An update from Ken

August 4, 2008

Since then I have put the legs of the hive in bowls of oil, because I noticed a line of ants marching in and out of the hive.

That seems to work very well (stopping the ants), only drawback was it appears the bees either found the oil very interesting or something, there were quite a few drowned victims in the oil and sadly a few that tried to crawl out only to die in a “frozen” position on the legs. Next task is to put a screen over the oil in a manner that the bees are not able to fall into the oil, but the screen cannot be connected to the bowl so the ants do not have a bridge over the oil. Very complicated! I will take a picture when I have done it. Ants drive me nuts!

Anyway, on this visit, my goal was to have a look at the furthest back combs, the first ones they started near the follower board. I have never looked that far back in my previous inspections.

Here are some things that I noticed:

They are busy with propolis, but not nearly as much as I would have expected. I thought they might try to close up all kinds of gaps, but not the case. They were doing some inside near the roof line, but nothing out of the ordinary.

They are building new comb right on track. Last time I accidentally broke some comb that was sharing a bar, but the new comb is right on place without any coaxing on my part.

I did not use smoke this time, until I was closing it up. That seemed to be great. During the time I had the hive open, the bees were busy and a little disturbed that I was nosing around and brushing them, a few pinging off my veil, but I felt the situation was normal considering that I was all hands and cameras inside their home. THe only time I used smoke is when I was closing up the hive, putting the bars back and trying to push them together, the bees seemed to come up and congregate right in that space between the bars. I would try to brush them down, but they would just come back up to check me out. So I lit the smoker, gave them a puff, and sure enough, down they went, and I was able to push the bars back in place safely.

So attached is my photos of the two last (furthest back) bars. I was expecting (hoping!?) to see ripe honey stores, but not the case.

Things appeared very healthy and normal. I was much more calm and relaxed during this visit. I took my time and worked slowly and deliberately. I liked not using smoke. It seemed to distract me, and it seemed to annoy the bees. I did get one sting through my long sleeve tee-shirt. That is only my third since beginning.

One of these days I am going to slide out the bottom board and clean it. It seems dirty, and I should check for any “foul play”

Until next time,


New comb collapse

July 13, 2008

In the last post, I said that I had been surprised to find new comb that had been built, filled, and capped since my first small harvest.   I went back yesterday thinking I would do another small harvest, but was disappointed.

The hives looked normal when I arrived.  There were still bees coming and going, along with the constant washboarding bees on the front.  I also saw bees bringing in pollen.  When I opened hive #1, I found the aftermath of a collapse.

Both new combs that I had seen full last time had fallen.  New comb is weaker than comb that has had the chance to mature, and I think that may have been part of its downfall.  It was fresh comb that was immedietly filled (and therefor as heavy as comb gets).  It only made it worse that we have had a bunch of mid 90’s temperatures.  In any case, the nice filled and capped combs were no longer there to be harvested.  The bees had emptied the comb quite well, but I don’t know how much went to the ground through the screened bottom.  It looked like they had moved at least some of the honey to the other combs, most of which have also been used for raising brood.  I don’t really want to harvest honey from old brood comb, so I guess they get to keep whatever they were able to salvage.

I pulled out the fallen comb to take home.  Eventually, we will process the wax and my wife will do something with it (I think candles is the plan).  I found the remains of four workers who where caught under the comb when it fell.  I’m surprised that I only found 4, but its possible that other bodies were already removed by the housekeepers.

One thing to salvage from the visit was a nice picture however.  My wife and daughters had come along so I had someone who could run the camera (usually there is just me).  While I was removing the fallen comb, I brushed off the worker bees before removing it.  With one piece, I left a drone on it and took it over to my girls to see.  I was explaining how drones are different from workers, such as that they don’t have stingers (an important point for my oldest daughter).  While we were looking at it, my wife snapped a picture.  The drone just happened to take off as the picture was taken.

