Friday, June 8, 2012

Honey Harvest June 9 and 10!

We've had a crazy spring with warm weather starting in March and then cool rain after the warm snap.  I didn't really quite know what to make of it all but I guess the bees did. We have hives heavy with honey already and will do a small but significant harvest this coming weekend.

The honey will be somewhat unusual as normally we'd not harvest until at least July, when clover and basswood would be present and contributing factors in the honey. The honey we take in this weekend will really be spring honey with fruit tree blossom and dandelion being important nectar providers to it.

Expect honey at River Valley Market in a week or two. It'll be a special but small run of unique honey, only from an oddball year like this.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Queenspotting after Brunch

We had a busy day at the apiary last Sunday. We had a visit from friend Hillary Price. We'd post a picture of her here, but everyone looks pretty much the same when their photo is take in a bee veil. We took her over to the yard and we poked around in some hives.

I cannot really imagine what it's like to look into a bee hive for the first time. They're so strange. Anyhow, we had a nice brunch with friends and then did some beekeeping.

Later on Rick Intres from Bear Meadow Apiary stopped by to help us beekeep. We know Rick from the Franklin County Beekeepers. He's very knowledgeable about bees and kindly offered to come by and show us a few tricks.

The early spring has lead to record large hives for this time of year. It's great for taking advantage of nectar, but can very easily lead to swarming, so we had to take action. We set about finding the queen bees in the hives. Can you spot her in the photo above?

It may seem easy there, but in a hive of 30,000 bees it's not easy. Rick showed us tricks that help him locate her. We then moved each queen we found to another part of the hive where she'd be less crowded and have more room to lay eggs. We spent about 6 hours in the hives. If things work out it could be a record year for us, but the swarm impulse will be intense.

This year we're inviting many experienced beekeepers to visit us in the hopes of learning a lot and sharing what we know. Nothing beats really seeing what others are doing that makes their practice special.

We also gave Rick a small colony with a queen from one of our best colonies. We're hoping he'll do well with her too. In this way we preserve and spread the best genetics to deal with the complex and harsh challenges bees face. Think of this practice as being a lot like seed sharing. Beekeepers can't compete and hope to survive; we cooperate.

Add to the list of challenges that bees face a newly emerging disease, Nosema Cerene. Most beekeepers know Nosema Apis pretty well as bee dysentery. This "new" nosema was formerly a bee disease from a social bee found in northern India. Now thanks to globalization it's here too. It's a likely contributor to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), and we're trying a new fix against it. It's the extract from the bark of a tree found in Czechoslovakia. Nosema is a fungus, and trees have to fight off fungal infections all the time. The first line of defense is their bark. Make sense?

Lastly, there's been a lot of news lately about neonicitinoids killing off bees. Everyone is looking for the magic bullet that'll stop CCD but IMHO there is no magic bullet. CCD has many causes, not the least of which is how we live. Sure, neonics are probably not helping anything, but neiter is nosema cerene. I'm not sure what will stop it, or if anything ever will. In a small stand against it all we gave away a queen from our best colony to a friend.

She's been a strong girl that came to us through a swarm I captured in Florence. She was strong enough to fly away and try and make it on her own. She did this in a world with Nosema Cerene, neonics, varroa destructor and crazy weather.

Good luck with your queen Rick. She's the future, part of the one I want to live in anyhow.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Spring comes to Northampton

Spring comes to Northampton to find us with 18/20 hives surviving the winter. Some called this the winter that wasn't, but even this comes with problems. Some people have hives starve because the bees tried to maintain brood all winter and used up stores at a very fast rate. Others are reporting high mite levels due to strong and early growth of brood.

I've seen drone comb in our hives already. This year is historic; old timers say they've never seen anything like this. Our peaches and stone fruit are in bloom-- nectarines are seen above. Oddly we had a huge honey run with bees flying to maple and willow the week of the 70 degree temps in early March. But now the fruit trees have blossomed early and it's gone back to being too cool to fly. It's all so confusing.

