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Spring Bees and Blooms

March 27, 2016 (Sunday)

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Spring is here!  The bees are enjoying consistent spring temps, and even better, lots and lots of spring flowers.  They’re bringing in oodles of nectar and pollen so they can build their numbers and start producing honey.  I’m ready too.  The windbreakers are down; the lettuce, arugula and peas are planted; and even the fig tree has exploded with new growth.  Lots of work to do in the garden over the next few weeks.  Yesterday the hubster mowed the lawn, and I got in and worked the bees.  Happy, happy!

Quick Recap

I lost Blue and Green hives early on (yep, blame the beekeeper), so I’ve been working through the winter to keep Purple, Mint and Yellow hives going.

  • Purple hive has the mite-resistant PA queen, and she’s doing fantastic – good temperament and tons of bees.  We’ll try to get a split or two from Purple hive to keep this stock going.
  • Mint hive but has tons and tons of bees.  Bred from Texas queens, these girls are feisty.  I predict they’ll bee early swarmers this year.
  • Yellow hive looks healthy and, although they don’t have as many bees as they other two hives, they’re building up quickly.

The weather has been wishy washy over the past few weeks, so up until now I’ve had the girls on candy.  They say to start feeding syrup when the bees are flying.  However, I didn’t want to trick them into thinking there was an early nectar flow, only to find there was no food to be found outside the hives.  Keeping them well fed until they can go out and get their own food is imperative during the transition from cold to warm.  It’s a tricky time when bees often starve if beekeepers don’t stay on top of refilling their food supply.

I also pulled Green hive apart and brought it in for maintenance.  Green and Blue hives will get a good cleaning and prep so they’re ready to take on more bees once I can split the other hives.

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Swapping Boxes for Spring

Yesterday was a gorgeous sunny spring day.  The perfect opportunity to break into the hives, clean them up and swap the boxes around.   The queen works her way up the hive, and by the end of winter, all the bees are as far up as they can go.  There’s no room left for the queen to continue laying above the top box, and if there’s no room left for the queen to lay, then that triggers swarming.  We manage that by swapping the boxes and moving the queen to the bottom of the hive so she has room to move up.  As a result, the brood boxes are located at the bottom of the hives from spring through fall, and the honey is located at the top. The trick is to keep adding space between the brood and the honey in attempt to prevent swarming.  Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

Spring Cleaning

Unfortunately, this working full time stuff really gets in the way of my beekeeping.  It means that I have to work the bees on my schedule, not their schedule.  And let me tell you, their schedule is way ahead of my schedule!  The proof is in the photo – here what I found when I opened Mint and Purple hives…

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Yep, they filled in all the space between the frames and the inner cover.  Buggers.  Luckily most of it was empty comb, but there was also brood, which I hated to disturb and dispose of.  It also meant that the queen could bee among that mess.  So I carefully shook the girls down onto the frames (they were not happy about that) and cleaned the wax off the inner cover so I could remove the extra space.

I’m thinking candle making might be fun.  Seriously, there’s only so much chapstick a person can make!

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As for cleaning, they did a heck of a job cleaning house.  I removed old food and comb from the tops of the frames, but the bottom boards were already emptied of dead bees and winter debris.  So my job was easy.

Spring To-do’s

Aside from rendering wax, boxes and frames will bee pulled out of storage to air out, and old frames will bee cleaned with new foundation (wax sheets) added.

Reconfiguring the boxes is disturbing enough for one weekend.  I’ll wait til next weekend to configure the individual boxes, making sure they have plenty of honey and adding blank frames to the brood boxes so the queen has even more space to lay and so the girls have room to build comb.  They’re programmed to build comb this time of year, and new comb is a good thing.

The garden also needs a good weeding so the strawberries and mint can have their space. Catnip started taking over weeks ago.  Asparagus will come up soon.

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So much to do, and so little time.

Happy spring everyone!

 

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Wax Moths…Eww!

September 9, 2015

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I just had my first, and hopefully last encounter with wax moths. My fault…most wax moth encounters are due to the beekeeper’s negligence. I uncovered several stacked boxes of frames with drawn comb in which I had forgotten to add moth crystals. The frames had been stored there since mid-July. I could smell the stench upon lifting the cover – the frames were infested with wax moths, wormy larvae, webs and droppings – like a creepy, disgusting Halloween prop, only this was real.  Blah!

