A Taste of Honey

New honey, drawn on foundation.

I checked the bees this morning. They started as packages on foundation but are all grown up now and starting to fill honey supers. The main flow has been going well for a couple of weeks, though interrupted by a bit of cool weather and a wee spot of rain (we could use more). If this is a normal year, the main flow will continue into mid-August. We’ll see how normal this year turns out to be.

For me, this is ideal – two hives in the back yard, shade and a bench to perch upon while counting the number of bees that exit each hour.

So, here’s what’s happening in one of the supers. You can see that the bees have been reluctantly drawing comb, beginning right above the brood nest. They are not starting at the top and working down, but instead are beginning close to most of the bees who live below. Part of the reason is that our nights get pretty cool here in Calgary (high elevation and dry air) so the warmest part of the supers (at night) is the lowest part of the supers.

Look closely, you can see honey glistening in the cells at the bottom.

And here, I just couldn’t help it – I had to have a taste of honey. Reminds me of the Herb Albert song…

Posted in Beekeeping, Honey | Tagged , | 8 Comments

Don’t Step on a Bee Day

squashed Benny

There’s a day for everything.

Today is Don’t Step on a Bee Day.

See if you can keep it up all week!

Posted in Culture, or lack thereof, Humour, Save the Bees | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Honey for the house

We had a late spring. Our main flow hasn’t quite started. In another week, the bees will be gathering ten pounds of clover and alfalfa honey each day here in Calgary. There’s a nice flight today but five days ago, the high temperature was just 14 °C (57 °F).

We have two colonies in our backyard, installed as packages on April 27. Each hive was given 6 frames of drawn comb but everything else had to be drawn from foundation this spring. Turning foundation into comb slows bees down quite a lot, but each still drew out 14 deep frames in the past two months. Even though the weather was cool this spring and the colonies started as packages, they did well and even stored some miscellaneous spring honey.

We wanted some fresh honey for the house. So my son Daniel and I took two frames out of a second-storey brood chamber. The combs were freshly drawn this spring and have never housed brood, so the honey was quite nice, though more amber and more flavourful than I’m used to.

Here are our two backyard hives:

And this is what the honey combs looked like inside the hive:

There are a couple of reasons that you might pull one or two frames of honey from a hive. Besides collecting a few pounds of honey, it’s a way to sample some off-season honey, the sort you don’t get most of the year. Here in Alberta, our summer honey is graded ‘water-white’ and has a very, very mild flavour. For everyday use, I prefer it over medicinal honeys which are usually dark and sometimes taste earthy, murky, swampy, grubby, or resemble Buckley’s cough syrup. However, I sometimes delight in the earthy (a quarter-teaspoon at a time) and I’m always curious to taste an unusual honey flavour. Well, that’s the sort of honey that bees make from wildflowers in the spring here.

You rarely find such atypical honey in the marketplace in Calgary. Most beekeepers in western Canada leave spring honey for the bees. This is usually a good idea because we have a June gap – a dearth after the crocus, willow, and dandelion have finished but before the clovers have started blooming. However, what if your bees have plenty for themselves, but you’d like to have a little fresh, off-season honey? Say, honey from just a single frame or two? Do you set up an extractor and settling tank for five pounds of honey? You don’t have to. The rest of this blog post shows what we did here at our house, a little over a week ago.

We removed the hive cover and pulled a couple deep frames from the upper brood chamber. We avoided pollen and brood and withdrew frames that started this April as foundation.

Both frames looked like this a few weeks ago. Note that this is a solid one-piece frame. The ‘sheet of foundation’ is all plastic with a veneer of wax coating

Here’s the same frame as above, less than two months later. We brought it into our kitchen where we placed it on a shallow baking tray.

With a large serving spoon, we simply scraped the frame down to its plastic core. Everything we removed is pure beeswax and honey. The plastic core does not break or scratch off, just the honey comb gets scooped.  Also note that you don’t ever need to touch the honey. In fact, since it’s food, in our house, it’s forbidden to touch the honey during preparation.


