Preparing Beeswax from the Hive (or the valiant effort anyway)

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There wasn’t any honey to take because my bees died of starvation by all appearances.  But the seventeen frames of wax ought to come in handy for salves, lotions, and candles if I could get them melted down.  I planned on transferring the strained, melted wax into empty milk cartons.  The milk cartons would act as molds and once the wax hardened I could simply peel off the paper and cut into useable pieces, yes?  Ah, if only it were that easy.

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I began with a pile of wax and filled one pot (that cannot ever be used again for cooking since it is permanently a wax cauldron.  I made a double boiler by placing that pot into a big canning pot filled with boiling water (careful not to splash any water into the wax) and melted it that way so not to burn the wax.

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It seemed like the combs were going down and I would add more.  Pretty soon, I smashed and stirred and looked for wax and found none.  The blackened combs just seemed burnt (before I put them in oddly enough) and they just fell down into a mass.  If the wax was there it sucked back into the remaining combs.  I thought the entire honey comb was wax.  Am I wrong?  I must be because hours later I only had half the frames in the pot and a pot half full of blackened mass, and about two teaspoons of wax.

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I did eventually give up and placed the pot by the door with the wooden spoon which met its demise during this process as well.  What happened?  What did I do wrong?  I still have about eight left but no pot to waste.  The black parts of the comb make me wonder if that was normal, if I should have separated out the lighter comb.  Did I give up too soon?

Oh who knows.  The top bar hive I knew nothing about, the bees that came and passed, the black not-so-much wax, and a mere pint of honey out of all of it.  I think we can consider my bee keeping venture a complete failure at this point.

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Next year, we will try again.

The Day the Village Died

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A week ago we became suspicious.  They had been flying here and there and buzzing in the trees fine a few weeks ago.  I meant to get into the hive on the next nice day.  The last really nice day may have been Easter and I didn’t do it.  What made us wonder about the health of the hive was the fact that there were so many dead bodies on the front porch of the hive that a few were having trouble getting in and out.  The icy wind kept howling and the temperature wasn’t quite right at all this past week so I just moved the door minimizer and used a stick to move some of the bodies out of the way.  I suppose we were too late at that moment.

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The air was cool yesterday morning as I gathered dandelion flowers.  Doug came out and resolved that he would look in the hive.  It seemed too cold but we had a dark feeling about it all anyway.  He suited up and opened the roof of the hive and began to pull off each slat.  Each empty slat.

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Each slat had an empty honey comb on it.  The closer he got the front we noticed the heavy combs were black.  Not sure what that means.  The combs were empty all the way to the front of the hive even though we had left them nearly twice as much as is recommended to get through winter (17+ frames after we decided to not get any honey).  Apparently not enough.

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It was a sobering sight to see six inches of dead bees across the bottom of the hive, piling out onto the front step of their village.  The nanny bees died where they stood, stuck to the comb surrounding the last small section of brood.  Died in place as if a great disaster in this medieval kingdom brought their lives to a stop in a just second’s time.

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The hive was so prolific for most of the winter that they must have eaten more than a smaller village would.  I should have checked earlier to see if I should supplement sugar water.  Perhaps I could have saved them if I had checked on Easter.

There is no place for procrastination on a homestead.  I should know this by now.  Whether it is checking a bee hive, getting the produce harvested and preserved, getting a free load of wood to the house before someone else takes it.  Homesteading is all about timing.  One can so easily miss the window of opportunity.  In the busy months of homesteading one ought to be prepared to be up until one in the morning canning, or drop everything to drive to Denver in a broken down truck to get precious wood, or be up at dawn watering the gardens.  This life runs our schedule for the next three seasons and this loss only reminds me to pay attention and focus on each task as it calls.

Next time I will not use the top bar hive.  I will buy a traditional Langstroth hive.  There are so many more colorful, comprehensive books on the subject, and many more bee keepers to ask.  Most folks didn’t know how to answer my questions because the top bar method is just not that popular.

Well, if life is all about learning, and a homestead is its own classroom then I have learned valuable lessons this week.  But at the expense of a beautiful village.

Tales of a Terrible Bee Keeper

I’m more of a cat person, really.  But as a farmer, I love pollinators.  Birds, butterflies, especially bees help to ensure that we will have crops.  I wanted to help them out in any way I could (and perhaps have a bit of honey for my tea) so I set up a hive.