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Wax Moths and Bees

A wax moth infestation can destroy a hive. They like dark, warm areas with minimal air flow; and because they’re highly attracted to beeswax, the combination of dark, closed up boxes with frame upon frame of drawn comb is irresistible to wax moths who prey on and infest weak hives.

I’m grateful they only infested two boxes of frames and not four or six.  I’m even more grateful that they weren’t in my hives. What a horrible demise for bees, and a shameful mess for the beekeeper.

 

Preventing Wax Moth Infestations

There are several ways to store frames to prevent wax moth infestation.

  • Store frames in an airy location with plenty of light. Moths do not like light, nor do they appreciate steady air flow. I’ve heard of beekeepers openly hanging frames across the inside of well-lit buildings or barns, for example.
  • Use a fan to blow a steady flow of air through the frames. The downside would be the 24×7 operation of a fan (or two) over several months.
  • Store frames in a truly airtight container. I know beekeepers who store their drawn frames in airtight rubbermade containers – like the kind you keep clothes in under the bed – and store them in their basements. However, you need to be 300% certain it is truly air tight. Wax moths can access the tiniest of openings.
  • Store boxes and frames outdoors in freezing temperatures. All stages of wax moth will die within 24 hours in freezing temperatures (36 degrees F or lower).
  • Store frames with PDB moth crystals. This is my method (so much for chemical free beekeeping). Only use moth crystals containing paradichlorobenzene (PDB). These will kill all stages of wax moth, except the eggs. The crystals will dissolve gradually over several weeks/months time, so check every few weeks to determine whether the crystals need to be replenished, otherwise, you risk the moths returning. When you’re ready to reuse the boxes and frames, air them out for 2-3 days before introducing them to the bees.

 

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Cleaning Up the Mess

So what steps did I take to clean up this mess and ensure it doesn’t happen again?

  • Freeze the boxes and frames. Wax moths, eggs and larvae will all die if frozen for 24 hours. I have a freezer in the garage for freezing frames and boxes. This luxury has been put to great use over the last 2 years. It’s always a good idea to freeze boxes and frames before moving them to the hives, or even before extracting honey; or for saving honey frames until you’re ready to extract. I can easily fit two 8-frame boxes with frames into our upright freezer.

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  • Clean the frames. I placed a tarp on the ground in the driveway and grabbed my trusty pallet knife and scraped off the webs, droppings and debris, and cut out the areas that were severely damaged.

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  • Store the frames and boxes. I use moth crystals containing paradichlorobenzene (PDB) to store frames with drawn comb. No longer will I boast of chemical free beekeeping – this is my one vice. For me, it’s the easiest, most worry free way to ensure that your comb and boxes are moth free. I simply add a spoonful of crystals on a piece of cardboard that’s placed on top of the frames, then I add another box of frames and another piece of cardboard with another spoonful of crystals. When all boxes are stacked, air tight, then place a top cover on top with a heavy brick or object on top of that to weigh it down.

 

The crystals will dissolve gradually, so check every few weeks to determine whether the crystals need to be replenished, otherwise, you risk the moths returning. When you’re ready to reuse the boxes and frames, air them out for 2-3 days before introducing them to the bees. Preferably in an open, well lit, well ventilated location. And if that location happens to bee below 36 degrees F, then even better!

Just keep in mind that not all will bee lost. Wax can always bee rendered down in the spring and replaced with new wax, and frames that are salvageable can go back into the hives and will bee cleaned further by the bees. Bees are workers and cleaners. They’re programmed to build comb in the spring, so they’ll fill in the gaps and put the frames to good use. Waste not, want not…you’ve gotta love’em.

Processing Beeswax

June 12, 2015

Several months ago I posted all about cleaning frames, removing the dark old comb so I could add fresh new wax foundation.  Of course, beneath all that old black crustiness is bee-utiful, golden beeswax that can bee used to make skin products, soaps, lip balms, furniture polish (yep), candles, and more.  So how do we get rid of the bad to get to the good stuff?  That’s what I’m going to show you in this post.

Equipment

First you’ll need some dedicated wax processing equipment.

