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Bees Buzzing in January

We started keeping bees the summer after Petunia and I took a local beekeeping class in 2008. Keeping bees has been a challenge for me, because they aren’t a cut and dry thing…they are little livestock that need tended and managed and they know more of their needs than I do…sometimes I just get in the way. The first year was a great summer even extracting about 25 pounds of their yummy honey from our first hive. Fortunately my beehive lived through the winter of 2008-2009 with no help from me besides making sure they had honey and a windbreak.

We added two more nucs in the spring of 2009 and tried to make a split of the older hive because it was about to swarm. We also captured our first swarm at the beginning of June even knowing that the swarm wouldn’t have time to make a healthy hive before winter; it was a great learning opportunity to “catch” a swarm. That winter we went into it with 3 strong hives, a weak split and a very weak swarm hive. We left all honey (it wasn’t a lot as most were newer hives) on them for winter reserves.

In the beginning of Feb 2010, I knew my strong 3 hives were alive, but everything was dead in March, less than a month later. We had demolished their windbreak while making a pond nearby and it was really cold those last few weeks of winter, very cold. So, we thought that the bees had frozen since they had some reserves left…not much but there was still some honey. Looking back, I realize that little honey wasn’t enough for them and they actually had starved. I about gave it all up that year.

It was tough to get a nuc that spring 2010, because I wasn’t on any waiting lists and nucs can go fast. Fortunately, I was able to buy three nucs at the beginning of June and tried hard to get them strong enough for winter, actually I didn’t try as hard as my husband; I was still whining about how I had killed all my hives before and had no business killing more. We gave them sugar water to try to get them enough time to pull out their wax on the frames to have space for building their brood and reserves for winter. You may wonder what happened to all the hive frames that were in the other hives that died a few months before…well, the wax moths destroyed them so fast, it was incredible and so very discouraging. So we were starting from scratch with these new bees. Winter came and we just left any honey on the hives and hoped for the best.

Feb 2011 was the annual Indiana Bee School and Randy Oliver was the guest speaker. My husband was able to go with me for the first time and he brought a fresh set of eyes and ears, plus we could double team and hear more information. During lunch my husband told me that Randy talked about the reasons why most bees die in the midwest – the most common reason being starvation. The brood is made up of protein and when the queen goes to make the next generation of bees, there isn’t enough protein to do that and the bees eat the brood to survive but the entire hive dies – we ran to buy pollen patties right then.

When we got home, we put those pollen patties on the hives and two lived, the third had already died by the time we realized our mistake of not enough protein for the first spring generation brood.

Mel Disselkoen was also at the school; his website is a wealth of information where he speaks of making OTS (on-the-spot) queens and splits. We decided to try his method of making splits while also using Randy Oliver’s advice of choosing hygienic hives (where the bees themselves are cleaning up and fighting against the Varroa mites). I just wanted to recoup all of the hives that I had bought (and killed since 2008)…those nucs weren’t cheap and I was sick about all of them dying.

Using the very best hygienic hive, we made one spring split (which created 4 new hives) and a summer split (making 4 nucs). We also split the other hive to have a replacement hive and use the original as a honey hive that Mel talks about in his information, we did not use that hive to make more queens. Winter 2011-2012, we went in with 7 strong hives and 4 nuc sized hives. This January there have been some nice warm days and the bees have been flying for cleansing flights, yay bees buzzing in January…that’s always a welcome sight! Every hive seems to be doing well and I pray that the healthy ones survive. It is a goal to be able to make early spring splits to have nucs to sell this year, it would be nice if my bees could help send our children to college…please bees?

The bees are still buzzing and I am grateful to all of the beekeepers who have been so helpful as I travel and stumble along this beekeeping journey.

Making Our Own Beehive Woodenware

In 2008, my daughter Petunia and I took our first beekeeping class at the Indiana Beekeeping School:

Rachel and Lais making our first beehive Jan 2008

We learned a great philosophy for keeping bees and even assembled our own woodenware (at least part of it) during the class. I’m not sure if the class still includes that time to make woodenware, since I think it’s only a day now. The woodenware came with a beginner beekeeping kit that had all you need to get started in beekeeping: helmet, smoker, even some smoker fuel.

The price of the class, the hive, and the beginner beekeeping kit was pretty costly, in my opinion. As I started thinking about raising more bees, the thought of buying more of those beginner hives made me so afraid of the crazy cost. And, this summer, I really needed more hivebodies as we truly grew our hives from 2 to 11 through splits that we made.

