Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Postmortem Honey Harvest

Even before mom and dad wrapped the bee hive with a blanket and some black plastic, to help insulate the hive during the extremely cold winter weather, we suspected that something was wrong with our bees.  Last winter, we could always see a few bees flying in and out of the hive, even when temperatures were low.  This winter, the hive was suspiciously inactive.  

During a break in the cold spell, on a warm weekend near the end of February, mom and I suited up, fired up the smoker (without Jamie, so I nearly caused a forest fire), and invaded the hive.  When we first approached the hive, I got a little excited because I could see honeybees, just a few, flying in and out of the front entrance.  But, when we removed the cover and the small super on the top we knew that our fears were not unfounded.  There was no soft vibration to indicate bee buzzing in the depths of the hive.  It was still, and the frames, which normally have bees crawling all over them, were unoccupied.  Many of the frames in the top super had honey capped with wax in the upper half, and I'm sure that's why we could see honey bees going into the hive on this warm day - robber bees.  See the dark colored frame in the center of the super in the photo above?  I could see bees between the frames in that location, but they weren't moving.  

All that remained of our hive, which once had thousands and thousands of industrious ladies, is this small clump of dead bees.  It was sad.  They were huddled together like they are supposed to be, so they can keep each other warm, but there weren't very many, and there wasn't any honey in the immediate vicinity of the cluster.  I think they may have starved because all the honey that was left was too far away to reach without freezing to death during the polar vortex.  

We dismantled the hive and collected all the frames that had honey.  Most frames were not completely full, so we cut the wax and honey from the frame and left as much of the honeycomb intact as possible so our next bees can spend less time building wax and get straight to making honey.  

We put the chunks of honey filled comb into a big bowl, and used our hands to squeeze the honey from the wax.  This is not the most efficient honey extraction method, I'm sure, but since we are a very low tech operation, I think we made a pretty good job of it.  I felt like I was getting to play Winnie the Poo when he sticks his entire hand in the honey pot and then licks his paws.  Being coated in honey up to my wrists is great fun.  And you really can chew beeswax like chewing gum.  

In this picture you can see the vat of recently extracted honey, and the tray of fist sized wax balls that were left over after our squeezing technique was applied.  This is a very messy job!  Great exercise for my fingers and forearms too.  

After pouring the honey through a fine sieve, we filled the honey jars mom has been saving for just this reason.  The honey is a darker color than the honey we stole in the summer.  The flavor is very nice, but doesn't have a very sharp "honey" flavor, if you know what I mean.  It's definitely sweet and tasty. 

I think we got twelve of these small jars filled, plus we got a few more pints of honey after we melted the beeswax.  

To melt the wax, and separate out the honey that we couldn't squeeze out, we stuffed the wax into jars, and put the jars in boiling water.  

It didn't take long for the wax to melt.  Once everything was liquid, we took the jars from the hot water and left them to cool.  

Wax floated to the surface, and cooled to a lovely yellow color.  Beneath the wax was a layer of brown gooey stuff.  I'm guessing a lot of this is the pollen that was stored in many of the cells of the honeycomb, which the bees store and eat during the winter.  Or maybe the brown goo was something even more gross, but I'm going to tell myself it was pollen.  Underneath the wax and brown stuff, was a layer of honey.  I don't consider this honey to be raw anymore, since it was in the boiling water, but it tastes the same as the other honey.  

After scraping all the solid wax from the top of the jars, we melted it again to it would separate some more and so we could add a candle wick to our jar of melted wax.  

In the end, we had a nice big bees wax candle in a jar.  Plus all those jars of honey!  It's a bummer to lose our bees, but at least we got one last harvest and had fun playing with the beeswax.  We put all of our wax and honey covered dishes out near the hive so the robber bees could clean them up.  Maybe the robber bees are living wild in the forest, and maybe they will survive until the spring blooms if they can scavenge from our hive.  Loosing the bees wasn't as devastating as I imagined, because really, now that we have gained a little experience with the equipment, handling the bees, and processing the honey, I know that we can do it again.   All we have to do is order more bees.  

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