A fast warm up with not just warm but down right hot days this spring allowed plants to bloom early, providing pollen and nectar to pollinators searching for much needed food. The past few weeks were more indicative of spring with lots of rain and cooler weather, although the whole package is typical Maryland weather- unpredictable. The rain certainly helped everything grow and the cool, dry weather assisted my honey bees with their curing efforts. The result: a fully capped super and three more on the way. Translation: Honey, honey! I will be extracting soon and that is an exciting proposition indeed!
Honey bees collect nectar from blooming plants. Nectar is a carbohydrate source for bees. Upon collection, it is mostly water, generally in the 80% range, the remaining portion being sugar, the actual water to sugar ratio varying from plant to plant. As a honey bee flies back to her hive after foraging and filling up on nectar, she adds an enzyme to the nectar she’s collected that initiates the curing process.
Upon returning to her colony, she transfers her cache to an awaiting house bee or receiver bee who will find proper storage in an awaiting honey comb cell. More enzyme is added and then the ardous process of fanning and curing begins as nectar transforms into honey. Once the water portion gets to the magical 18.6% mark and the sugar content is now on the high end of the ratio, it’s ready to be capped (and harvested by beekeepers). This process takes time, hard work on behalf of the honey bees, and cooperation from the weather. Humidity can work against the curing process, requiring much more bee power to fan and dry out the nectar.
When the girls decide that the honey is ready (that knowledge being a bit of a miracle of nature in and of itself), they produce fresh wax and seal the honey into the honey comb. Once capped, honey can last indefinitely. The caveat being that if the honey is left on too long, a beekeeper risks losing the surplus honey.
I recently inspected my hives with the help of my husband. I can no longer work the great tower of my big colony because the four boxes on top are honey supers that are not just full, but very heavy, easily weighing in at forty to fifty pounds. Getting them down from that height is difficult; lifting them back up to put them in place without smushing curious bees is an even bigger task. My husband was even heaving as he lifted them off and returned them to position.
While I’m focused on harvesting honey, I’m also mindful of the sheer size of this colony and the implications that carries. Thriving hives like to swarm as a means of procreation. Providing plenty of space with extra boxes and interspersing empty frames with full frames to give them frames to draw out and fill are ways I’ve tried to keep them here, together as a unit, busily filling supers with nectar and pollen and the brood chamber with eggs, perceiving that they have much room within their hive. Having such bee volume makes their work easier too but it comes with a cost.
Varroa mites like large colonies where they too can procreate. As soon as I harvest honey, I know I will need to treat for Varroa. What this means quite simply is that I will dump chemicals into my hive to help the bees fight off the viruses that the Varroa destructor mites transmit. As an organic gardener, I don’t take this lightly, but it is the state of modern, backyard beekeeping. I see treating for mites as an important part of the stewardship agreement I’ve made with nature when I decided to keep honey bees. My small apiary does not afford me a lot of room for losses so I stay on top of current research and monitor my mite levels. Consider as well that if I don’t treat, I not only risk loss, but my honey bee woes extend to surrounding beekeepers and that is just not cool.
While honey is being cured and my excitement for an imminent honey harvest grows, the business of living continues within this colony. They know they’ve worked hard and stored up a lot of honey, but they also know they need to continue rearing young. My marked queen has been busy laying eggs. I like to see her when I inspect because at any time, they could decide to supersede her so laying eyes on her marked abdomen lets me know their status. If she weren’t marked, I’d have no idea if she were my original queen that came into the season.
Diligence is needed as I inspect now. I work steadily, but respectfully, trying to not keep the hive open too long, but looking for certain things like the queen or evidence of her presence in the form of newly laid eggs, confirming empty swarm cells which are always at the ready, making sure they don’t start backfilling the brood nest with nectar which would indicate plans to swarm, and determining how well they’re utilizing the space I’ve given them, adjusting accordingly.
One important part of my inspection now is protecting the honey. Removing boxes and frames from the hive inevitably results in ripping comb with honey inside. That honey is not only attractive to us, but to other bees of all varieties. As such, I cover the honey supers and leave them as unexposed as possible to diminish the risk of robbing or any frenzy.
The main nectar flow is ending here in Maryland. I don’t see my girls flying straight up to the tulip poplar blooms in the woods, but rather swirling, navigating and heading to points unknown. Remnants of the tulip poplar blooms are scattered all over my yard, so I know this nectar source has now passed. I marvel at the tulip poplars that contributed to this hearty honey flow, grateful for their maturity and close proximity to my hives.
I see more honey bees (and all manner of native bees too) on my flowers now. Salvia, coreopsis, and geraniums are in bloom and garnering much attention now. My bank of Virginia sweetspire, blackberry and raspberry bushes have been covered at times, the buzzing from their busy wings drawing me close to observe their amazing work of pollination. Not only will we soon enjoy honey, but raspberries, blackberries and other treats from the garden, courtesy of the amazing honey bees in my backyard!
And so it begins with first harvests and honey stores. Summer is here! There’s really no magic involved in any of it, just the goodness of harmony, balance and relationships. Nature is providing a bounty to earth’s inhabitants. Let us care for her offerings and in return, we will be richly rewarded for our efforts, however small they may be.
I'm a backyard gardener, beekeeper and chicken mama in rural Maryland where I embrace native and pollinator friendly plant offerings absent chemical interventions. Clovers, dandelions and wild violets decorate my lawn in a different kind of beauty, one that embraces nature's offerings and gives back to the wildlife surrounding me. My small vegetable garden provides organic fruits and vegetables to my family, and often to nature's marauders. My chickens eat organically and free range with supervision. My honey bees don't follow my rules because in essence, they're not my bees. I just own the equipment and provide lodging in hopes of harvesting a little honey each summer along with the bounty of produce available from my garden, farmers markets and grocery stores from their vital pollination services. I earned my master gardener certificate from the University of Maryland Extension Services in 2014 and began beekeeping in 2012. What I've learned along the way is that our choices matter and there's always more to learn.
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