Friday, August 17, 2012

Two Springs and a Dearth

So we did it again.  We let a whole buncha time pass between posts and now there is so much to talk about it is hard to know where to start.  So, we'll start with some news, and then get to the backstory.

The News
We just provided the honey for West Sixth Brewery's soon-to-be-released 5th Street Honeybee Rye! You may not know this, but we love beer, especially the beer brewed by West Sixth.  We also love our city and the great collaborations it fosters.  Not least, we love local food and supply chains.  So, to have the three come together in this brew just makes us pretty lovesick. At the very least, you could say that we're excited. The beer will debut at the Fest of Ales on August 31st.

The Backstory
So here's a bit of how we came to have enough honey to contribute to a batch of beer.
First off, we've found it slightly bewildering to begin beekeeping--a hobby that teaches you to pay more attention to the seasons and environment--during a period of record-breaking and unseasonable rain, heat, and lack thereof.  We've been trying to be more attune to patterns just as those patterns seem to be unraveling.  That has certainly been the case this year.

Alright supers, it's time to go!!
tall hives = awesome spring
We just finished our summer harvest and extraction (you can read our post from last year if you are interested in that process).  A few months prior, we harvested our spring crop.  Over the past couple years, we've really enjoyed having two extraction phases each year: a spring and a summer.  The honey is a different color for each and takes on a different flavor, reflecting the changing seasons as trees and flowers come in and out of bloom.

This year, with almost every flower and tree we kept track of in the neighborhood blooming a full month earlier than last year, our spring honey harvest also came a month early.  However, when we harvested our bulging honey supers during our May harvest we found quite a bit of almost-honey in the hive that wasn't quite ready to take.

fully capped spring honey
What is almost-honey? Not a technical term, but it does the job.  In brief, nectar turns to honey as the bees "ripen" it (i.e., evaporate off the water by fanning their wings) to have a water content of roughly 17%.  Once it reaches this concentration, they cap it with wax for storage.  There are other ways that you can test to see if nectar has properly ripened without it being capped.  Some are more colloquial-- if you shake it vigorously and any drips out of the frame, it's not yet honey.  Others are more scientific--you can use a refractometer to test its sugar content.  We let the bees do the deciding and wait til a frame is solidly capped to harvest it.  Not capped? We call that almost-honey.  There is a risk that we are leaving real honey on the hive that they simply haven't had the opportunity to cap--say for example when there is so much in bloom that it makes more sense to draw out wax comb to store incoming nectar than to cap honey that, really, could be capped at any time.  However, the risk is one of simply not harvesting as much honey as we possibly could, and we're okay with taking it.  We left the frames of almost-honey on the hive.

Two things happened between the gang-busters spring harvest and the summer harvest: 1) a drought which lead to a dearth of nectar which lead to the bees consuming any new nectar brought back to the hive, 2) the opportunity to cap all that almost-honey we'd left in the first round.  What did this mean for the summer harvest?

Spring harvest part deux!

I suppose this makes sense.  We enjoy seeing the seasons expressed in the honey and February through August 2012 did feel like two springs and a dearth.  But it is still a strange thing--and disconcerting--to experience two spring crops and no summer in your third season as a beekeeper.

But hey, spring honey is the most popular kind.  So enjoy!

The Epilogue
So, now that we have all this honey, how do we get it out to folks?  Well, we're playing around with some new venues that we should talk about.

now at stella's ky deli
Now at Stella's
1) First, we are a Seedleaf Farms Partner. This means that you can order our honey or lip balm along with a vast array of other seeds, produce, plants, and merchandise from their website and pick it at their weekly drop off at Third Street Stuff.  Make your order by Wed evening and pick it up Thurs 4-5:30pm.  More info available here.

2) We've also started selling at my brother's deli: Stella's Kentucky Deli.  Our honey is already there and our lip balms will be soon.

3) As always, you can order directly through us by emailing and we can arrange the details.