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My friends were using top bar hives so I did too.  The problem is that one of those friends is now deceased and the other probably tired of my questions and problems.  No one else I know, bee keepers from all over, has any clue about top bar hives.  Books exclude them.  A general shh surrounds the subject.  This is a problem because as you know from reading my adventures I can surely make a mess of things if not shown properly how to do it in the first place.  Such was the occasion yesterday when a mini-size Revolutionary War occurred on the grasses of our new homestead where now lie dozens of dead bodies and a meager pot of beeswax.

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It started out with good intentions, Brett told us to go check the hive now that we had moved it.  Make sure the combs hadn’t fallen down, make sure the queen is alive, make sure…oh, I don’t remember what else.  They were busily working on their nineteenth frame.  Imagine that!  Such a good year for bees.  Originally we heard to save them ten frames to get through the winter but with the talk of an upcoming hard winter, fifteen became their larder.  Four for me.  Luckily, or not so luckily, one of the combs had indeed fallen down.  Doug went inside for a large pot and some tongs.  We realized how fragile the comb was as it continued to break into pieces which made it very difficult to get it into the pot, honey dripped everywhere, bees trapped in their own creation, the rest growing in increasing anger.  We moved the next frame and part of it broke off.  I panicked, sudden vision of all of the combs breaking under the force of our knife trying to see if everyone was alright and inevitably smothering the whole bunch.  We took out the frame we had just messed with, content to harvest two frames and leave the kingdom alone.  Not so easy.

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The entire outside of the frame was sticky and a hundred or so bees would not let go of the comb.  Meanwhile in the pot where the four pieces of comb and honey lay, another several dozen bees tried desperately to get the honey back out.  As we placed the other comb on top (or threw it, I can’t remember, the bees were really mad at us at this point) the bees on the bottom layer melted into the honey and buzzed to their death.  The bees would not leave the pot.  In the middle of the night we went out and tried to scoop them out, they fell here and there, died in their sticky grave, huddled together in a swarm.  They were not giving me one ounce of honey.  I had not read about any of this.  Books make things look so seamless.

What I ended up with.  I have the rest back to the bees.

What I ended up with. I gave the rest back to the bees.

I have bees because between the fight against genetically modified crops and mass use of chemical pesticides we have killed a vast amount of the bee population.  I care about their survival.  I care about my own Queen Victoria and her hive.  I care!  Yet for a few tablespoons of honey I inadvertently killed a hundred bees.  Was it worth it?  I think I must have done something wrong…

Note: After writing this, I spoke to a few different bee keepers that said, “That’s all the bees that died?  You did good!”  Uh.  I guess I know more than I think!

Moving Honey Bees- Take 2

The blue and red lights of a bored sheriff flew on as soon as we turned on the main road.  We had barely gotten started, our precious load in the back, and we knew we hadn’t broken any traffic laws.  The sheriff sidled up to the truck window, lifted an eye brow, and said calmly, “The reason I stopped you is because one of your license plate lights is out.  It’s pretty dim.”

With all seriousness he said this.

Instead of blurting out, “Are you freaking kidding me?”, I gritted my teeth and replied calmly, “We have a bee hive in the back of the truck.”

“I don’t want to get stung!” he said.  I have never seen law enforcement retreat that quickly.

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The bee hive was in the back of the truck so we were already further ahead of where we were last week when Doug and I attempted to move it ourselves.

Have you ever had friends that have done so much for you that you will never in this lifetime pay them back?  That would be my friend, Lisa, and her family.  They showed up in the dark, probably preferring to be getting into bed with a nice cup of tea, and were ready to move our hive.

Lisa and I were friends with Nancy, the three of us loving all things homestead and simple.  All of us wearing our aprons around town.  Karaoke on Saturday nights at the coffee shop.  Watching our children get married and have children.  Friends like these are blessings.  Her husband, Lance, has helped us fix plumbing and set up stoves, he has helped us move heavy items.  Their sons helped us paint.  Their son Bryan built our hive, their son Brandon is a photographer and has taken many special photos of various events in our life, their son Brett is our bee guru.  At nearly nineteen he is the epitome of calm and composure, which is invaluable since around the bees, Doug and I are not.

They did not even bring suits.  Lance, Brandon, Brett, and Doug worked together quickly to secure the hive.  A piece of screen went in front of the door with the minimizer in front of it.  Duct tape went around the hive to secure the roof.  While putting duct tape across the door to secure the screen the whole door fell off and bees started flitting about and walking on Brett.  Calmly the men walked away and we all sat chatting for about a half hour while the bees settled in again.