Still going…

June 29, 2008

Its been about a month since I last checked on my bees (when I did my first harvest).  I was in the area (my hives are a little ways from my home), so I stopped by to check on them.  I forgot my camera, so you won’t get any pictures, sorry. 😦  From the front of the hives, both looked busy and well populated.

I first checked on hive #2.  If you remember from a month ago, I didn’t take any honey from this colony.  They seemed to have a good number of bees, but not too much honey stores.  I also noted a good amount of drone brood, but also saw worker brood (and the queen).  (see here for that post)  Today, I got a happy surprise.  I had assumed that the major spring nectar flows were over, and the bees wouldn’t build up much more until fall.  Dispite this, the girls are still finding something to work.  Hive #2 had built nice fresh comb, and were working on filling it.  I didn’t dig into the hive, but I think they drew out at least two full combs.

I was in for an even better surprise in hive #1.  I had take two combs from this hive for my harvest.  I didn’t want to leave the bees to much empty space to take care of, so I had set three empty bars at the back of the hive and move the follower board forward.  As I said, I didn’t think they would be building up more until later.  Again, I was wrong.  When I move the follower board back to check on them, they had not only drawn out full combs on the empty bars, they had also filled them with honey and capped them.  They were completely out of room!  There were two pretty new combs that were almost fully filled and capped.  I definitely gave them more room to expand.  🙂  I’ll check on them some time in July, and maybe do another harvest if needed.  They should have some flow in the fall to build up more stores later too.  On thing that is very interesting is the difference in this honey when compared to the stuff I harvested.  I really wish I had remembered my camera.  Here are pictures from the harvest:

The first thing I want to point out is the color.  The honey is a light amber color, pretty close to what you often see at the grocery store (maybe a little lighter).  Even in the comb, you can see this color (in the uncapped cells).  The new capped honey I saw today was much darker.  Its hard to tell exactly how dark it is untill harvested, but I would guess it would be quite a bit darker than the last batch.  I’m curious how different the taste might be (the lighter honey I got has a mild flavor).  I don’t know what the nectar is from.

The second thing takes a little more explaining.  (again, I wish I remembered my camera).  Bees can cap honey in two ways, wet and dry.  The picture above of mine shows dry capping.  When the bees cap the honey in the cell, they leave a small air cushion between the cap and the honey.  This leaves it with a nice white “dry” look.  Bees can also cap honey without the air cushion, with the cap sitting directly on the honey (wet).  I’ve never seen a reason for why they do one or the other, and from everything I’ve read, it has no effect at all on the honey (aside from the look – most people think the dry capping looks nicer).  I found a picture on Flickr under a creative commons license showing wet capping (thanks toholio):


As a bonus, this picture shows dark honey too. 🙂  I’m not sure mine is this dark though.  I’m not sure why my bees did dry capping last time and wet capping this time.  I’m just happy they are capping honey. 🙂

First Honey Harvest

May 31, 2008

On Memorial Day, I harvested two top-bar of honeycomb from hive # 1 (see last post). This is my first harvest, and I am excited! Its was only two bars, but none the less, its my first honey.

Since I am using top-bar hives, the harvest is done by cutting the honeycomb off the top-bar. I will use the crush and strain method, commonly used by top-bar beekeepers. I weighed the two bags when I got home. Those two combs weighed 14 lbs! 🙂

For this small crush and strain, I got a cheap wire strainer, some new (and washed) knee high nylons, and a small bucket (also well washed). I stretched the nylons over the wire strainer (one pair or two layers of nylon to strain though). I places a cup in the bottom of the bucket to keep the strainer from sitting on the bottom.

Since I already had the honeycomb in a ziploc bag, I just went ahead and crushed in in the bag. The idea is to break up all the honey comb to release the honey. The was will be caught in the nylon/wire strainer and be separated. Here is what it looks like all crushed up.