4) And finally, if you are a local restaurant or the like, and would like to use our honey as an ingredient in your confections, we can do that too (see The News section at the beginning of this post :).  If you're interested, again, email us at

half pint
half pint
lip balm flavors
4 flavors of lip balm

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Swarm Season

A look at the calendar reveals that it has been a year since we harvested our first swarm.  And indeed, the swarm season is now upon us again.  This can be a fun, busy time of year and one that brings a lot of questions about the swarming process.  There's a lot to be explained about swarms, but we've settled on three main points that we'd like to convey to folks that may be confronted with a sudden mass of bees in their backyard.

1) Please don't fear swarms.
2) Please don't poison swarms.
3) If you see a swarm, please call your favorite beekeeper (our number is 859.312.2122).

1) Please don't fear swarms, they are typically docile, unlikely to sting, and will leave on their own within a few hours or days.
A swarm is a cluster of bees that has separated from its original colony in order to find a new home.  A crude and imprecise comparison would be an amoeba splitting. The cluster parks in a temporary location for a while, anywhere from a few hours to a few days, and sends out scout bees to find a new home.  Once the scouts have found a suitable location--often miles from their current location-- the swarm will leave.  This process is actually highly sophisticated and democratic (if you are interested in learning about it, we highly recommend the book Honeybee Democracy by Thomas Seeley).

Generally speaking, a honey bee is unlikely to sting you if you are not a threat to its home.  Because honey bees die when they sting, they usually reserve the act to defend their hive.  Now, they may defend themselves if you step on them or swat at them, but they don't typically look for trouble.  Swarms don't have a home yet, and assumably this is why they have a reputation for being calm.  Certainly every swarm we've interacted with so far has been mild mannered.

2) Please don't poison swarms.  
When you see a swarm, rejoice! It means that a colony was healthy enough to reproduce.  With the mounting disease, pest, and chemical pressures bees face, that is no small feat.  Now, if you do see a swarm, it may mean that a colony lives nearby.  A good check of the premises can help determine if this will be a yearly occurrence for you.  This is where the aid of a local beekeeper can help.

3) If you see a swarm, please call us (859.312.2122), your favorite beekeeper, or the city. 
There are several reasons why it is good for beekeepers, bees, and the general population to call a beekeeper when you see a swarm.  Beekeepers like harvesting swarms because it is an efficient way of expanding their hives. During years of heavy losses the bees alone are welcome.  Further, swarms come from colonies that are healthy enough to have reproduced, possibly indicating pest/disease-resistent genes.

Calling a beekeeper may also be the best thing for the sake of the swarm.  Only about a third of "feral" swarms will survive on their own, well below the typical survival rate of hives in beekeepers' care.

Finally, when beekeepers harvest swarms, they keep them out of danger of inhabiting any cavities in homes, sheds, or trees where they may not be welcome.  This is good for everyone.

Hopefully, this helps a bit with demystifying the swarming process.  If you want to learn more about the hows of swarming, we wrote a bit about it last year.  If you want to know even more, we (again) highly recommend reading Honeybee Democracy.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Fall Back, Spring Forward

winter losses
a colony that didn't make it
We've obviously been shy to post many updates recently. This is partially because there's been little going on in the bee yard.  And it is partially because, what is going on is a little sad and sad is decisively less fun to talk about than than happy.

We were very fortunate last winter.  We didn't lose any hives.  We also had very few hives, and most of them had the full summer to build up their population and their honey supply.

This winter, we've lost almost half of our hives, 46% to be precise.