Next stop, a honey bucket where the wax and honey are gently stirred, breaking up larger wax pieces.

Now we heat up the honey/wax mix. This melts the wax and brings it up to the top.  Here’s something really important. After you heat the honey/wax slurry, you must cool the mix very quickly. Our honey (in the picture below) is really hot (about 145 °F), but only for five minutes. Then we immersed it in ice-cold water. If you do this right (and work quickly) you will not burn the honey. However, if you give it heat (even low heat) for a long time (an hour or two) then it will taste like caramel popcorn without the popcorn. Do this step correctly and the wax and bees’ knees float to the top where they can be skimmed off.

If you look closely at the picture above, you can see the ice-water tub with the small (1-kg) container of honey/wax inside. Let it chill for an hour, replacing ice if needed. Atop the honey, a layer of wax forms. We are skimming off wax in the next picture. This is great wax, the kind you can use to make candles.

Here’s the wax. It weighed 140 grams (5 ounces).

Under the wax is gorgeous clean honey.  Although it’s not filtered, there is nothing visible floating in it except microscopic grains of pollen. (And air bubbles. We tested this honey with a refractometer and found it is only 14.2% moisture. That’s very thick honey. So thick that little air bubbles stay trapped, floating in the honey for days or weeks. The air was accidentally added by us when we stirred the honey and wax to homogenize it while heating.)

We ended up with about 3 kilos (7 pounds) which will last the four of us a week or two. (By the way, we harvested 140 grams of wax and 3000 grams of honey, roughly a 22-to-1 ratio. Extracting normally yields 60 times as much honey as beeswax.)

From beginning to end, this took an hour (not counting cooling time for the warm honey). That’s a ridiculous amount of time for a commercial beekeeper who used to extract a thousand pounds an hour, but that’s not the point. We had fun (you know the old saying, “The family that processes honey together stays together.”). We didn’t need an extractor, although for the main harvest in August, we will use one. An extractor is faster for anything over ten pounds – and the combs aren’t destroyed so the bees can use them again next year instead of drawing foundation again.

We ended up with delicious but unusual honey. It tastes like anise, or licorice, but I have no idea why. What was the dominant flower for this little treat? I’m so curious that I may send a sample for pollen analysis. If I do, I’ll let you know the suspected floral source.

Finally, after skimming off the wax, we filled several jars, including these:

Posted in Beekeeping, Honey, Tools and Gadgets | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Should you feed a tired bee?

Feeding bumblebees that are resting in a garden has become a thing. I’ve seen some twitter tweets with concerned citizens gallantly virtue signalling their good deed – giving a bee a drink of sugar water. Here’s a sample:

You can find tweets and posts like this all over the place. Kindly folks want to help tired/sick bees. A bit of sugar water might indeed revive a hungry bee.  But should we?

Should you feed tired bees? Is that interfering with wildlife? Are you changing the evolved social fabric which will result in advantages to bees willing to hang out with humans? That’s how wolves became dogs. And, it’s the way Carniolan bees became docile – the strain was kept on porches and in gardens for centuries. Mean bees were destroyed and mellow ones thrived, creating gentle Carniolans through human selection.

Should you feed wild bumblebees?  Let’s ignore your inadvertent genetic manipulation and look at something more serious. What if the bee looks tired and hungry but is actually infested with viruses or parasites? Are you doing a favour if you help a sick bee return to her colony where she spreads her malady to all her friends?

Good or bad? I’m not sure, but I don’t like seeing any animal in distress. I might be tempted to whip out some highly processed white sugar, dissolve it in chlorinated tap water, and feed it to a suffering bee. But is it really the right thing to do?

 

 

Posted in Ecology, Save the Bees, Strange, Odd Stuff | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Smokers, beware: Playing with Fire

Southern Alberta: This grass fire apparently started at the bee yard, then spread out in all directions. Three fire departments responded. The fire didn’t spread beyond the beekeeper’s property.

