses a few cells and we have to use scraper. This does the trick but it tends to leave a lot of damage on the frame that the bees have to repair. And it is more time consuming. 

 Finally the honey comes out of the extractor. While we don't filter our honey as that requires heating, we do strain it so that any stray bits of wax or bee wings are not in the honey. Fine particles of wax and pollen do make it into the honey. If you get the honey super fresh, you can find a whitish foam on the top. That is the wax and bubbles. 

 This is a light amber honey that captures some beautiful floral notes. It has the same strong black locust finish that is characteristic of our honey.  You can taste the summer sun in every drop.  This honey is ideal for toast, sore throats, and drizzling over fruit. For those of you who have a preference for a darker fall honey, we do intend to harvest again this fall.

Due to some increases in costs this year, our price have gone up a bit, but we have a limited number of larger containers that will provide the high-use customer with a lower per pound price.

1 lb bear or glass - $8
2 lb jars $15
5 lb jar only $35

Friday, July 26, 2013

New Toys

We got a new extractor yesterday since our old one had a broken handle and often felt like it was going to shake apart on us. The new one from Maxant made right here in Massachusetts is a real thing of beauty. Nicely constructed and comes in a nice big box.

So for those of you who are interested in honey, we plan to extract honey in August when we return from vacation and kids are home from camps.

And in case you were wondering, on a rainy summer day, a box is still the perfect toy.

Monday, May 6, 2013

All hail the new queen

Now that isn't much to see, but that is the new queen. I've never used this kind of queen cage before but it works in a similar way to the wooden ones. I am holding the sugar plug that the bees will eat out to release her. 
I put her on top of bees I stole from Serendipity. More on that in a minute. I put in three frames of brood and the nurse bees. Since we were down a hive, I had a few frames of honey and pollen already so she is starting with quite a nice stash of resources.

We've been debating on what to call her. My daughter says Blue. My son says name her after an Amazon queen. What do you say?

Serendipity has been a busy girl. There is a LOT of brood in her hive and she's laying in both the top and bottom supers in good quantity. I am concerned that there is a bit of patchiness to her pattern and that could mean that the bees are going to supercede her. I did find a supercedure cell but it was dry. I also found a ton of queen cups or "we are thinking we might swarm but we aren't sure" cells along the bottom. These bees are really going strong and they are not sure where to go.

Taking the frames of bees and brood should give them more room for babies and over the next few weeks they can make a decision about their queen.

Sunshine is doing nicely. She is laying in her usual upside down pattern typical of her and her mother. If this pattern plays out as in the past, we only have a few more weeks of this craziness.

Go bees!

Friday, March 29, 2013

It's that time of year...

If you are a beekeeper, it is time to record bee losses at This is a quick survey about the number, location, and state of the hives you had in the fall and still have now. This survey is not a true scientific survey but gives a us a good picture of the state of the health of our bee populations in the US. At their website, you can see the results of previous year's surveys.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Record Losses

This year is shaping up to be a record year of bee loss in this region. Many beekeepers have lost significant numbers of hives this winter and large numbers just in the last month. It may not be just here in New England either. Every spring, beekeepers in the US participate in a survey of hive loss and I am set to add my numbers April 1.

I am happy to report that our bees are doing fine. Both hives looked excellent yesterday. I am a bit concerned about the amount of poop on the outside of one of the hives. That this the brown splotches you see in the picture above. I am going to seek advice on some essential oils to feed them to help them deal with some gut parasites that might be bothering them.

They were also bringing in pollen. In the picture above you can see yellow pollen and that is probably from some early willows and skunk cabbage. The honey comb is what I supplemented them with - honey that was stored in the hive we combined. The white in the lower left is a sugar patty. Getting nervous after hearing about starving bees, I panicked and added sugar just in case. This is like going to the drive thru - it will keep you going for a short time, but lacks nutrients. So as soon as night time temps get a bit warmer, I will start feeding them some honey.

One thing that really made me happy was the temperament of both hives. They were calm and didn't bother much with me. I did veil because bees in the chill air can be unpredictable, but they were both really calm and focus. That is a good sign that the queens are in good condition and brood rearing is going well.

Go bees!

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Sign of spring

I found this girl on my deck yesterday. It was a gorgeous day here in Massachusetts with temps in our yard just over 50' and lots of sunshine. If you look carefully, on her hind leg what can we see ... POLLEN!

So what are the early spring flowers that are in bloom?  Skunk cabbage, pussy willow and maybe an early crocus could all be a source of pollen. Given the very light color, I would normally say pussy willow but I haven't seen any out in our immediate area. Skunk cabbage is usually kind of a day-glo green-yellow and often the bees have pollen down their backs.  Crocus is a bit yellow-orange.

One other thought occurred to me last week while walking in the woods. Witch hazel still has some sad looking flowers on their branches. There is always the possibility of a few stray grains of pollen left on these flowers that bloomed late, late last fall.

Regardless of the source, I am so pleased to see pollen. Pollen means babies.

There have been dead bees in front of both hives over the last few days. While that is sad, it does mean that there had to be some live bees in the hive. At the moment, both hives are doing well but March isn't over and it is one of the most difficult months to survive as a bee. The temperatures fluctuate a lot and there really isn't much to eat out there for the bees. Early spring flowers don't have much in the way of nectar or even pollen.

So let's hope for some mild temperatures and hug a red maple tree. Red maples are a key source of nectar and pollen for bees.

Just one more picture - she's so cute. Oh, and she's a new baby - from an egg laid in 2013.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Snow Day

Notice there are no dead bees at the entrance to this hive. If you look back two days on this blog you can see just how many bees there are inside those snazzy blue boxes. After any snow, you expect a few dead bees at the entrance of a hive. But where are they??

I was looking out a few moments ago and saw a bird fly down in front of the hive, hover for a moment and then fly off. Looking at the snow at the entrance, I think that bird was having bees for breakfast!

Monday, January 14, 2013

Today is the day!!

Bees don't pee or poop inside their hives so when we have a long stretch of weather that keeps them inside, well, you can imagine the number of crossed legs!  Today it was over 50' at 7 am so the girls were out and doing what beekeepers call a cleansing flight.

A cleansing flight on a warm day like today gets everyone out of the hive and is a great opportunity to assess the health of a hive. I am so pleased with the number of bees in both hives.
They were also looking pretty healthy. Both hives tossed out some dead bees and were crowding around their entrances.
There was no poop on the outside of the hive, so they were strong enough to head out and don't seem to have dysentery.
And they were calm. Bee behavior will often give you a good indication of the health of a hive. Testy bees generally have some stress and calm bees are happy bees. That is my arm and a couple of bees landed on me and then left after a moment.

Go bee!