The hive was heavy enough that four men used all their strength to get it on the back of the truck.  We placed it horizontally so that the combs wouldn’t swing when stopping and starting the truck.  Straw bales surrounded it.

When we got it to the new farmstead the four men took it deftly off the truck and placed it in its new location facing the garden.  Brett meticulously checked the outside of the hive, took off the tape, and then our friends left, travelling the long drive home late at night.  Oh boy, do we owe them!

This morning the bees are cleaning house, taking dead bees out and looking for flowers.  Tomorrow we will don our armor to get into the hive (as they will surely be irritated with us again; they ran us off the driveway last week after we tried to move them), and check to make sure that the combs are in place and that they are not any worse for wear.  Hopefully Queen Victoria has made the long journey well.  It certainly feels like we have a hive full of honey.  I can hardly wait to sample our own Wild Herb Honey!

Moving Honey Bees-Take 1

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We headed down the country roads at dusk, watching the colors change across the horizon, mountains and trees becoming shadows.  We still have a bit of work at the old house to do.  We still have the basement and the garage to clean out and some spiffing up around the property before we send back the keys.  One thing we still needed to move was the bees.  I suppose we have been procrastinating.  We went at night certain that they would all be enveloped around their queen, their gentle rumble keeping the hive warm.  We would simply staple a bit of screen on the door and be out of there before they became wise.  Imagine our surprise when ten or so guard bees still walked the front of porch of the top bar hive.  Not sleepy in the least.

We didn’t come prepared with a ready to go smoker since we thought the kingdom was going to be asleep.  We took the empty smoker sheepishly over to our neighbor’s house and asked for a lighter and something to burn in it.  In her backyard she gave us some old woodchips and held out a handful of leaves and we went back over to the hive.  We had our suits on and a flashlight, which just seemed to wake the bees up more.  We started the smoker and a strange smell came out of it.

I said, “It smells like pot.  What did she give us?”  Doug leaned in to see.

“I burnt my sinuses!” he exclaimed, jumping back.

“Why did you put your face so close to the smoker?!”

We were manic.  Apparently moving thousands of bees isn’t a common activity for us.  We don’t smoke pot, but if there were a good time to start, last night would have been it.

The smoke was hot.  Too hot and I rather fear that I burnt the first layer of bees through the hive door.  We were just panicked.  Doug quickly stapled some screen onto the door and as we looked up we saw that around the roof of the hive there were several open areas.  We both took a good, deep breath and planned our next move.  We each got on one side and tried to lift it.  We made it six inches up when Doug said to put it down.  Who would have thought that several thousand wee bitty bees and their honey would weigh so much!  We agreed that we have no idea what we are doing and disappointedly went home, now certain that no one would be stealing our bees.

We need to call in reinforcements.

A Trip to a Medieval Village (our bee hive)

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There has been so much activity in the medieval kingdom (our bee hive that is) that I thought I better have my friend and mentor, Brett, come over and translate what is going on.  It has been four months since we first got our hive.

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After donning our suits and smoking the hive entrance to hide our intruding scents, we opened the roof.  Fifteen slats were being filled with comb, honey, and brood.

Doug and Brandon got some amazing pictures. You can actually see the pollen on the bees' legs here.

Doug and Brandon got some amazing pictures. You can actually see the pollen on the bees’ legs here.

The bees have capped the comb over the brood.  The flat clearer cells are worker bees and the puffier cells that are lower on the comb are drones.  The drones are the only boys in the hive.  They have one job, make out with the queen.  Come winter they shall be ousted from the kingdom.  All the workers are girls.  It is definitely a matriarchal society in this village.

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We also can see honey in the frames closest to the door.  We will save fifteen slats for the bees to get through winter.  Hopefully we can get a little wild herb honey for our winter tea.

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SAM_0052 Looks like the Queen is alive and well.  All hail the queen!

Mid-summer Farming (bees, dreams, and permaculture)

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It looks like we live in a different state.  We have had rain every day, so unusual for July, and the grasses are green.  No fires, no drought, no hundred degree weather.  It has been glorious.  Other places in the state are dealing with too much water but here in our little oasis of Kiowa we are basking in perfect weather.  The gardens and trees are drinking deeply and everything is serene.

