As I walk past the bee hives that sit beside the garden, sun warmed from a September morning, the sweet smell of honey and beeswax fills my nostrils. The smell wafts along on the warm Autumn breeze, tingling my senses and capturing my full attention. Busy bees dart to and from the hive entrances, dancing between taking off in flight and landing again. They are hard at work capturing the last of the pollen and nectar. A ring of sunflowers stands tall around the hives, thistles in the pasture bloom bright purple and the golden yellow of ragweed spots the ditches and banks. The bees know that seasons are changing.
The end of the Summer is a busy time in our little apiary yard here on the farm. Over the season we increased from three to five hives, one from a split and one a swarm that we caught in the garden. From these five hives, three were established enough to add on honey supers for the warmer months to collect honey. The honey super boxes sit atop the two brood boxes which make up our hives. In between the top brood box and the super we place a piece called a queen excluder, a screen like panel that allows worker bees access back and forth but is small enough to not allow the queen into the supers. We do not want the queen up top in the super laying eggs as it is strictly for honey production. When the days start to become a little shorter and the weather is about to change, it’s time to remove the supers from the hives and process them for our honey harvest!
Mid morning is the best time to deal with the bees. This is when most of the worker bees are foraging and therefore there are a lot less bees in the hive to have to deal with. One hive at a time, the honey super box is removed and placed a few feet away on the ground. We allow them to sit here for a little while in hope that any bees will return to the hive and exit the box. After about an hour, Dan fires up our little leaf blower and uses this to blow any remaining bees out of the boxes. The boxes are then quickly loaded into our trusted wagon and hauled across the yard to our processing station (which also happens to be Dan’s “Man Room” off the garage).
We have two different types of hive setups and therefor two different way of processing our honey. The first hive is a Flow Hive, and at a turn of the tap, the honey flows from the comb out a little tap at the bottom of the frame. The frames in the Flow Hive are made to already have the “honeycomb” structure built inside of each frame. They are designed to be able to shift at the turn of a handle, which in turn breaks the shape of the honeycomb allowing the honey to flow out. While it definitely makes for a much easier honey harvest this way, the bees do not seem to overly love these set ups and we have actually gone from two down to one hive.
The next two hives are conventional setups, with ten frames in each box. The frames we use do come with a premade backing so that the bees have something to start building their own comb on. The frames are removed from the boxes one at a time, one side of the frame is scraped with a special tool to remove the protective capping the bees place over each cell of honey. Once we have two frames of about the same weight with one side cleaned, they are placed into a spinner. The spinner works like a centrifuge, spinning the frames inside and pushing the honey out with the force of the motion. The honey gathers inside of the spinner and a drain at the bottom is opened to filter out the drawn gooey goodness. This method is messy to say the least. I don’t think there was one thing that was saved from sticky honey between the garage and the house.
In total this year between the three hives we harvested approximately 65 lbs of honey. Being only our second year of harvesting honey, we were quite pleased! From the garage, the honey was taken inside the house to be jarred, because making one place sticky wasn’t enough. In the house, the honey sat in our warm room (the boiler room which heats our house) for a half hour or so to increase viscosity for filtering. From the large pots we had collected it in the man room, we poured it through a filter ( a mesh pan which fit perfectly over a 5 gallon bucket) into bowls in the house. From the bowls, it was straight into the honey jars! We had fun labelling and creating cute little packages for our friends and family.
This was the first year we had enough wax cappings from processing to be able to save our own bees wax! The cappings were tied into a cheesecloth bag and set into a pot of water. The water was brought up in temperature, making sure to not let it come to a complete boil. As the temperature increased, the wax within the cheesecloth melted and released, keeping any bits and pieces of debris inside the cloth. The bag was removed and the pot taken off the heat. As the water and wax mixture cools, the wax begins to solidify and floats on top of the water. We were left with a large disk of wax at the end. This disk was then melted down over a double boiler and poured into a container to take on the shape of a brick. I am so excited to see in coming years what we will get for wax and all the creations we will come up with. For this year, I was able to make two cute little beeswax candles for us to enjoy!
After finishing up with our harvest, and deep cleaning EVERYTHING to get rid of the stick, we preformed hives check on everyone to make sure we were still looking good as we headed into the changing seasons. At this time of year we start to see less brood within the hives as the bees prepare for overwintering smaller populations. We begin to see lots of dead drone bees piling up around the outside of the hives as well. The male drone bees serve one purpose only, to mate with the queen. When the colder weather comes the worker bees will kill off these drones as they are not needed anymore for the Winter months and would only take away from food supplies for the other bees in the hive. We see more frames being filled with honey and pollen as the bees use up the last of their forages to stock up for Winter feeding.
When the last of the food supplies start to dwindle around the farm we begin to feed the bees to give them a boost for the long months that lay ahead. A mixture of sugar water is fed to the bees in buckets on top of each of the hives. This year we also tried something a little different, offering melons to the bees in the apiary yard. They seemed to quite like the melons, cleaning them up in a couple of days. We like the idea of giving the bees a more natural sugar for food sources, but aren’t willing to risk our colonies and still bucket fed the sugar water this season. It will be something we do some more research into for sure!
Throughout the Fall we continue to feed the bees until the temperatures drop enough that the buckets would freeze. At this point they are removed and the hives wrapped with their cozies in anticipation of whatever precipitation is on its way. Before this, we also have to finish up our Fall treatments. After our harvests, we treat each hive with a vaporized form of Oxalic acid. The oxalic acid is derived from rhubarb leaves and is used as a treatment and preventative for Varroa mites in the colonies. Varroa mites can kill whole colonies, especially over the Winter months, if not controlled. The mites feed off of the bees, burrowing into their fat layers on their body and eventually killing the bee host. We don’t need anything extra to fight against with our cold and snowy Winters here in Alberta, so treating for Fall mites is a must for us.
It really was another amazing Summer with the bees, as we continue to learn and grow in our beekeeping journey. It has definitely become one of our favourite hobbies here on the farm. Whether we are sitting out on the deck sharing lemonades rimmed with sugar with them, weeding the garden with them buzzing overhead, or just taking a walk past the hives, the air is always filled with little busy bees and the scent of honey. I wouldn’t have it any other way!