Okay, time for some "bee porn". These are shots taken from my first inspection on April 13.
This is how my hives looked after my first inspection.
A new friend of ours, Celeste, came over to visit on Easter Sunday. It was her first experience in bees. She really dug it. I made Celeste bee photographer for the day. She did great! We had fun, taking our time, jotting down notes, talking about what was going on, me almost accidentally breaking off a new comb by holding the frame incorrectly (I gently returned it to its rightful place and the bees will repair the damage), us finding both queens, and looking for eggs and brood.
Before we opened up the hives, I noticed that Boris' traffic was real congested with the one small opening from the entrance reducer. I happen to like my 3-hole homemade reducers, and Natasha was doing great with hers, so I replaced the store-bought reducer on Boris with my 3-hole garden variety.
One of the things I'm doing differently this year is staying more organized in and out of the field. As I started letting the bees know I was coming in with a few puffs of smoke, I opened my "Bee Box," an old tool box that has everything in it I may need whether in my yard or on a swarm call. It includes a pocket notepad and pencil. I'm collecting data and entering it into a spreadsheet that auto-generates charts, so I can visually see how my hives are doing throughout the year and skipping having to talk endlessly about beekeeping minutiae on this blog. Which means, I get to post more fun stuff like pictures and drawings (to come). :-) As you can tell, I was tickled to see that they'd started drawing comb out on one of the end frames. I know, it's little, but it's a start!
Then Celeste and I had a grand time inspecting and looking for eggs, brood and the queens. My ridiculously slow pace of taking notes has to improve. But I told Celeste going in we were taking our own sweet time. Why not? I've missed having bees in the back yard! It's time to hang out with the bees. Another wonderful Easter surprise was that for the first time when I felt the gentle wisp of a bee crawling on my hand, I didn't flinch or try to blow it out of the way, but just let her go. She did. And know what? I felt great! Really a sweet, sweet sensation. She was so gentle, and after goofing up and partially breaking one of their combs I realized I should take a lesson from the girls and be just as gentle as they were being with me. I've been waiting to get rid of my automatic "flinch response" to feeling an insect touch my skin, and after 4 years I think it's finally happening. Small victories, day by day, you know? Here are shots from the Boris inspection (thanks, Celeste!). BTW, do not believe those who say you MUST use foundation to get bees to draw comb. Poppycock!
I buttoned up Boris with a half gallon of 1:1 syrup. They've consumed quite a bit, but were back-filling the combs with it. I was relieved to see that they've opened up cells for the queen to lay in. I saw 3 frames with capped brood on Boris. She's preferring to lay in the brand new comb, I realized. The nectar flow has begun in Charlotte, thanks to info I've received from my bee buddy and former MeckBees president George McAllister. He weighs his hives, and though slow and steady, his hives are gaining weight daily (when it's not raining). Both hives have eaten less syrup in recent days. Natasha has really slowed down eating the syrup, so I didn't give her any. Onto the inspection of Natasha. It's a bigger colony, but has drawn less comb than the smaller Boris. Weird, right? Also interesting was that she had more capped brood and eggs in her combs than Boris. They're each ahead of one another in different categories. It'll be interesting to see how these colonies develop. The partial combs I'd given Natasha had all been secured to the sides, so she's buttoning down her hatches.
And lo and behold, Celeste was able to snap a quick photo of the queen. The white mark on her makes it easy! Also I find interesting that Natasha is working fewer frames of comb, preferring to draw more out on a single frame instead of more frames of smaller combs. Whatever works, is what I say. And she, too, had started another one that had been untouched just a few days prior. All in all, this was one happy beekeeper at Easter! :-)
With 2014 being a "comback year" for T's Bees, the final cold months of winter were time to get ready equipment-wise. I quickly realized the overwhelming scope of all those frames I'd been ignoring and tripping over. I had 3 different sizes, shallow, medium and deep. A supplier sold me a couple or 3 medium boxes and 30 or so medium frames as deeps. I was too ignorant at the time to realize it. So when I built my overhead frame shelves in my little storage room, I decided to segregate the sizes. Makes pulling a specific size frame out quite easy. I ended up building 5 of these shelves, out of 1x2's and old shelf supports. Currently I can store over 200 frames in my storage room, and I still have plans to build more frame shelves. No more pulling out boxes filled with frames wondering if they were clean and ready to use, or needed lots of work, let alone what size they were. Quick and easy, see it overhead and know where you're at and what you have. Boxes? Store separately.
