Posts Tagged ‘Honeybees’

We’ve had a fairly cold winter so, unlike most years, I have not been able to simply look outside and see if the bees are flying to know they are ok. I prepared the bees this fall by treating them with various things to make sure they were healthy, I made sure they had plenty of honey and pollen to eat through the winter and then I crossed my fingers.

Still clustered, but dead

We recently had a warm day and I was able to check the 4 hives at my house. To my dismay, 2 were dead-outs. All of my hives at other locations are fine so I was surprised to find some at my house that were gone. We live atop a hill in Charleston, WV and we get serious wind. I have a windbreak around them but I considered that the extreme drafts might have gotten to them. That is the one characteristic that separates the hives at my house from the ones I have elsewhere. It has been said that one cannot freeze bees…if they stay dry and not too windy. If either problem exists, all bets are off so I figured I fell prey to the wind.

Heads down in the cells...telltale sign of starvation

I opened the hives and immediately knew that the wind was not to blame, but rather the cold…sort of. You see, my bees didn’t freeze, but rather starved to death. The cold makes bees cluster together. As it gets especially cold with no warm days interspersed, the bees cannot break their cluster. Without breaking cluster, they cannot move through the hive either. Since their honey stores are spread throughout the hive, they need to be able to move around periodically to eat.

Some honey nearby where they were clustered

Plenty of honey one more frame over...

So, I opened 2 hives and saw the tell-tale signs…bees still clustered together, many bees with their heads deep in honeycomb cells, and honey nearby, but not right where they died.

I hate for a colony to die, and when it is related to something I might have done wrong, it irritates me even more (fortunately, that doesn’t happen often anymore). But when it’s due to nature, I guess I feel a little bit of relief. It’s never fun, but it is a reality of beekeeping. So, I just hope for warmer days here and there so the bees can move to food and also for a quick Spring! Come on Spring!

Warren can also be found at My Home Among the Hills writing about the adventures of life in WV.

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You’ll never believe it, but some folks sort of look at us beekeepers and wonder if we lost every last ounce of sense that our Mommas slapped into our heads when we were younger…well, that’s how my Momma did it. Anyhow, we also have a reputation as being a fairly dull bunch. Wait, I know, it is hard to believe. So, to prove any doubters wrong, I am here to describe a great winter project that some beekeepers work on to keep the cabin-fever-crazies from setting in…candle making!

Honeybees make beeswax. That’s how they roll. Every egg that the queen lays and every ounce of food (honey and pollen) that they gather is stored in beeswax. They are industrious builders and sometimes become a little over-zealous in their projects. You see, honeybees like they hives to be orderly. One huge part of that is “bee space“. Bees like to have 3/8” space to crawl between frames and throughout the hive. If they have left, they typically fill it with propolis, a super sticky product they create to patch holes (or spaces smaller that the required bee space). If the hive has spaces larger than 3/8″, the bees will fill it with burr comb. Burr comb is just “filler comb” that they use to tidy up spaces and make every part of their hive the proper bee space. It works great for them and settles their nerves (which is good for beekeepers!), but it makes inspecting the inside of a hive difficult for a beekeeper. You see, we use those nice frames to keep things straight inside the hive so we can remove the pieces. Bees don’t see it that way at all and build their burr comb in every direction they feel inclined.

What does that have to do with candle-making you ask? Beekeepers cannot allow too much burr comb to build up or the hive becomes very difficult to manage without greatly disturbing the bees (by the way, bees have stingers and aren’t afraid to use them!) which is never a good thing. Each time I get into my hives (once a month…sometimes more often, sometimes less), I scrape the burr comb into a box I carry with me. Some beekeepers just pitch that comb, but that seems like a huge waste. I gather it and toss it in a solar wax melter and let the sun add its magical heat to melt the wax (the process, by the way, leaves the wax mostly free of impurities…the wax flows into a collector while the dirt, twigs, etc that I introduce by accident stay in the melting tray. Similarly, I also keep every bit of wax I remove when I harvest honey (honey cells are capped with wax which must be removed for harvest).

