How to extract honey too thick to spin out of a perfectly good extractor

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“We lost almost an entire crop to rapeseed one year,” said Patrice. We were talking about the really thick honey that Emily and I had been unable to spin out in an extractor. “There is most likely rapeseed in the honey.” Patrice had seen rapeseed growing in the area local to the apiary, she thought it was probably spread around by birds who ate the seeds and left their droppings elsewhere.

Three years ago on a warm and sunny Saturday afternoon, Emily and I took six frames of honey off the same hive and got in a cab to my dad’s house to extract it straightaway. The honey wouldn’t spin out and instead we made cut comb honey in mini jars.

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The following spring we visited the Chelsea Physic Garden’s honey tasting session and brought a pot of honey for expert honey taster and beekeeper Peter James. He took one spoonful and gave us a definitive answer, “Rapeseed”.

Could our thick honey be from rapeseed flowers? It has some of the same qualities being too viscous to extract by spinning the comb, a light golden colour and a mild floral flavour with a slight tangy aftertaste. However, rapeseed honey granulates very quickly, sometimes setting in the honeycomb even when still on the hive, and our honey, like that of three years ago, is a smooth gel-like liquid that hasn’t granulated. Rapeseed honey is also said to be gritty with a cabbagey or peppery aftertaste, which doesn’t fit the description of our honey either.

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Fields of oilseed rape in Herefordshire by Jonathan Billinger via CC BY-SA 2.0

There are other types of forage that can produce viscous honey, but none of these have quite the right characteristics to fit the pieces of the puzzle. For example, hawthorn honey can be thick and difficult to extract, and granulates very slowly over time, but it also tends to be darker in colour and richer in flavour than our honey.

I’ve considered another option, though it doesn’t bear much thinking about. Bees can move honey from the brood box into the supers if they want to make more room in the nest. We stopped feeding our bees sugar syrup a week or so before the supers went on the hive, and the bees started to draw out and fill the supers quickly after. Was there some sugar syrup in the honey we had harvested and could that have made it more difficult to extract? I later discussed this possibility with Emily and she thought this wasn’t likely either.

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The only way to know for sure what is in our honey is to send it off to be tested, which is what I plan to do. The answer may surprise us and be either none of the above or all of the above. We’ll have to wait and see.

Still, there was the job of extracting honey too thick to spin out of a perfectly good extractor used for years and generously gifted by retired beekeeper Professor Robert Allen – thank you Bob. This is how I have done it.

Honey processing began in my small kitchen after work one evening. I quickly de-capped the frames in the supers using a hot knife. The wax cappings were caught neatly in a bucket to be used at a later date.

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That done, I hung the frames in a plastic container about the same size as a super and with plenty of room for the honey to drip into the bottom.

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John put the container on the work surface above the washing machine/tumble dryer, which is frequently used because I’m a clean freak. Here, the frames of honey have hung for three weeks, slowly dripping in the warmth of the kitchen with the subtle vibrations of the washer–dryer underneath.

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I’ve encouraged the honey to dribble out using a small (sterilised) metal key to stir each cell, working across every frame as diligently as a bee.

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Yes, I actually stirred every cell on the comb. I now have some idea of what it means to work as hard as a bee!

It may sound slightly mad, but the good thing about this method is that I’ve not crushed and strained the honeycomb to get the honey out; though it has left about a quarter of the honey in the comb, it has also left the comb intact. This means I can return wet supers to the hive for the bees to lick out the remaining honey and to repair the honeycomb with insect precision. We may not get as much honey as we thought, but we will still get plenty between us and I don’t begrudge giving some back to our hardworking bees. The drawn comb on the frames will also give Melissa’s colony a head start for next year.

When John dropped me off at the apiary this afternoon there was a small crowd of people talking about honey and wax. (We’re all bonkers.) Everyone has lots of plans of what they are going to do with their harvest. It has been a good summer for beekeeping and autumn will bring honey shows, cooking with honey, and recipes for wax cosmetics, polishes and candles.

