DH hammin' it up last Spring with the new hiveIt's finally time to tell you what happened to our first year of beekeeping, as many of you have wanted to follow along...
It's often called a "dead-out". They didn't survive the winter. Figuring out why was a bit of an exercise; not really an necropsy (because we didn't cut up actual critters) but an analysis of the evidence, for sure...
We didn't see bee activity on any of the warm winter days. Typically, bees take advantage of those days to perform cleansing flights (potty runs) since they won't make a "mess" in the hive. There were no dead bees around the entrance or below, so we simply waited until early Spring just in case...
As soon as a warm spring day convinced me they weren't alive, I opened the hive. A few dead bees on the lid, a few visible on the tops of frames. We had left the hive with two deep supers (hive bodies) for the winter, and a wrap for warmth (although I have my doubts about the effectiveness of that). The top super was ridiculously heavy with honey. Rather than run the risk of warm weather spreading the inviting smell of honey to marauders (a bear has been seen in the area), I pulled it as soon as I could.
Most of the frames were completely filled with honey; I just shot this one to show you the contrast between filled comb and empty comb.
There was some brood but not the number I would have expected, and empty cells that had been eaten out, but generally not a lot of bees. Those that were found looked as if they had been frozen in a moment of time; some clustered, but others eating, and walking around/climbing as if on their way to a task. The cluster was pretty small and a few dozen bees were found down in the comb, literally eating to the very last drop. This is often a sign of starvation. I didn't see the queen, and the bottom board of the hive did not show visible signs of mites. We ruled out disease or parasites; but were concerned with the small amount of bees. Likely a fall swarming or a dead queen, both which would have left the survivors without enough resources to make it through the winter.
Death occurred early in the season; the top super was so heavy with honey I couldn't carry it up to the house, I had to drag it on a sled!
So, on to extraction. Each frame had to be uncapped using a hot knife to skim the caps off the comb. I saved even the scraps, and collected them in a pan.
The frames were place in a centrifuge extractor. One frame goes on each side, and a volunteer (the DH) gets to spin them and the honey is flung out and gravity collects it on the bottom.
From there, the honey flows through holes in the bottom, through a screen filter which catches bits of wax, body parts and such, then is collected in a tank until you are ready to pour off into containers. We do not pasteurize; all the pollen and good stuff is in there when we bottle (less the bee parts.)
Empty frames are then put back in the hive body to be used for the new bees coming in the Spring. This work took several very sticky, but very satisfying hours.
The scrapings were gently melted down. Honey can be poured off, wax saved, and other stuff thrown out. This honey is less desirable but no less usable - I bottled it for use during the year in baking.
From the hive we harvested more than 5 gallons of honey. I am left in awe of the bees.
Bee hives today are mostly designed with the ease of keeping and harvesting in mind. The Langstroth hive is the standard, named after a fellow in the 1800's that did extensive work with bees and discovered the idea of "bee space". He determined that bees need a certain minimum distance to work and live in the hive. If left with more space, they will fill it with wax structure and propolis. This reaction is a completely bee invention, but a nightmare for bee keepers as it sticks frames to the body, to each other, and reduces the maximum output of the hive. So most beekeepers simply put 10 frames in each body, all designed to keep proper "bee space" between frames and maximize honey comb.
When doing my initial research into beekeeping, I was struck by this calculated construct and didn't like the "feel" of it, since it reminded me of commercial farming which is designed to pull maximum production out of so much, without regard to its impact on land or animals.
Some beekeepers run 9 frames in each hive body which also affords a little more space for the beekeeper to manipulate individual frames (all while wearing bulky protective gloves.) I also liked the fact that running 9 frames instead of 10 gave me an extra frame to swap in if I wanted to move brood, honey, etc. So we built our hive with 9 frames. The bees took advantage, and filled the extra space. A little more work to pull apart the hive, but what a visual treat!
We were not discouraged by the loss of the hive; rather, we are more determined than ever to keep bees - we've order two packs for this year! Arrival in late May...