Up until now, we’ve been pretty excited to share the happenings of our adventures in gardening and backyard beekeeping, because so far, things have gone really well! We’ve hived our first nuc with no problems, we’ve planted and started harvesting veggies from our garden with even bigger crops than we expected, we’ve dodged hailstorms and been suspiciously free of any pests or blights – we haven’t even been stung yet! If our blog has been annoyingly triumphant or rosy, it’s because things really have been going off without a hitch so far… this post is a bit harder to write!
Our most recent hive inspection around three weeks days ago did not go off without a hitch. In fact, it resulted in much panic and running around the backyard. Thankfully there were very few bee casualties and very little wasted honey (and no stings!) but certainly not because of our doing!
We took our time doing this hive inspection as we had not been through each comb in the last few inspections and were hoping to finally see the queen again. No such luck on seeing the queen, but new larvae and capped brood mean that she’s still around, doing her Queen thing. It was a really hot, lovely summer day and the bees were in a great mood. Very calm throughout the whole inspection, the bees in the hive kept up a low, contented hum.
Working our way from the back of the hive, we were pretty excited to see full combs of honey and nectar and a couple that were fully capped! The bees are pretty close to filling the hive and only have a few bars left, so we made the decision on the fly to harvest our first comb of honey!
Problem #1: deciding to harvest a honey comb in the middle of an inspection
One thing that has not worked as well as we had thought in the top-bar hive is how much the bees have built the combs to the sides of the hive. When we inspect the combs and pull them out, we scrape the burr comb off of the side of the walls and a fair bit of honey and nectar will drip down the sides into the bottom of the hive. A couple combs have been attached to the bottom of the hive and as we pull a comb out, a chunk near the bottom can break off and again spill some honey inside the hive. This isn’t too bad of a problem, because the bees will lap up the honey and redeposit it inside of other combs, but it does make for another problem that we’ll get into later.
Once we had finished going through the rest of the combs and satisfied with how the bees looked in numbers and in health (no deformed wings, no major signs of mites, healthy larvae and brood numbers, a very small number of capped drone cells), we pulled one of the honey combs out of the hive to harvest.
We chose the comb that was almost completely capped. When forager bees bring back nectar from flowers, it is transferred over to a worker bee in the hive and placed into the honeycomb cells. Nectar is to honey like sap is to maple syrup – there is a transformation that it undergoes before it is ready to harvest. If you were to pull nectar out of the hive too early, the water content would be too high and the nectar/honey would eventually ferment and go bad. The bees reduce the water content from the nectar in the combs by fanning it with their wings and evapourating the water. Once the water content is around ~18%, the bees cap the cell. Honey with the right water content will never go bad (you know that crystallized, crusty honey that is in the back of your cupboard – it’s still good! Just put it in a bowl of hot water and allow the crystals to melt back into liquid honey!). If you make sure that you harvest only combs that have at least 80% capped honey, the water content will be appropriate for storage.
We pulled this beautiful capped comb out of the hive on this hot, sunny day and put it aside while we closed up the rest of the hive. A number of bees were on the comb, so we put it a ways away from the hive and figured that the bees would make their way back to the hive by the time we were done and then we could run inside with the bar.
Problem #2: the bees don’t just make their way back to the hive
Problem #3: leaving the comb out in the hot sun makes the wax very pliable and more delicate than usual
We were gently flicking individual bees off of the comb while it was on the table, but those bees made a prompt U-turn and came right back to the honey comb. (While one of us was doing this, the other was hastily drilling small holes in the bottom of one recycled 20 gallon ice cream pail to prepare a honey harvest bucket! Another problem with not planning ahead!)
There were only a couple hundred bees in a clump the size of an apple on each side of the comb, so we weren’t too worried about getting rid of them. Remembering the days when we installed the nuc and shaking the bees off the frames into the hive, we decided to give the comb one tap on the table to dislodge the rest of the bees. We picked up the bar, let it hang sideways and gave it one firm tap on the table… while the comb immediately folded and fell on the ground! Ack! Panic!
The bees gave up on the comb that had sailed through the air and landed in the grass and we had only a half dozen casualties that ended up on the wrong side of the comb. In our panic, we went to pick up the comb from the ground but with the comb being so warm from the sun, we just crushed the delicate wax cells that couldn’t be picked up under the weight of the honey.
Now, with a sticky, honey hand, we ran inside to grab a cutting board, leaving the door to the house and drawer handles in the kitchen nice and sticky! Scooping up the comb, it was quickly transferred into our nested honey buckets and another half dozen bees that had been trapped in the honey were carefully plucked out of the honey comb mash and put out on the table to dry out.
We lost approximately 1/4 cup of honey in the grass when the comb fell, but over the next day, the bees came back out and cleaned up any of the remaining honey. We were left with completely clean, hexagonal, paper-thin flakes of wax in the grass which we picked up and kept to eventually melt down with the rest of the wax.
Problem #4: with a bunch of spilled honey in the hive, you’ve got unhappy bees
After we finished the hive inspection (still not knowing about a fifth problem), we noticed that a lot of bees were starting to beard outside the front of the hive. We had noticed bearding before, on hot evenings, but nothing compared to this! We probably had a few thousand bees hanging out of the front of the hive, covering the entire face, the landing board and wrapping around the sides.
We had closed up the hive and brought the honey buckets inside, cleaned up the yard and our hive tool and here were thousands of bees, hanging out in front. We figured they were just unhappy with our thorough hive inspection and left them alone for a few hours. When we came back out and saw even MORE bees crowded out front, we peeked in the observation window and saw…
Problem #5: burr comb that has been built to the bottom of the hive makes for comb “speed bumps” in the hive
When we were closing up the hive, we slid the remaining bars back into place as we usually do. With the heavy honey comb and the chunks of burr comb sticking up from the bottom, we unknowingly pushed a honey comb into one and it broke, spilling more honey into the bottom of the hive and bending the comb.
The hive was very humid from the spilled honey and a couple of the combs were a mess in the hive – no wonder so many bees were outside, they were taking a break from the chaos that we had caused and probably letting the cleanup crew take charge.
Not wanting to stress out our bees any more than we had to, we resisted the urge to go back and pull out the broken comb and went to bed. Worrying about our little bees as we do, one of us was up in the middle of the night to check and see if they had gone to bed (they hadn’t) and up early to see if they had stopped bearding (they hadn’t) and texting each other updates as soon as work was over (no updates!). It took a couple of days before the bees were back to their normal behaviour and the bearding subsided. In keeping with beekeeper tradition of chatting with your bees, we both spent a couple of minutes talking to the bees, apologizing for our lack of experience, thanking them for their hard work gathering the honey and promising that things will go much more smoothly next time with all that we’ve learned.
The comb is still broken in the hive, but they’ve rescued all of the honey and cleaned things up in there otherwise. They have even built two new combs in the last week and it looks like they are both almost full of nectar.
So all in all, we harvested our first comb of honey giving us almost a litre and a half of pure, raw, innercity flower honey from Calgary’s river valley. It did not go nearly as smoothly as we would have liked and we had a couple of worrying days afterwards while the bees sorted themselves out, but we’ve come away with a lot of lessons and what not to do for next time.
We’ve been able to share honey with family and friends and even given a jar as a wedding present. The honey is incredibly clear and light-coloured and the taste is phenomenal. More on the honey extraction process later!