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We’re in the honey!

Yesterday, I decided it was time to take honey off my bees for the first time. I was nervous – not because I’d be robbing the bees (I don’t fear them at all) but because I had to use this new fangled honey extractor and my untried, heated uncapping knife and I had no clue what I was doing. I’ve waited over a year to do this, and I didn’t’ want to botch it up and have to wait another year to harvest honey.

I began by checking my two new bee hives, the ones I set up this April. Something is wrong. The comb they are building is erratic, lumpy and disconnected. It’s spilling out to the sides and attaching to the roof in clumps, while the nice, neat frames are empty. One hive has tons of new bees. The other one isn’t reproducing quite as well, but they are alive and trying their best. If they don’t get their act together, they won’t survive the winter, however. I’m thinking the erratic comb may be because I bought the new foam core hives that they advertise as being easier to lift (perfect for a woman) rather than the old fashion wooden hives. Perhaps the bees don’t like it. I bought both swarms from the same company. Perhaps they’re stupid, reject bees the company wanted to unload. Then again, maybe these weaker hives are being robbed by the stronger hive or they have caught a virus. I will have to do some research to see if I can rectify this problem or at least define what is going on. I guess it will teach me something – though I can’t stand the idea of another year lost due to the learning curve.

I then went to check my year old hive. The bees were abundant, swarming happily all about me – well, they were until I began to remove their frames filled with honey. Then they got pissed. I was shocked at how heavy a frame filled with honey, capped with wax is. Each one weighted about 7 pounds. Considering there are ten in a super, the box was difficult to lift. First, I had to remove the bees. I smoked them, and then put this stinky bee removal pad on the top of the hive. I almost poisoned myself, because I used my mouth to bite off the plastic seal on the top, and suddenly my tongue was burning and an awful taste overcame me. It’s not like I was eating the stuff, but for several minutes it felt like my face was on fire. I had a bottle of water in the drink holder in my mule, so I splashed water in and around my mouth and hoped for the best. Obviously, no damage was done, but it was another lesson learned. Respect bee chemicals – check.

The bees moved out of the hive, or at least most did. A few stubbornly refused to budge, and I swept them away with my bee brush only to have them fly around my back and return again. Gotta love hard worker’s tenacity.

Considering I am inexperienced at this, I was in a quandary about what to do next. Should I leave the supper box empty or fill it with blank frames? I intended to bring the frames back after removing the honey so the bees would have a head start refilling them, but how long would it take me to extract honey and would the bees freak out in the meantime? I ended up leaving blanks frames in the box and headed to the house to extract my honey. I also read you need to do this in a place where the bees won’t find you, so I set up my extractor in the garage.

I gingerly cut away the wax capping in one smooth motion as the instructions said. Clumps of wax filled with honey dropped into a pan. Neva and her best friend watched, coaching me as if they had some clue of how this should be done. When both sides of the frame had been cut away and it was now dripping honey, I slid it into the extractor. When four frames were ready (to balance the centrifugal force inside) I let Neva rotate the handle to begin spinning. She put some muscle into it, and suddenly honey came oozing out from the bottom spout – exciting,  but it was filled with broken comb and debris.

“Perhaps we shouldn’t spin so rigorously,” I suggested.
So she spun softer. Then the honey barely extracted and the frame remained gooey.
“OK, back to spinning faster,” I said, deciding that broken comb might be a normal thing. How would I know?
“We flipped the frame two times to get the honey extracted. In the end, the frames were still honey damp , but I had half a five gallon bucket filled and several frames to go. Wow.

When we were finished, we poured the honey through a huge strainer to remove the clumps of comb and one or two dead bees – death by honey suffocation– sad way to go.
The honey oozed slowly, purified amber that was thick and sweet once strained. I then poured it into bottles I had ordered for just this day. By the way, don’t use a funnel if you ever try this. Takes forever. The direct pour method is best.

