Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Easy Small Batch Honey and Wax Strainer

With all of the bee drama settled for the moment, it was time to get at straining out the honey and the wax. Since the mostly empty comb I'd collected from the first hive had been thrown hastily on the ground in the craziness of re-hiving the swarm, it had gotten ants on it, so the first thing I did was put it in a kettle, weighted down by a plate (wax floats), to drown the ants. I let that sit overnight.

Then I found this ingenious idea on backyardhive.com - for small quantities of comb, simply mash it well with a fork (or potato masher)
put it into a quart-sized mason jar, cover the jar with a bit of window screen, screw the ring down to hold the screen in place, and tip it over onto a second jar. On the site they duct taped two large-mouth jars together; I simply used a narrow-mouth jar on top, which fitted nicely into the opening on the wide mouth jar on the bottom.
I found that the honey would stop dripping after a while, but that if you tipped it, a big air bubble would make its way through the honey still in the top jar, and this would let more honey run down into the bottom jar. To solve this problem, I wedged the jars between a picture on the wall and my cheese slicer (feel free to use whatever you have on hand - lol!) so that the air wouldn't get captured and stop the honey flow. I also just happened to have a batch of chicken stock simmering in the slow cooker, so I moved the honey jars next to that, hoping the extra warmth would help the honey flow.

The next morning, I found my first honey harvest strained and waiting for me - a full pint of sweet golden goodness! (Even though I have some older honey I'd purchased previously, I'll be using this up first, since most of the honey cells weren't capped. That means it has a higher moisture content than capped honey, so it's less antibacterial than properly dried honey, so it could possibly go bad sooner. Better safe than sorry - I'd hate to waste my first honey harvest! Of course the first thing we made was a batch of pumpkin spice honey butter. It made the whole bee drama a little more worth it!)

Once I'd gotten the honey out, I melted the wax in a double boiler, poured it into the narrow-mouth quart jar, and strained it the same way I'd done with the honey. This was a little more tricky, since the wax hardened quickly, and I had to keep re-melting it before I could get it all through the strainer (I tried a few different ways of doing this - the best way I found was to keep scooping it out of the top jar and re-melting it every so often. A bit putzy, but it worked. I also tried putting it in the oven along with a batch of pumpkin pie bars I was baking (yes, I know it's July, but the honey butter got me in the mood for pumpkin pie). When I took the jars out of the oven, though, the wax was bubbling, which apparently is a no-no (although the only reason why that I've seen for not boiling it was that it makes the wax darker, which I'm not super concerned about).

When you're done, the bottom jar will have a lovely hard layer of yellow wax, with some runny brown stuff on the bottom. It can be a bit tricky getting the wax out of the jar (without splashing the nasty brown stuff all over your shirt, anyway - don't ask how I know). The easiest way I found was to put the jar in the freezer, and the wax will contract and come out of the jar much more easily. If you leave it too long, the brown stuff will freeze too, but just defrost it in a bowl and then you can rinse it off in the sink.

With all of the honey and wax strained out, I was left with little brown lumps of pollen that wouldn't flow through the strainer. These are very high in protein, and can be frozen and saved to feed to your bees next summer (instead of buying "pollen patties"). I won't be giving them to my bees, since I baked them, but I'm assuming they'll also make a good protein supplement for my chickens.

So, ready or not, I've dealt with my first swarm, and completed my first harvest! 

Bee Drama

In case you were wondering what NOT to do when raising bees, here are a few ideas:

Sunday afternoon, after transplanting iris, daylilly, and blazing star flowers that were growing wild along our fenceline (moving them to the flower bed in front of the house - I love free flowers!), I went to chat with my husband, who'd just finished digging a new strawberry hugulkultur bed between the apple trees (I want to try Herrick Kimball's "Hugelberry" idea from his new book The Planet Whizbang Idea Book for Gardeners). We were both tired and ready to break for supper, but as we were talking, I just happened to look out into the field behind our house, and saw this:
Of course, having read just about every beekeeping book and blog there is, I recognized it immediately. My bees had swarmed!

