Monday, October 9, 2017

Failure: My First Hive Removal

He looked so happy...
He had no idea of
the carnage to come.
My fortune cookie Saturday night read, "Failure is the chance to do better next time." 

Saturday, Noah and I performed our first hive removal. While this could prove to be a good little side business, we didn't charge. One reason that we didn't charge, was because we had no idea what we were doing. The other reason was because I could really use the bees.

Intake and outgoing hose holes

I got up early Saturday morning and, with the help of YouTube, I built a bee vacuum out of a five gallon bucket. It was very simple and only cost about $25 total including the shop vac.

Step one: Get a five gallon bucket, an easy to remove lid, and a cheap shop vac.

Step two: Cut three holes in the lid; one for the intake hose, one for the outgoing hose, and a large one for a vent (to control the amount of suction).
Inside view of of intake and outgoing

Step three: Place #8 hardware cloth over the outgoing nozzle so the bees stop in the bucket and over the vent hole.

Step four: Secure all hoses and hardware cloth with zip-ties.

It's just that easy.

I also placed a loop of foam so that the incoming bees would have a soft landing as they came into the bucket.

#8 Hardware cloth over
outgoing hose end
Then, Noah and I headed to the scene of, what would later become known as, the scene of the massacre.

We suited up completely, since we had no idea how aggressive the bees would be. This turned out to be unnecessary as this was the gentlest hive I've ever seen. Absolutely nothing we did upset these bees. We tore down the outer wall and the bees didn't care. We cut out the comb and the bees didn't care. We vacuumed them up and the bees didn't care. It was amazing.

The hive seemed big at first but, after cutting it out, it only filled one and a half deep supers. However, we suctioned three gallons of bees!

I was so excited. The removal was text book and we now had a hive of Super Gentle Bees.

However the removal was exhausting. It took about four hours and even though it wasn't very hot, it was very humid. Since we took our time vacuuming the bees, I stayed in a squatted position for a large part of the time. Did I mention I'm fat and out of shape.

The last thing we did was to swing by Dr. D's and picked up a frame of eggs, just in case we had accidentally killed the queen. Then Noah headed home and I took the hive to my house.

I was tired and it was beginning to rain slightly, so I covered the vent hole in the bucket with a bandanna, and went in the house for a break. An hour later, I placed the hive on its new stand, and dumped the bucket of bees into it.

Dead. They were all dead.

Three gallons of bees, were all dead. It seems that even though we thought we were using low suction, we had actually pureed the bees.

I was so tired (and defeated) that I just closed the lid and went inside for the night.

The next morning I got up, and retrieved the honey - no point in losing everything... or so I thought. It seems that leaving three gallons of dead bees on the honey overnight somehow tainted the honey and as I was extracting it, I began smelling a foul sour smell. The 2-3 gallons of honey was ruined.

In the end, all I got for of my trouble was a couple of pounds of wax and some much needed experience.

Lessons learned:

For the most part, the removal had gone very well. The biggest surprise was how long it took. Some beekeepers charge as much as $300... I now see why.

As for my bee vacuum: I plan to add a clear smooth bore hose on the incoming side. This will not only allow me to see how fast the bees are being sucked in but it will also keep the bees from being sucked down a four foot long washboard.

Lastly, and I keep learning this one the hard way, being tired (or defeated) doesn't mean you are done working. Had I immediately cleared the dead bees from the honey and took it inside for extraction, I would have had at least $200 worth of honey. It would have only taken another hour but I gave up.

From now on I will end my workday by asking myself, "Are you quitting because you are finished or is your business finished because you quit?"

Friday, October 6, 2017

Mead Note: One month tastes

This is our new stray cat, Buffy
She looks like I feel.
"If you can't explain it simplyyou don't understand it well enough," Albert Einstein

I posed a simple question on Facebook's Mead Makers page. What should I expect a semi-sweet mead to taste like at the one month racking?

Almost all the answers were the same: "You will get a feel for it over time."

While this may be true, it is condescending and the most useless answer I can imagine. 

In fact it takes me back to when I learned to drive a stick-shift. If anyone ever taught you this, they said the same thing: "You have to push the gas at the exact same time you let off on the brake... you will get a feel for it over time."

