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.