Fermenting Solutions Issue 4: Spring Steps for a Good Honey Crop

Published: Sun, 03/20/16

March 21, 2016 View in browser

Raising bees for honey in an area where they need to overwinter requires off-season work for the best results.  Last year, I barely took any honey for myself because I had a mysterious disappearance of bees during the previous winter.  I feel that this was because they had run out of honey and fled the hive in search of food.  It's a good thing that honey isn't the only reason that I keep bees!  Honey bees are beyond intriguing to watch and my garden has never been more productive.  Having an army of bees to do your bidding sure beats pollinating cucumbers by hand!

A good season always starts with the first inspection after winter.  This is when you take stock of what you're going to need to deal with in the upcoming season.  You should do this on the first warm, sunny day... above 50 degrees Fahrenheit with preferably little wind.  If all went well over the winter, you still have some bees remaining in the hive.  If there are no bees left, this is the time to arrange for getting new ones because if you don't have your hive booming by April, you will likely miss out on a decent honey crop.
This inspection starts from the outside and you progressively dig deeper into the interior asking the following questions:

  • Is any part of the hive damaged or in need of paint?  Now is the time to order new hive equipment or repair existing before the population increases and needs all of the additional space

  • Are there any critters other than bees that have taken residence inside the hive?  Mice, Small Hive Beetles, Mites and wax moths all love the heat and food provided by a hive over winter.

  • How healthy is the population?  Lots of bees? Drones/Workers/Queen

  • What's stored in the comb? Does it look like there are pollen and honey reserves left?

For anyone not familiar with the parts of a bee hive, this is a good primer.  Helps when asking follow up questions if you're interested in keeping your own bees.
This year, I 3D printed some frame hangers to help with hive inspections.  Before these beauties, when I would take a frame out of the hive, I would need to find a place to prop the frame up while inspecting the others in the hive body.  You can imagine that avoiding angering the bees, while doing this to a frame covered in bees, is a delicate procedure.  It's made even more difficult when the frame is loaded with honey.  These types of frames pick up all sorts of debris from the ground.  Also, the subtle pressure of anything leaning on them ends up bursting the comb in a way that allows the honey to flow out.  This attracts more bees and other critters to the scene of the accident.  Definitely a problem that needed solving!

These frame hangers allow me to hang one or two frames off the side of the hive, while I look at the other frames to assess the state of things.  When I'm done, I can put the frames back in the hive and lift the entire hive body off and put it on the ground.  I follow this process for each of the hive bodies looking for all of the things enumerated above.  Eventually, I'll make it to the bottom board.  This is where an entire winter's worth of dead bees and  debris have accumulated.  I make note of everything there and then empty it so that the bees don't need to spend any time trying to clean things out.
In order to get a great honey crop, I need lots of bees... but getting lots of bees this early in the season is problematic.  There isn't really an available food source for them this early in the spring and ideally, when the nectar starts to flow, you want the bees to be focusing on turning that into honey, not on growing out their colony.  The solution to this dilemma is to start feeding the bees in order to stimulate the queen to lay eggs and the other bees to start building out more comb for all of that honey they make in the next few months.  

I feed the bees by mixing up a sugar syrup that is one part raw cane sugar to 2 parts water.  I put this in mason jars and cap with lids that I've punched a few holes in with a nail.  When these are placed upside down on the inner cover with an empty hive body around it, they slowly drip out sugar syrup in a way that the bees can take it and process it for food.  Of course, the moment you put this inside your hive, it becomes an even more appealing place to other insects/animals that you don't want inside your hive. 

The most effective way to keep things out is to use an entrance reducer on the smallest setting.  This allows your bees to get out easily, while also giving them a very restrictive opening to defend if another group tries to come in and rob them of their new found wealth.
Nectar (sugar syrup) is only one part of the honeybee diet.  They also need pollen, which again, isn't in abundance at this time of year.  In order to supplement, I use pollen patties.  Unfortunately, small hive beetles also love pollen patties, but keeping them at bay is actually pretty easy.  After I put a pattie in the hive, if it's not consumed within 2 weeks, I swap it out with another and put it in the freezer.  This kills off any potential small hive beetles and I continue to alternate patties until the time in the season where I no longer need to supplement.

Speaking of nectar...
I'm noticing a trend developing... every time I drink something that contains the German Huell Melon hop variety, I love it!  The notes of melon and berry that this variety provides works great in belgian style ales.  I consider myself lucky to live so close to a brewery that uses this variety often and incorporates it so well.  And if you weren't aware, check out the link below that discusses one of their beers that was recently named the 3rd best saison on Earth:
That's it for this week. I've got some bees to wrangle.

Questions?? Want a deeper dive on something discussed here? Drop me a line to continue the conversation:
[email protected]

I'm not sure what I'll be working on next, so next week's topic will be a surprise!

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