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Ross’s Bee Journal, #3: Sticky Business

July 21, 2005

The bees have been very busy, very productive. Perhaps through benign neglect (we haven’t bothered them much; fewer opportunities to screw something up) our little two-pound package has grown from 7 or 8 thousand to maybe 10 times that number. And they have produced HONEY. We’ve heard that hives started with a package rarely produce excess honey in the first year. Ours have so far given us almost 50 pounds of strong-flavored, thick, amber honey. Delicious, and sticky.

When you start keeping bees it doesn’t take long to learn that everything will be sticky. If you don’t like sticky, don’t keep bees. Everything in the hive is sticky: the honey, of course; the wax cells that the bees build to store the honey in and often to just fill up space; the propolis that the bees make from tree sap and spread all over the hive to glue it together and seal up the cracks — to make the hive and thus the colony more secure (pro-polis, from the latin "for the good of the city").

Every time you go into the hive you must pry it apart with a hive tool (like a small prybar used in construction). When you pull out a frame you must first pry it loose from the hive body and the other frames. You scrape off the excess wax and propolis to tidy up a bit, but the bees just put it right back as soon as you leave them alone.

You take off your bee suit, gloves, and veil and they’re sticky with all of the sticky things in a hive, plus bee poop or bee guts from the ones that tried to sting you. The hive tool is sticky, the inside of the flip top of the smoker is sticky with pine tar from the pine needles burned for their excellent smokiness. There is a whole other dimension of sticky when you are extracting honey from a super, but we’ll get to that later.

In early June we placed two supers on top of the two hive bodies (a super is a shallow hive body used for honey collection; they’re about 6 inches deep instead of the roughly 9-inch depth of a standard hive body; you can add 5/8" to both those dimensions to be exact). We saw that the bees had built comb on most of the frames in the upper hive body and were told that we should give them plenty of room to expand. If we waited for all of the frames to have drawn comb the bees might start to feel crowded and decide to swarm.

A week later we inspect the bees’ progress and find nothing much happening in the supers (still bare foundation in all the frames, no comb) but boy have they been busy in the upper hive body. It’s full of honey! We remove one frame to give them a little more room, and store it away in the refrigerator. It will come in handy as starter comb if we catch that tree swarm.

At the end of the last (regular) bee journal I mentioned an upcoming bee class. In that one we learned how to use a "bee escape" to get the bees out of the super. When your supers are full of honey and you want to extract it, you must get the bees out of the super before you carry it away from the hive.

A bee escape is a kind of maze, but a very simple one. Think of two concentric equilateral triangles about 10 inches on a side. At the pointy end of each triangle (the technical term for this part of a triangle escapes me at the moment) is a bee-wide opening. The whole triangular area formed by the bee-high sides of the triangles is covered with steel mesh and all of this is mounted on the underside of a piece of plywood with a three-inch diameter hole in its middle, which is also the middle of the inner triangle.

This contraption is placed under the super you want the bees out of, and on top of the rest of the hive. Then the inner and outer covers are placed on top of the super and adjusted so the bees can’t get in or out through the top. They have to leave the super by going through the hole in the bee escape that is now the floor of that part of the hive. Down through the hole the bees find their way out one of the apexes (that’s it! "apex") of the triangles (actually through two apexes, an inner triangle apex and an outer triangle apex) and down into the rest of the hive.

If they try to go back up into the super, they can’t figure out how to get in. They see the three-inch hole through the mesh and try to get to it directly, but can’t. If they walk around the outsides of the triangles something in their bee nature prevents them from making the correct turns at the right time. I mentioned to Jeff, our bee-loving beekeeping teacher, that I found it strange that such a simple device should so confound the bees and he replied, "they’re just a bunch of bugs." Ah.

The bee escape is a slow and lazy way to get bees out of a super. You put it on and wait 24 to 48 hours for all the bees to find their way out. Even then, there will be a few bees left in the super. These are mainly drones, though, who are too big or too dumb even to find their way OUT through an escape.

There are other more active ways to get the bees out. You can pull off the super and blow them out with a leaf blower, but then you have a big cloud of angry bees to contend with. Still there are many beekeepers who employ this method. If you have 300 hives, there’s no time to wait for a bee-paced result. Others pull each frame from the super and brush the bees off with a "bee brush" (what did you expect it would be called?).

We have only one hive, so we’re content with bee-time. When we’re ready to take off honey we borrow a bee escape from Jeff (guess what — it’s sticky) and give the bees two full days to get out. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. I promised to tell you of my first stings, and we must respect the arrow of time in the telling.

It’s been HOT here this summer. So many days in the 90s is unusual in northern Illinois. We’ve had not nearly enough rain. You may have heard that we’re suffering extreme drought conditions — we’re down 8 inches of rainfall. This is bad for the farmers and bad for green lawns and bad for vegetable gardens and bad for trees, even big, mature ones. Not so bad for honey production as it turns out. It keeps the nectar flowing, and the bees can collect it all day long without fear of giant raindrops impeding or preventing their return to the hive.

But hives can get too hot, too. Even though the bees like it warm inside (they’ll keep the brood nest around 92 degrees F. and even in the middle of winter will maintain 80 degrees in their cluster) you can easily imagine how a mostly closed up wooden box with eighty thousand bees inside might feel on a 90+ degree day in our humid environs.

