My favorite part of our business is taking care of bees. They're just interesting--it's so much fun that we forgive them for inflicting a little pain from time to time Most of our revenue, however, comes from honey sales.
Our dad started out with a hobby business that mostly sold out of the family home outside of Fairfield (IA). After a move to Lynnville and a daily commute to Des Moines, he gradually picked up a number of grocery stores where we still market "Pure Iowa Honey". He still does most of the distribution by running our delivery routes on alternate weeks. Alex and I handle some of the deliveries from time to time.
Here is the storefront of our latest grocery store: Coralville Hy-Vee in Lantern Park Plaza.
It's a satisfying feeling to see your honey on the shelf, and grocery stores are often willing to let in a local producer to fill a niche on the shelf. The thing to remember is that managers hate to see shelf space go empty. If it happens too much, be prepared to see a new product that has replaced yours when you do get around to checking.
One other thing about marketing honey in little bottles with tidy labels on a grocery store shelf has always been a bit strange to me: The transition of honey going from a box carried on a hot summer day into a bottle sitting on a shelf in the middle of winter.
We are making some progress on mite control for this fall. We stripped the boxes off two more yards yesterday, gave them Apiguard, and went to two other yards to give their second treatment of Apiguard. One of the good things about treating in August is that warmer temperatures make the bees more active and the Apiguard disappears quickly. In one location near Montezuma, it only took five days for many of the bees to devour the applicator card. September temperatures can turn much cooler and Apiguard crystals might stay in the hive for ten days or more.
Apiguard is our main mite treatment, but Dad and Alex used some drone frames to capture some of the mites in a few yards back in the springtime.
The open space with no foundation invariably gets filled with drone comb, and the queen generally cooperates by laying it full of the burly boys. Since drones develop for a few more days inside the cell than workers, varroa mites have evolved to prefer drone brood over worker brood. The idea behind the drone frame is that once the drone cells are capped, a good portion of the mites have found their way into those cells. The success of the operation depends on pulling out the drone frame before they emerge on the drones' 24th day. Failing to pull the frame, however, results in actually boosting the varroa population rather than reducing it. This method is best suited for spring when the bees are typically building comb and inclined to raise large numbers of drones.
The rain falls again. We've had torrential rains overnight all week, and today it is falling during the day. 90+ degrees and high humidity have spawned thunderstorm after thunderstorm. I was en route to pull honey with Alex when the skies opened again. Dad started going around with sticky boards a few days ago to assess our varroa load, and it looks like we need to get rolling with stripping the hives and inserting the treatments. I used to aim for Sept. 1 for that job, but our bees seem much healthier in springtime if we begin treatments in late August.
Here is a picture of the sticky board coated with vegetable oil about to go under the hive. When the mites fall off the bees they are trapped and we can estimate the overall mite load. (There needs to be a protective screen on the sticky board or the bees will just clean it off, hiding the actual mite count.)
The pallets we've constructed in the past couple of years have screen-bottoms, so we just slide the sticky board onto a couple of slats positioned under the screen. Then the mites fall through and the bees can't clean off the board.
For our other styles of bottom, we just paperclip a screen on top of the sticky board. Sometimes the bees still manage to clean them off when the screen is too tight against the board.
These days, varroa management is the main issue in keeping bees alive from year to year, so we try to stay on top of the parasite load.
Well, we've made it into early August. The colony average will be respectable, but it will take a few weeks of extracting to find out the exact pounds per hive for 2010. We pulled the honey off of several yards twice--or even three times. We know those yards will turn out to have a strong average.
Here is a colony from the edge of New Sharon that got quite full:
It is satisfying to know that some really full supers await the final pull, but also disappointing that there was not an additional box to keep the hive from filling all the way up. Several hives in this particular yard had nowhere to put fresh nectar. I put out an additional box in hopes of an August flow (it happens every few years in our area, and we usually get at least a few pounds of honey from the fall flowers.). Then again, sometimes the August boxes come off as empty as when we put them on. Three inches of rain in the past week shut down the main nectar flow, but we have temperatures in the upper eighties and nineties that might give us a chance for a a higher yield in the next couple of weeks.
Anyway, we can't complain about the overall crop. Given the fact that we got 1-2 inches every few days during the month of July, I wouldn't have been surprised by a 65 lb average. Hotter summers than 2008 or 2009 helped our bees overcome the excess rain this year.
Here is the same box as above, but from bee-level We'll take these boxes in another week and start giving the hives mite treatments. The joys of late summer and fall!!!
I've noticed that a number of people coming to the blog site are looking on information about how to super for honey. That's a topic that supports numerous philosophies, and they're related to the flow patterns in your particular area. For us, we want supers on by the end of May and beginning of June. We usually put out space for 80-120 lbs on the first round of supering. Then adding additional supers becomes a matter of individual hive performance. Here are some images that show what we often see as we go around:
In this super, the bees are just coming up into the box to store. The combs on the left are getting "whited" with fresh comb as they poke the first droplets of honey into the combs. If the box below this super is in the same condition, we would just leave them to get filled and be satisfied with signs of activity.
In the image below, the bees are getting more serious about storing, but putting most of the honey on the left side of the super--they're just deciding to work the right side too. Occasionally they like to fill one side of three supers rather than fill entire boxes. They will eventually work their way across the box if you stop adding supers until they cooperate Moving one of the storing combs to the empty side of the hive will also encourage them to work more of the box.
Below is a strong hive that is whiting the entire box at the same time. This type of hive can fill the boxes quickly and are the best candidates for drawing foundation when their honey boxes are getting more full.
Drawing foundation is always a bit risky in a honey flow--sometimes a hive will reject the wax-making process and swarm instead. Then you lose honey and bees. But, when you have a strong hive that is running low on space in a good honey flow, they will normally come around to drawing wax. The hive below is the type of hive that I would choose--lots of whiting on the combs, not much space in the honey supers, and not showing the brown/yellow staining suggesting they have been full for a week or two. Hives that have been full for some time are more likely to swarm if you try to force them onto foundation. Hopefully the hive below will just continue with their wax secretions on foundation instead of the older combs!
[That said, my absolute favorite way of drawing deep foundation is only possible in years with above average honey flows. I like to harvest the first honey supers from strong hives, and then place the deep foundation directly over the two-deep brood nest with no excluder. The queen doesn't like laying in the new wax when there are two boxes of dark combs below, so you very rarely get brood in the new-drawn combs and can simply take it as a honey super.--There will be more brood in the new cells if the honey flow drops off.]
The super below is not quite totally full--there is a little space in the middle that could be drawn out further. But noting the abundance of honey and also the burr comb between the top bars shows that the bees would have readily started another super if it had been there. We probably lost some honey to the brood box as the bees ran low on space. In the middle of such a strong flow, I would prefer to give this hive two more boxes, which would give us 10-20 days before needing to come back. One box can fill in 4-7 days on a strong hive in a strong flow.
The key for us is to stay AHEAD of the bees. If we waited until 700 hives have their boxes full, it would take days to get around with more boxes--and maybe a couple of weeks if we have to extract boxes first before having more empties to go out. In the meanwhile, we would lose thousands of pounds of honey for lack of storing space. For example. Let's say there is a great day when the hives all gain 2 lbs of honey, but the supers are all full. That means we lose 1400 pounds (2+ barrels) to the brood nest, the queen will have less space to lay her eggs (resulting in less populous hives three weeks out), and swarming impulse is raised. We want the hives working multiple boxes at the same time and to never get completely full. I'm becoming optimistic that we will cross the 100 lb average this year but some of the 2010 splits have some catching up to do.