Fortunately, Pat is a woodworker and he decided to try to build our own hives. We found a great website that has the exact dimensions for several different types of hives:

Getting the dimensions correct is critical to creating a hive with the proper “bee space”. Honey bees need a certain amount of space to get through openings and it shouldn’t be too big or the bees will be tempted to make burr comb (which is any comb that really isn’t where it’s “supposed” to be). It is also important to use the correct dimensions so that any hive accessory equipment you choose to purchase will fit properly.

Pat reviewed the various designs but believed that they all had incorporated a bit of complexity that was not necessary. Each additional component of the hive costs money to install, maintain, and eventually replace. Pat believed a “simpler” design would actually be easier to maintain and more durable in the long-run. Our design is based on the “10-frame Langstroth” box hive with a couple of key deviations:

  1. We eliminated the metal tracks that many people say must be used on the hives. The bees can propolis down the frames, but we haven’t found that to be a problem.
  2. We used dovetails to join the hive bodies rather than nails. Nails are expensive and not something that we can easily get. Plus, Pat believes that our dovetail joints will stand up to the elements that the beehives must go through throughout the seasons. That first hive we built in 2008 is already starting to get scraggly looking and it had A LOT of nice expensive nails in it. One of the basic rules of woodworking is that a nail placed into the end grain of a piece of wood will eventually come loose. This process is only made worse when the hive is subjected to the extremes of mid-western weather.
  3. We decided that to purchase the internal frames and not try to make any of those ourselves. Making the frames does not seem to be worth the safety risk to us (to buy them is only about $1/frame unassembled) because the cuts necessary to make the frames on a table saw come really close to your fingers. So, we choose to buy premade frames. We have also decided to buy true beeswax frames and no longer like the plastic foundation (because we notice our bees don’t like to pull it out and make comb on it). These are the frames and beeswax foundation that we typically purchase:

Using dovetails to join the boxes does involve some skill with hand-tool woodworking methods but Pat has found the process to be much more enjoyable than spending hours hovering over a table saw which generates a lot of dust and noise. Cutting the dovetails in the soft pine wood is much easier and does not have to be done with the exact precision that would be typically required of a piece of fine furniture constructed with a hard wood like cherry or walnut.

Pat demonstrates our method of beehive woodenware construction in the series of videos below:

Playlist of Making the Langstrogh Type Beehives using Dovetails

Our Raw Honey is Crystallizing, You Can Still Use it

As you purchase our honey and thank you so much for choosing our honey for your family, you will notice that our honey is crystallizing, meaning, it is difficult to see through and it is not liquid, but thick and almost solid.  The honey has not gone bad, it is crystallizing which all raw (unheated honey) will do at some point, the timing depends on the type of nectar the bees used.  You do not need to keep the honey in the refrigerator, which will actually speed up the crystallization process.  Since it has been getting colder, our honey was in a non-heated room, so it crystallized faster than it would have if kept at room temperature (we may need to change our storage of honey in the future to slow the crystallization down).

We like to use our honey as a spread and spread it on toast and biscuits and things like that.  Anytime honey is called for in a recipe, I just use a dry measuring cup and treat the honey like I would peanut butter and scoop it into the cup.

You can also heat the honey a bit, if you like more liquid honey.  Please don’t put it in the microwave, that can cause hot spots and can really burn you if it gets on your skin.  You can gently heat it up under warm running water or in a gentle warming pan on the stove.

Our honey was never heated during our part of the processing (the bees themselves heat it with their wings to make it the proper moisture level when they are making it, before capping it off…which I think is so cool);  it went straight from the comb into the extractor through a strainer, into a 5 gallon bucket and into the jars.  We believe the raw qualities are worth the crystallization, so we don’t like to heat ours, but just use it like a spread.

We want you to love your pure, raw honey.  It is so filling and much stronger in flavor than any other honey we had bought at the store before we had harvested our own.  It did take some getting used to and we wanted to share what we have learned with you.  We hope that this blog posts helps you in using your honey when it crystallizes and you can continue to enjoy it.

This pdf is a great resource in learning about honey crystallization, what it’s made up of, when it crystallizes and  the different nectar sources that crystallize at different rates.

