The Magic of Nectar Becoming Honey

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!

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This honey super box is fully capped, end to end, front and back, with beautiful honey ready to be harvested.

 

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Honey bees produce wax, placing thin layers of it over dried or cured honey.  We call this wax cappings.  Wax that is placed directly onto the surface of the honey appears wet, like in the top portion of the above frame, and is referred to as wet cappings.  Sometimes honey bees leave a small amount of air space between the honey and the wax, leaving the wax to look white or very light and we call this dry cappings.  Certain types of honey bees prefer one method over another, but my girls are a mixed lot so I see both within the same colony.  There is no difference in the color, taste or quality of the honey beneath the cappings.

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.

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This girl is collecting nectar and pollen as she works a mass of coreopsis, lanceleaf tickseed, in my wildflower bed.  Her proboscis is extended as she lands on the bloom and her face is already covered with pollen from nearby blooms.  She is a busy bee, working this lovely patch of blooms ripe with nectar and pollen.

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.

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Nectar is being transferred from a forager to a receiver bee.  You can see the extended proboscis in this picture.  I had the hive completely open for a thorough inspection when this returning forager found an available house bee, wasting no time to transfer her nectar and then return to foraging.

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.

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The top half of this frame is ready to be harvested but the lower portion is still curing so we wait.  Tipping the frame could help determine how close it is to being capped.  If it leaked, that would indicate that it’s still nectar.  If it didn’t, it’s becoming thick, sweet honey.  Honey with a water content of 18.6% or less will last indefinitely whereas a higher water content would lead to fermentation over time.  The bees know when it’s ripe and will cap at that point so there’s no need for guessing.

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.

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That’s a lot of honey, honey!  My husband took this picture when we finished working the big hive to show how small I look in relation to the towering colony with four full honey supers and much more below for the bees.  During this process I do in fact feel small for my trace contributions to the ecosystem as compared to the small insects that give so much back to us in their pollination services, quietly feeding us without pomp or circumstance as they go about their important work.

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.

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New life:  honey bees about to be born.  They chew through the wax when it’s time to emerge, approximately 21 days after the queen lays the egg.
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Nurse bees checking on this emerging honey bee.  Another is exiting its comb just to the left keeping this nursery and nurses busy.

 

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Honey bees use mandibles to chew through the wax layer of the cell in which they developed.

 

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New baby bee, fuzzy and light, finding her way about in her newly expanded world.  She will stay within the hive for about three weeks, working her way through jobs from house cleaning to nursing to guarding, until graduating to her final and most vital role as forager where she will literally work herself to death.

 

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These new bees in the center of the picture are getting their bearings, but will immediately go to work.  Empty cells are cleaned and readied for the queen to lay more eggs, continuing the circle of life.

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.

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Honey bees frequently build comb in between boxes as a type of ladder from one box to the next, but being efficient they fill that comb with nectar.  Separating the boxes during inspection rips that open, exposing sweet honey that appeals not just to humans but also to honey bees, both inhabiting this colony and not, as well as other marauding insects flying about that would not hesitate to fill up on this bounty.  Stacking the supers and closing it with an outer cover or pillow case proves helpful.

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.

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Massive tulip poplars in the woods next to the bee hives.  These native trees provide a bounty of nectar in early spring for honey bees and are considered to be a key nectar source here in Maryland.  There’s nothing like standing under a tree to realize how small we are but to stand below these giants and recognize their role in the critical nectar flow for honey bees is altogether another feeling of admiration because we know that honey bees need food to stay alive and make the foods on our table possible.  While planting just got underway here in Maryland, these trees provided the bulk of the honey in 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!

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The sweet nectar in this white wood geranium, Cranesbill, garners lots of honey bee attention (and ants apparently find the nectar to be tasty as well).

 

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She likes the geranium nectar so much that she searched out every last drop.  You can see how her body is covered in pollen and from this image, you can then envision the pollination process.  Honey bees have fuzzy bodies that easily trap pollen and when they visit nearby blooms, pollen is dropped onto other plants, benefitting plants and humans then as well.

 

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This bank of seven Virginia Sweetspire bushes, Itea virginica, ‘Little Henry’, is currently in bloom and receiving lots of pollinator attention.  It is literally humming with pollinator life and a joy to watch for a few moments at a time as honey bees, native bees, moths and butterflies visit in mass.

 

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This honey bee is sipping nectar from opened blooms on this long stem of flower clusters after a rain shower.  It’s helpful to have lots of pollinator friendly plants close to home so reprieves from rain allow for easy, nearby foraging.  The bottom portion of this long flower cluster contains blooms not yet open, so more is to come from this Virginia Sweetspire.

 

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Salvia provides a lot of bang for the buck.  It blooms long and honey bees love it, as do most pollinators.  I have it in purple and white, both of which are filled with bees on any sunny day.  Spent stalks can be cut back to encourage regrowth for blooms all summer long.

 

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Brambles are blooming in mass along my garden.  Both raspberry and blackberry plants are high traffic areas for me right now as the bees and other insects visit the blooms.  Blackberry is considered to be an important nectar source for Maryland honey bees.  My bramble bushes surround a portion of my vegetable garden and are full of life right now, providing a backdrop of music from busy wings flying from blossom to blossom as I work my garden.

 

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Lightning bugs (fireflies) are pollinators too, as are many beetles. 

 

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This bumblebee is also working the blackberry bushes.  She has very full pollen pouches on her rear legs.  She will take her nectar and pollen back home to feed the young, but bumblebees do not produce and store honey in volume like honey bees, yet they do help with pollination efforts.

 

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Honey bee working alongside native bees.  Some native bees are so small they look like flecks or markings on petals.  It takes the work of many different bees to make pollination happen.  While we benefit from honey and pollination services of honey bees who manage our food supply, it is their desire to store up food and plants’ needs to procreate that make it all possible.

 

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I maintain several water sources around my house to keep water close to the hives, making their work easier.  There’s not a time I don’t see honey bees drinking water from these sources but sometimes, a reminder that nature’s provisions are best puts things into perspective.  This was the case as I watched this girl drinking water droplets from clovers after a recent rain shower.  I was fixated on her as she moved her proboscis from water droplet to water droplet, the tiny drops disappearing before my very eyes.

 

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First harvest:  small but mighty, just like the honey bee. 

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.

 

 

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From the meadows at Longwood Gardens

 

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