My small strainer setup was only large enough to hold one of the bags at a time. I let one strain mostly through and then added the second. I removed a little of the separated wax temporarily to make sure there was enough room. Thee majority of the honey went through the filter pretty quickly. Our house was pretty warm since we are trying to hold off using the AC as long as possible to save energy and money, and the warmth probably helped some. The first picture is honey straining, the second is some wax that has been separated, and the third is the strained honey in the bucket.

The whole crushing and straining went very nicely. I didn’t even make much of a mess. On top of that, my wife and daughter both said the honey had a great flavor. I agree about the taste. 🙂

Since this is my first time, and I can some times be a bit of a worrier, I wanted to make sure everything is correct. Honey generally will not spoil, and some say it will last almost indefinitely if properly stored. However, if the moisture is too high it can spoil easily. My question worry had two parts: What is the safe moisture level, and what is the moisture level in my honey. I had heard lots of “rules of thumb” about making sure you honey is dry enough. Generally, the bees will dry the honey sufficiently before capping it. Because of this, it is suggested not to harvest honey unless it is sufficiently capped. Suggestions seem to range from 100% capped to 75% capped before harvesting. My honey was not 100% capped, so I was a little worried about its moisture level. I would hate for my first harvest to go bad. Especially since I am planning on giving some to friends and family.

The way to be certain everything is ok is to measure the moisture level. This is commonly done with a refractometer. Being a guy who like knowing if everything is right (and who likes gadgets), I decided to get one. They range wildly in price, up to almost $300. Amazingly, descriptions and pictures don’t seem to suggest much difference between some of the lower and higher price ones. I went for the low end. 🙂 I found one on ebay (new, made in Hong Kong I think). It was only $30. When I got it, I was pleasantly surprised with it. It is all metal construction and feels well made. I has an ATC (auto temperature correction), and came with everything needed to calibrate it (it has a standard oil). This refractometer is meant for the range that honey should be in, and has multiple reading scales including % water in honey.

My honey measured 18.5% moisture. I wasn’t sure of what the exact cutoff should be, so I asked at BeeSource. I was happy to hear that up to 18.6% is Grade A honey, so I should be good. 🙂

My wife got some 8 oz jars, and we went ahead and bottled it. She had gotten 12 jars, but it turned out we needed more. Here is our harvest.

All in all, I think we have 144 fluid oz (4.5 qt, or a little over a gallon). Thats just an estimate from the sizes of the jars. I believe an 8 fluid oz of honey generally weighs 12 oz, so that would mean we have around 13 lbs. I weighed the wax we have left, and it appears there is about 1.5-2 lbs. Not bad for only harvesting 2 top-bars. 🙂

The hives on Memorial Day

May 31, 2008

Well, it feels like it had been forever since I was out to check on the bees. I’ve been pretty busy, but Memorial Day gave me an opportunity to check on them.

Both hives looked busy when I arrived. Hive #2 had more bees at the entrance, but both has a nice amount of traffic. Sine we have now pasted a couple of the nectar flows for the year, I was hoping there might be something to harvest.

First, Hive #1. This hive seemed to be stronger earlier in the year, and I was interested to see what they had done since I checked last. When I opened up the hive, it was clear they had been working. They had build new comb, and were filling it nicely. The comb pictured below is quite thick. They actually curved it and attached it to two top-bars. It pretty much filled the space of those two bars. I want ahead and harvested both this and another top-bar. I simply cut the comb off the bar and placed it in a ziploc storage bag. Probably “simply” is the wrong way to say that. It would have been better as a two person job. I flipped the comb over (with the top-bar sitting on the ground so that I could use both hands. It was still fun cutting the comb loose while holding the bag open and trying to transfer it. I made a little of a mess, but got to test the honey when licking my hands. I’m very lucky the landowner has a hose, or I would have gotten my car very messy on the way home. I ended up with two bags full from the two top-bars I harvested.