After having a cup of tea we suited up to inspect the hives. Emily inspected Pepper’s hive without a smoker, although being allergic to stings I prefer to get the smoker going in case it’s needed, and I find Pepper’s bees quite feisty. The situation was good in this hive with a colony of healthy bees and brood, building up enough stores for winter.

Another visitor to the apiary turned up to watch the inspections.

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I’m told this is the Hornet Mimic Hoverfly (Volucella zonaria) by Mark Patterson of London Beekeepers. The lookalike hornet fly was very curious about us. He, or she, was perhaps a little too friendly, flying after Jonesy to say hello and making him stumble backwards in surprise. The extraordinary looking insect stayed around for a while, then flew off to find something more interesting somewhere else.

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Friendly hornet mimic hoverfly retreats to Emily’s glove after one of Pepper’s workers had headbutted her off the hive.

Unfortunately there were also wasps flying around the hives, and when I opened Melissa’s hive to find lots of dead bees inside Emily wondered if a wasp had got in and a battle had ensued. Aside from this, all was well here and Emily spotted the queen. The brood nest is getting smaller as the bees prepare for their winter cluster, and I counted about five brood frames (in addition to some uncapped super frames I was returning) for their winter stores.

How much honey does a hive need for winter? Sources vary between 35-60lbs and one frame is about 5lbs of honey. The amount of stores needed also depends on the size of the colony, how active they are during winter, and how fast they eat. I was counting the frames of stores while going through the hives and it looks like they’ll have plenty for winter.

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Spot the black bee in the centre of the frame? Emily thought she might be a robber bee, because robber bees are often blackened from having their hairs nipped off.

I inspected Chili’s hive next and the situation was much the same with a declining brood nest and a build up of stores. We watched our pink-spotted queen climb across a frame looking for cells to lay a few more eggs before winter arrives.

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Emily inspected Chamomile’s hive which has a large brood nest and quite a lot of stores. Chamomile appears to have mellowed in her second year and she is an excellent layer, though there are signs of disease in the hive. I do hope they survive the winter.

We are now halfway through the Apiguard treatment, and put a second tray on each hive. The bees are clearing the Apiguard with varying degrees of success. Melissa’s bees cleared the entire tray, while Chili’s bees have been less hygienic removing only half the treatment.

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There was a high number of varroa mites on all the varroa boards, worrying but also a good sign that the Apiguard is working. All the colonies at the apiary have thrived this year, and with larger and more active colonies it’s to be expected that varroa numbers would also rise.

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Another spot the … beautiful bright orange pollen amid the nasty red varroa mites on the varroa board.

That done, we cleared up our equipment and said goodbye to the bees as the light began to get dusky. Reflections of a good year’s beekeeping were comforting, despite knowing that we’ll soon say farewell to the bees for their winter slumber.

Giving thanks for the honey

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The sweet golden treasure is this year’s honey.

Honeycomb slowly dripped viscous syrup as white wax cappings cleanly sliced away, pooling like liquid sunshine into a bucket. Every cell releasing the gifts of some flower’s nectary with an explosion of fragrance. I dipped a teaspoon in the honey and tasted soft sweet chords of floral top notes and fresh fruity twists.

The creation of honey is an alchemical process. Flowers produce a sugar-rich liquid by glands called nectaries, signalling the honeybee to come and drink deeply. Her honey stomach heavy with nectar, she flies back to the hive and shares the sweetness on her sisters’ tongues. Thousands of tiny wings fan the cells magically turning nectar into honey.

A dozen honeybees are needed to collect enough nectar to make one teaspoon of honey and each bee must visit 2,600 flowers for this to happen.

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This teaspoon of honey holds the nectar of 31,200 flowers. Summer’s essence distilled and concentrated in every drop. We have a beautiful harvest from Queen Myrtle’s hive. Like our honey crop of three year’s ago, it’s too thick for the extractor. We’ll take it over autumn by crushing and filtering through muslin.

I’m thankful to the trees, flowers and honeybees who made our honey.

Welcome Melissa

We named Myrtle’s daughter and the new queen of our honey hive, Melissa. While we wished for her to emerge the bees were the picture of contentment, which gave us the wisdom to wait a month for the queen. This inspired the name Melissa.