  • 1 old bucket
  • 1 old large pot (I use an old crab pot)
  • 1 large colander (not plastic)
  • 1 long wooden spoon
  • Crockpot
  • Cheese cloth
  • Large rubber band
  • Half gallon cardboard milk carton with top arched section cut off.
  • Crockpot (optional)

Part 1 – Cleaning the Wax

I’ve never collected a ton of old comb at one time.  It’s something I collect over time.  When I have a bucket full, then I’ll melt it down.  But first you’ll want to clean your comb and cappings thoroughly so you don’t end up with sticky wax.   You don’t want honey in your wax.

1.  Place the comb and/or cappings in a 5 gallon bucket.

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2.  Fill the bucket with warm water.  Warm enough to melt the honey but not the wax.

3.  Dig in with your hands and stir the wax around so all the comb makes contact with the warm water.

4.  Allow it to soak for about 15 minutes, then drain most of the water off the wax through a colander.  (Interesting fact: back in old times, kitchen staff would clean wax combs just like this, and they would make table mead from the discarded honey water by leaving it out to collect wild yeast.)

5.  Refill the bucket with more warm water and repeat the process multiple times until the water runs clear.

Part 2 – Melting the Comb

1.  Fill your pot with the clean comb and add about 2 inches of water to the bottom of the pot.

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2.  Turn the heat on medium and watch the pot!  Do not walk away from the pot – this stuff can boil over and cause a horrible mess and it’s dangerous.

3.  Gradually the wax will melt down and you will have a yummy brood and larvae wax stew.   Stir constantly with the wooden spoon.

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4.  Once everything is melted down completely, place the colander over the bucket and pour the hot pot o’ wax stew through the colander and into the bucket.  I do this in the garage.

5.  Use the wooden spoon to stir the lumpy leftovers in the colander to help release all the wax down into the bucket.

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6.  Dump the colander filled with lump leftovers in the chicken coop or in a back corner of the yard where the wild critters can snack on it.

7.  Allow to cool overnight, then fish your first wax cake out of the bucket and scrape off and discard the loose, dirty layer on the bottom.  Well done!

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Collect 4 or 5 more buckets of comb and repeat this entire process for each bucket full so you end up with 3 or 4 wax cakes.  (The wax cakes preserve well in the freezer until you’ve collected enough for Part 3).

Part 3 – Melting the Wax Cakes

Your wax cakes, at this stage, a still filled with dirt and bee chunks.  So we’re continuing to melt and clean our wax.  We start this step once we’ve collected at least 3 wax cakes.  If you have more than 3 wax cakes, then one milk carton may not hold all of the liquid wax, so bee prepared if you have more wax.

1.  Break the thin cakes into chunks and add them to your pot.

2.  Fill the pot about 2 inches with water.

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3.  Turn the heat to medium and watch the pot!

4.  Stir with the wooden spoon until all is melted completely.

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5.  Place colander over the bucket, then dump the wax stew through the colander and into the bucket.

6.  Allow to cool overnight and in the morning, fish out your large wax cake.

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7.  Scrape off the bottom layer of dirt.

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Now at this point you should have an impressive, much cleaner single fat cake of wax.  You can repeat this process again, or move on to Part 4 for the last cleaning phase, depending on how dirty the wax still appears.

Part 4 – The Final Cleaning

I use an old crockpot for this phase.  You could also use a double boiler over the stovetop.

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1.  Start by cutting a 12″x12″ double layer of cheesecloth.

2.  Cut the top arched section off of a cardboard milk carton.  Leave the container as tall as possible.

3.  Cover the top of the carton evenly with the cheese cloth and securely slide the rubber band over the cheesecloth to tightly secure it around and over the top of the milk carton.  You don’t want it to fall in when you pour the hot wax through it.

4.  Cut or break the wax cake into small enough pieces so it fits into the crockpot or double boiler.

5.  Turn on low and allow it to melt completely.  The crockpot can be left unwatched.  The same is not true for the double boiler, so keep an eye on it so the water and wax don’t boil over.

6.  Pour and strain the melted wax through the cheesecloth and into the milk carton.

7.  Remove the cheesecloth and rubber and and carefully set aside the wax filled carton and let it cool overnight.

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8.  Peel off the cardboard and you should have a bee-utiful block of wax that can be carved or shredded for all kinds of fabulous natural products.