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We were able to grab a moment of warm sunshine to put our bee suits on and peek in the hive.  The bees are working on their eighth frame in the top bar hive.  The frames stretch across the entire frame now reaching the sides of the hive.  The bees were very busy and completely covered the outer frame.  I tried to pull a middle frame up to see if I could tell what was going on (Is there new brood?  Is there honey capped? What else am I supposed to be looking for?) but couldn’t pull it all the way up.  I was afraid of smashing bees or pulling apart the combs.  I need my mentor to come over next time and show me what the heck we are supposed to be doing.  But for the moment it was like looking into a magical world.  The bees were calm and I have fallen in love with these gentle creatures.

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We have two interns here that are just lovely people.  They have been helping me immensely.  The gardens were all weeded and mulched by yesterday afternoon and new seeds planted.  We enjoy meals with them and talk about our ideas and dreams.  We have been looking for a place to move that has a small house but more land.  Renting has a definite downfall for me, I worry.  I worry that I can’t renew my lease, or that I have to stay but for how long?  Can I plant trees?  Should I get attached to this quaint little house, my neighbors, this town?  What if I miss my opportunity for a homestead?  Dang, I wish I could buy a place.  Turns out we have a choice to make.  The homesteads we can afford to rent are way out in the prairie or far away towns.  Or we can stay near our children and granddaughter.  Not a hard decision to make.  My friend, Lisa, came over one day and asked if we were going to farm the back part of the yard because we had fenced it off (for the goats).  Suddenly while talking with Stephanie and Ethan, our interns, I realized that we could, with their help, transform that space.  We could build a greenhouse.  We could use permaculture techniques to up our food production.  Hopefully we can stay on for a few more years here since nothing seems to be coming up in the form of larger place.

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I have been reading a lot about permaculture and came across a film that fascinated me and a technique we will definitely try.  It is a free documentary.  Worth the watch!  http://backtoedenfilm.com

I do hope your mid-summer farming is going well and you get a perfect mix of sun and rain!

Chronicles of a Nervous New Beekeeper (with a top bar hive)

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I happened to be sifting through Facebook when I noted that my friend, Luis, who I went to the bee keeping class with was excitedly announcing that he was picking up his bees that morning.  …What?  I checked my email, but did not have an email telling me to do the same thing.  Others were talking about their soon to be filled hives as well and I began to panic.  I called the bee company and sure enough, mine were in a parking lot an hour away.  I had until noon to retrieve them.  Doug had just woken up and I was in a manic scurry.  What do we do??  The bees are coming!!

Despite the books and the class and badgering my poor mentor, Brett, with questions, I felt completely unready.  It did not feel like bringing home baby ducks.  A bit more could go wrong with 10,000 new bees.  I called Brett.  What do we do??  The bees are coming!!

Brett is the epitome of calm and collected.  He is a handsome, shy, eighteen year old who knows everything about bees.  He would come over after he installed his three hives.  I acted as if I were preparing for a baby to come home.  What do I need?  I pulled our bee jackets and veils from the packages and laid them out on the table.  My bee keeping book useless to me at the moment since nothing I could find helped me figure out a top bar hive.

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Do I need the smoker?  Brett would see how the bees were, but probably not.  (Too bad in hindsight, I still have no idea how to use it and I will have to go out and check on their sugar water!)

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I made the sugar water as he instructed.  50/50 water and sugar until dissolved.  Don’t burn it!

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I filled a five gallon bucket with water near their hive and floated wine corks for balance.

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I put the sugar water in a Tupperware container with lots of rocks and twigs so we don’t drown on our first day at the new digs.

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The bees arrived in the back of the Volvo.  Doug went by himself in case we had a few escapees and the baby in the back seat together.  None did and they were pretty preoccupied with freeing the queen.  Bees are ever so medieval.  I rather love that.

Finally our knight in shining armors arrived.  An unknowing neighbor looking on would suspect a fencing match or a trip to the moon with five of us wandering about in our bee suits.  Brett and his father, Lance, got right to work with photographer brother, Brandon, helping and taking pictures at the same time.  We were really much more in the way, so Doug took pictures as well and I stood nearby in the cacophony of bees taking in that mesmerizing sound.  I was not scared in the least in my bee suit.  They were not interested in me and I have never heard that many bees.  It was really quite magical.

First they took off the can glued into the top that holds sugar syrup for the ride over the mountains.  A few bees got out but gravitated towards the box.  They did not want to leave the queen.  A few got crushed when the cardboard came down and covered the hole.