To keep the temperature no warmer than 93 inside, the bees must gather water to spread around the walls of the hive for evaporative cooling. They’ll increase the number of bees on the "front porch" of the hive who simply fan their wings to promote airflow through the hive. We can help them out on really hot days by offsetting the inner and outer covers of the hive to create space for better air circulation. Bees will line up in these spaces for more fanning duty.

So it was a very hot day in June, one of several that we have "popped the top" for the bees, very muggy, everyone was cranky, but our mood was improving because the weatherman had forecast a slight chance of rain that evening. Hoping against hope, I went out to reset the covers on the hive so that if we did indeed get rain that night the bees would stay dry. I was relaxed about it, or perhaps cocky, and didn’t bother to suit up. Heck, I’m just gonna reset the covers, not going to even touch a frame.

I saunter out to the hive. There must be a hundred bees on the "porch". I pull off the outer cover and set it at my feet. As I reach for the inner cover a bee goes right for my index finger, the left one, the very tip. Ow! Man that stings! While I’m preoccupied with that another one lands on my right arm and stings my bicep. Okay! I can take a hint. I walk away immediately, leaving the outer cover lying on the grass.

When a bee stings, it leaves its stinger in you along with the muscles and glands that pump venom through it. The bee will soon die from the loss of this organ, so bees do not lightly make the decision to sting. (They must have been really cranky from the heat.) The muscles attached to the stinger continue to contract after separation from the bee, driving the stinger in deeper and pumping venom through it. The venom has the odor of ripe bananas (I’m told) and will incite other bees to sting, so don’t hang around once you’ve been stung.

It’s a darn good idea to get the stinger out as soon as possible. Don’t grab it and pull it out, though. You’ll only squeeze more venom out of the sac and into your body. The best approach is to scrape the stinger out with a credit card (just let me get my wallet out...) or a fingernail (WHY do I keep mine trimmed so short?). I’m failing at both options so I quickly walk inside to the bathroom and find a tweezer. I rub vinegar on the arm and soak the fingertip in it as well.

I learned the vinegar trick from Janice once upon a time when a wasp stung me in a restaurant (not very interesting story involving a Hawaiian shirt, never mind — same finger, I think). Vinegar draws the venom out. The arm doesn’t hurt very long at all, the finger, on the other hand (right arm, left hand), is aching as badly as from the wasp sting.

It will be fully a week before most of the numbness has dissipated. It throbs for two days, then aches for two more, then numb. Weeks later there is a patch of dead skin working its way out from the center of my finger, like a callous. I can still feel it a little now. But I don’t mean to whine. It’s really not that bad. I feel initiated into beekeeping by the experience.

So I got stung — big deal. Happens all the time if you keep bees, apparently. Nice to get it out of the way, and realize it’s nothing to fear.

A few days after the stinging, we inspect the hive and find many frames of drawn comb in the lower super, and some have honey in them already. We switch the supers, putting the empty one below the half-full one so the bees will start working on it (they come up from below, where the main entrance is). That night we get a call about some swans.

The next day Janice notices some bees are checking out our swarm trap. We’re excited, hoping it’s scout bees out on a home inspection. We expect an offer any day, but none has yet come. That tree colony swarmed in August last summer. That’s really late for swarming, but we’ll just wait and see if they do it again this year.

A week later we find drawn comb with honey in the lower super. We consolidate all the drawn frames in the upper super, leaving mostly empty frames in the lower super. Gotta keep those bees busy. Shouldn’t be long now before the first honey harvest.

It’s one more week until we see the bees are starting to cap the cells in the top super. Honey is nectar that has been dosed with enzymes from the bee gut and then had all but around 16% of its moisture evaporated. The bees know when the moisture content is just right and they cap the cells with wax at that point to store the finished honey.

It’s not necessary to wait until all the cells are capped, however. In fact, if you do wait your bees will expend energy to make wax and cap the cells — energy that could instead be used for production of more honey. If you extract too soon while the moisture content is still too high the honey will ferment.

When we see the bees are capping cells in the top super we borrow a bee escape and put it on the hive. Two days later we take off the super and drive to Byron to use the park district’s extractor, a motorized device that spins the honey-filled frames around in a stainless steel tank and through centrifugal force flings the honey out of the combs.

Here is where things get really sticky. We slice off the wax cappings with a serrated knife as honey oozes out. Can’t resist putting gobs of gooey honey-coated wax in our mouths and savoring the sweet fruits of our bees’ labors. But resist you must, or you’ll finish the work feeling like a kid after a bounteous Halloween plunder.

The frames go in the extractor, the motor gets up to speed, and shortly the honey is flowing out of a large gate, into a double stainless steel sieve (to strain out the wax fragments and body parts of unfortunate bees) and into our five-gallon bucket. We fill it almost halfway with honey from our first super.

Back home in the kitchen we drain the bucket into one- and two-pound jars. Twenty-four pounds. A few days later we do it again with the second super. This one yields a bit more than twenty-five pounds.

The supers are sticky (surprised?) from the extraction, and the frames are coated with a thin layer of honey, especially the top bars (the part you tend to handle them by). They go back on the hive so the bees can clean and repair the cells and start filling them with nectar again.

Production will start to taper off at the end of July as we head into August and the dog days. But we may yet get another super or two of honey. Then, to market!

Ross Thompson

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