So You Want to Be a Beekeeper?

by Julie Tennis on October 29, 2017

When you’re a beekeeper, your friends will ask you to remove bees from all sorts of difficult-to-reach places.

You start early in hopes of getting the honeybee colony removed from the awning before the heat of the day settles in around you like a wet fur coat. But there’s no ladder at the site, and you have to drive 40 minutes round-trip to get yours, so there went the cool morning hours.

Now you’re up on the ladder, which won’t rest flush against the side of the building, so you’re standing with your thigh pressed against the edge of the ladder, torso angled over the side, hoping you don’t shift your weight the wrong way and fall in a heaping mess of beekeeper and honeycomb onto the slate pavers below.

The first sections of comb come out easy. They’re beautiful light yellow and built in parallel sheets that pry easily from the ceiling. Each feels like a chunk of gold as you gingerly slither down the ladder to deposit the treasure into a bucket. “That was so easy,” you think, gazing at the remaining three-quarters of the hive, imagining you’ll be done within the hour.

The next section of comb is gnarled and interwoven. It is well-attached to the ceiling and joists. It doesn’t come out easily. You have to break the comb off in pieces and now honey is leaking out everywhere – all over your gloves, onto your hood, and down the ladder, forming puddles on the ground below. The honey is so thick on your gloves that you have to wipe it off onto your coveralls just so you can grip your hive tool. Spectators pace, just out of reach of the bees, anxious for a chance to sink their teeth into a chunk of raw honeycomb. Sweat drips off your brow, sweat trickles down your back, your armpits feel juicy. There’s nothing you can do about any of it, you’re covered head to toe in protective gear. You resign yourself to being a hot, sticky, sweaty mess.

Hours later you pull the last bit of comb from the cavity and you scrape as much of the leftover wax off the ceiling as possible but your hive tool keeps catching on the damn roofing nails. You give up and spend the next couple of hours pulling bees out of the pounds of honeycomb you’ve piled on top of their new home, a wooden box containing ten frames of wax and comb ready for a queen bee and her workers to start raising the next generation of bees. By the time you wrap up, you’ve been on the ladder for six hours.

You place the new beehive on the awning in hopes that the rest of the bees will move in. They never do. You’ll come back the next morning to gather up the stubborn gals who’ve clustered at the site of their old hive. You’ll scoop them up and dump them into the box. You’ll come back and do this again in the evening. You’ll do it one more time early the next morning and then pack up the box and bees and take them all home.

Now you’re exhausted, over-heated, dehydrated and hungry. You decide to never do a cut out again. It’s no fun removing an established colony out of a space that they’ve chosen to occupy, inadvertently killing hundreds of bees and making one hell of a sticky mess in the process. Sometimes it needs to be done. Sometimes the homeowner just doesn’t want bees around. Sometimes the bees have chosen a nest site poorly, such as in a chimney. But you agree with yourself to never do a cut-out again.

The next day you get a call asking you to remove a colony from a wall.

Honey Primer – Part 2: Out of the Hive, Into the Jar

by Julie Tennis on September 15, 2017

This is the second half of a two-part article about honey. Click here to read how honey is made.

Honey is highly-refined flower nectar. Different flowers yield different amounts of nectar – some are generous, some have none at all. On average though, we can say that each flower generally produces less than half a milligram of nectar (80% of which is water).

Different flower nectars have varying levels of glucose, fructose and sucrose as well as other trace elements. These characteristics show up in the honey as varieties in color, aroma and tendency towards crystallization, as can be seen in these two examples from the same colony.

Honey that is higher in glucose is more prone to crystallization. Those with a very high percentage of glucose will crystallize almost immediately after harvesting (such as honey from the nectar of brassicas). Some honeys, such as that made from the nectar of ivy flowers, will even crystallize in the honeycomb cell! Some nectars, like that from the tupelo tree, have a very low percentage of glucose, and may never crystallize. An important thing to note is that crystallization is a natural process, and indicative of pure honey. It doesn’t mean your honey has “gone bad.”

Sometimes though, crystallization can lead to fermentation. When honey crystallizes, the glucose comes out of suspension. This frees up some water that was tied up in the complex chemistry of the honey. This released water can raise the moisture content enough for the honey to begin to ferment. Sometimes when honey ferments, it will create a layered effect, with the crystallized honey below and the converted sugars above.

To avoid crystallization of your honey, try storing it in your freezer. The cold temperatures make the liquid more viscous, and the crystallization process is slowed. If you want to make crystallized honey liquid again, a warm-water bath is the best route to take. Avoid using the microwave and don’t place your jar of honey into an actively boiling pot. Repeated exposure to high temperatures can cause your honey to degrade.

Fermentation can also occur if your honey isn’t stored in air-tight containers. Honey is naturally hygroscopic, meaning it will absorb moisture from its surroundings. (This is why it is so effective on wounds – it kills bacteria by dehydrating them.) One of the by-products of fermentation is the formation of carbon dioxide, which can form long feathery patterns such as in this knotweed honey or a foam-like film on the surface of your honey. I have used this altered honey without ill effect, but if left too long, fermentation and carbon dioxide can change the flavor of the honey.