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The queen was dangling in a box anxious to see her new kingdom.  It was held onto the carton of bees by a piece of metal.  Brett deftly (in large leather gloves even) took the box and stapled it to one of the top bars with a staple gun.  This was after he took out the cork and replaced it with a tiny marshmallow that the workers can eat through.

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One wouldn’t release the queen immediately as the kingdom may not be pleased and promptly kill her.  It takes awhile for her scent and the bees to all get to know each other and realize that they are family.  By the time the marshmallow is gone, it will be like they were never apart.

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Now at this point we were taught to bang the box down so all the bees fall to the bottom then dump it upside down into their new apartment complex.  Brett finds it easier to cut the screens with a sharp knife rather than try to fit everyone through the hole on top.

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Then they are turned upside down and literally poured into the hive.  If you could envision the sound of a “pfoomph”.  And the bees were in.  Now they are everywhere and Brett and Lance carefully replaced the top bars.

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Immediately the bees went to work.  Some had their backsides in the air calling the bees home that had run off.  Some were cleaning the dead bees out of the hive that didn’t make it.  The clamor of bees making a home was fascinating.  They had no interest in us whatsoever.  Just in making their new pink house a home.

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Welcoming Honey Bees

Welcome Honey Bees!  I’ll have a sign,

I hope they think their new digs are fine.

I feel excited like Winnie the Pooh,

We’ll have lots of sticky honey,

for sweets and a cup of tea too!

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I painted the bee hive a lovely raspberry pink.  Welcoming but not over the top.  I have read several books.  I chickened out last year.  I went to a bee keeping class Sunday that reiterated everything I read in books.  I feel I know nothing!  But when I am holding that box of rumbling bees and their medieval queen, I assume that everything I have read and seen will come back to me.  That is the hope.

A year and a half ago we had a young man build us a top bar hive.  I got cold feet last year when I got the email that the bees were in after not having enough money to buy the bee keeping accessories so I sold the bees to the bee hive builder’s brother.  The hive sat over the winter and pieces of the wood are separating and expanding.  I should have sprayed it well with a protectant.  This year I painted it a spiffy color, and sprayed it with a coating that it is now well dried and should last, since once the bees move in I won’t be doing much creative maintenance to the outside of the hive.  It looks lovely.

It is under the large oak tree.  Typically one would like to face a hive south east to avoid our winds but that would face directly into the cars on the driveway.  South is the back yard, west is the goat yard, north is the neighbors house, east is the only way to face it.  The bees have two large gardens before they have to cross the street so hopefully they stop and play in the flowers instead of running into semis.  That wouldn’t be good.  The tree will provide shade while allowing bright morning sun to hit the bee apartment complex. In the winter the old oak tree will let in all the sunshine to make the little buggers happy.

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The books and the class are rather down on top bar hives.  Why?  No one has given me a straight answer but I am forced to take all the information I have stored and transfer it to a top bar hive.  Shouldn’t be too different.  These wooden blocks on the top have an edge that we rub beeswax on so that the bees will know to start their combs across the edges.  After ten wooden blocks are filled, the ones after have honey on them for us!

I will be stacking straw bales on the north side to keep the hive incognito from our neighbor.  Not that he cares, but he has a lot of friends that come over that might.  After a few beers, I certainly don’t want it to become a shooting range.

I have my smoker.  Supposedly the best material for burning is old coffee burlap sacks.  I believe Emily’s boyfriend’s family (being in the coffee business) can help me with that one.

Doug and I got two suits, jackets with zip up masks to keep our pretty faces safe from stings.  Don’t want to look like we got in a fight.  And thick gloves joined our artillery too.

Interestingly, there are over 890 types of bees in Colorado.  Most are stingless.  I did not know that.  In the class we were inspired to forget the image of Winnie the Pooh being chased by a swarm of bees.  While working in the hive, most will not care that we are there.  Just don’t wear fur.

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The thing that is keeping me from panicking this year is that at the end of last summer we were standing in a friend’s garden and I leaned over to see the herbs that were planted there.  It was a tiny garden in the city.  I glanced up and realized I was right in front of a bee hive.  Another one stood a few feet from me.  The gentle hum of working bees filled the air but they were so preoccupied (as I was) with the herbs that they had no interest in me.

In a few weeks, we welcome honey bees!

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