“Melissa oil promotes sensitivity and intuition and helps us find inner contentment and strengthen ‘wisdom of the heart’.” (Salvatore Battaglia)

The sweet blossomy lemony fragrance of melissa suits our light golden honey very well. The name Melissa is from the Greek ‘bee’ indicating the attractiveness bees feel towards the plant. A perfect name for the queen who continues the legacy of our favourite hive.

Remembering Myrtle

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Myrtle emerged inside the hive in July 2012 after a dramatic season of monsoons and regicide. It was during the London 2012 Olympics, her grandmother Lavender had swarmed and left behind her mother Neroli who failed shortly after. We were delighted by Myrtle’s gentle and playful nature, and she would become our most successful and long-lived queen.

Two year’s later, Myrtle disappeared in a suspected supersedure and we have anxiously waited a month for the new queen to show herself and start laying. The beautiful picture above was taken by John during our trip to Lancashire last month. I’ve posted it today in remembrance of our lovely Queen Myrtle.

And yesterday we spotted her beautiful daughter, here’s a blurry close-up.

IMG_4565We were fairly sure the new queen was Myrtle’s daughter, rather than from the frame of eggs put in by Emily from Chamomile’s hive, but I wanted to check our records at home first. The timing is right, the new queen is from Myrtle’s line. I’m so glad that we patiently waited for the queen and the bees, rather than combining the colony with another.

I have the perfect name for Myrtle’s daughter, although I won’t reveal until telling Emily. I’m just so happy and relieved that our long dynasty of gentle queens continues. Here are some of Myrtle’s old daughters looking content with their new matriarch.

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Emily was just finishing an inspection on Chili’s hive when I arrived yesterday. Chamomile’s bees instantly stung a beginner beekeeper, British traffic policeman Rick, as he pulled the first frame. It was Rick’s first day as a beekeeper, I hope he didn’t feel like arresting our bees. You can see Chamomile at the bottom of this picture.

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Fortunately it takes more than one sting to put off the British police. Rick inspected Pepper’s hive, who were cautiously well behaved. He spotted the queen on the fourth frame in and seeing that all was well we finished the day’s inspections. Emily smoked down Pepper’s bees to avoid squashing them when the super went back on.

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Emily and I are extracting the honey at my dad’s house today. Four strong hives (though one not so healthy) and two supers of honey. I feel like it has taken a long winding road to get to where we are today, a bit like crossing a river of stepping stones. So here’s another lovely photo by John as this year’s beekeeping season comes to an end.

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Myrtle links

Myrtle, the quiet one

A plant study of Myrtle

Olympic queens (Queen Myrtle is named)

The story of our summer bees

Merry Christmas Queen Myrtle and her bees!

A tale of two colonies

A case of supersedure and a super goes on (our last sighting of Myrtle)

A flurry of honey

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Jonsey had been stung twice by the time I arrived at the apiary. “I put my head around the net and they got me,” he said, pulling on his suit. It was a hot and humid Sunday. We were taking off the honey, although the muggy air was the more likely reason for the bees’ defensive behaviour. Jonsey was helping out while Emily was away.

I had put a clearer board underneath a super in Myrtle’s hive on Saturday afternoon. A clearer board has one or two ‘escapes’ that let bees go down but not back up, so ‘clearing’ the super of bees. I took off the roof and saw that the clearer board had done the job. Jonsey carried the super to the apiary table where we brushed off stragglers and wrapped the box in plastic to prevent more bees, or wasps, from flying inside.

That was two weeks’ ago. Since then Emily and I have taken off a second super, both are sitting in my dad’s kitchen ready to spin the honey.

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So what about the bees? Our favourite hive may be queenless. Myrtle mysteriously disappeared a month ago with strangely squashed queen cells found inside the hive. The workers are behaving calmly, not erratic like a queenless colony, but there is no sign of a new queen, eggs or much brood. We put a second test frame of eggs from Chili’s colony into the hive to see if the workers try to make queen cells.