Still, our girls came through winter with flying colors (yellow and black)! The bee here was likely born in October or November. She is different than the bees born earlier that year--a special bee designed to carry the hive through the long winter, keep the nest warm to 95 degrees when the queen starts laying, and to then forage in the spring. In bee years she's 3 hundred years old. Normal summer bees live about 6 weeks; she's probably five or six months old.

We also let the bees recycle some wax from last years honey harvest and they made these odd top entrances to their hives. The look like little space towers designed by some 1970s futurist architect from Sweden or Turkey. Here bees are seen boiling out of their little strange door, I guess thinking their weird bee invertebrate thoughts.

As we pick up tools we've not taken to hand in the better part of six months it's hard to not think we've entered some strange new world where it's almost 80 degrees for a week in early March. I was talking over the fence with our neighbor Pam and she commented that her toddler son Gavriel was inheriting an uncertain future environmentally. Beekeeping has brought us closer to the world we live in, marking the temperature ever day and watching a very complex and incredibly old superorganism respond to those changes.

Once again I find myself grateful to have bees around, and to see a bit of the world through my relationship with them. I guess in return I'll do my best to hold up my end of the bargain and take good care of our girls.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Buckfast! The bees that Brother Adam made

In 2012 we're going to add to our bees with some very special new bees. These bees are Buckfast, a special kind of bee. The history is that in 1916 the bees in England were decimated by something called Isle of Wright disease. the beekeepers didn't understand what was killing the bees, but it killed nearly all of them. It turns out it was an imported mite, not unlike our current situation with the Varroa destructor mite, and not unlike our situation with colony collapse.

Nearly all the colonies were killed off but then a monk, Brother Adam, found a feral colony living and healthy. He returned these to the Buckfast Abby for breeding. Over the next 70 years years Brother Adam traveled through the Near East, Africa and Europe returning with the strongest bees he could find.

These bees represent the hope of a generation and a link to ancient monastic breeding programs. Today the bee is produced only by a few specialized breeders that keep Bother Adam's work alive, literally. Our Buckfast colonies are due to arrive in late April.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Preservation Honeybee

It's a little known fact that Northampton Honey's original name was Preservation Honeybee.  It's still the name we have on file with the state of MA as a DBA.  It's on our business checks if we ever need to pay you for something but in the end Northampton Honey made more sense to us. 

The reason we originally were called Preservation Honeybee was that we want to support land conservation with our honey operation.  Western MA is a beautiful place for many reasons, but the land is chief amongst them.  I am often astonished how sprawly other places are, the land chewed up for nothing but two acre lots and endless Jiffy Lubes. We're in love with the land and want to keep it beautiful for all time.

We've kept at it and now expect to be keeping bees on city conservation land that the Kestrel Trust holds the permanent conservation restriction to . We're going to give a portion of our proceeds from bees kept on Trust to the Trust to further invest in land conservation here in Western MA. We think this is how business should operate, we think people should give back.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Hive Scales

Update: If you are looking for the most up to date information on our hive scales please use this link: Hive Scale Data

I had thought that the chart would update automatically, but that doesn't seem to be the case!   The above link should stay current.

What you see below is a chart of hive weight and ambient temperature for one of the hives in our backyard. Right now the hive weighs 142 lbs. You can see it's lost a few pounds over the past few days as the bees have not been able to fly due to the rainy weather.

A few days ago we purchased two "grain scales" or old fashioned platform farm scales from someone on craigslist. We've loaded hives onto them so we can track the weight of the hive and see if the bees are adding nectar, pollen and new bees or dwindling.

It's been pretty amazing to see how quickly hives gain and lose weight even in the few days that I have been keeping track.

These charts will become more useful over time as we begin to really see when hives are growing and when they are dwindling. It's should also be useful to see how hives perform over the winter.

These charts are linked directly to data we enter into Google Documents and should stay updated even as we add data over time. We hope they are useful to us and to other bee keepers in the region.

We'll also be participating in the NASA climate change program that uses hive scale data to understand flowering times as correlated with other data the agency collects.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Honey Harvest!

