Archive for May, 2008

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.

The Birds and the Bees

May 8, 2008

Ah, spring. The world wakes up, and as they said in Bambi “Nearly everybody gets twitterpated in the springtime.”

We have Cardinals, House Finches, and sparrows regularly visiting the feeder in our back yard, along with the occasional Goldfinch or Tufted Titmouse.  We see some Mockingbirds, but they don’t seem to be using the feeder (maybe the wrong type of food).  We also have a pair of Carolina Chickadees have taken up residence in a bird house we put up (they had to chase away a bluebird who wanted to move in after they had already claimed it).

I can understand where the “birds” part of the “birds and the bees” saying. The birds in our back yard do seem to make quite a conspicuous display of their courtship (singing, strutting, chasing each other about, etc.) How the bees got into our famous idiomatic expression, I have no idea. They definitely aren’t conspicuous about their “courtship”, but somehow we seem to have associated them with such things. In addition to the “birds and the bees”, we also go on honeymoons. Wikipedia says that a “honey moon” or honey “month” is found in at least Welsh, Spanish, Itallian, Arabic, and Persian (and may have come from a tradition of giving a months supply of mead to a newly married couple). I lived in the Philippines for a couple of years, and learned that in Tagalog, the equivalent of honeymoon is “pulot-gata” which literally means “honey-coconut milk”. I think that the Tagalog idiom comes from a completely concept, but I’m not going to explain the euphemism. 🙂

Anyway, back on topic. Bees also like to reproduce in the spring. When you think about honey bee reproduction however, you really have to think of the hive as a single organism. The birth of a single bee really doesn’t propagate the species. A single bee, even the queen, is in a funny way more like a bit of tissue, or maybe a organ, than an “organism”. Only a hive can “reproduce”. Workers can’t without the queen. The queen can’t do anything without the workers. In order for bees to spread and increase as a species, you need new hives. The way you get new hives is a swarm.

When a hive becomes strong enough, with enough workers and stores, they can swarm. Somehow, as a group, they make this assessment. The queen doesn’t make the decision, it seems to be some type of group consensus amount the workers. When they decide its time, they begin raising new queens (usually more than one – they will fight it out to see who will be the next queen). When its time, the hive splits in two (lets say roughly in half for ease of discussion). Half the hive gorges themselves with honey and leaves with the old queen. The other half stays with the new queen (who may or may not have hatched yet). The half that left with the old queen is the swarm. They leave and will congregate in one big mass while they come to a consensus on where their new home should be. Scouts spread out and look for a suitable new home site. The sight of a large mass of bees can be startling, but swarms are generally quite calm and not agressive. Thats not to say that you couldn’t get stung if you messed with them, but without a hive to protect (and gorged on honey), they are likely to ignore you if you don’t bother them. Here are a few pictures of what a swarm looks like.

Note, none of these are my pictures.  They are pictures placed on Flickr by people who are nice enough to place them under Creative Commons Licenses (  In case your wondering, I put all my photos and such under a similar license (see the note on the sidebar).

If you happen to be lucky enough to see a swarm, there are some things you might want to do.  Most times, swarms are not a problem and are just looking for a new home.  If you leave them alone, they will probably leave you alone.  You could just watch them, and they will likely move on at some point (when their scouts find a good mew home).  Problems can sometime arise from where they choose as a new home.  Naturally, they look for hollow in trees and such.  In our modern world however, its often more likely that they find a hollow in the roof or wall of someones building than to find a sufficiently large tree with a hollow in it.  Bees are interesting, and I like them, but having them in the wall of your house may not be the best idea.  Probably the best thing you can do to avoid this is to call someone who would like to keep the bees.  There are a number of places to find people to contact.  In no particular order, here are some places to look:

These are all national lists.  Local beekeepers associations are also a very good place to contact.  Where I am, people can contact the Orange County BeeKeepers Assoc for example.  On their listserv so far this year, I think there have been more than a dozen posts reporting swarms in the area.  You can usually find websites for beekeepers associations in your area on the web (search for the sate organization first, they usually have links to local groups).  If you do contact someone about a swarm here are some things to keep in mind.

  • Make sure they are honey bees (like the pictures aboves) – beekeepers have no interest in taking your yellowjackets or hornets.
  • Try to find someone close to you.  The bees could stay where they are overnight, or be gone in 5 min.  People won’t want to drive a hour, only to find the bees gone.  For this reason, if you can find someone who lists their phone number, that might get the quickest response.
  • Let the beekeeper know where the bees are.  Are they 3 ft of the ground (meaning reachable), or are the 80 ft up in a huge tree with no good way to get to them.
  • A swarm is one thing, removing bees that have moves into a building is another.  There are still people that will remove bees that have already set up house, but that can be a full days work.  Make sure you are clear as to which is the case.

Lastly, count yourself lucky to have seen this amazing and natural process.