To avoid fermentation, keep your honey in well-sealed containers and store below 40-degrees F. Between 50 and 65-degrees is ideal for fermentation. Apparently, if you start to see streaks of hydrogen peroxide forming in your honey, warming it to melt the crystals will halt the fermentation process, because re-liquefying the glucose crystals will decrease the overall percentage of water, making the conditions inhospitable to yeast growth. Once re-heated however, be sure to use that honey up quickly.

Thanks for reading my short primer on honey. What other questions do you have about honey that were not answered in this article? (Submit your questions in the comments below.)

Honey Primer – Part 1: How Honey is Made

by Julie Tennis on August 29, 2017

Honey is a precious resource, produced by the labor of hundreds of thousands of worker bees.

It starts out as nectar, produced by flowers. Honey bees collect this nectar in a special compartment in their digestive tract called the “honey stomach.” While in the honey stomach, the nectar is subject to digestive enzymes which begin to break down the larger sugar molecules (sucrose) into glucose and fructose.

A honey bee can collect up to about 75 milligrams of nectar in her honey stomach, but averages more around 30, before returning to the colony to “unload.” She regurgitates the contents of her honey stomach into the mouth of a “house bee,” who further refines the nectar by repeated regurgitation and consumption.

After the house bee has spent 20-30 minutes digesting the nectar, effectively breaking down all the complex sugars into simple sugars, she places it in wax cells (honeycomb) for drying. Evaporation is assisted by the flapping of her wings, which keeps air circulating over the surface. Once the cells are filled, and the moisture content is below 18%, the bees cover the cell with a layer of wax. This step is important as honey is hygroscopic – it will pull moisture from the surrounding air. (This effect is why honey is so useful on wounds, and why it stays free of bacteria – it pulls the moisture out of the critters and they die.)

Meanwhile, the forager returns to the field to gather more nectar. She may average about ten trips in a day. A worker bee who has reached foraging age lasts an average of 10 days afield. Lucky, long-lived foragers may spend up to 20 days afield. In either case, it is the final job held by worker bees.

In her entire lifetime, a single worker may gather about 3 grams of nectar. That’s the weight of a penny. Three grams of nectar processes down to about .75 grams of honey. And this is where I explain why honey is such a precious resource: If we were to pay the true price of honey, most of us would not be able to afford it.
Honey bees can forage over five miles from their colony, but in general stay within about a mile of home. Let’s average each of her trips to ¾ mile, and assume she’s bringing in about 35 milligrams per trip, and that she’s making 10 trips per day over ten days. That’s 75 miles and 3,500mg (or 3.5 grams) of nectar per bee. Three and a half grams of nectar converts to about .87 grams of honey per bee, or .03 ounces.

SO, an ounce of honey is equivalent to the life’s work of about 33 honeybees. 33 x 75 miles = 2,475 miles flown to create one ounce of nectar. Today’s rate for mileage is $.54/mile. If we were to pay just mileage on every ounce of honey, it would cost us $1,337/ounce or $21,384 per pound.

Let’s look at what a forager’s wages would be. Minimum wage in Washington is currently $9.47/hour. Some estimates state that a foraging trip for a worker bee gathering nectar is about 20 minutes. If she makes ten trips for nectar each day, over ten days, that’s about 33 hours total, or $313. The total wages due for each ounce of honey would be $10,329. And that doesn’t take into account the work done inside the colony to process the nectar into honey.

A full super frame, one of nine or ten in each super, holds about 7 pounds, or 112 ounces, of honey – the life’s work of over 4,000 bees. Considering all the hours of labor and lives devoted to making it, honey truly is a precious resource!

In Honey Primer – Part 2 we’ll look at the qualities and behavior of different varieties of honey.

How to Keep Your Bees Out of Your Neighbor’s Pool

July 31, 2017

In the decade I’ve been keeping bees, the only neighbor complaint I’ve heard was when the folks next door had a pool and found “my” bees floating in the water. Honeybees require water for the same reasons we do: to keep their tissues and organs in operating condition, to remove wastes from their body, and […]

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What is Swarming?

June 30, 2017

A honeybee colony is like a sea anemone. Each bee is like a cell within a larger organism, some moving food, some removing waste, and some making stings. And when the organism wants to reproduce it splits in two, like the binary fission of a sea anemone. Individual honeybees hatch from eggs laid by the […]

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The Insect-Hater’s Guide to Loving Bees

May 17, 2016

I’ll admit it, they are scary. Just about everyone in the arthropod phylum are creepy-crawly, bitey-looking things, and bees are no exception. They have huge mandibles (those grabby things on the face that you see in insect-themed horror movies). They have six legs. They move quickly and erratically. And, they sting. But… They are also […]

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