We did a lot of speculating about the reasons why.  It is really tempting to offer a lot of possible suggestions (the high mite loads that have plagued the rest of the industry found us, perhaps we should have treated with the chemicals we decided against using, perhaps our experiment to overwinter smaller hives backfired, perhaps the warmer winter caused the bees to overconfidently burn through their food supply, perhaps a little bit of all of this, and/or perhaps the cookie just crumbled that way).
leakey, post trauma
leakey survived a run-in with a cow

Pests are definitely a large factor and we've found heavy mite loads  and particularly small clusters of bees in the dead hives we've inspected.  However, whether pests were the primary factor or a secondary factor we don't know.  We do know what happened in one instance.  A cow accidentally got into a field where we kept two country hives and used them as scratching posts.  One, Leakey, survived, but the other hive, one of our best hives, Quinn, wasn't so lucky. Quinn was knocked over in the cold and her bees, we assume, fled.

pollen baskets!
the return of pollen baskets!
Though really a combination of all of the previously listed reasons is probably most likely, we've had to settle on an overall answer of  "inconclusive" to explain our losses.  While unsatisfying, we just don't know.  And then there's the sad truth that a 30% loss in beekeeping is the industry standard.  Still, we  strive for better than that.

The good news is that we still have many hives that are thriving, and that we averted that tornado that had us really stressed.  And with the many warm days and flowering trees and plants we've enjoyed recently, we've been able to reclaim our summer joy of watching them fly to and fro with pollen baskets bulging. And that is one of the most pleasurable harbingers of spring for a beekeeper.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The honeymoon is over

We don't even mean that figuratively.  It is literal.  I suppose we have a few announcements to make.

5th Street Apiary mead
An announcement about 5th Street Apiary
You see, after thinking long and hard about the sustainability of the apiary and the welfare of the bees, Grant and I have made a strategic business decision.  We got married. Yes, it is a sacrifice, but one that we are willing to make for the ladies. We committed ourselves to each other in early October.

This is why we’ve been scarcely able to blog about any of the fun stuff happening in the beeyard, though we do apologize about the long hiatus.  We’ve been making mead for the wedding, donning another kind of veil, and yes, we just returned from our honeymoon.  

An announcement about our honey
In the midst of all the flurry, we have also been selling some honey!  So much so, that we have another announcement to make.  We are sold out of honey for 2011.

We've been really excited about the great reviews our honey has received and we'd like to thank everyone who has supported us so far.  We look forward to growing so we can get more honey to more friends!

lip balm!
beeswax lip balm
An announcement about a new product
We introduced our lip balm this summer at the markets where we sold, but barely breathed a word of it on the internets.  But we sell lip balm now, too! We collect beeswax from the ladies and add sweet almond oil, shea butter, cocoa butter, and various essential oils to make these little lovelies.  We sell them for $3 each and currently offer three flavors:

peppermint eucalyptus
rose geranium
mojito (lime, peppermint & honey).

If you are interested in any of these to prep for the encroaching winter, let us know at

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Honey Harvest

So.  Honey harvest.  Let's get to it.

the robbing commences
Since we're all starting at different places in learning about bees, let's start at the beginning.  Honey is the dehydrated nectar of flowers. As bees forage, they store it in their honey stomachs to transport back to the hive, and as they regurgitate it into the honeycomb, they value-add some enzymes that help preserve it. Then they beat their little wings to circulate air and encourage evaporation in the nectar, thus slowly reducing the water content. Nectar is roughly 80% water; honey is roughly18%.  That's a lot of little wing beats. And it is important to wait til the nectar is truly honey, because the additional water could cause it to ferment/spoil. But fortunately, it doesn't take much figuring to determine if its right.  Bees won't cap honey til its correct, so if you wait til the comb in a frame is capped, and you know that you have honey.

capped honey!
So, here we are in the hives, searching for frames of capped honey.  Let's be clear that a frame of capped honey is a beautiful sight. The wax is buttery and opaque, hinting at the wealth beneath. 

wax cappingsIt is also heavy--an early indication when you reach for a frame that its full of the good stuff.  The first thing to do is get the bees off the frame.  As a general rule, there are usually fewer bees on capped honey to begin with because they aren't using that frame (if it is capped, they aren't eating it, and otherwise, they are tending to the frames with brood).  But there will always be some bees, and there are a variety of ways to remove them.  For brevity's sake we'll skim over the others and just note that we use the old fashion brush (see picture above).  Admittedly, they hate it. But you are robbing them after all, so you've kinda already accepted a certain imbalance of justice.