I am happy to say, not a single bee died in the sticky mess. 🙂 I first moved the top-bars to the empty space behind the follower board, and brushed the bees off there. Once the comb was clear of bees, I walked 10 or 15 ft away before trying to harvest the comb. Happily, my bees were as nice as ever. I was in shorts and didn’t use gloves, but got no stings. Even with all the brushing and indecisiveness on my part as to how I should do the harvest, the bees were very calm and never showed much aggression. I’ll go though what I did with those two bags of honeycomb in my next post. 🙂

Hive # 2 … This hive seemed a bit weaker earlier in the year, and they show it still. They have honey stored, but no full combs. I didn’t end up taking anything from them. They haven’t built as much new comb either. I started from the back, and when I got to the first brood comb I was a little worried.

If you look closely, you will see that the capped brood in this comb is not flat. Each cell has a rounded top, with kind of a bullet shape. Those are drone cells, not worker cells. I’m not really experienced at this, but this is the largest patch of drone cells I had seen in my hives. If the queen is only laying drones, that won’t help the hive at all (they don’t do any work). It could also be a sign of a problem with the queen. Luckily, as I move forward to the next comb, there was normal worker brood.

The first picture shows some worker brood, but the second one shows some more drone brood. If you look carefully at the second picture, you can see the queen. (the blue dot help)

At least I can see that the queen is still there. It still seems like more drone brood than there should be. In fact, you can see a number of drones in the picture with the queen (the big ones with the big eyes). I hope there are not to many putting a drain on resources, but then again, what do I know. I’m not a bee. Maybe they want that many drone for a good reason. It could also possibly mean the queen is petering out. If she is, I think I will just let nature take its course. The bees should be able to handle it. She may be fine too. I’m hoping that know what they should do. Regardless, the next combs looked good. Nice worker brood.

The empty spots in the middle of the brood comb could be a sign of a couple things. 1) Hygienic behavior (a good thing). There might have been mites or diseased brood there and the bees removed them. 2) The queen missing cells or laying bad eggs that the bees removed (another possible sign of her petering out). I’m not sure this is the case though. I think if you look back, my hive seemed to have had some of this “shotgun” pattern last year too. Again, If there is a problem, I hope the bees know what to do. I’m leaving it up to them and nature for now.

I went ahead and opened the entrances all the way. The screened bottoms are already open. The weather is starting to hit the uncomfortably hot time of year. Summer is definitely in full swing.

More about Ken’s Bees

May 24, 2008

Post by Ken  – 05/22/2008:

Well, After my first open hive check, I thought everything was going so well. And they were, for the bees, not so much for me!
I might have mentioned that they began building from the rear, starting from the follower board where the sugar syrup feeder poked through, and moving forward toward the front. They had comb on the last six bars, biggest in the rear.
On my first check, I was able to pull out all six bars and they had built comb right down the middle, no problem. These are the 1-1/2″ wide bars by the way.
Today when I opened it up, they had only progressed forward by one bar, on to the 1-3/8″ wide set.
Well, that was not so easy. They had attached comb to the bar behind it and put two on that 1-3/8″.
I had to cut through the comb on top just to get the bar out, and squished a few bees, popped open some honey or nectar and pollen stores, some eggs, larvae and who knows what else. What a mess! I felt terrible.
I took a picture and put it back in, and thought I would try to look at the progress of one of the back bars that started off well.
I guess I was losing confidence in my self because I was trying to pry the bars apart, would see wax, decide not to take it out, try to put it back together, trying to be careful not to squish anymore, working slowly, trying to get them to go back down inside with the brush, trying to push the bars back together, and close it all up. Ah. I just wanted to get out of there. I felt like I was just disturbing the whole thing.
This was the second time I used smoke, and boy, it does not seem to make them calm. I would give them just a little puff near the entrance, and wow, they would really fly out and hover around. When I was working inside, it seemed like the smoke really agitated them and made them busy and buzzy. They did not “keep their heads down”, quite the opposite, they came popping out of every crevice and seemed to not want to go back inside.
Not a good visit.
Although, when I put the smoke out and the roof back on, it seemed from the outside like nothing ever happened. Just a few coming and going while I cleaned up my workbench.
So If I listen to the bees, I wonder what they are telling me. I wonder if they do build different thickness of comb depending on their needs. How do I know what thickness of bar to use? When do they need or want it? I guess this is where years of experience comes in handy. I read somewhere that -anticipating- their needs is the beekeepers best tool.
Oh well.