Today, I will end this mini-series of blog posts about smokers with some safety tips. Smokers can be dangerous and yada, yada, yada – some readers have already tuned out. But here’s the cost.  I know a South Dakota beekeeper who had to pay $250,000 when his bee crew’s smoker burned down a rancher’s winter hay. Meanwhile, a friend in southern Alberta was luckier when her smoker caused a 3-alarm grass fire (above and below). She was lucky because the firemen kept it confined to her own field.

I also had an apiary fire, likely caused by a bee smoker. In southern Saskatchewan, my helpers and I had just returned to the shop when a rancher called to tell us that there was a fire in the bee yard we had worked fifteen minutes earlier. We raced back and put it out. The fire hadn’t gone far as it was trapped between a summer-fallowed field (all dirt) and a paved road. It’s possible that someone tossed a cigarette as they drove past on the highway, but since we’d just been there, I figured we had caused the fire from sparks while smoking hives. We drove away without noticing the small fire. When we got back, four hives (out of thirty) had burned. So, yada, yada, yada, indeed.

You know that a combination of hot embers, dry grass, flammable wax, and wooden bee ware is dangerous. Here are some safety tips. Let me know if you have anything to add:

Light the smoker out of the wind, sheltering it so fire doesn’t escape. Some beekeepers light material in their hands, then push it into the smoker pot. That’s risky as the fire may escape. I always drop a burning match low into the smoker where it will light the material above it. I like to be in control.

Squirting gasoline into the smoker isn’t recommended. Your smoker will burn without the explosive thrill of a flare, though one of my brothers considered pyrotechnics a sport and relished in this smoker ignition method. Not a safety first idea.

Keep a fire extinguisher and jug of water handy. Know where the fire extinguisher is and know how to use it. If you have hired help, give them at least one fire drill where they run for the extinguisher and come back, ready to use it. Be sure they know where the pin is and where to squeeze to release.

Never dump ashes from a hot smoker in the bee yard. I’ve seen beekeepers do this just before driving off. They stomp the ashes into the ground first, of course, but that’s sometimes not enough to kill all the embers.  Instead, plug the smoke spout to stop its draft and set the smoker on its side, taking it with you while it’s still hot.

Watch out for sparks. If you keep bees in a dry climate area, grass and brush may catch fire really easily. If you ever use a smoker at night, you might be surprised to see how many sparks and embers come out of a smoker. You might not see them during the day, but they could be there. Sparks almost never cause trouble, but it only takes one to ruin your day.  Sparks usually happen if the smoker is too hot. To reduce flying sparks, add fuel to the smoker and tamp it down to filter the sparks.

If you use wood shavings, avoid sawdust and avoid tipping the smoker down into the hive where hot wood chips could fall out. Use paper or burlap atop the wood to prevent shavings from falling and to filter sparks.

You can control the smoker by standing it upright to create a draft, which keeps it burning more strongly, or laying the smoker on its side which reduces the draft and throttles the smoke. If it’s on its side for a long time, it will eventually go out but usually if its just for a few minutes, simply pump the bellows a few times, pointing the spout towards the sky and you will revive the smoker.

When you set the smoker aside between uses in the bee yard, don’t drop it (the lid might open and hot fuel could dump out) and don’t set it on the grass where a fire might start.

Smoke judiciously. You need only a small amount of smoke to control defensive bees. If you think you need lots, you are probably doing something wrong. (Moving too quickly, knocking equipment around, not showering often enough.)  As one noted beekeeper said, “you will end up breathing quit a bit of smoke.” That can’t be good for you or the bees.

As far as setting the smoker aside but keeping it handy for future use, you might place it inside a metal smoker box. Twenty years ago, I was gifted a metal tool box sold by Canadian Tire (a tools and and tires store). The box  has served me well. It’s exactly the right size to hold the smoker on its side (so there is no upward draft to cause flame). Fire can’t escape. The box won’t burn. I also use a wine bottle’s cork to seal the smoker when I’m finished for the day before putting the smoker into the metal box. I’ll end here with a few pictures of my smoker box.

Metal box, available at most general tools and supply shops.

Pick a size that holds your smoker with the bellows immobile.

I use a cork to prevent draft but many beekeepers use a wad of green grass.