Well, that's bull shit! The truth is that you actually give it a little gas before you let off the break or it will stale. Sure, over time you "get a feel for it" but that is what is actually taking place.

So if you don't know the answer to a question, don't answer it.

All that being said, I want to make a few notes about my first three meads. I have quit using a paper journal to keep these sorts of notes so I now put them here... read at your own risk:

Mead #1 

We tasted my first mead after a year of aging last Christmas. It was strong but fairly tasteless. To describe it a little better it was very dry and only had the faintest hint of honey. 

Two days ago (after two years) I decided to bottle it and found that the airlock had gone dry. I tasted it. To my surprise it didn't taste like vinegar. More surprisingly, it didn't taste like much of anything. The dry tasteless mead now tasted like it had been watered down. It still tasted fairly dry (though not as strong) and tasted as if it had been diluted with at least 3/4 water. 

I poured it down the sink.

Mead #2

I just made #2 (#2 hehehehe)  mead about two months ago. I racked it at week 4 and tasted it as I did. The alcohol taste was overpowering and I couldn't taste much else.

Since I had only made 1.5 litters on this one, I decided to put it in two screw top bottles (I later read that screw-tops don't seal too well). Just the same, I left one bottle as is and added a 1/4 cup of honey to the other bottle.

After two weeks, I again racked the two bottles into fresh ones (they both had a lot of sediment) and I added distilled water to fill them up. I tasted both.

The "as is" bottle tasted sweet and the alcohol taste had gone away. Looks like this one might be good by Christmas.

The one I had back sweetened was too sweet - like drinking pure honey. I don't think this one will be drinkable.

I corked both.

Mead #3

This mead stopped bubbling after a very vigorous week (I didn't hydrate my yeast and that may have made it stale). So at a week and a half, I racked it. I did not taste it but I will wrack it again in a couple of weeks and make notes of the taste then.

By all means, if any mead makes read this and have any "actual" answers, please leave a comment.

Monday, October 2, 2017

What if my alpacas get flees and other insane thoughts

“It is always darkest just before the day dawneth.” Thomas Fuller, circa 1650

I woke up at 3:30am and my first thought was, “What if my alpacas get flees?” It would be a reasonable question… If I had alpacas!

It all started partly because my wife is afraid that opossums will eat our beloved chickens. In turn, for the past 2 or 3 months, every morning I am forced to hump the chickens out to their pen and every night I have to drag them back in to the brooder. Mind you, the chickens are fully grown.

So I researched chickens and that led me to Justin Rhodes’s farm video tour, who did a video about a family that raised sheep, to get the wool, to spin the yarn, to knit the hats… In The House That Jack Built.

That sounded really interesting, so on a whim I looked up wool and that led me to alpacas who turn out to be great guard animals for… wait for it… chickens!

We won’t be getting alpacas. I live in town and the bees and the chickens are already pushing the limits of the city ordinances. I give the neighbors honey (and eggs when they start laying) but not a lot of people would be swayed with the gift of an alpaca fleece. However, one day when we buy a place in the country… well… who knows.

Here in the real world:

Noah and I visited both of the apiaries Saturday and all the bees are doing well. I also added an empty super of freshly waxed frames to Hive-B.1.1 - that gives all the hives two deep supers at Dr. D's.

I harvested a deep super of honey from the old farm. The odd thing was that there were supersedure queen cells in that hive – though they seemed a little old and there was still plenty of brood. I think it's okay.

I’ll still need to winterize the hives this month but for now, it is still in the 80’s and the goldenrod is in bloom.

Final Count – 8 hives.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Mead - Mastering the basics

"Wine is constant proof that God loves us and loves to see us happy," Benjamin Franklin

Bees make honey but men make mead - the latter being the more remarkable. Mead is extraordinarily simple to make and fairly idiot proof as I myself have proven.