This field of winter cress came into bloom about two weeks before we started to harvest. It's several acres big and alive with bees. The day we took honey the bees were so concerned with flying here that they barely bothered us. A situation like this is called a honey run. July 2011 honey will contain winter cress, sumac, dandelion, fruit tree, catapula, basswood, and garden flowers. Since both bee yards have good access to Smith College there'll also be some gingko honey in there!

Priscilla gears up by clothes-pinning her pants shut. Beekeepers know something running down your legs is sweat, something running up is trouble.

Priscilla takes the first super of honey from me. A super is the box the bees put the honey in. A hive body is the box bees raise brood in. This box weighs about 40+ pounds. Note the lack of veils and gloves. The bees were really mellow throughout. We did put them on later but after disturbing all the hives in the yard the bees are bound to get a little testy.

Priscilla holds up a perfect frame of honey. This frame is so perfect we should have saved it for a county fair entry. That is what success looks like. A frame like this will only be drawn by a strong hive with good nectar foraging options.

Priscilla, Erin and I inspect a hive for removable frames with well-capped honey. Erin is our bee "intern". The relationship is pretty informal but Erin helps out around the bee yard learning about how to keep bees. She's a sustainable agriculture grad student at UMass and a Smith grad. She helped set up Smith College's community garden program. We're confident Erin will put her education to good use. She's super smart and fun to be around.

We use an herbal substance called Bee Quick to clear supers of bees. It was made by a company called Fisher's, and contains a blend of herbs that bees don't like to smell, so most move out of the super. It's sprayed on a board that is positioned above the hive and the bees just move down into the lower parts of the hive. A few stragglers are always left. Priscilla uses a leaf blower I had laying around to clear the rest of the bees off. It works amazingly well. The bees just get blown out of the top and don't even seem mad - maybe a bit confused. They just sail back to their hive. This is common practice but we had never used it before. I feel that it's less disruptive to the hive and way fewer bees are harmed than the older process where bees are brushed off each frame.

This little mini hive is called a nuc, short for nucleus Colony. It contains a queen and some workers and a little bit of brood. We use them as a back-up in case a hive goes queenless. The laying queen with consort is accepted quickly by the hives and things go back to normal quick. While we were working in the yard we looked into all the hives to see that things were going well.

The queen in this hive is from a USDA breeding program that uses stock from the Siberian region of Russia.

During the hot day we took several swims in the Mill River to cool off. Priscilla is seen here after harvest and before extracting, the process by which honey is removed from the comb. She's standing in front of the greenhouse we use as a honey house. The very warm temperatures in there help the honey flow out of combs and eventually into bottles with a minimum of trouble. I love the fact that it's surrounded by bee-friendly flowers.

Here is the final haul of supers stacked in the honey house. We left plenty of honey on the hives for the bees to use and they are still flying strongly to plants in the field. It's best practice to always leave enough honey for a hive to winter over successfully.

We started to process the honey after dark, so the bees would stay back in their hive. We tried to process during the day once before and it was like the house was under attack by bees. I guess that's because it was under attack by bees.

Priscilla cuts the caps off the honey so we can put it in the extractor to be spun out. She has a great touch with this. When done just right the cappings come off in roll like this. She uses a heated electric knife to do this. It's just warm to the touch, not hot.

The honey-containing frames are then spun in our Maxant extractor, made in Ayer MA. The spinning action slings the honey onto the inside of the extractor where it collects at the bottom and...

...finally pours out the bottom through a course strainer, and passes into the stainless steel bottling tank. All our equipment is stainless including the strainer. The strainer is course and frequently overflows so a lot of wax, pollen and propolis wind up in the honey. These are all safe and natural hive products. Pollen in honey is reputed to help with allergies and loaded with protein and amino acids. Propolis has a lot of medicinal properties including being an antibiotic capable of killing MRSA, the super bacteria found in hospitals. Our honey practically defines raw unfiltered.

We worked until 2 AM processing, as we didn't want to leave a lot of honey in the house to attract bees. We finally gave up and went home to bed.

We returned the next day to to bottle our liquid sunshine.

We placed the used equipment in the back of this field for the bees to clean off. They harvest a surprising amount of honey from the equipment.

The bees then cleaned out any honey spilled in the bed of our pickup.

And finally everyone went home and back to their regular jobs.