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  • Valerie Just

2020 Honey Harvest

Basswood Bloom

July 10, 2020 Update

John extracted honey this week - he probably extracted about 180 pounds, which should just be the beginning of our extraction. Fingers crossed, we will come close to our 1200 pound production from last year! Half of the extracted honey is from our Des Moines' apiary; the other half from our Runnels' apiary. Lo and behold, our honey from Des Moines has a mild Linden honey quality - a hint of mint! This honey is sooooo yummy! It has a floral bouquet, with a touch of mint.

I went for a walk last night to look at the Linden trees on the church property, and as I took a good look, far at the top of the trees, I could see where the trees had bloomed! I have no idea why the trees wouldn't have bloomed on the lower part of the tree, but the top blooms explains the mint taste in our honey. So, good news for Linden lovers, and really all honey lovers. This honey is worth a taste test!

  1. We started beekeeping in the spring of 2015, with 3 honey bee colonies in our backyard in Des Moines. Two of the colonies each originated from a 3 pound package of bees delivered from California. Each package has about 10,000 bees - a robust, healthy colony of bees starts at around 65,000 bees on average, so each package has about 15% of the typical amount of bees.

We also bought a nuc, which also has about 10,000 bees, but a nuc provides a better foundation than the packages of bees, as there are 5 frames of brood (bees in different stages of development) included in a nuc, and the frames already have wax honeycomb established. Making honeycomb takes quite a bit of production energy from the colony, so starting off with a nuc puts a beekeeper well ahead of establishing a more robust colony the first year.

In 2015, we probably harvested 110 pounds of honey from our three start-up colonies, and it had a distinct mint flavor. The mint flavor stems from the Basswood/Linden trees that are on the church property located behind our property. The bees collected as much as their diminutive numbers would allow, but we know in 2015, the Basswood trees were blooming.

We are on a continuing education program each year when it comes to beekeeping. It is amazing how much you need to know and understand about these amazing creatures, but the expertise demand goes well beyond an understanding of the life cycle and maintenance of your bees. If you desire honey production, you need to command as much knowledge about the bloom period of nectar producing plants as your state horticulturist. I have done extensive research on native plants, and planted many of those plants within the confines of my property. I have also gained knowledge on the bloom period of many trees, various types of clover and wildflower plants. This year I am focused on understanding the Basswood tree.

Last year, our honey production exponentially exceeded previous years. We had more colonies at our Des Moines apiary, but this was another Basswood blooming year, and did those trees produce! The nectar from the flowers was literally dripping from the trees, and our bees took advantage of the opportunity Mother Nature provided. We harvested 500 pounds of just Basswood/Linden honey last year; this doesn't include our clover and wildflower production When I include all honey varietal production last year, we harvested over 1200 pounds of honey. Obviously, we were delighted after we got over the exhaustion of harvesting 1200 pounds of honey while trying to maintain full-time employment:) I was weaving between and stubbing my toes on buckets and buckets of honey for several months until we sold most of it. Trust me, I'm not complaining; it is a good problem to have:)

I walk the church property several times a week; it allows me to monitor the Basswood trees to assess the bloom period for the summer, plus get in my 30+ minutes of daily exercise. Our plans were to pull the honey frames to extract as soon as the bloom was complete, and we expected that work to start by now. Sadly, the trees did not bloom this summer.

My initial search on the web for the root cause was not very successful, so I reached out to our Iowa State Extension office this week. I didn't get much of an explanation, just that for some reason the trees didn't bloom this year. I already knew that, so I tried another search on the web. The only reference I could find about sporadic nectar production was in a Botanical Abstract Volume 13, that stated 'nectar secretion is uncertain and a surplus is obtained only once in 3-4 years.' The three to four year observation noted within this book is what we are encountering, with no definitive root cause. Once again Mother Nature is demonstrating her commanding authority, which oversees our destiny.

Nevertheless, we are hopeful that our honey production will equate to last year's production, but time will tell. For our customers that love Basswood/Linden honey, we will not be able to provide that varietal this year, but I know you will love our other two varietals, as well.

Yesterday we drove to Peru (no, we didn't leave the country!) to pick up a 20-frame Maxant extractor, and saw Bird's Foot Trefoil, Canadian Thistle, and several different clovers in full bloom. The honey bloom is in full swing, and our colonies are the healthiest they have ever been. Fingers crossed, our bees keep producing at the rate they have this year, but after five years of beekeeping, we are savvy enough to realize that Mother Nature is in control of our fate!

Time for an Upgrade

I have taken some Six Sigma training at work; the concept is to improve business process functionality through the use of analytical tools. Further, the objective is to ameliorate business performance while decreasing defects, which should ultimately lead to improved profits, employee morale and quality of the business product. I've utilized the concept to ensure that the processes that I create for my operational partners are efficient and well controlled, with risk mitigated and quality assurance results within the intended threshold.