Emily inspected Pepper’s hive and reported all was well, though the queen was in hiding. Queens Chili and Chamomile did make an appearance. Can you spot Chili in her queen cage? She has a pink crown.

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Chamomile was hiding in a crevice underneath the comb where we couldn’t cage her. A few bees were crawling around with shrivelled wings, a sign of deformed wing virus (DWV) which can be transmitted to queens when they mate with infected drones. We also saw black shiny hairless bees who may have chronic bee paralysis virus (CBPV), which is thought to be transmitted by varroa. Soon we’ll be starting varroa treatments on the hives.

So that’s where we left our bees at the weekend with the honey harvested and the queens still keeping us guessing. Jonsey observed drones cowering in the corners of frames. The season is nearly over and they know what is to come…

Here’s a big beefy drone who fell in love with me. He sat on my yellow gloves during a recent inspection, fluttering his wings. I felt like a queen bee.

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Pink queens and a swarm?

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It seems neither the British weather forecast nor the British weather can be relied on after Saturday’s predictions of thunder, lightning and hail proved false. Saturday was a beautiful day for beekeeping, but Emily and I had already made other plans thinking there would be storms and rain. So we met on Sunday at the apiary beneath clear skies and decided to make short work of inspections. I checked Pepper’s hive while Emily checked Chili’s, then we both looked inside Myrtle’s and Chamomile’s hives.

Pepper is our newest queen and living up to her namesake of black pepper essential oil – a personality who finds it hard to show love! Her bees were feisty so Emily had to take over half way through the inspection as I had forgotten my thicker beekeeping gloves. We didn’t spot Pepper, she might have been sulking at the bottom of the hive.

Chili’s family looked well, said Emily. There was also a surprise when we spotted the queen – she was marked pink! Last Saturday at Andy’s party we had joked with Pat and John that we’d like our queens marked pink. The elder beekeepers do listen to us after all.

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With two supers full of honey on Myrtle’s hive, you need a hive partner to help lift the heavy boxes in an effort to avoid squashing bees. Myrtle’s brood nest had a less welcome surprise inside. No sign of Myrtle for the second week running, in the middle of the third frame were six queen cells that looked strangely squashed, and the tenth frame had two surviving queen cells. What could have happened?

We knew the apiary hives may have been checked during the week before the beginner beekeepers’ assessments, and I wondered if the queen cells had been squashed to prevent a swarm or culled to select the best candidate for supersedure. Was the queen present and should we do an artificial swarm though? It was really hard to decide what to do without knowing what might have happened, so we decided to send an email and find out first before taking action. Depending on the outcome, Emily and I may be back at the apiary after work this week.

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Chamomile’s moods can be as unpredictable as the British weather, so we’re never sure what to expect. We wanted to reduce her nest from a double-brood to a single-brood. I found Chamomile on the second frame and caged her to keep her safe during the procedure. We moved the frames of brood into one box and put the frames of honey into another box. Emily shook the bees into the bottom box as I held Chamomile safe and then released the queen back into her nest with the queen excluder placed on top. An empty brood box was placed between the brood nest and the brood box with honey frames to create a space that will encourage the bees to rob the honey from the top and take it down below. Emily scored the honey frames with her hive tool to make the task easier for the workers.

By then another beekeeper had arrived to check his hive and Albert turned up too. “Is it Saturday?” he asked.

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When John picked me up the weather was still clear, so we went for a walk around the 14th-century grounds of St Mary’s and stopped to sit on the green. I watched a common carder bee hovering over a clover before visiting its neighbour.

As a beekeeper and an aromatherapist I was doubly pleased to find out that bees and flowers do ‘talk’ to each other. In a wonderful new BBC bee drama Hive Alive, presented by Chris Packham and Martha Kearney, the secret language of flowers and bees was revealed. A flower has a negative charge that gives off an electrical signal to a bee. The bee has a positive charge that changes the electrical field of the flower when it lands to forage. This tells other bees that the flower has been visited and to come back later when it has replenished its supplies of nectar and pollen. Just amazing.