For extra safety, you can light the smoker inside the metal box.

Posted in Beekeeping, Tools and Gadgets | Tagged , , , | 12 Comments

Smokers, beware: Bee Smoker 101

If you’re somewhat new at beekeeping, you haven’t been using a smoker for long. You might not know some of the peculiarities of the hot little machine. I’ll give some basics here. Tomorrow, we’ll look at smoker safety, aka, how not to destroy your bee yard in a wall of fire.

Here’s my suggestion. Get a good smoker. Light it before you approach the bees. Be sure that there’s a hot fire in the smoke pot. Then stuff your smoker with fuel, almost smothering the fire. At this point, you should have white and gray smoke drifting from the smoker. Keep puffing vigorously, even if you think you’ve got the thing going well. If you see sparks or flame, that’s a bit of a faux pas in the beekeepers’ world so add more fuel as a filter to block those sparks. If you missed yesterday’s post, we mentioned types of smoker fuel. There’s a lot of choice.

A common mistake is to light the smoker, then ignore it while unloading your vehicle, carting stuff to the hives, and dressing up in your beesuit. By the time you open a hive, you discover that the smoker is no longer smoking. Even worse is having a feeble little bit of smoke that simply dies at the moment your hive is disassembled and the bees are growing cranky. Again, make a hot fire and add fresh fuel on top of the fire, forcing it to smolder and not burn too fast. Balance the heat, quality of smoke, and smolder longevity.

Before you open your hive, give its entrance(s) a soft whiffy puff of cool smoke. This should not take more than a few seconds. Your goal is not to inflate the size of the hive by vigorously pumping the bellows as if you are blowing up a balloon. Instead, a soft wisp of smoke, directed at the entrance and slightly into the hive is enough. Next, lift the lid and give the top bars a puff or two of cool white smoke. Don’t smoke down between the frames into the hive (it could injure brood) but across the top bars instead. Another ten seconds should be enough.

I’m giving my hive a bit of smoke across the top bars, not down into the hive.

You may now set the smoker aside, but keep it close at hand in case you find the bees becoming defensive. By the way, the smoker is hot and dangerous so ‘setting the smoker aside’ means placing it somewhere (on the lid of a nearby unopened hive, for example) where it is safe and not lying on its side in tall dry grass where it might start a fire.

Top of an unopened hive can be a safe space for your smokers.

In practice, another puff or two every three or four minutes is usually all you need, but that depends on the weather, hive strength, mood of the colony, and manipulations you are doing. With a few seasons of beekeeping, you begin to know when smoke is necessary. With experience, you will use less and less smoke – and may even become a smokerless beekeeper, though it’s a good practice to keep a lit smoker nearby. Just in case.

Although I’m extolling the virtues of smoke, there are several reasons to use smoke cautiously. It’s not healthy for you. Nor is it healthy for bees if their trachea get plugged with smoke soot. Too much smoke can literally drive bees out of a hive, into the grass where the queen might be injured or lost. Too much smoke can make the bees aggressive and confused. Too much smoke damages honey – beeswax is a fatty acid which absorbs odours. I once sampled comb honey which had a distinct bar-b-que flavour because the beekeeper used smoke to chase the bees out of her comb honey super.

There’s more that I could say, but a few days ago, I saw this video made by the University of Guelph. It does a better job showing smoker techniques than I can explain in words. The video features the Guelph’s apiary manager, Paul Kelly.  The photography is classy and the beekeeper walks you through handling a smoker.

The video is a bit dramatic. It shows much more smoke than I’d ever use, but I think that Paul Kelly is trying to emphasize that you need to be sure you have a good fire going so that it doesn’t quit while you are working.  By the way, he mentions that when you are finished, you can dump the smoker material on the ground. Don’t do this. I know beekeepers who have caused serious fires by dumping the hot ash, even though they think they have extinguished the fire on the ground. Kelly also mentions that care must be taken transporting a hot smoker in a vehicle, being careful that it doesn’t fall over. I have a trick that will help you with this. We’ll see it tomorrow when I end this little series on smokers by looking at smoker safety and mistakes that can cause big, big trouble for you.