Once you've gathered all your frames, you contain your excitement and move inside (don't want to tempt the bees by extracting near them).  Be sure that you have thoroughly cleaned your workspace and all tools and equipment.

The next step is to cut the wax cappings from the comb.  The cappings are literally wax that bees cover ripe honey with to contain and protect it, designating it as storage.  This is really the only wax that should be used for cosmetics (and is what we use for our lip balms & salves), because it is by nature clean and fresh.

Once you've cut away the cappings, take a moment to stop and admire the unique color of whatever-season honey you're extracting.  Hold it against the light, squint, smile, whatever.  Just notice it.  Then, place it your extractor.

homemade extractor

Our extractor is a little different, just like our bee suits are different (costumes we call them), because it is homemade.  Such are the perks of having a carpenter/tinkerer/seamster on your team.  Our extractor works the way commercial ones do, for the most part.  That is, it spins the frames--which are placed like spokes in a wheel--utilizing centrifugal force to push the honey out of the comb.  The honey flies out, hits the side of the extractor, and collects at its base, where you have a spigot for easy release.  As you pour the honey from the extractor to your storage container, you filter out
any wax
or other remnants.

And that, my friends, is all.  Pure, raw, filtered honey.  And it is soooo good!

After we harvested some honey from each of our city and country hives, we compared them.  Woo hoo! Just like last year, we were super impressed with how bright, citrusy, floral, and generally fun the city honey was.  Whatever you are doing, neighbor friends, please keep it up!

If you are interested in trying some of our honey, we are finally ready for sale!  We sold some of our honey and lip balm at the Gear Up for Good event last week and had a great time, hanging out with our good friends (and family) at Al's, Broke Spoke, and more.  We will also be selling honey at the East End Community Market on Saturday mornings from 9am-2pm.  That market (on 3rd Street and Midland Ave), opened last week, but we won't arrive there til next week (July 23rd).  Alternatively, you can always email us at and we'll work something out.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Gear Up for Good: Life on the North End

Whew, it has been a busy month!  We promise we'll describe the process of the honey harvest soon, but in the meantime, we are preparing for an event that we're pretty excited about...and is time sensitive (as in, tomorrow).  So, we'll talk about that for a minute.

As proud members of the dynamic North Side community, we'll be participating in the upcoming Gearing Up for Good: Life on the North End, which is a Debra's Social $timulus event. What that means is this Friday evening (July 8th, 5:30-9pm), we'll be hanging out on 6th Street and Limestone with our buddies at Broke Spoke Community Bike Shop, Al's Bar, Bullhorn, Homegrown Press, SideCar, Supreme Service, Sprocket Jockeys, etc., to celebrate the cool stuff going on in our neck of the woods.  Food, music, and great company are free.

We'll also be selling our spring honey crop (so you can see what Lexington really tastes like) and giving tours of the apiary (via a brief ride from the Sprocket Jockeys or a 4-block walk).  Debra Hensley's done a lot of amazing work pulling this event together and we'd like to offer a big thanks to her and Melissa Watt (who filmed these videos).  They both came by the apiary last month to video the two of us in our native habitat (below).

In other neighborhood news, we are also proud members of the East End community and will be participating in the East End Community Farmers Market at the corner of Third Street and Midland Ave (at the brick Community Ventures Corporation pavilion).  Though we won't be starting our run there until July 23rd, it is celebrating its Grand Opening this Saturday, July 9th (9am-2pm this and every week).  Check it out!

If you are unable to make either location, but are interested in some urban honey, shoot us an email at and we'll see what we can do.  