I have taken to making my mead from the cooked honey that I get when I melt my wax. This past weekend I racked my second attempt and then made a third batch. I tasted the mead as I siphoned it and it tasted pretty good - at least it didn't taste off. It was a bit dry but I had used a dry recipe.  The simple recipe I am using is from and is as follows:

Dry Mead
  • 12 lbs. of Honey 
  • 4 gallons of spring water
  • 5 teaspoons of yeast nutrient
  • 5 teaspoons of yeast energizer
  • 2 packets of Lalvin 71b-1122 yeast (or a suitable replacement)
Medium Mead
  • 15 lbs of Honey
  • 4 gallons of spring water
  • 5 teaspoons of yeast nutrient
  • 5 teaspoons of yeast energizer
  • 2 packets of Lalvin 71b-1122 yeast (or suitable replacement)
Sweet Mead
  • 18 lbs of Honey
  • 4 gallons of spring water
  • 2 teaspoons of yeast nutrient
  • 2 teaspoons of yeast energizer
  • 2 packets of Lalvin 71b-1122 yeast (or suitable replacement)

However, I don't make five gallon batches as that is just too much honey to waste on an experiment. Instead, I make one gallon batches and alter the recipe by parts. Like this:

Sweet Mead
  • 1.5 part Honey (1 quart)
  • 4 parts spring water (2.75 quarts)
  • 1 teaspoons of yeast nutrient
  • 1 teaspoons of yeast energizer
  • 1 packets of Lalvin 71b-1122 yeast

I keep my mead in a warm area for the fermentation and cover it with a towel to keep it in the dark. After wracking it, I move it to an area near the A/C and store it at about 68͒. I know I should keep it at around 58͒ but I don't have that kind of setup yet.

Now my first batch is nearly two years old. We tasted it last Christmas and it was very strong and dry. The second batch is a little sweeter but still dry. When I racked it, I added a half of cup of honey to one of the bottles to back sweeten it. That may have been too much. To make sure it didn't begin fermentation again, I placed a rubber glove on the bottle over night. After 24 hours (and no sign of gas build up) I put a cap on it.

I created a third batch this past weekend and used the "Sweet" recipe but I also added a cup of pears.

When my wife and I were in Ireland we tried Bunratty Mead at the Bunratty Castle. That mead was infused with pears and was amazing. It wasn't too sweet and the pear flavor added a soft layer of fruitiness. I can only hope my mead comes out even half as good. Only time will tell.

Monday, September 11, 2017

The Magnificent Seven

"Adopt the pace of nature: her secrete is patients." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

I'm down to (8) hives; one at the old farm and seven at Dr. D's. However, three of those hives are from recent splits. Given my recent loses, I've been obsessing over these remaining hives. The thought wakes me up at night and I imagine empty hives that look like the ruins of bygone civilizations.

The trouble is that with this project still only a side venture, it's priority often slips down the list. So when I finally got out to Dr. D's this weekend, I was nearly sick with worry. However, it turned out to be the best beekeeping day of the year.

For starters it was a pleasant 85͒ and sunny. Given how hot it's been this year, this felt like air-conditioning.

However, what made the trip so wonderful was how well all the bees were doing.

Hive-A has filled six of the ten re-waxed frames with honey.

Hive-B was full but didn't show any signs of swarm cells, so I added a box of re-waxed frames.

Hive-C.1 had three boxes so I harvested a box of honey, leaving two supers.

Hive-C (like Hive-B) was full but didn't have any swarm cells, so I added a box of re-waxed frames.

Hive-B.1 & Hive-VSH both had lots of activity so I didn't open them.

Hive-B.1.1.VSH, despite previously being overrun by beetles, has snapped back. It has a beautiful queen that is laying like crazy and the bees have filled six frames with brood, pollen, and honey.

All seven hives are doing really well. In fact, next year, I plan to make splits in mid-August since the bees seem to have so much to forage.

Re-Waxing Frames:

I mentioned that I put re-waxed frames in the hives. I've mentioned this before but bees WILL NOT build on bare plastic frames. They have to have a thin coat of wax on them. "How thin?" is the question.

I melted what little wax I had in a metal pan and added two parts water. Then I did my best to stir the mixture as I worked to make the wax as thin as possible. However, I am not sure the water actually mixed with the wax.

The first (13) frames worked out perfectly. Each took just enough wax to highlight the printed comb pattern. However, the last seven frames had mostly water but it gave the frame a slightly tacky feel - Hopefully this was enough wax to get the bees started.

To see if it works, I marked each frame with either "Good Wax" or "Wet Wax". I placed the good frames in the middle of the hive so that the bees could fill these first but hopefully they will fill them all.

End of the year:

I only plan to open the hives two more times this year. This weekend I will go back to Dr. D's and gather all of my hive top feeders. After I caulk the inside of them, I will fill the void with diatomaceous earth and cedar chips.