Efficiency has always been essential to me - why work harder than you need to gain the results you seek. My personal time is so valuable to me right now; we started beekeeping well ahead of retirement, and we have more colonies than we ever intended to manage, even in retirement.

In past years, we have been using a six-frame manual extractor. An extractor operates based on centrifugal force; the extractor contains a cylindrical drum that holds the honey frames, and the spinning of the drum pulls the honey from the honeycomb. The honey pours into the bottom of the extractor, and you drain the extracted honey into a 400-600 micron filter, which strains out the pieces of small wax, but maintains any pollen within the honey. The strained honey is stored in a 50 pound food-grade bucket. The picture on the left is a manual-crank extractor; note the crank on the top of the equipment. You load up six honey frames, and crank that puppy until the honey has been pulled from the comb. Trust me when I tell you, it's a lot of work. My well-intentioned, electrical engineer son talked every year of putting a motor on the extractor for us, but he is so busy with his own career and raising a family, that it just never happened.

Each super box holds either 8 or 10 frames of honey, and each colony can produce anywhere from zero boxes in a poor year to 5 super boxes of honey in a good year. Last year, we had some colonies that produced 7 super boxes of honey, but it was not a typical year. If a good year, for one colony of bees, that could tally to 40-50 frames of honey that need to be extracted, dependent on if you are using a medium or large super box. With a six-frame extractor, you need to remove the wax cap from the comb on the six frames, fill up the drum with those uncapped frames, and crank away. For one colony of bees, it equates to loading, spinning and unloading the drum 6-7 times.

So, in the interest of efficiency, and with the anticipated benefit of John and I still cordially talking to each other at the end of harvest season, we popped for a 20-frame Maxant power extractor, and an uncapper this year.

The picture to the left is the new 20-frame extractor! It's still sitting in our garage; we are either going to need to anchor it to a cement floor, or anchor it to a piece of plywood that we can stand on while the extractor is spinning. But take careful note; there isn't a hand-crank on this thing, it is motorized! I don't care how John decides to anchor it; I'm just looking forward to curtailing the time spent harvesting honey!

This is the uncapper that I ordered yesterday. Here is a video that demonstrates how the equipment works. Essentially, you take a frame of honey and push it through the rollers, and it uncaps both sides of the frame at the same time.

For the last five years, uncapping the wax cap has been my job, and I use a serrated knife to virtually slice off the very top of the wax on each side of the frame. It is a sticky, gooey, job; at the end of an 8-hour day of extracting, I have honey in places no one should have honey (for clarity, in my hair, in between my toes, on the bottom of my feet!) and typically have tracked honey and wax throughout my kitchen.

I am rejoicing at the innovation of this piece of equipment; but, time will tell if I am still singing it's praises at the end of harvest season:). I will still need to continue to manually uncap some of the frames, as I use the wax caps to make lip balm, and plan on creating formulations for deodorant and lotion, as well.

Busy Bees!

I just wanted to take a moment and provide some photos of a couple of colonies at our Des Moines apiary. I wrote earlier that last year we had some colonies produce 7 super boxes of honey; historically for us, last year was a bumper crop of honey and our best year yet.

We have a very strong colony that already has 6 super boxes of honey - you can see the tower of boxes in the picture. John is concerned that if a strong wind comes up, they may blow over, so he staked the stack, as well as put a ratchet strap around the hive boxes. He is planning on lowering the hive boxes closer to the ground by using cinder blocks tomorrow, as the hive stand currently in use is not as stable. We then ratchet the entire stack to the cinder blocks, which makes everything more secure.

We plan on extracting capped super frames within the next week, which will take care of this problem. I have put in my request to not start until we have our uncapper; hopefully, John will take mercy on me, and wait to extract until that uncapper arrives!

The colony to the left on this photo has a nasty disposition. This colony has it out for me; whenever I walk past the hives on my way to the church property for a walk, the guard bees chase me, trying to sting me! Our bees are typically really mellow and just go about their business, at least until you start digging in the boxes. I usually can garden right in front of the hive entrance without any problem. But this colony is different, as when I come back from my walk, they will chase me almost up to the house. I am very allergic to all kinds of bees, so I have a healthy respect for these guard bees - I've been stung numerous times this year by this same colony. But you can see, this colony has four super boxes, so they are good producers, as well. We hate to disrupt the colony in the middle of the honey flow, but if necessary, we will re-queen the colony in August if they continue with this obnoxious behavior:) Again, this colony is atypical of most honey bee colonies - the genetics just are a liability, and we may need to intervene!

Also noteworthy in the last picture - look closely, we don't have grass, we are actually raising clover in our backyard. All I can say is that this is a sign of a dedicated beekeeper when you let the clover overtake your grass. If we ever quit beekeeping, we will probably need to plow up the backyard, or kill all of the clover, and replant or sod the entire backyard!

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