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Monday, October 14, 2013

Robbing the Bees…

honey cropI stopped by the espresso stand on Beebe Corner the other day. The afternoon was warm and the various fragrances drifting from the stand had attracted the hornets. As per hornet habit, they were on the hunt for a syrupy repast which bordered on harassment, an intrusion the pretty barista condemned by a scathing comment about “bees.” As I have been around honeybees most of my life, I am quick to come to their defense and as so often in the past tactfully explained that everything that barnstorms your head is not a bee. As the comely young lady was preparing my drink (non-syrupy, by the way), our conversation shifted from bees to honey. “It’s bee poop, honey, isn’t it?” she asked. Shades of Wikipedia. Honey? Bee poop? Valley bee poopAs strange as it may seem, this is not the first time I’ve heard such a thing from a member of the general public. Now I’m opposed to marketing honey as a “raw” product. (To me, “raw” implies “unprepared,” like “raw” chicken, “raw” fish; “pure” is the term I prefer for the unadulterated product.) Imagine trying to market the bees’ ambrosia as “bee poop.”

I shouldn’t be so hard on my young coffee server. What honey is and where it comes from, I’m afraid, remains a mystery to many consumers. I jokingly tell folks you just take a bucket out by the beehive and ask the bees to “fill ‘er up.” And I’m certain some may believe it, too.

“Robbing the bees; taking off the honey; pulling honey”: I’ve heard  these phrases used in reference to removing the season’s honey crop. Regardless if you’re a beekeeper given to euphemism and balk at the term “robbing” to describe harvesting your honey crop, it is a necessary part of the fall routine. After all, we’re the caretakers of “honey” bees, aren’t we? The bucket joke aside, honeycombs must be removed and hauled to the extracting room. At harvest time, a honeybee colony is at near peak population, the honeycombs swarming with bees, 40,000 to 70,000 of them. They’ve worked hard for their ambrosia and cling to the combs, reluctant to part with a drop of their labor. So the bees must go.

There are several methods used to clear the bees from the extracting combs. To my knowledge I’ve used all but one. Make that two if there’s truth to the story that some commercial beekeepers summering their bees in Canadian fireweed and alsike clover found it economically feasible to “rob” all the honey, gas their bees at season’s end, and replace them the next year. Due to the current mite infestation and subsequent high colony mortality, I’m sure this practice, if indeed it were once used, would not  be a viable practice today. The methods I’ve used:

Brushing the bees from the comb. For the hobbyist with one or two colonies, this is perhaps the most practical. Combs are removed one at a time, and after a hard shake or two to dislodge the majority, a soft plastic bristled bee brush is used to sweep off the last hangers on. One at time the bee-free combs are placed in an empty box and set aside.bee brush

Escape boards. These “exit only” devices are placed beneath the bee laden honey boxes. The traditional “bee escape” consists of a metal or plastic sleeve that allows the worker bee to squeeze through two flexible metal prongs (two sets per escape device) and go about her business but prohibit her from returning to the comb.plastic bee escape Other escape boards are maze-like and once the bee is out, she can’t find her way back into the honey super. As a rule most honey boxes are completely bee free in twenty-four hours and once shed of their company can then be lifted off and taken to the extracting site. The escape board method is not foolproof, however. If any of the extracting combs contain brood or perhaps pollen, attendant bees, whose job it is to work indoors, will remain behind to tend to their business. Sometimes a bee corpse, a larger drone, perhaps, will jam the exit prongs. Using boards with two or three escapes allows the bees multiple escape points should one of the others become jammed. A cautionary note about the escape board method: as there is usually a nectar dearth when honey is removed, bees are quick to assume a  robbing mode, and if there is any top access such as a hive lid askew or a lid vent open, the beekeeper is in for a big surprise.When he goes to lift off that honey laden box, he may well find it light as a feather; the bees will have taken back what’s rightfully theirs.escape board

Fume boards. By using a fume board, the beekeeper “stinks” the bees from the honey combs. A telescoping lid lined with absorbent padding replaces the standard lid in this method. The padding is doused with an odiferous chemical whose smell repels the bees, drives them down out of the honey supers. I have used two kinds of fume chemical: first, a product called Bee-Go which I found especially foul smelling; when the unsuspecting nose gets a whiff of this product, its owner immediately inspects the soles of his shoes to see if he may have stepped in something. The second product, much easier on the beekeeper’s olfactory, uses almond extract to remove the bees. The fume board is best  used on a hot afternoon on hives located in full sun. Painted black to absorb the heat, the tin-covered lid is set atop the honey box at a skewed angle for a few minutes,  time enough for the bees to start their exodus without being stunned. A few puffs of cool smoke from a smoker encourages them to move downward, as well. The lid is then positioned correctly and in fifteen minutes or so, the honey super, now free of bees, is removed. I’ve had the most success with fume boards in Eastern Washington on ninety degree plus days; in our locale there’s usually not enough heat for this method to work efficiently.fume board

Bee Blower. Back in the ‘80s I had a busy little bee business of sixty some colonies. The first of August half that number I trucked up the Methow Valley to let the bees work their magic on star thistle. Six weeks later I returned to harvest the thistle honey crop. In those days I removed bees from the honey laden supers with a bee blower, a customized leaf blower of sorts that generated a stream of air in excess of one hundred mph. bee blowerThat blower has sat dormant all these years in the loft of my shed.  Whether out of nostalgia or because the previously mentioned methods take more time, I decided to haul the red blaster out the attic this fall and make short work of harvesting the year’s  crop. I changed the oil, filled the gas tank, and thirty some years later after a few pulls on the starter cord, the machine roared to life.

I hauled the blower and a pair of sawhorses out to the bee yard and set to work. The blower has a corrugated tube, one end of which I twisted into the blower’s fan casing; into the opposite end I inserted a shop vac-sized crevice tool. As I removed a super, I upended it on the sawhorses, tipped it forward, and revved the blower engine to peak rpm. Then as I directed the stream of air between the frames, the bees whooshed out toward the entrance of their hive. Moving the crevice tool slowly up and down one frame after the other, I blasted the bees off the face of the combs.When the box was bee-free, I set it aside and moved on to the next. I was finished in half an hour’s time: six boxes full of honey…six boxes empty of bees. I had forgotten how well the system worked. (Another “windfall”: the whine of the blower drowned out the droning of hundreds of angry bees being “robbed.”) honey in the comb

“What method did you use to encourage the bees to leave your supers?” I asked Quenton during a recent visit to the Beez Neez Apiary supply. His answer supplied me with the only technique I have yet to try. “I took an empty box, set it on the ground, removed a super, turned it sideways and banged it up and down on the empty box until I knocked all the bees loose.” “Ah, you used the tough love approach, then?” I remarked. A smile crawled its way out of Quenton’s bush of a beard. “That’s what I’m all about,” he grinned.

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  1. Well done. This post would be a great handout for my beekeeping classes. Also Quentin will be flattered that he made it into your blog.

  2. Ah, but would Mr. W. be flattered at the spelling of his name? Thanks for the inadvertant heads-up. At least I didn't spell it "Qwynton ." Thanks for the kind words...and for reading....TMJ