I will then return to Dr. D's to set the hives up for winter. I will place a feeder on each hive as well as an unscented swiffer pad on each the bottom board. Finally, I will dock the front entrance up so that there is only about an inch of open space. With that, I will say a prayer, and wait for Spring. I'll still visit the hives once a month to heft them and feed them if need be but other wise, the season is over.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Swarm Prevention - I should have added a super

"Fear causes hesitation, and hesitation will cause your worse fears to come true." - Bohdi, Point Break (1991)

My five frame nuc (VE) needed room to grow but I hesitated because I was afraid if I put another super on too soon, that it would cause the beetles to take over the hive.

However, by not putting on a super in time, the hive swarmed. The remaining hive was too weak and the beetles overtook it anyway.

Damned if I did and damned when I didn't - and now I have lost all of my five frame nucs. However, that is not the whole story. Instead of adding empty frames I had planned to add the honey supers I had stored in the freezer (from a previous beetle infestation). I suspect that this would have invited beetles.

The answer is to add empty frames. The empty frames provide room for the bees to grow without giving the beetles stores to infest. I could have added a frame or two of honey but not a full super of honey.


The splits I made at Dr. D's need another super on them as well. I had planned to add them this past weekend but I was sick with a stomach virus and haven't had the chance. So I will do it this Sunday instead. God willing it won't be too late.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Facing Reality - The Hive Count

"Most people give up just when they are about to achieve success." - Ross Perot

My heart kept whispering that quote in my ear yesterday to keep my brain from acknowledging my eyes. So what had my eyes seen?

Hive-A.1.VSH was empty. The strong, healthy hive that I had harvested from this year and was set to be the mother of all my future grafts was empty. The five frame nucs that flanked each side of the hive were healthy. No signs of beetles. A little moth silk but even that looked like it had come after the exodus. The bees had simply absconded.

I felt gut-punched. After a year of hard work and struggles, all my efforts have had little to no payoff. While there may still be time to graft a few queens for practice, the time to split hives is over.

It is so frustrating knowing how close I am to breaking through and yet to have made so little progress this year.

I went inside and told my wife. Jen didn't say much at first. She knows I'm trying (I wish I could say I'd done my best but, in my heat, I know I could have done more.)

I poured a Coke Zero over ice and flipped on YouTube - despair has set in.

It's funny how sometimes you get just what you need just when you need it. Justine Rhodes, who is doing a farm tour series picked yesterday to remind people that it doesn't matter if things workout or not, "Just Plant."

When the video was over, Jen looked at me and said, "So there you go."

She was right. So I got my gear together and made a full inventory of all three yards.

My backyard was first. VD is still limping along, VE is thriving, and VF is still waiting to receive grafts. Of course Hive-A.1.VSH is empty.

The Old Farm was next. This was actually the first time I had been to the old farm all year - mainly because it is always too muddy out there and because it is (15) miles away. I found just what I expected. The cantankerous hive that had fallen over in 2016 was dead but the other hive had actually thrived and had (4) full boxes of honey and bees.

Then I went to Dr. D's place. All (7) hives are doing great - even Hive-B.1.1 that had previously been infested with beetles. Hive-B.1.1 doesn't have a queen or queen cells but had lots of healthy looking bees - so I placed another frame of eggs from Hive-B.1 in there.

I tried to steal a queen cell from Hive-C but they had already hatched out the queen - a fact I would have known had I done the math. Hive-C's queen was actually due to be out mating yesterday - I hope my inspection didn't cause any problems.

The other good news is that the frames that I re-waxed and placed in Hive-A are being drawn out perfectly. So all of those old plastic frames I have can still be salvaged.

All in all the final hive count is Old Farm (1), Dr. D's (7) and Home (3) five frame nucs.

Am I disappointed that I don't have (100) hives now? Sure - though it wasn't really a realistic goal. However, I don't think I started with (6) since the one at the old farm probably never made it through the winter. So, I turned (5) hives into (8) hives with (3) nucs.

Given all the mistakes I made this year (that I won't make next year) - my gains were still gains. Next year will be better and my gains will be exponential. So bring on the winter, so I can get out in my shop and build some boxes!

So there you go.