Wednesday, 3 August 2016

bringing in the harvest

I have been taking honey off the beehives, in a slightly protracted and messy way that makes me think how convenient it would be to have a dedicated bee-proof hygienic hut where I could extract honey and store all my equipment.  A honey shed.  I do not have such a thing.  It would have to be bee-proof, because if a scout once got in when there was honey about it would return in short order with a crowd of foragers and I would have a big problem.  Professional honey farmers have honey sheds, and can stack their full supers inside them until they are ready to extract.  I have the spare bedroom and the kitchen, and the doors and windows of both are kept firmly shut when there's honey in the offing.

I checked a few days ago and there were hives with honey capped with wax and ready for harvest. It's tempting, once supers are full, to tell yourself that the honey is ripe and ready if it doesn't drip when you lift the frames out, and to take it before the bees can swarm and take it with them, but honey that's taken while still too watery will ferment in storage.  I made myself wait this year until the frames were sealed with wax, a sure sign that the bees believed it would keep.

Obviously you only want to take boxes of honey into your honey shed or kitchen, and not boxes of honey plus bees, so you have to get the bees out somehow.  Commercial bee farmers give a squirt of some food-use approved chemical that the bees don't like into the top of the hive, and the bees scurry down below.  I put an excluder board under the boxes I want to take, a day or two before I plan to take them.  The board has a couple of holes into which I slot bee escapes, plastic tunnels with v-shaped passages of lightly sprung metal strips, through which the bees can force their way out of the point of the v, while finding it difficult to get back in.  They will work it out in time, which is why you don't want to leave the boards on for too long.  If the excluders have worked perfectly the box may be entirely free of bees.  If they have worked tolerably well there will be a few bees, which can be dislodged by giving the box a few sharp bangs on a solid stand that you have got ready in the apiary for such moments.

I put excluders under the top boxes on two hives, and was unable to do a third because I couldn't find any more boards, though I was sure I had another spare somewhere.  I didn't like to keep the bees out of all of their supers at once because they need space to live, and things were looking quite crowded already.  I couldn't add any extra supers temporarily to give them the space because I'd run out of boxes, but told myself that by this stage of the year the queen wasn't laying as fast and they'd cope.  Two days ago I removed those boxes, stashing them in the spare room, and yesterday I spun the honey out of them.  One frame disintegrated in handling, a lovely fat one with lots of honey in it.  I managed to wedge it into the centrifuge to extract the honey regardless, but there were a lot of drips around the kitchen and a few on the way up to the spare bedroom.

At the point when I took those boxes off the hives I put one of the excluders back under the top two supers of a four super column, having checked that they too were ready to harvest.  This was my biggest colony, and as is often the way they were the tetchiest.  Bees that are incredibly productive and also gentle and sweet to handle do exist, but the more usual combination is that the colonies that get the most done have slightly shorter fuses to go with their Puritan work ethic, while the really placid ones you'd give to a child to handle are true hippies, smelling the flowers and making more bees without bothering to store a surplus of honey the beekeeper can take.  I didn't like to shut the big colony out of more than two supers at once, and they were getting lively enough that I didn't care to investigate further down the stack anyway.

Today I took the two top supers off the big colony, gave them the two empty supers out of the spare bedroom, and got the excluder under one more full super having managed to check that the frames were sealed.  By that stage I'd been stung several times on the knee through my beesuit and trousers, and decided the bottom super would have to wait for another day.  So the state of play is now that I've got two full boxes in the spare room, and the prospect of taking another off tomorrow afternoon or more likely first thing on Friday morning when it's cooler, at which point I will have to work quickly to check whether the bottom super is ready and if so get the excluder under it.  After today I will wear thicker trousers.  Before I razz up the big colony I will investigate whether I can take more honey off the original colony I first started with.

In order to have enough empty supers to go back on the hives so that all the colonies have enough room I think I am looking at two further extraction sessions, meaning two lots of washing up and two sets of honey drips through the house.  And today I had to drive over to the bee equipment supplier in East Bergholt because I was running out of buckets to store the honey.  As I said, it is all rather disorganised.  It's just as well that the Systems Administrator does not get upset about the mess.  Home beekeepers who do not have honey sheds need understanding partners, or they are sunk.

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