 

Posted in Beekeeping, Tools and Gadgets | Tagged | 2 Comments

Smokers, beware: Stuff I’ve Smoked

Yesterday, I started a discussion about whether beekeepers should use a smoker. (Smoke or no smoke?)  I think you should use one, but you’ve got to be smart about it. I’ll write more about smart smoking tomorrow, in a piece intended for newer beekeepers. I noticed that most of yesterday’s comments were about types of smoker fuel, which is today’s subject. If you aren’t able to  read yesterday’s piece, here are some of the combustibles that readers puffed about:

As for fuel, I have been using the waste paperboard egg cartons. Takes 1/2 a carton when I do light up.
– Mark

I’m new – and using pellets I purchased from a bee supply place. Difficult to get smoking and incredibly harsh smoke – if the breeze shifts direction when I’ve set it aside to work the hive – my eyes burn and I start coughing, and have to walk away.
Valbjerke’s Blog

I use pet bedding that can be found in grocery stores or pet stores for smoking and I find it stays lit surprisingly long.
– Al

I’m also pet bedding! A huge bag of dust extracted wood chips costs £6 and will last me several years!
– Ray

Used coffee burlap bags as fuel with starter of paper that comes with foundation wax.
– Pamela

When we began we tried using a spray bottle of just water as recommended by some of the natural beekeeping folks. It did not work for us.
Then we switched to spraying sugar water. It still did not work for us except to make everything sticky including ourselves.
– The Prospect of Bees

I normally use a mixture of paper, wood pellets, and broken up dead tree branches in the smoker, and it seems to work pretty well.
– Erik, Bees with eeb

I’m a smoker! I started using egg boxes this season having always used hazel kindling before that. I got tired of chopping the kindling and find the boxes a cooler smoke the bees seem to prefer.
acquest13

Any beekeeper who regularly uses a smoker (that’s 98% of us) will tell you that you want fuel that 1) lights easily, 2) gives cool, white smoke, 3) doesn’t make you and the bees gag, and 4) smolders for hours. That’s a long list, but there are plenty of fuels that meet the grade.

I’m going to mention what I know best, autobiographically stretching from my childhood through my rather mature current age. I was one of ten kids on a small farm on the edge of the Pennsylvania Appalachians. We grazed a cow and calf in a small pasture and occasionally bought feed. Empty burlap grain sacks became smoker fuel for our bees. Burlap is fairly common among beekeepers, and even has a tiny Wikipedia entry, which describes Hessian fabric (burlap) as “often used as smoker fuel in beehive-tending because of its generous smoke generation and ease of ignition.”

Lighting burlap.

I liked burlap’s cool white smoke. Regardless the Wikipedia description, it was occasionally hard to ignite, especially if dampened by the humid Pennsylvania climate. Some beekeepers start by lighting some newspaper. Newspaper is risky, though, as pieces get lifted by the heat’s up-current and bits of burning paper drift away and start forest fires.

One of my older brothers had a trick which I’ll share but not recommend. After stuffing burlap into the bottom of the smoker canister, he squirted lighter fluid on it, then dropped in a lit match. Basically, you get an explosion. He did this regularly, even after burning off his eyelashes and singeing the hairs under his arms.

Explosions are not necessary when lighting a smoker. Unlike my brother, I’ve never used petrochemicals to encourage flames in a bee smoker. Instead, I saved blackened, partially burned burlap from the last time I used the smoker. It ignites fairly easily, as you see in the picture here.

One of the main drawbacks with burlap is that it’s made from sisal and can smell a bit like a different weed. I discovered this at age 18. I was stopped by state troopers while I drove between bee yards. I was stopped for speeding, of course, but the nice cop asked me what I’d been smoking. I didn’t smoke, but my smoker was smoking. I showed it to him and removed some smoldering burlap. He was satisfied and suggested that I drive more slowly on his highway.

Trail into my farm in Bay Lake, Florida.
These pines grew smoker fuel for me.