Next, I had to decide what to do with the wax capping. It was filled with honey and I remember reading somewhere that you could melt it to make the wax separate. So I put this mess in my favorite cooking pan to melt the wax (big mistake). As it was heating, I got out my beekeeper’s book to see if it had any advice on wax preparation (Um… I couldn’t wait to read about what I was doing first?) I was supposed to use a double boiler to melt beeswax to avoid a wax fire, and there was no mention of honey separating. They did warn you that you would proabaly ruin the pan used. Oops. I poured the liquid mess into a paper container hoping for the best. This morning I inspected it to find the wax had hardened but was floating over a lot of honey. I threw this honey away however, not knowing how heating it the day before might have affected its longevity or safety. (More research required). I washed the honey off the backside of the wax and melted this mess again (in a small plastic container standing in a double boiler this time) This concoction is now hardening for Mark, who’s only interest in my keeping bees is his getting bees wax for wood finishes. I really hoped to present him with some usable wax but I have no clue if my experiment will work.
I did end up with 20 bottles of honey which will certainly last us the winter. I probably retrieved half the honey a healthy hive is supposed to deliver, partially because I had only one super to remove and it wasn’t entirely filled, and partly because I didn’t know how to extract efficiently to gain the greatest harvest. And I’ve left two huge boxes filled with comb, honey and brood for the bees to last the winter. At least I learned what not to do. By next year, with three hives to harvest (hopefully) and some awareness of what honey extraction entails, I’ll be far more graceful and efficient at the task. 

I put the empty frames out by the hives so the bees could clean up the remaining honey (I read about that in beekeeper magazine.) Later, I worried that a honey soaked frame would attract ants. Gee, everything new you try comes with a unique set of problems. I will check the frames today, and if they look OK, I’ll put them back and see how that works for the bees.

While I had my bee suit on, I decided to remove the basketball sized paper wasp nest at the end of our driveway. Usually we wait until fall when the nests go dormant to try to retrieve such things, but the wasps are a threat situated right where people walk everyday, and sometimes when you wait, rain, wind and animals destroy the nests. This one was too pretty to risk.

I approached slowly and cut the branch the nest was attached too, lowering the paper ball into a big garbage sack. Immediately, a hundred angry wasps emerged and swarmed all about my body and face in attack mode.
I was a little nervous, because while my bee suit is great amour around little honey bees, I’ve never tested it with more aggressive insects. Luckily, I couldn’t feel a thing, but still, I didn’t like all those nasty wasps covering me, so I walked quickly up the hill to the house shooing them away. Eventually, they flew off leaving me holding a buzzing bag of very confused and angry wasps, now trapped in the dark with their air slowly ebbing away. (Gosh it sounds creul now that I’m describing it.) The sack was literally vibrating with the motion inside, which felt more dangerous than it really was. I tied the top tightly, put it on the porch and happily got away. Today, I’ll move it to the barn storage area for a year long rest and by next year I’ll have a perfect, wonderful nest for decoration. I’m told if you spray these paper nests with hairspray they hold together for years. I’ll try that with the ones we retrieved last season and see if it works.

With jars of honey decorating the counter (had to show them off, ya know) I was feeling like nature’s personal chef, so I dragged Neva to the blue berry bush and we picked several gallons of ripe berries. Together, we made three batches of jam. I could have made more with our windfall, but when she wasn’t’ looking, I hid a bucket full in the freezer to make wine later this week. I bottled two more batches, one merlot and one chardonnay, recently and even put together a winerack to hold them, though I confess it was more to keep the house looking neat since it is for sale than because I wanted to display my wine. I make it faster than we can drink it and the bottles do build up. I have another 60 that will soon be ready to process…. Um…. perhaps another rack, like bookends would look nice. 

So concludes my culinary projects for one day.

Still no baby llama. Pulani’s udders are full. Her belly has dropped. She looks overly ripe.  I figure now that I’ve got my jam and honey projects off my to-do list, it’s time we finish off this llama ordeal. I just have to convince Pulani to work with me here. Fat chance.

I am dilligently working on a memoir now, and though it is hard to capture the level of honesty that defines a truly good book, I am happy with my progress. Writing is exhausting when done well, and it drains you to the core, so I find myself having to leave my computer to seek diversions every hour or so. I blog less because I simply can’t sit still anymore after my work. That’s a shame considering how much I value this system of keeping in contact with friends . And when I go to the barn or cook dinner, I continue working in my head – never a break from the project at hand.   I wish I could just get the book done so it wouldn’t keep swarming around my head like yesterday’s wasps. Sometimes I miss the days when writing to me was simply losing myself in a friviolous romance story, and yet, I’m compelled by other challenges now. Evolution. It’s a bitch.


About Ginny East Shaddock

Ginny is the owner of Heartwood Yoga Institute. She is an ERYT-500 Yoga teacher, C-IAYT Yoga therapist, RCYT & Ayurveda Counselor who loves nature, gardening, and creative arts. She has an MFA in creative writing from Lesley University, and a BA in Business Administration from Eckerd College. She teaches writing and is the creator of the memoir writing program, "Yoga on the Page" combining the teaching of yoga to writing personal stories with integrity, intention, and heart.

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