Ken’s hives and new bees

May 23, 2008

Post by Ken – 05/07/2008:

I live in Los Angeles, and built two hives base on kawayanan’s plans.
They have been sitting in my garage for months, and my wife was tired of looking at them!
I was having trouble ordering bees from apiaries, hobbyists don’t seem to be at the top of their priority sales,
and the shipping from far away seemed to pose some logistical problems,
My wife opened the yellow pages, and said “Why don’t you call this guy- The Bee Man” so I did not thinking too much of it, left a message.
A day later he called, my wife answered and spoke with him. His business is bee removal- but then he sells them on the side to the growing interest in hobbyist like myself.
So I got on his list of interested parties, and a few days later (Saturday) he called and said he was in the area, and had a swarm.
We arranged to meet at a Starbucks parking lot, and gave me the bees for $45. He was a nice guy, we spoke at length, I described the hive that I (we) have, and he had never heard of a top bar hive and was a little/very skeptical. He understood and was interested in the more natural approach, but said I would not get nearly as much honey as a Langstroth and cross their comb…. But that’s not the point! For me its more about observing and interacting with these fascinating creatures.
Anyway, I got them home that evening, sprayed them with some sugar water, filled up the feeder and plopped them in the hive!
The next morning, they were busy! Locating themselves.
I have a window on the side of mine, it has been great to satisfy my curiosity. I wouldn’t know what to think they were doing with out it.
I have noticed that they broke up into three different clusters, toward the back of the hive near the feeder. Today, there were two clusters, one much bigger than the other. I will have to peer in again to see if they had started building comb. Maybe they had a dis agreement on who would be queen.
Since they are on the back on the follower board and last few bars, I don’t know how I am going to get that feeder out of there to fill up again. I have another feeder, so I will just put it out near the hive and hope the bees get more of it than the ants do.

The first is an overall shot of my garage (I was standing on my house
roof to take the picture), where I have built two fences blocking off
the hive area completely- safe from small or large children or curious
adults or animals.
Some pictures of the hive set up and operating,
Hive with roof removed before the bees were installed, showing the
movable follower board with the feeder. I ended up putting more bars in
when I installed the bees, and they all clustered around the back near
the feeder, and started building the comb from the last bar working
Some pictures of the new comb after seven days of their work. They have
made comb on seven bars so far, starting from the back to the front.
What may be of interest is that the larger bars are located in the back,
they are 1 1/2″ wide. The middle bars are 1 3/8″ wide and the front bars
are 1 1/4″ wide. I made them this size according to the “bee space”
between what I thought would be egg/brood raising up front,
pollen/nectar storage in the middle, and honey storage in the rear of
the hive. Apparently not the case! It should be interesting to see what
they do when they come to the smaller bars, and how they use them.
You can see in one of the photos taken through the side window how humid
it is inside the hive, with the moisture beading on the glass. The bars
which were so perfectly straight when I made them have twisted only

A guest blogger

May 23, 2008

Well, I’ve been pretty busy lately. All the pesky things like jobs and such. 🙂 I haven’t even been able to go check on my bees for a few weeks. Hopefully I will be able to go some time over this long weekend…

In the mean time, I have something else to let you all know about. I have had a number of people contact me with some questions about my hive design. A couple have built their own version. I have invited them to send me any pictures and new they would like to add to the blog as a “guest blogger”. The first I would like to introduce is Ken who lives in Los Angeles. I’ll post his pictures and comments, and you can either reply here or email him if you would like.