I switched from burlap when I moved to Florida and started working for a couple of beekeepers, including my oldest brother, David. All the Florida beekeepers used pine straw. Since I was still a teenager, I wanted to be just like them. I used long pine needles scooped from under stands of southern pines. That was the loveliest smoke I’ve seen in my life. It blew glorious clouds which you’d be happy to have wafting around you for hours on end. It was cheap and easy to collect (but watch out for diamondbacks!). I stored it in unburnt burlap sacks. The only downside is that pines have some natural tar which can clog a smoker, but the billows from the bellows are clean and white. Unfortunately, I didn’t stay in Florida forever. Although I’ve tried other pine straw collected from other parts of the continent, I was always disappointed. Central Florida’s pines spoiled me for life.

When I kept bees in southern Saskatchewan, I knew a lot of cattle ranchers. They put up thousands of bales of hay every year. One of my best friends, Buzz Trottier, a native Cree rancher, saved his baler twine for me. He collected it from bales which fed his cattle during the winter. In turn, he let me help out on his ranch. Sometimes in winter, I’d scatter bales from the back of his pickup truck while he drove. He also let me brand cattle one spring, though that was about the limit of my cowboy experiences.

I’m using some of Buzz’s baler twine as smoker fuel.

Baler twine burned about the same as burlap but had a heavier, darker smoke. On the other hand, it lasted longer in the smoker. A lot of prairie beekeepers – from Kansas to Alberta – were recycling it in their smokers. However, in recent years, sisal has been largely replaced by plastic twine. That would be about the worst thing in the world to burn/melt inside a smoker.

Earl, examining some fuel.

I owned two bee operations in Saskatchewan, one in the south, near Montana, the other much further north, right where agriculture ended and parkland forests began. There, I had a mentor, a semi-retired, 65-year-old beekeeper with 500 hives. Earl Emde began beekeeping in Whittier, California. As a teenager, he hauled bees around the deserts and mountains of southern California. Later, he owned 5,000 hives in Nebraska and the Dakotas, wintering those bees in Florida. His retirement project was raising queens and packages in Florida and hauling them to the north Saskatchewan bush where I occasionally helped him.

One day, Earl Emde and I were at a farm near Big River, working his bees. I’ll quote a few lines from my book, Bad Beekeeping, to describe what happened:

This apiary was fenced inside a cattle pasture. The ground was littered with dry, hard cow pies. Halfway through the beeyard, Earl did something unexpected. Normally, as fuel for his bee smoker, Earl used sawdust and tiny scraps from wood that he turned into new beehives. But I caught him hefting a dry, hard cow patty. He dropped it into his hot bee smoker. I gave him a puzzled look.
“You’re wondering what I’m doing?” he said. He puffed the bellow until thick white smoke gushed from the bee smoker.
“Seems a bit weird,” I said. “Why stick a cow pie in your smoker?”
“Well, reminds me of when I was a kid – a smell I don’t get to enjoy, except a couple times a year.”
“When you were a kid – you had a job burning manure?”
“No, I kept bees in the California desert. No trees, no wood, nothing to burn in the smoker except dried cow dung. Fifty years ago, I used this all the time.” He breathed, his lungs ballooned out.
He grinned. “Nothing like it.”

Smoker fuel has been a big part of my life. From burlap to pine straw to baler twine and cow dung. I didn’t mention that an Appalachian beekeeper taught me how he cut and dried sumac blossoms. And a prairie beekeeper kept a stack of wet cardboard, rolled into tubes which he dried. Several others whom I’ve encountered use wood chips, like Earl Emde did. To me, smoker fuel is somewhat tied to geography, though some stuff, like wood chips and burlap, are almost universal.

Now I’m in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, keeping two hives in the back yard. I’ve been experimenting with a variety of material – as long as it’s clean and food-grade. But nothing was really satisfying me. Last week, I was visiting friends at Tsuut’ina Nation, a few kilometres from my house. We were checking bees and I was running low on smoker fuel. The beekeeper said, “Wait a minute, Ron,” and disappeared into a nearby shed. She returned a few minutes later with a neatly-cut piece of burlap for my smoker. It looked and smelled every bit like the smoker fuel of my childhood.

