Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Bee-keeping and Honey Harvesting by Michelle Styles

As regular  readers of this blog will know, I keep bees. It started as my husband's project back in 2000. It became mine. And the garden became better for it. When momentous things happen, I go and tell the bees. It is a legend but somehow it feels right. Bees help maintain the integrity of the garden. We were without bees for a few years and it didn't feel right. This is the first year, we have harvested honey since 2009.
My husband does the hard physical stuff like making the frames. Me and hammers do not necessarily get on. (This was a big disappointment to my  paternal grandmother who thought all women should be proficient with tools)
One of the bee hives in my garden
 I do other things like harvesting the honey and inspecting the bees. We sometimes argue over other bits as there is no real right way to do certain things. My husband is certain that his is the correct way. I know mine is. In bee-keeping there are a lot of correct ways. The trick like writing a novel is to find the correct way for you.
Early September is the end of the bee year. It is about taking the honey off the hives, giving them their anti varroa medication and generally getting them ready for winter. As the weather turns colder, the queen lays less and the brood nest contracts. They need to have enough stores to see them through the winter. This is where late flowering plants such as ivy, Michaelmas daisies and others come to the fore.
The honey comb on the super ready to spin
When the weather turns bitter, the bees don't fly, they stay in a bee ball, effectively hibernating. They do need some stores though. This is why it is important to take off the honey early enough to give them time to rebuild. Some bee-keepers if they feel the hive hasn't built up enough stores, then feed a solution of sugar-water. I prefer not to feed in the autumn but wait and see if they need fondant (a sugar paste) in late January. Then as the weather grows warmer, the queen kicks into lay and the whole cycle starts over again. Provided you have got them through the winter. Small colonies can get too cold. There might not be enough food or mice might get in (this happened once and all the bees died)
Before harvesting the honey, I put Porter bee escapes in. This allows the bees to exit the supers where the honey is store but they are prevented from returning. And then very early in the morning before the bees are flying, I go and retrieve the supers which in theory are bee-free. If they are not bee-free, it make things a bit exciting as bees dislike anything robbing their honey.
When harvesting the honey, the wax covering the honey is removed so that the frames can be spun. After allowing the cappings to drain for a few days, I feed the remaining honey back to the bees.
Freshly spun honey being filtered
This helps give them enough food..
The summer was poor in Northumberland this year so from 3 hives we got about 25 lbs of honey. In good years, we can get 100 lbs. But the taste of honey from your own hives is something extraordinary. Honey gets everywhere when you are extracting the honey from the comb. And it is worth sampling. Every year depending on the pollen and nectar mix, the honey is a slightly different shade. Heather honey is very caramel. This year we didn't have much heather honey. Instead the honey was a pale straw like colour and very runny which makes for easy extraction. Heather honey is a pain. It sets like jelly and refuses to move.
After being spun and filtered (to remove dead bees etc), the honey is bottled. Commercial honey is often ultra-heat treated. This removes all the antibiotics and pollen, rendering it little better than sugar water. One reason the big commercial companies do the ultra-heat treatment is that it makes the honey stay runny. If you do get crystalised honey, you can rapidly make it liquid again by gently re-heating. I do this on the back of the Aga but putting the jar in boiling water will do the trick.
The reason for medicating the bees after taking off the honey is the varroa mite which has weakened a number of colonies over the years and is why there are so few wild honeybees left in the UK.
My cat inspecting some of this year's jars
In a few weeks time I will put the mouse guards on. Once the mouse guards go on, it is hard for the bees to clean the hive. But they need to be on before the bees hibernate. Mice will not go into a hive while the bees are awake and flying. Bees do not hesitate to sting if they feel any creature threatens their honey supply.
So my fingers are crossed that this honey is the beginning of many more years of taking the honey. Bee-keeping is a fascinating hobby and I would urge anyone who is interested to get in touch with their local beekeeping association and take a class. The world needs more beekeepers because without bees, the world as we know it can not survive.
When not beekeeping, Michelle Styles writes warm, witty and intimate historical romances in a wide range of time periods. Her most recent Summer of the Viking was published in June 2015. You can learn  more about Michelle on


Mary Preston said...

Fascinating thank you!!

Michelle Styles said...

I am so pleased you liked it. I think many people are fascinated by bees and beekeeping.

Christina Hollis said...

A lovely post, Michelle, thanks. I think that old story about Telling The Bees has a sound base. People think it's funny, but I do it too. If we're committed enough to our bees to talk to them (despite possible ridicule!), we'll be devoted enough to pick up on any changes in their behaviour. In other words, if we'll do that, we'll do *anything* for them!

Michelle Styles said...

As a fellow beekeeper CHristina I am so pleased you understand. There are times when I just stand watching the bees.

dstoutholcomb said...

my dad has to have an electric fence around his hives to keep black bears away. they destroyed all of his corn in the garden. I saw one when we were visiting in July.