Tuesday, June 7, 2011


This post begins with us sitting in the backyard with our gin & tonics, watching little flags of white darting past through the sky. The white doesn't show on the video, but it's a pretty fun scene. It's our bees, of course, cleaning out their hives. We'll get into the whole white thing a little later.

Last time we wrote about our efforts at requeening, and have been told that it was quite the soap opera. Sorry to leave you hanging if you happen to be as interested in this stuff as we are. It has been a busy couple of weeks! In a really great way though.

see the marked queen?
As we discussed in our last post, we purchased 6 hygienic queens to either requeen poor performing queens or make splits to ultimately increase our beeyard (we made the decision that this year we would focus on colony expansion and try to create many small hives that could grow into solid production hives next spring; this is our attempt to move away from buying packaged bees from more southern climes and really start to develop a local population of bees that are adjusted to our conditions). This is why we've jumped from 4 hives to 19...and is part of why we're back down to 17.  In any case, to provide an epilogue to our queening adventures, a couple of the queens we tried to introduce into hives were killed by the workers. Boo.

However, the most important one, Quinn (who subbed for Doris), was accepted! I can't tell you how excited to learn this. She was the only hive that we REALLY needed to introduce new genetics to, and the very reason why we needed them requeened was the same reason that made us fear it would be difficult: they're just so mean! In fact, not long after they heard us celebrating Quinn's acceptance, one crawled up my pant leg--finding the one chink in my armor--down my big rubber boot and stung me on the ankle. I didn't even care. In two months (it should take that long for Quinn's bees to really become the hive), that colony will be a completely different animal.

Without going into too much detail, we'll try to offer a condensed version of why we think the cards fell where they did for each new queen. One reason has to do with the bees' natural reproduction cycle. Doris, the aggressive hive that accepted her queen, has been gearing up to swarm all spring. However, due to the perpetual inclement weather, she never actually did. Because--we hypothesize--we requeened her before she achieved a swarm, maybe we caught the workers at a point where they were expecting a new queen soon (remember that the old queen leaves with the swarm and a new queen--reared by the worker--stays at the current location) and may have been more inclined to trust a new queen. The hives that killed the new queens all had something in common...they were our packaged hives that we were using the new queens to split. So basically, they'd already gone through a requeening process about a month ago. They weren't at a natural swarming point, and may have felt less inclined to trust a new queen when they could just raise their own. Who knows. It's a possibility.
hive skirt

In any case, I think it's easy to relate to the plight of a colony in that situation. Here you are, queenless, with a window of only three days before the old queen's eggs hatch and it will be too late to raise your own (to make a queen workers feed any egg an excess amount of royal jelly).  Then here comes this queen in a cage.   She's fully grown, yes, but how can you really trust her if you've never seen her lay an egg, knowing that her ovaries are wholly responsible for the survival of your colony? It's crazy! If you take the chance to rear one yourselves, you at least know that she's going to be made of the same stuff that you are. Makes sense.

So here's the fun part, the part that brings us sitting in the back yard with our gin & tonics watching little flags of white dashing through the sky. In order to merge the now-queenless splits we'd made from our package hives, we would have to recombine them with the colonies they came from. We were hoping this wouldn't be too problematic, since the week prior they were all one colony, but there is a little trick you can do when combining a group of bees (queenless) with another group of bees (queenright) to ease
tissue between bodies
the transition. You stack the queenless hive body on the queenright hive body, separated by newspaper (we used the paper that wax foundation comes wrapped in). The bees are separated at first, but by a pervious paper layer that allows their phermones to mingle. As the bees pick through the paper, the queenless bees can sense the presence of the queen, and the queenright bees can get used to the notion of a few thousand more bees joining their ranks. Because bees are usually pretty clean by nature, they should ultimately remove the paper barrier (thus leading to the flying paper scraps zig-zagging across the sky). By the time they've opened the space up between the two hive bodies, hopefully, you'll have one harmonious colony.

That's all for now. Next time, honey extraction!!