Posted in Beekeeping, Books, Tools and Gadgets | Tagged , , , , , | 8 Comments

Smokers, beware: Smoke or no smoke?

Daniel, at age 4, twelve years ago. His hands were too small for gloves so we tied the ends of his beesuit. We didn’t think of giving him an air filter mask!

Smoke or no smoke?  Good question.

It surprises me that there are beekeepers who have completely forsworn smokers. Such quixotic folks ply their trade without smoke, believing (perhaps correctly) that a bee smoker invalidates the organic status of their honey.

My father, about 40 years ago, smoking bees in Europe with his pipe.

Chemicals from a smoker are potentially hazardous. Smoke from my father’s corncob pipe proved carcinogenic, at least after 66 years of piping caught up to him and he, at age 80, developed a tiny knob of cancer under his tongue. It was spotted early and removed before causing serious damage. He used his pipe (and a conventional smoker made by Dadant) for decades. Smoke became mixed with the food we ate at the family table, from my father’s pipe, not a barbeque. Honey harvested with a bee smoker probably wasn’t good for us, but it’s not likely to have been a major health hazard – at least based on the anecdotal evidence of the health and longevity of most of my immediate family.

Still, some beekeepers are philosophically opposed to using a smoker. If you are considering working your bees without one, history is against you. Rather early, humans learned to carry smoky torches up trees when they liberated honeycombs from lofty wild hives. It seems rather obvious that bees evolved to peacefully turn over their honey to humans upon smelling smoke.  What else would explain their docile smoke reflex?

But some modern beekeepers have decided that they should work bees without smoke. That’s nice. But if you are not an accomplished, experienced beekeeper, I’d advise against it. A tiny amount of smoke, judiciously applied to the entrance before the hive is opened and along the top bars once or twice during your bee work is all it usually takes to calm the bees and allow a few minutes of personal bee immersion.  Without smoke, the entire hive can quickly become unmanageable, stinging the beekeeper severely and possibly taking down neighbours in the process.  I was once called to a house where the resident beekeeper had opened his hive without smoke, the bees erupted, and the beekeeper ran. I was asked to replace frames taken out by the fleeing beekeeper. He watched through his kitchen window.

Bad ideas go up in smoke.

If you’ve been working bees for a while, you may have become a smokerless beekeeper. If so, you should have learned how to pick the right weather to lift the lid, how to move smoothly amid the bees, and how to replace the frames and lid when the bees become seriously defensive, as is their custom.

These skills are not learnt the first time a hive is opened, yet I’ve known bee-gurus who insist that their new, inexperienced disciples must never own a smoker. As in most things in life, balance is good. So is safety. For some gurus, this isn’t an option. It’s all or nothing. No smoke, they tell me, is the natural way to keep bees. Period. I’d rather see new beekeepers taught to use caution and smoke very, very gently than to totally eschew the calming effect of judicious cool smoke.

I mentioned the inorganic nature of smoked honey. This is probably a valid concern. I don’t know how to address it, except to ask whether some of the beekeepers who imagine themselves as ‘working with nature’ could advise me.  Please send me a note, I’d love to hear if you are a natural beekeeper producing organic honey even if you apply smoke to your bees. I guess it could be natural, organic smoke, sourced from the dried pods of organically grown sumac.

I realize that some beekeepers are worried that smoke – even in tiny amounts – will hurt their bees. I appreciate the sentiment. Unfortunately, without smoke, any hive examination is precarious. When Betty Bee alerts Henrietta and Suzy who then alert their four best friends who tell sixteen more about an intrusion, hundreds of bees may go wild in a minute. The beekeeper may suffer a lot of stings. The key is to learn to use smoke in very carefully delivered doses. This is something learned from experience, though I’ll mention some tips in coming posts.

So, I strongly recommend using a bee smoker (or corncob pipe).  Next blog post (maybe tomorrow), I’ll write about lighting and using a smoker. We’ll also consider the many types of fuel. My favourite was pine straw but I don’t use it anymore – later, you’ll see why.

