Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Our first honey - a very special day.

I've not blogged about the bees for a while.
We are still novices to beekeeping and Sue has taken over the mantle of head beekeeper. We had our first bees while we still lived in South-East London. Surprisingly the patchwork of urban gardens there is actually a very good place to keep bees. We did rather well for a while, but our hive failed to come through its first winter and got robbed and finally killed off by robber bees from another colony.

We kept all the gear, sure that we would start up again one day. Last year, now in The Fens of South-East Lincolnshire, we embarked on our beekeeping career again. The first year was an interesting one - very hot early spring during which bee colonies everywhere quickly became strong, followed by half a year of rain. Everybody's bees were swarming all over the place, including ours.

It was a fast learning curve and, although we collected no honey, we did end the year with two healthy colonies of honey bees.

Early on in this year's spring, both hives looked OK, but spring never really warmed up and ended up being the coldest in 50 years. Unfortunately we lost one of the colonies, but the second was (and is) still looking very strong.
So strong, in fact, that they have started building queen cells again, a sure sign that the colony is filling up and planning on splitting. This is  the bees' way of spreading and sending out new colonies. But it is not great news for the beekeeper. Effectively you face losing half your bees (more if subsidiary swarms occur) and won't be able to take honey from them this year.
But it also creates the opportunity to anticipate the departure of half your bees and to set up a new colony. I won't go into the ins and outs of how to do this, but Sue has attempted to achieve it and we have our fingers crossed.
This is all very exciting (and slightly worrying) but even more exciting action came on Sunday when Sue decided there were enough supers of capped honey to try spinning some off.
The way a hive works is that at the bottom lives the queen and there she lays her eggs which develop and hatch. Other bees tend the larvae and the foragers go out everyday to collect pollen and nectar. In the cells around the brood they store this food in the form of honey.
Above this brood box the beekeeper places more frames of hexagonal foundation cells, which the bees build up into storage larders for more honey. But there is one very important difference with this part of the hive. For the queen is excluded from here, which means there are no eggs and no larvae. This honey is there for the taking!
Once the honey has reached the correct consistency, the bees cap it with a thin layer of wax.  So the first step is to scrape this off. We have a comb for this purpose, though a special knife can be used too.

Uncapping the honey.

This was amazing as the honey just started oozing out. Next the frames go into a spinner where centrifugal force sends the honey flying out of the cells and against the side walls, whereupon it trickles down to the bottom of the spinner. At this stage, there will be wax mixed in too.
I was  a bit enthusiastic with the spinning and one of the frames disintegrated a little bit. Not a total disaster, as the frames go back in with the bees to be cleaned and repaired by them.

Draining the honey from the spinner.

A tap at the bottom of the spinner allows the honey to be drained out through a double spinner. At this stage we could really see how our honey was going to turn out. Of course, we couldn't resist dipping our fingers in either.
The honey was surprisingly delicate and light. None of it seemed to have crystallised in the cells and we are hoping that the influence of oil seed rape is not too great, as this causes honey to set rock hard.

In all we got nine jars of honey. Some beekeepers don't get this much in their first few years, but with a bit of luck it will just be the start of a very successful honey year this year.

Now to go find some honey recipes.

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