(sorry it's fuzzy, but my daughter wasn't getting anywhere near those bees with the camera!)

Now what? I'd read enough to know that catching a swarm is fairly easy (if you're quick and they don't fly away before you get there), but you have to have some kind of box to put them in. After wracking my brain for a bit, I remembered that I still had the cages I'd brought the bees home in - perfect. I fetched one out of the garage and, along with my pruners, went to work. I cut off the branch a little before and after where the swarm was hanging, so that I could maneuver the whole thing more easily to shake them down into the box. It all went smoothly, and I brought the box back to the lawn until I could figure out what to do with it. While I was at the tree, however, I saw that there was another bunch of bees clinging to the trunk. I had another bee cage, so I figured I'd go and collect those, too. I brushed them off of the trunk with my bee brush as well as I could, then covered that cage and put it by the other one.

It's a good thing that I went back for that second bunch - judging by the number of still-loose bees that were collected around the outside of the cage, the queen was in that second batch.
With the swarm captured, I had time to take a deep breath, shake out the adrenaline jitters, and calmly assess the situation.

First up - where was I going to put this new bee colony? I didn't have any more hives, so what was I going to do with them? I quickly went online and looked up how to make a basic hive box, figuring we could cobble something together and then make a decent floor and roof for it later. My husband was not sure that was such a good idea, and flat out said that I should just release the swarm and prepare better for next time. But, at my obvious distress, he set to work building a quick hive box. Thankfully, we already had the necessary wood, so he just had to cut it and screw it together.

The next thing to do was to find out which hive the bees had come from. "Check Bees" had been on my to-do list for over a week, but I'd been busy with other things and hadn't gotten around to it. Obviously I shouldn't have put it off!

When I looked in the first hive, I figured it was the one that had swarmed - there were hardly any bees in it - maybe a hundred or so. When I looked in the second hive, however, I was puzzled. This hive was chock-full - only one frame hadn't been drawn out, and - oho! - there were queen cells in the top box. Since overcrowding was usually the cause of a swarm, and this hive was making new queens, the swarm must have come from this colony. So why were there so few bees in the first hive?

Still trying to work that one out, I realized that the first thing to be done was to make more room in the overcrowded hive. I grabbed my giant 5-gallon kettle and harvested four frames of comb. Hopefully that will give them enough room so they don't need to swarm again soon.

But now back to that first hive - what was going on there? Why were there so few bees? I looked again at the comb, and saw that there were no bee babies at all, and no honey, just some cells half-full of pollen. Something was very wrong. No larva meant no queen. No queen meant the colony would slowly die out. It was worse than I thought.

Then it struck me - this was the solution to my swarm relocation problem. It was only a matter of time until the first colony died out altogether, so why not clear them out and put the new swarm in their hive? There was a risk, of course, that the first colony had succumbed to disease - but if my choices were take a chance on disease or lose the swarm, I figured it was worth a try.

So I took out all of the comb, brushed most of the bees out of the hive, and shook out the boxes containing the swarm into the now-empty hive. I closed it all up, said a prayer that this cockamamie jerry-rigged idea would somehow work, and went to deal with the combs I'd harvested.

I had been very careful to brush off any bees that were on the comb from the second hive before I put the comb into the kettle and covered it (I definitely didn't want any bees in the house!) but when I came back to the kettle, there were bees in it! Very pale, disoriented-looking bees. I soon realized that those bees had just hatched out of the brood comb! About 1/4 of the comb I'd harvested turned out to have brood in it. With an inward cringe, I realized I would have to pick out all of the bee babies before I could process the honey and wax (to make it a little easier on my over-emotional adrenaline-pumped mind - waste not want not - I fed that brood comb to the chickens).

Once all of the brood comb had been picked off (I used a fork), I took the rest of the comb into the kitchen to process.