Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Other Liquid Gold

It's our first year keeping bees, so everything is new, every event is a mystery, and every new stage catches me by surprise.

I had gone over to Steve's last week to hand him back the starter frame of honey he gave me, the one he put in to help the swarm with sustenance before they started serious foraging.  (It took four months for them to stop putting brood in it.)  I also wanted to ask him when he thought he'd be pulling his honey supers off this year.

When I arrived he was in full swing doing just that; a maelstrom of bees whirled in his immediate vicinity as the glove-less master plied his trade.  He'd pull out a frame, give it a good shake or two to get most of the bees off, brush the others away, and put the frame in an empty super beside him.  When the super was full of capped honey frames he would carry it over to his wagon, which had about ten such supers on it when Alten and I showed up. 

"Hey Steve!  How many times have you been stung?"
"Just three.  OUCH!  Four."

He was heading out of town for the weekend, but expected to be ready to extract later on this week, so I told him I'd get my supers over to him toward the beginning of the week.  That way everything would be prepared ahead of time.

Yesterday I went out to pull our own honey frames using the same system, with a few changes: I used gloves, instead of a brush I cleared the bees with a feather, and Mom helped me out by applying the smoke and taking the bee-free frames over to the wagon.  It was great!  You spend the whole year trying to keep the bees calm and chill, and then, once a year, you throw them into flurry with relatively little regard.  My favorite part, I think, was figuring out how to most effectively give the frame a shake to get the bees off.  That and daintily dusting the frames with a feather, which made me feel somehow quite Elizabethan.

Our Kenyan interns, Esther and Asbeta, were shocked at the way the bees behaved. "You would not try such a thing in Kenya, oh no.  We could not even stand so close.  We would all be stung horribly."  Their bees are, of course, not simply africanized honey bees, but entirely african, and extremely aggressive.  You harvest very late in the day, with a lot of smoke.  Their bees are so volatile that colonies are frequently put on the path to one's house, so that if thieves approach your compound in the night they will be driven away by the stings, and possibly severely injured.  In that light, I can see that our bees are docile as chickens.

I parked the wagon with our two supers in the garage with plans that Alten and I could take them over in the afternoon.  Soon after I came in the house the phone rang, and it was Steve.

  "Hey Steve!  Guess what I just finished doing.  Taking off my honey supers!"
  "Oh, good! Bring them on over - I'm getting ready to start extracting just now."

This required a significant rearrangement of our afternoon's schedule, but within a reasonable amount of time the supers were loaded in the car and I was on my way to Steve's, with no idea what to expect.  I somehow thought we'd be extracting in the cool, dark basement, because that's where I'd seen his equipment, but I was nearly as wrong as possible.  He was all set up in his greenhouse with all its doors, windows, and vents closed.  It was somewhere between 106° and 110° F.  If you want the honey to flow, some heat really helps.
  We did my frames first, pulling them out, scraping all the caps off with a fork, and slipping them in each tray of the extractor (photo at right).  His will do two medium supers or four shallow supers at a time, which is part of why he uses shallows now.  Ours are medium, so it goes a bit slower.  We spun them once for one side of the frame, flipped them around and spun, then flipped them around one last time and spun the first side again. It was surprising to me to feel how much lighter they were without the honey.

I had weighed the two supers with their frames full of honey before starting, and after extracting I weighed them again.  This was the only way to find out how much honey was mine, since a good bit of it was also stuck to the sides and the bottom of the extractor when we started on Steve's frames.  We could then top off what was in the bucket till it reached the proper weight.

I had intended to help Steve with his extracting - all 20 supers- but Margo called to let me know the interns needed to go home.  That wasn't a disappointment to Steve, though.  He was very pleased to see me go from interest to questions to getting equipment, then receiving a swarm, and finally to harvesting honey and extracting.  He says so many people say they want to keep bees, but precious few that he knows actually take the leap.  That is all the reward he needs, and it seems to be quite a reward.  I'm lucky to have such a support.

So are you curious about how much we got?  Though it would have been great simply to have a healthy colony by fall, this was a good year.  Our swarm went from absolutely nothing but foundation in May to having fully drawn comb in two brood boxes and most of two medium supers, and even generating some honey on top of that.  We ended up with 47 and a half pounds of honey!  And we are very grateful.