Here is a blog post from a beekeeper in Las Cruces, New Mexico (where Pat proposed to me :), so I am partial to that area of the country) talking about raw honey and crystallization:


Making Nuc Candyboards for Over-wintering

This winter is the first time we have ever had nucs going into the winter. Maybe some of my gentle readers are not familiar with a “nuc”. It is a shortened term for a nucleus of a bee hive, meaning it has a queen and some frames with honeycomb and bees, but it is still young and small in size. Because of its age and size, the nuc didn’t have enough time to store the quantity of honey it takes to make it through the winter (honey is the carbs of the bee world, they need it to have energy to stay alive). We humans think of winter as just lasting through February, but to bees it is a little longer due to waiting for the first nectar plants to bloom (maple trees being some of the first). Those rainy days of March and April keep the bees inside too…they hate the rain, so if they can’t harvest their food, they need some reserves at that time as well, even if it isn’t technically winter anymore.

There are probably many recipes for making nuc candyboards out there and I am not here to say that the recipe that we use is the best, but I got the recipe from a trusted bee mentor, Danny Slabaugh, member of the Michiana Beekeepers Association. Plus I don’t like to reinvent the wheel that someone smarter than me invented already 🙂 Danny is the beekeeper that I bought my nucs from when I first started keeping bees in Spring 2008. I went back to buy nucs in 2009 and 2010 as well…did I go back the two hour drive just because of his bees, well, his bees are healthy and non-medicated…but I’ll share a secret with you. I went back to his place, because he packs the nucs and goes through his apiary (beeyard) with me while I am going around with him asking loads of questions that he patiently answers. I got an education from him each time I spent that time with him. He uses candyboards to get his summer-split nucs through the winter and he lives close to the Michigan state line; I thought these candyboards would probably work for me down here in central Indiana.

Here is Danny Slabaugh’s candyboard recipe (it was in a word document that we reformatted):

I enjoy the art of beekeeping as it is always work in process. I make a tray for a standard size hive candy board with the rim made of ¾’X1.875”boards.
I drill a 2″ hole in the center of a 5.5″ 2X4 placed in the middle of a tray.

Danny Slabaugh's Picture and Candyboard

Start with a container that will hold 16 quarts of liquid or more and a good strong stirring device.
The heat source needs to have twice the BTU that a cook stove burner top would produce.
Bring one quart of water to full boil
Add ¼ cup of white vinegar
Slowly add three five pound bags of white sugar. stirring all the time.
This will boil down to soft fudgelike candy after 30-40 minutes and needs to reach 242 degrees.
Add optional ingredients
stirring all the time.
1 cup dry powder HFCS
This will allow you to add five more pounds of dry sugar.
Stir to soft ball. 242 degrees.
Turn off heat and stir in 1 cup of honey
stirring all the time.
Last whip in one oz of Honey –B- Healthy
Pour into a mold and cool off.

Here’s a link to Danny Slabaugh’s recipe on Mel Disselkoen’s website with some more details and pictures.  We found this after making the recipe and this link has more details:

When we made the candyboards, we used the honey bee healthy and the honey, since we didn’t want to use the HFCS (I guess we didn’t understand the necessity to be able to add more sugar).  We constructed two types of trays to use for the candy board molds. The frame on the left fits on top of a 10-frame hive whereas the frame on the right is designed for a 5-frame hive:

Empty Candy Board Frames

The trays are designed to be placed upside-down on top of the hive once the candy in the frame is hardened. This allows the bees to easily access the candy without moving far from the bee cluster. We also drilled a 3/4″ hole in front center of the tray (not shown in photo) and then covered the hole with hardware cloth. This hole provides an easy method for checking the amount of candy consumed by the bees without having to open the hive. The hole will also provide additional ventilation and could be used as a top-entrance in the summer once the candy is completely consumed.

To heat the sugar, we used an outdoor propane burner that was originally part of a turkey frying system we got at The Home Depot. We used an old pressure-canner for the pan which worked wonderfully since it is so thick and virtually eliminated the tendency for the sugar to scald during heating. We also constructed a long wooden paddle so we could stir the sugar without bending over the pan, but this was more of a convenience than a necessity. We found that the recipe above results in enough candy for a single 10-frame tray or two 5-frame trays.

It seemed that the candy boards were completely hardened in less than 24-hours.  We placed the small candy boards on each of our nucs a few weeks ago and had the opportunity to check the hive during an unseasonably warm day.  The bees had already discovered the board and had started eating away at the candy.  We just completed construction of a series of full-size candy board frames that we are going to place on a few of our large hives that did not have time to store up enough honey before the foraging season ended. This should provide plenty of carbohydrates for the bees until spring and has provided us with a peace-of-mind that we haven’t had the past couple of winters. Stay warm out there, bees!