A lot of my frames would've gone on the kindling pile of most of my fellow beekeepers. Last year I did the dumbest of things: store equipment, including frames and comb, outside and in the apiary. What resulted was a small hive beetle and moth explosion that caused lots of ruin and heartache for my bees and I. But being stubborn and miserly, I just can't afford to toss out $1.30 at a time. I rehabilitated my frames instead. After harvesting the combs for wax, I painstakingly scrape off all excess wax and propolis, remove the wires, remove the wedges and clean out in-between the grooves. Spackle if necessary. Ugh, so much work! And then sand off the year I'd written in black magic marker on the top bars of each frame to date the frames. After all that? Give each a bath in bleach + water solution (1/4 cup per gallon), to kill any remaining eggs from wax moths or SHB that were overlooked, as well as any mold or mildew. I stuck the frames end up in an old cat litter container and set the timer for 10 minutes. Then it was time to rotate the frames so the other half got a bath. Another container holding bird seed made a good weight to keep the frames from floating out of the bath. The frame wedges were removed and got a soak, too. After 10 minutes each side, I rinsed all with a long, powerful spray.
Then I applied my new dating system. A simple colored dot will do. The color corresponds with the queen color for that year. Each year, queen breeders (are supposed to) mark their queens with either a white, yellow, red, green or blue dot, depending on what number the year ends in. Years ending in a _ or _ get (color):
1 or 6 get white
2 or 7 get yellow
3 or 8 get red
4 or 9 get green
5 or 0 get blue
After all the cleanup, these frames looking like they were on their last legs sprang anew. I couldn't believe how new these oldest of frames looked after cleaning. When I started keeping bees 4 years ago, frames were $1 each. Now they're $1.30 each, with some places even selling for $1.45 each. Multiply that in the hundreds as you expand your apiary, and you quickly see how that adds up. I suspect one day I'll be building my frames. But regardless, a bit of organization and thorough cleaning will keep these frames in service for years to come.
Frames weren't the only thing getting cleaned and spiffed up, ready for a new beekeeping year. I've got so many boxes needing work. So I started with the first two hive bodies and outer covers that would soon be home to my two packages I'd bought for this spring. Each interior was cleaned with a hive tool, some curse words, a going over with a wire brush, some glee with a bit of sanding as it really did the trick, and an application of bleach + water spray before being thoroughly rinsed and allowed to dry.
I also decided to use my last few frames of drawn comb in my new hives. It's something I'd debated much about. Should I start completely fresh and virgin? If so, I'd need to alternate my empty frames with frames and foundation. I just hate using that stuff. Chemical-laden wax from commercial beekeepers make up foundation. And, it gets in the way. I decided to roll the dice and use my last remaining drawn combs from my last hive that I'd saved and not melted down. The combs had been frozen for at least 48 hours and then thawed. Cursing about the bozo who sold me the medium frames, I quickly cut out some comb off the mediums and did one of my favorite beekeeping tricks: suspend the comb on a frame using hair clips and plastic cable ties. Works like a charm! I decided to give my two packages a big head start with having some drawn comb. Each got 6 empty frames, and a frame or two of fully drawn comb and a couple of partially drawn frames like this one that they'll need to finish out. So my bees got a good 40% head start on drawing out their deep hive body. So far nectar hasn't started flowing yet, and the tulip poplar trees in the neighborhood only just sprang out their leaves by the end of the first week of April. It's looking like the main nectar flow is still a few weeks away. My goal is to get these girls to draw out combs and then explode in numbers. We'll see if it's in time to harvest a little bit of honey. It's a long shot, but weirder things have happened. I'm not counting on it, but maybe I'll just get lucky.
Spiffing things up also meant painting. The new Freeman bottom boards (background) got primed and painted, and Boris & Natasha each got fresh coats of yellow after I painstakingly repainted their cartoon faces. While I was at it I decided to use white as a spot color for their flesh tones to really make 'em pop. :-)
After a couple hurried weekends of all that work, it was soon time to install the packages. Here you can see those few remaining bees that didn't get shaken out of their packages making their way to the entrance of their new home. It was a glorious sight to see in no time a few fanner bees out front at the entrance, fanning their Nasinov glands to tell the stragglers, and world at large, exactly where their new home was. I made sure to reduce each entrance, since feeding's underway.
I breathed a sigh of relief when the packages were finally put to bed, as blueberry blossoms are filling our nearby bushes. Berry season is just beginning, and the apple tree is unfurling its spring blooms as well. I'm so glad that my bees, and I, made it in time.