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Note: if you want smaller bricks, then purchase a silicone mini loaf mold and pour the wax into that after it’s been strained.

I’m hoping to post more tutorials on making product of the hive, so stay tuned.   Happy beekeeping!














Assembling Frames – Pins vs. Pins

May 24, 2015

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I cleaned all of my old frames.  I used the kind with L-bent wires at the bottom and the wooden slat that lays across those wires.  However, instead of removing the wooden slats and busting up the frames, I’ve just added wax foundation and used pins to hold it in.  The bees will do the rest.

The problem with this method is the pins.  Those small hardware pins that are sold with the frames are

  1. overpriced
  2. really, really hard to use – the opening is never wide enough for the wax and I end up mutilating the wax trying to get them in place.
  3. they’re too short and don’t do a great job of holding in the wax foundation.

There’s always a better way.  In this case, bobby pins!  The uncoated kind.  They fit perfectly through the holes, it’s easy to insert the wax so no mutilation.  They’re much faster, easy to find, and cheap!

I use two, one on each side, diagonal from one another.  And because they extend much farther, they hold the foundation in much better.  At this point, use wireless foundation since they don’t care for the wires.  The bees will glue everything in for you.

Cleaning Old Frames

April 14, 2015

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After last weekend’s cleaning spree, I collected quite a few frames filled with old dark comb. Comb gets darker and darker the more it’s used. Many beekeepers will replace brood frames year after year because it’s believed to be unhealthy for the bees to raise their young in old comb. For me, cleaning old frames is threefold:

  • It’s healthier for the bees,
  • It saves me money by allowing me to reuse old frames, and
  • I can harvest and process the wax for balms and soaps and lotions, etc.

I collect old frames as I have the opportunity, like during spring cleaning after boxes have been rotated and the old brood comb works its way to the top of the hive, or at the end of the season when the girls are condensed down and extra boxes and frames are collected and stored for winter.

Note:  You might want to keep a few old brood frames around for making swarm traps.

Setting Up Shop

Spring temperatures are perfect for cleaning frames. It’s still cool outside, but too cold or too hot, so the wax is soft enough to cut through, but solid enough that it comes out in chunks.

I set up a table outside, collect my tools and a big plastic bin, then I start harvesting the wax and picking the frames. It’s not the most thrilling job, but carve out a few hours, pick a nice spring day, turn on some music, and it becomes one of those relaxing, zen-like tasks that’s over before you know it.

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Tools for Picking and Scraping

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I have several favorite tools for this project:

  • Hive tool – great for scraping wax and propylis off the surface of the frames.

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  • Set of stainless steel picks – from the tool section at Home Depot. Great for picking wax out of the narrow crevices.
  • Paint can opener – the hubster filed the opener end into a V shape that fits right down into the grooves at the bottom of the frame. It’s slightly curved shape helps to lift the wax right out without splitting the wood.

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  • Palette knife – the palette knife is super thin, but still strong, so it fits down through the gully across the top. Use it to push the wax through, then run it across the inside surfaces to cut the wax out and scrape the gully clean without cutting into the wood.

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Another Tip for Easier Cleaning

Soaking frames in a long, narrow plastic bin (like the one shown in the photo above) that’s partially filled with clean warm water can also soften and loosen wax, making it easier to cut through the debris and clean out the crevices.  Immerse up to 4 frames in water at a time, and work on one while the others soak.

This step also helps clean sticky honey and propylus from the frames – it’s a pre-soak before the final soaking step.

Final Soaking Phase

Scraping and picking will remove most of the wax and propylus, but the frames will still bee sticky and waxy. So my final cleaning step is to soak them for 30 minutes in a hot water bleach solution.

Fill an old bucket or large plastic bin with hot water and a ½ cup of pure unscented bleach. Immerse the frames and let them soak for about 30 minutes.  I soak half, then flip them around and soak the other half.  Give them a thorough rinse, then stand back and admire your clean, disinfected frames. The bleach solution will sterilize the frames and will eliminate any pests or wax moths.

Add fresh wax foundation back into the hives so the girls can build them out and reuse them for another year or two.

Next step…processing the wax…