Hive Alive episode one aired on BBC2 this week and the second episode is due on Tuesday 22 July, 8pm, BBC2. I can’t wait!

Notes: In August the apiary hives are given Apiguard treatment for varroa that has a strong thymol smell which taints the honey stores. As Emily and I will miss each other at the apiary for the next two weeks, we’re harvesting our crop in early August. So there’ll be a short gap in bee posts until then.

A birthday for a bee and a beekeeper

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A bee was born last Sunday afternoon along with a few hundred others in his small queenless hive. The drone chewed away the wax capping of his cell and emerged from a frame as Emily held it up to inspect for signs of a queen. He would have blinked at us, if he could.

The new queen had been missing since she was first spotted at the end of May. She had looked long and beautiful after her mating flight, full of promise for her colony. A couple of weeks later something had gone wrong. Emily found cells that had two eggs laid in them, usually a sign of a laying worker or sometimes a new queen getting used to her duties. We gave the queen the benefit of the doubt but the following weekend we found a queen cell with a small pearly larva coiled on a bed of royal jelly. The workers were trying to make a new mother and the unnamed beauty was nowhere to be seen. Two weeks later their attempts appeared to have failed and Emily and I decided to unite the hive with its original colony, Chamomile’s.

We met two weeks ago on Sunday at midday to go through the queenless hive using a method that John Chapple had taught us to make sure there is no queen or virgin hiding away. We took out each brood frame, inspecting in turn, and placed them in spaced-out pairs in an empty brood box to the side. If we did miss a queen on a frame then the bees would betray her by gathering around the frame she was on. We didn’t find her, but we saw emerging drones, drone brood and multiple eggs in cells. I saw a varroa on a worker, when looking through photos on my way home, this was not a healthy happy hive.

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Emily had inspected Chamomile’s colony the day before and all seemed well. We removed the queen excluder from Chamomile’s hive (the queen-right hive) and placed sheets of newspaper on top of the brood box making small slits with our hive tools. We then placed the brood box of the queen-less hive above. The bees will chew away the newspaper as they become accustomed to each other’s smell and unite as one colony. That is, if Chamomile accepts the return of her prodigal daughters, and sons. We put on the roof and hoped for the best.

That was two weekends ago. This Saturday came with surprise sunshine instead of expected rain. The bees were on the wing and making honey. Emily and I arrived at the apiary for midday inspections ahead of Andy’s 60th birthday party that afternoon. It was hot work going through four hives in a mini heatwave, but wonderful to see our colonies bursting with bees and heavy frames of honey.

008Chili’s colony had made a good start on a super that Emily had put on last Saturday. Chili is a slender bright orange-red queen like a tiny beautiful chili pepper. Her temperament pervades a hive of energetic and lively, but steady bees. We soon spotted her walking over the top and down a frame, and caged the queen to keep her safe during the inspection. We saw some queen cups and a cell that could have been a long drone or a queen, but these were too few to be attempts at swarming and were probably late summer plans of supersedure or workers playing as they do. I released Chili from her cage and she climbed onto my glove for a mini adventure before dropping into the hive.

The split hive from Chili’s colony is coming along nicely, although they haven’t made much work of their super. We saw the new queen, Chili’s daughter, who looks just like her mother. I had a name for her on the tip of my tongue, but couldn’t quite think of it.

Myrtle, our favourite queen and matriarch of our longest-standing hive, has given us two magnificent supers of honey this year and I’m really proud of the lovely queen and her bees. Myrtle’s gentle workers were noticeably more alert – not quite feisty but they have lots of honey to guard now.

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We didn’t see Myrtle but there were eggs in cells so a queen is there. Earlier in June we found a couple of queen cells in Myrtle’s hive which led us to suspect the workers might try to supersede their two-and-a-half year old queen this summer. Perhaps mother and daughter are inside the hive now, tolerating each other until the workers decide the old queen’s time is done.

Last we opened Chamomile’s hive to see whether the bees had happily united. We went through the first brood box holding our breaths, it is always a test of nerves to find out if a hive combining has worked. There were eggs – single eggs – in cells of the former queen-less brood box which meant Chamomile had been upstairs and started to lay. The bees had chewed away most of the newspaper and were co-living contentedly. Chamomile was found in the bottom brood box along with a couple of queen cells that might again be signs of supersedure. Will we have all new queens to take our hives into winter?

That done, we changed out of hot beekeeper suits and went to Andy’s 60th birthday party where more bees awaited – chocolate raisin bees.

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This delicious-looking honeybee birthday cake was baked by Andy’s clever wife Penny Pedley. The beekeepers at the party noticed that the queen sitting outside the hive entrance was marked with a red spot rather than a green spot for this year. “That makes the queen around 53, not quite 60,” said Andy wryly as he cut the cake. Penny had made the sponge using honey from Andy’s hive and so the cake was a birthday present from his bees too.

As this was a beekeeper’s birthday there was, of course, a beer hive…

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… for beekeepers to enjoy a long cool dark beer after a hot day’s beekeeping.

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Emily and I chatted to John Chapple about our bees while eating the buffet and cake. He asked about the ratio of brood, bees and honey in the hives, and we reported that all hives were producing less brood. “The bees are telling us that summer is coming to an end,” said John. But not quite yet.

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The name for the new queen, Chili’s daughter, sprung into my mind as we sat in Andy’s pretty garden. Emily and I have a tradition of naming the queens of the hives we share after essential oils, so I asked Emily if she liked Pepper for black pepper essential oil. She did.

Black pepper (Piper nigrum) is a dark, intense and interesting aroma. In subtle aromatherapy the essence “will help us ‘get a move on’ at times when our lives feel ‘stuck'” (The Complete Guide to Aromatherapy, Salvatore Battaglia). Perfect for a late spring queen who needs her colony to get a move on before autumn.

A rainy day in the honeybee year

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Some say the beekeeper’s year starts in late August to early September after the honey has been harvested and the bees are preparing for winter. In July the flow of nectar should be generous and foragers seen flying home with heavy loads of pollen.

So on Saturday 28 June I stood in front of our hives appreciating that we are on a tight schedule. After getting the bees going in spring, there is a narrow window during which the colony must be strong and conditions must be right to produce a super of honey.

Emily and I have missed that window for the past two years contending with rain, failed queens and small swarmy colonies, but this year our hopes are pinned on two supers on Myrtle’s hive.

With five hives we can’t yet claim the honey as ours. Good weather and strong queens are needed for the bees to make enough stores to see all colonies through winter and to give us a harvest.

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Today we wouldn’t tell if the bees were on track. We were rained out and though some beekeepers did open their hives, they were met with a roar from the bees. Albert’s artistic ladies had been playing in the roof making a construction worthy of Tate Modern.

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Thomas’s Italian ‘teddy bear’ bees were remarkably calm despite the rain and nursing queen cells. The nuc with the old queen had been experimenting with natural comb. Thomas explained that they start by building two oval segments on either side of the frame before joining them up.

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The rain was falling thick and fast now, so we gave up for the day. On my way home I reflected so much time is spent wishing for honey, we forget that the bees are doing something even more amazing all the time – building honeycomb.

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I’ve blogged about the wonder of honeycomb before, but it’s worth repeating.

The honeybee builds honeycomb from wax secreted by the abdominal glands, which is passed along the legs to the mouth and moulded into hexagonal cells. She builds row upon row of perfect six-sided cells in a precise hexagonal array.

Marcus du Sautoy gives a lovely explanation of why bees choose hexagons to build their comb on BBC’s ‘The Code’. “The bees’ primary need is to store as much honey as they can, while using as little precious wax as possible.” To produce a regular-shaped interlocking network, bees can choose three shapes: triangles, squares or hexagons. A hexagon requires the least amount of wax to build and stores the highest volume of honey, which makes it the most efficient shape. “It is a solution that was only mathematically proven a few years ago. The hexagonal array is the most efficient storage solution the bees could have chosen,” says Marcus. “Yet with a little help from evolution they worked it out for themselves millions of years ago.”

Rain or shine we will get wax from our bees, and watching this brings a new appreciation for candles.