As Old Man Winter tightened his grip around Charlotte for an extended, cold season, it became clear the mountain of bee boxes chock full of old and damaged combs and frames would not clean themselves. <sigh> Time to make some wax. It's truly a cathartic process. And quite filthy. All of that dirt. Each frame of old, damaged comb involved me telling myself I should be better organized when it comes to inventory and equipment. I also noted which methods of frame building worked better than others. When you're hands-on up close with the combs, it makes a difference.
I instantly became aware that the easiest and best frames to work were the foundationless ones. The simple inverted wedge on the top bar and lack of foundation AND wires meant I could simply cut out the combs into a waiting tray and move onto the next one. Not so with foundation. You have to cut through all those damn wires, pull it out of the wedge ... it quickly becomes a messy nightmare. Even starter strips of foundation got in the way. Nothing beats a quick cut through the comb against the inverted wooden cleat. The WORST? All of those first-year frames I built using Duracomb foundation (has a plastic sheet in the middle) AND strung support wires along the frames. What a pain, and waste. All that time, money and effort into using what ultimately was completely unnecessary, and something the bees don't really prefer. I'll never use all that stuff again.
It was COLD (did I mentioned that?)! Yvonne's little heater helped a smidge as I spent hours on the back porch. After cutting the combs out of the frame, I brought a stock pot of water to a boil on a hot plate. I like to keep the hot plate in an old metal roasting pan. Makes it easy to carry, you can park your tools there, too, and it catches splashes, drips and trash. I filled the pot about half full of hot water and brought to a boil. In went the combs. I used a hive tool to get them under the boiling water. Then, I used a large metal kitchen strainer to sift out all of the non-wax materials off the top that I could. Old cocoons from inside each cell in the combs. Trash and dirt. Propolis. Wax moths, eggs and cocoons. Everything that's not wax separates out using the hot water method. The big strainer makes it easy to sift through the combs so that they quickly melt. Pull off all the junk off the top you can and then dump that out to the side before the next step.
Hey, did I mention how many boxes and frames I have to work with? Way more than I realized. It quickly became apparent that I need specific storage space JUST for my frames. I decided I'll store them outside of my boxes, so I can quickly pull a needed frame, drawn or undrawn, and use as needed independently of any box. Time to make those framing shelves I've been thinking of for the past year.
Once the wax has been melted and sifted through, I pour the liquid into a plastic bucket. Overnight the wax, propolis, dirt and water separate. Wax floats to the top in a nice cake. You pop that off the water, and scrape the loose dark stuff off the bottom of the cake. That's dirt. The dark stuff that sticks to the cake? That's propolis. I'll be saving and using that. Nothing wasted!
I did two rounds of wax harvesting. I then took the large wax cakes, melted those down, sifted and sifted through again. This time I used less water than the first time. The second round I poured into old yogurt containers lined with a bit of dish soap, which helps the wax cakes release.
A really nice clean cake of wax with a very specific propolis layer came out of each. All in all it weighed 9.75 pounds.
I painstakingly scraped the propolis layer off the wax cakes. I'll remelt the wax one more time for a third round of melting and straining. I want super clean cakes of wax to sell, trade and use. After all the scraping was done, I had a little over 8 pounds of wax on my first two harvests of wax. I still have some more to go. I'm liking this wax gig. It's messy as all get-out and takes work, but man, the smell of clean beeswax is amazing. And your hands feel unbelievable.
Scrape, scrape, scrape with a bread knife. I quickly figured out if you let the knife blade flex and use it's tip, you can get more done by letting it dig underneath the propolis layer. Scrape until you get beyond the shiny green. Some wax comes off, too, but I'll remelt that down and separate that wax from all that propolis, and eventually have propolis cakes for use in my products and to sell or trade, also.
Out of 9 12 ounces harvested, 8 pounds 3 ounces was wax only. The rest went into the propolis tray.
And here it is, round two of wax harvest complete. Next, let's repeat all that fun and glorious work (sarcasm alert). I remelted all and poured into their final molds, wax paper cups (perfect solution), for super clean wax cakes in various weights. It's hard work, but it's so rewarding to see something some folks with less gumption would throw away. My bees worked so hard to make these amazing hive products. I celebrate them by using everything possible. T's Bees will have more than honey in its inventory!
Tom Davidson is the owner and beekeeper at T's Bees.
Subscribe by email