So, finally, we get back to candle-making. When I get a little stir crazy in the winter, I have a good stash of clean wax that is just begging to be made into candles. We melt the wax in an old crockpot so the wax heats slowly and does not get too hot. Wax, as you hopefully have never experienced, is very flammable and if heated too fast or hot, will give you problems. In my opinion, the only safe way to melt wax is in a solar wax melter or an old crockpot. So, we add chunks of wax we collected and melted all summer into the pot and wait for it to melt.

Once melted, the wax can be poured into all sorts of molds. To be sure, there are tons of candle forms that one can spend an entire inheritance on. I prefer the simple approach though. We add a wick to a simple jelly-jar or a small decorative jar. No wax is melted during the burning of the candle and I like how easy they are to store in jar-form.

By the way, pure beeswax is always some shade of yellow. Colored candles, by definition, are not pure beeswax. Pure beeswax candles are sootless when they burn and are the smoothest burning candles. Candles made from parafin (most candles) put off black soot and are simply not as pleasant to burn in my opinion.

There isn’t a lot to making candles in a simple form. Beekeeping is pretty straight-forward, but candle-making is even simpler. Many beekeepers in your area probably collect wax but don’t bother to make candles. If you are interested, you may consider approaching them and buying some beeswax. It’s great family fun and a simple, easy, wonderful gift you can give for any occasion!

Warren can also be found at My Home Among the Hills writing about the adventures of life in WV.

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When I first told my Momma that I was getting bees, she said, “Warren, what are you thinking? Don’t you know that bees are mean and nasty by nature? And you have small kids!” There is a lot to say about the nature of bees and I won’t pretend to know more than a little about the nature of bees, but there are a few things that I think are interesting and noteworthy.

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Contrary to my Mom’s initial fears, bees are not mean and nasty…most of the time. Bees, like any wild creature, protect their own (unless you are a gazelle in a herd and you see a cheetah bearing down…then it’s every gazelle for itself). But bees are absolutely protective of their home. Most folks encounter bees out on clover or bopping between their asters and mums (this time of year anyhow). In general, bees on flowers are not in the least interested in people watching them. Now, stepping on them is an entirely different issue, but that one makes sense I think. So, foraging bees are typically not aggressive, especially if left alone. Messing around with a bee’s home is another story. One would probably not fare well if one walked up to a hive and beat on the side of the boxes or did something even more foolish. It’s hard for me to blame a bee though. I am not much different in that regard.

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This time of year is often considered “late Fall” for honeybees. Bees have been working since August to pack away as much food as possible for the winter. The nature of bees drives them to fill the pantry while there are still flowers blooming. They gather nectar and pollen from Fall-blooming plants including asters, mums, and goldenrod as quickly as they can. Once the frost comes, bees typically must survive the winter on what they have stored away. They need nectar (which they convert to honey) as a carbohydrate source and pollen as a protein source. A winter hive hopefully will have a good supply of both.

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The queen slows her egg-laying (which peaks somewhere between 1000-2000 eggs per day in mid-Spring) so that there are fewer bees to feed through the winter. Typically, during peak honey season, a female bee’s life is approximately 6 weeks. They work around the clock (much like my wife and many wonderful women…thanks!) and eventually wear themselves out. Starting in the “late Fall” for a bee, the work greatly diminishes and female bees last much longer, typically through the winter.

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I am not sure if you are catching my reference to female bees lasting through the winter. Males are absent in my “through the winter” discussion because they are…uh, absent through the winter. Male honeybees are needed only to breed with a virgin queen in the spring and early summer when new queens are made. In the winter, they would only eat…they wouldn’t even clean up after themselves (no comments!). Being practical, the nature of female bees is to “thin the herd” so there are fewer mouths to feed. Between mid-September and now, the female worker bees physically drag the male bees to the hive entrance and throw them out. If they come back, the females pull their wings and/or legs off and send them over the edge again. There are no male bees in a healthy wintering beehive.

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So, the nature of bees is simple in one way, while very complex in another. They are ancient creatures who live only to feed another generation. To have done that for millions of years astounds me. They are practical and unforgiving and demand a genuine contribution (guided only by genetics/instinct). As a community, honeybees make a beautiful, and possibly scary (if you are a male), example of nature at its finest!

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