A little smoke from a little smoker

Just a little smoke from a little smoker.

Posted in Beekeeping, Tools and Gadgets | Tagged , | 29 Comments

Fish Cooked in Beeswax

Why not?  I’d love this!

Posted in Culture, or lack thereof, Hive Products, Strange, Odd Stuff | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Minding the June Gap

I ran this piece last year, but it’s worth repeating. After the natural spring bouquet has begun to fade, honey bees may become hungry. The hives are (usually) strong with lots of brood. If there is a long gap between the last spring flowers and the first summer ones, bees are at risk of cannibalizing their brood (Yummy!) and then starving to death. Neither is desirable. I guess you know that.  This week might be the most critical week for a lot of readers, so here’s my gap post.

If you travel metro in London (and many other cities) you might hear a polite admonition from the public address system, “Mind the gap!” It’s advising you not to get your footwear stuck between the train and platform while boarding. Beekeepers have their own gap to mind and it’s here now.

The June Gap is pretty common across the northern hemisphere. (Perhaps there’s a December Gap down in Chile.) The gap is so renowned among beekeepers that someone built a wikipage called “June Gap”. It relates mostly to the UK, but we also gap here, in western Canada, too. This is what the wiki says:

The June Gap refers to a phenomenon in which a shortage of forage available for bees occurs (typically in June) and has been observed in the United Kingdom and Ireland.

Subsequent to the massive volume of pollen and nectar produced by trees and hedges in the spring, there is a reduction in the amount of nectar available to the bees due to long grasses and dandelions suppressing many wildflowers.[1] Before the herbaceous “summer rush” of July-through-September which reinstates the high level of nectar, the high hive populations brought around by trees in the spring struggle to produce honey and may lay fewer eggs. Beekeepers need to pay special attention to the levels of honey in the hive as well as the level of water the bees use during this gap. Annual weather patterns can cause this event to occur later or earlier.

Some plants which can help provide nectar in this gap are Cotoneaster, the closely related Pyracantha, common garden [herbs], and perennial garden plants.

That’s all the Wikipedia entry says, then a few references are cited. The June Gap isn’t limited to England and Ireland. We also gapped in western Pennsylvania, where I learned to keep bees. In April and May, we saw a nice early flow from willow, dandelion, and fruit blossom. Most years, black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) straddled late May and early June followed by tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) and basswood (linden, or Tilia americana). Then there was a (summer) gap until the autumn goldenrod and aster. Farther north and west, most beekeepers on the American plains and Canadian prairies suffer a real June Gap, a dearth between spring flows and our main summer honey flow.

A great pasture for bees: dandelions, before the gap

What happens during the gap? There is often a little pollen coming in, but rarely is there much nectar. For those of us lucky enough to live in Alberta, Canada, we may have a good flow from dandelion (this year it peaked on May 25th, which is normal) but the drop after that major source is precipitous. We have sparse flowers (goat’s beard, buffaloberry, Siberian olive, caragana) which tease the bees a bit, but we can see hives lose weight, even on sunny mild June days. Most years, we have gaps (of varying significance) from about June 5th to June 25th. During those three weeks, queens curtail egg laying. Crucial workers that will help make the late July and August part of the honey crop might not materialize in the numbers you need.

Beekeepers have taken to feeding their bees up to a few days before honey supers go on. If the dearth is severe and hives have built up strongly on the early season flows, the gap will result in less brood rearing. But the gap can be so serious that bees destroy their developing brood and then, if it continues, they may starve. It’s possible to lose hives from starvation days before the main flow starts. Leaving plenty of reserve honey in the hive will, of course, prevent such a fate. But even a well-provisioned colony usually stops egg laying when the nectar shuts off and pollen becomes scarce.

The solution? Mind the gap. Keep a couple of eyes on your hives at this time of the year. The crop (for most of us) will start flowing in a few days. This is not the time to ignore your bees.

Posted in Beekeeping, Ecology, Honey Plants | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments