Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Soft Set Honey

Honey is normally a liquid but it's often sold as Set or Creamed Honey. This is the stuff that doesn't run, sticks to your knife and is easier to spread on your toast. It tastes the same as liquid honey, in fact it's actually the same stuff except it's physical state has been altered by encouraging it to crystallise in a controlled way. Left to it's own devices liquid honey crystallises and needs warming to melt it again. This process is called granulation. At some point in distant days of yore some bright spark who's name history seems to have forgotten discovered that is seed liquid honey with honey that has formed small crystals the liquid honey will form crystals the same size. I have no idea how that works, probably some complicated metallurgy stuff going on there, but work it certainly does.

As I wanted to label my honey as Produce of England I figured I'd best get some English seed honey to start the process. Turns out this is actually far easier said than done late at night anyway, if it was daytime I could've probably just got some from another bee keeper.. anyway I tried 5 supermarkets before I was able to find any English Honey, everything on the shelves in Tesco and Sainsbury's was a blend of "EU and Non EU" Honey. It wasn't till I got to Asda that I found English Set Honey. Well done Asda for selling English Honey. But unfortunately also big black mark to Asda for sticking a Bumble Bee on the label instead of an actual Honey Bee. D'oh.

Actually in 2014 this stuff was withdrawn from sale after some came into contact with South African Honey by accident. Having been mixed with South African honey they couldn't sell it English that year. Oops. Red faces all round but I'm sure after a little shouting and some awkward foot shuffling they'll've tightened things up after that though. That's the kind of faux pas I'm hoping to avoid and assuming Asda's product is as

English Set Honey from Asda -There's a mistake in this photo..
The smoothness of the set honey depends on the size of the crystals it forms, the larger crystals give a grittier feel to it, smaller crystals a smoother texture. I bought a handful of different set honeys to compare and there was quite range in crystal sizes. This English Set Honey was really smooth, which is what I'd expect given the label suggests it's a premium product.

Asda's English Honey meets my English Honey

The first thing to do is add your seed honey to a bucket of liquid honey. Then stir. It's actually not easy stirring a bucket of honey for long, but not to worry technology to the rescue. A modern honey stirrer is like a 3' long blunt corkscrew made from food grade stainless steel that fits into a drill. You need to mix it evenly and avoid dragging air bubbles into the liquid.


 The noise of the drill should give some indication of how much work is involved. It must've been really hard work prior to electronic shortcuts. Once mixed it looked a bit like a coffee.

Liquid and seed honey mixed
Once mixed it was decanted into jars and put somewhere cool to crystallise. I opted to use my Honey Warming Cabinet. It's an insulated box after all. Obviously I didn't turn it on and loaded it up in the evening closing the door when it was cool in the evening seemed to do the trick.

Everybody be cool..
I gave it a few weeks to crystallise probably didn't need quite as long as I gave it. With the first batch done I was able to use these to seed more buckets of honey, and rather than go to the shed I left some in the fridge to cool. I'd turned the fridge up to it's warmest setting as if it's too cold it slows crystallisation.

Chilling. A bit.
 I didn't set the whole honey crop as some people prefer their honey in it's natural state. I put it in three sizes of jar, 250g, 365g and 454g. 454g is the traditional Pound of honey.

45 Kilos of Local Honey.
Some readers may be wondering how it was possible for Set Honey to be made in the first place if you already need a couple of jars full to make it. There is another way. You start with some heavily granulated honey and grind it with a mortar and pestle breaking up the large sugar crystals.

Granulated Honey in a Mortar

Same honey after some heavy grinding

It's harder work than you'd imagine and you have to do a very small batch at a time to get it even. I assume commercial outfits like whoever made the Asda English Set Honey will probably have some high tech machinery to do the job or possibly even some clever sciencey temperature controlled set up but if you have the time you can do it yourself. Once you've creamed a two or three jars you can use them to seed a bucket and when that sets use it to seed more buckets. If you store it right you should be able to use some of that next year to seed your next crop.

The original granulated honey and the ground honey

Ready for mixing with liquid honey
This is actually the first way I tried to make set honey, using a heavily granulated jar I'd saved from a couple of years ago. Unfortunately I made a beginner's mistake and tried to do it in July. It was too warm and the bucket didn't crystallise as hoped. In hindsight I would've probably been okay if I'd put the bucket in the fridge.. But not to worry, if your attempt to make a set honey goes wrong all you need to do is warm it up to return it to it's liquid state and you're ready to go again.

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Hot Air and the 2015 Honey Crop

I extracted the 2015 crop in August and September. As my number of hives had increased this year I'd had to make some extra clearer boards. I read a post in the Diary of a Nervous Beekeeper suggesting painting different hive components different colours so you can easily see what component are in place from a distance and decided to adopt that idea for my clearer boards. It's handy being able to see clearer boards at a glance so you don't leave them by accident -the bees are a bit smart and would eventually figure out how to get back into the super. I used some Red Cedar Shed & Fence Paint for the outer edges. I'm not convinced it looks close to cedar but it certainly stands out (ok clashes) against the green components.

Hi-Vis Clearer Board
I gave the bees a few hours to move down through the boards before removing the supers. As the bees move down through the clearer it takes time for them to get between the frames below so I decided to have a little peek under the clearer to see what was happening.

 Some of the supers were heavy but the ones from the more recently caught swarms were pretty light as evidently the bees had been a little busy in the brood nest getting settled, drawing comb and whatever else recently housed swarms do.

Supers, ranging from heavy to empty.
Removing the cappings from the completed cells is a bit a of a drag to put it mildly. You have to slide a capping fork under the cappings and lift them off sounds simple enough but in a warm room with honey dripping it gets tedious. Because of that there's a few different technological innovations to make the task easier from heated knives to mechanised solutions. I opted for something recommended by another user in the Beekeeping Forum, the hot air gun.
The WHGV2000, just shy of a tenner from Wickes

The hot air gun is pretty fast and seems to work through a combination of melting the wax and heating the air between the honey and the capping to push off the wax. It doesn't take long to uncap a frame this way and if you did it slowly you run a risk of damaging the honey. I did find that with a partially filled frame the airgun makes a bit of a mess of empty cells it hits so I'll not be completely ditching the capping fork just yet. I also found that with some of the cappings being blown off the frame there was some mess where the little blobs of  wax landed. I suspect that with practice and finding the right temperature both problems will diminish with time.

In total I got about 45KG of honey, most of which had come from three hives. Not a massive crop but my best so far.I decided to make Set Honey with some of it which I'll be waffling about a bit in a later blog entry.

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Monty Wrong..

Today I stumbled across another entomology fail. This time by an online column by Monty Don on the MyMail Garden website. Monty is a presenter for BBC Series Gardener's World and I think it's fair to say he's generally accepted as an authority on how to grow stuff, although in May he annoyed a lot of beekeepers when on national television he suggested people could plonk a top bar hive in their garden and leave the bees to it. No swarm control, no monitoring colony health, parasite levels, viral loads or even checking food stores.. an irresponsible approach the outcome of which would actually be starving stressed bee colonies dying out all over the place. A beekeeper did complain to the BBC and published their response online, strangely the BBC stood by the bad advice of their presenter.

Anyway in Monty Don's Diary was an short article about Wasps. In it he briefly explains a little about the variety of wasps, social wasp nests, venom and the useful role of wasps to the gardener and a few creatures that predate wasps. Unfortunately the photograph accompanying the article is quite clearly showing Honey Bee workers on honey comb.

Those "wasps" look suspiciously furry, and bee shaped.
Definitely not wasps. In fact the comb appears to contain capped honey. The article was posted in August this year and a quick glance at the comments shows at people have pointed out the error but it's not been addressed...

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Vintage Makery Do

The excellent Vintage Cafe (purveyors of top notch coffees and gluten free cakes) organised the Vintage Makery Do on the 24th of October at St. Ninians Church on Chanterlands Avenue. Originally built in 1643 that weekend it played host to a variety of art and craft related stalls to raise money for the Hull Animal Welfare and the Homeless. Entry was just 20p per person or a piece of food or clothing for the homeless collection.

Some folks set up the night before but I was working late and was the last to arrive. I'd brought honey, lip balm, beeswax polish, propolis tincture, beeswax, propolis salve and cold process soap. I also lugged in a super of drawn comb just remind people of the bees' contribution and to advertise that I'm a beekeeper -although I suppose it's possible the 45 kilos of honey I dragged in might've been a clue o.O

I've set the table

The event ran from 1pm to 3pm and business was very brisk so I didn't get much chance to look around the other stalls but ones I recall were a gourmet chocolatier preparing for the November launch of Koh-Koh Chocolates, and I can happily tell you he's using quality local honey, near the door was Alternatively Useful showing soy wax candles, For the Love of Kitsch was to my left with a few curios and jewellery versions of everything from newts to elephants, local shop Chance Gifts also had a stall and YoungYarn a local company with a huge Facebook following was there too.

The first person to look at the table was a young girl, I gave her a free lip balm after all it's about charity, then it got busy. Most of my sales were honey in pound jars, about two thirds of that was set honey which I'd made for the first time this year although some people still preferred liquid honey. It's quite possible that some of the honey was made from nectar collected from the gardens of the households it was going back to. After the honey sales came lip balm then soap and a bit of beeswax.

In the two hours the event was open some 400-450 people visited. Some were regulars from Vintage Cafe, others had seen the event on Facebook and quite a few told me they'ed been passing by and seen the sign outside so popped in. After totting up Vintage Cafe had raised £85 for Hull Animal Welfare and a huge 15 bags of food and clothing for the homeless.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

That's no Bee BBC

Whilst browsing the web at work and catching up on the world's events a few weeks ago I was surprised to find the Taliban make money from honey sales. Yep, they keep bees just like myself, Steve Vai and Flea from the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. Who'd've thought it? It's mentioned in a page called Taliban expert view: Money from honey.

I'm assuming the 'expert' isn't an entemologist because the 'bee' in the photo accompanying the article definitely wasn't a bee. The huge faceted eyes are the first giveaway, too big for a worker, too small for a drone and too visibly faceted -bee eyes look shiny to us. The shape of the  back is wrong too, and it's only got two wings whilst bees have four. The first tergite looks to have some light brown marking suggesting it's a drone fly, Eristalis Tenax, which is a European member of the hoverfly family. Not only do they not make honey but I very much doubt they live in Afghanistan either.

You might make money from honey, but you won't get honey from that.
I messaged the BBC News Facebook page back on the 1st October to point it out, the message was read a couple of days later but there was no response I sent a message via the BBC Complaints page. They responded eventually but seemed strangely reluctant to acknowledge they'ed posted the wrong insect:

"This photo was only included to generally illustrate this aspect of Taliban fundraising but we take your broader point and have changed it to an image which more clearly shows bees making honey."

I'm not sure how they're suggesting a photo of what was probably a European Hoverfly sunning itself illustrated fundraising through honey sales but they have now changed the image to one showing actual honey bees.

Honey Bees! They fixed it.
A more pedantic person might  point out that these bees are probably not actually making honey as they're standing on brood comb, brood comb with a fairly patchy laying pattern but I think it's close enough.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Feeding and Feeders

As the weather cools it's time to ensure the bees have enough food stored for winter. There's a variety of feeder types out there but I prefer to use large bulk feeders you can leave on the hives and top up without disturbing the bees. I only had two Adams Feeders here and as I've increased the number of hives a lot and have an out apiary I needed some more feeders. As I need to lug them to an out apiary I decided to go with Polystyrene feeders as I figure they'll be a little lighter to carry and the cost of painting them will be less the varnish I'd buy for sealing wooden -plus I'd not have to wait for the varnish to outgas before slapping them on my hives. I ordered four of them from Paynes Southdown Bee Farms.

Polystyrene National Feeders

They're made from pretty dense expanded polystyrene so should last a long time, however they do need painting inside to stop the syrup working it's way between the polystyrene beads and painting on the outside because ultraviolet light will damage them -yep they need protecting from sunlight. The transparent acrylic piece in the middle limits the bees access to the syrup chambers to prevent drowning and the chambers themselves have sloped floors towards the centre so every last drop will be available to the bees.

The Polystyrene National Feeder doesn't fit under a wooden National roof.

Following advice from the forums I started painting the insides white with water based  gloss paint. Whilst painting it occurred to me that these feeders actually seemed a bit on the large side compared to all my other kit. I grabbed a spare hive roof and tried to sit the feeder in it, as it would be if it was on a hive. It didn't fit. Paynes website does actually say "This feeder has been designed to work in conjunction with our poly national roof." However it doesn't say anywhere that despite being called "National" it does not actually conform to British National Hive specification which is published by the British Standards Institution (British Standard 1300:1960 which if you want to look at is described in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food's Advisory Leaflet 367). The specification gives an outside edge of  16 1/4" for components which are to fit under a roof with an 18 3/4" roof. This means the feeder does not work with the wooden National Roofs used by almost every beekeeper in the country. Looking at their Polystyrene Brood Boxes and Supers they do actually state they won't fit under a wooden roof so I'm not sure why this was omitted on the page for the feeders. I emailed Paynes suggesting they mention this on their page but they've not responded or updated their page which I'm guessing means they're not really bothered... so colour me slightly unimpressed there.

Cut down to something approaching National Specification

I needed to get the feeders on the hives asap and I'd already started to paint them anyway so I couldn't really be messing about returning them and getting new ones so I decided to cut them to size. The reason they won't fit under a National roof is the extra mass added on the sides and the top presumably because even expanded polystyrene as dense as this is weaker than wood. I figure that unlike a super or brood box the only weight these will be supporting is a roof and a brick so they'll probably be fine trimmed down. Initially I used a hot wire foam cutter clamped in my workbench but with the polystyrene being so dense it kept snapping the hot wire, I even used some spare mandolin strings as they were thicker but they snapped a lot too. After trimming about  four and a half edges the cutter stopped working completely so after taking that back I bought a fine toothed floorboard saw and finished the job with that. The hot wire gave a much better edge but the saw was far faster.

Sand in my paint

After making sure each feeder would fit under my roof I resumed painting. I sealed the reservoir insides with 4 coats of paint. I gave the bit in the middle which the bees are going to be walking on a coat of sharp sand  mixed with paint then another couple of coats without sand over that. The uneven surface created by the sand should give the bees something to grip on and reduce drownings. The outside got a few coats of Sandtex Masonry Paint which is also water based. It only took one and a half test pots. I opted for Olive Green to match most of my kit but I'm sure the bees won't care. With all the painting done I had another look at the acrylic inserts. They were a very snug fit in their slots and I felt they would probably cut into the paint so using a Dremmel I trimmed the length a little and smoothed off the edges and rounded the corners.

Modified but finally ready Polystyrene Feeders

With the feeders ready and my existing wooden feeders given a clean I was ready to pop them onto the hives and start feeding. All I needed was some syrup. For winter feed the syrup is made up of 2KG of sugar to 630ml of water bees which is about 2 pounds of sugar to 1 pint of water in olde worlde measurements. This year the price of sugar has dropped dramatically, apparently due to a massive crop in Brazil and the Brazillian Real dropping in value so it was cheaper for me to buy it retail at 49-45p a kilo than trade. September saw me wheeling a trolley full of sugar up Newland Avenue from Herons to the car. I also popped to Farm Foods and B&M to load up.

Last year one of my colonies came out of winter with Nosema and had to be treated and another local beekeeper who knows more about bees than me said he'd lost 5 colonies to Nosema over the winter. To hopefully avoid or at least reduce that I decided to treat the syrup with oxalic acid. Beekeepers call it Thymolated Syrup ('thymolated' relating to Thyme Oil). The recipe is over in the Beekeeping Forum. Basically you make a solution of Oxalic Acid and add it to the syrup.  The recipe calls for 30g of Oxalic Acid Dihydride to be dissolved in 150ml of isopropyl alcohol. Some people use rubbing alcohol or surgical spirit one chap said he used vodka. I opted for vodka too as it's food safe unlike rubbing alcohol so may be slightly better for the bees -the alcohol will be evaporated off when it's used but rubbing alcohol contains other ingredients to make it less palatable which I suspect may be left behind in the final syrup albeit in small quantities.

Making up the oxalic acid solution

I alredy had the Oxalic Acid Dihydride and popped to Sainsburys for the Vodka, got the cheapest they had. Sainsbury's say "We aim for our stores to be at the heart of the community they serve." The one near me is open 24 hours. Got to be said that if the heart of this community is a 24 hour off licence and tobbacconist I'd be a little concerned about the state of it's lungs and liver. The vodka was 37.5% and I measured it into a jar with a syringe then placing the jar on a scale added the crystals, gave it a shake and left it in a warm water bath to dissolve. When I made another batch later I used some even cheaper 22% Vodka from an off licence on Newland Avenue and that seemed to work fine as well. I labelled up the jar with the warning symbols on the Oxalic Acid crystals' packet, the recipe, directions and a skull and crossbones as I don't really want anyone drinking it. In the forum post the author says to make thymolated syrup add 5ml of the solution per gallon of syrup or if it's just to stop the syrup fermenting  add 5ml per 3 gallons of syrup.


Previously I'd made syrup in a big pan, it was slow and took lots of stirring. With so many hives to feed I needed a different approach and instead used my Burco Boiler and a paint stirrer stuck in a drill. Took very little time. You do need to be careful with hot syrup though as it stays hot for a long time and is really sticky  so there's a lot of scope for nasty accidents. I found that local wasps were pretty interested in what I was doing as well and kept landing on the boiler. I over filled my 18 litre boiler twice and made more than enough syrup to fill all my feeders. I added the oxalic acid solution whilst it was still hot and gave it a god stir with the drill. With the solution added the syrup slightly changed colour and opacity.

For the ladies I recommend the Thymolated 2:1 Syrup.

Putting the feeders on the hives and filling them with syrup it wasn't long before the bees were filling up and taking it down into the brood boxes. I think they took the first 2 gallons in just 2 or three days. I've got bulk feeders on 6 hives and the moment and the last has a couple of contact feeders which I'm refilling at the moment.

Looks like a tiny leaky in the wood

This afternoon I noticed a little congregation on the outside of one of my wooden feeders.I popped on my jacket and veil and went to investigate. They were quite intent on one particular point on the feeder wall. It looks like there's a very tiny leak through a knot hole so I'll be having a closer look at that feeder once the bees are finished with it. The polystyrene hives were quite a pain to resize but they work very well. When I've been to refill them I'm finding the reserviours completely dry thanks to their sloping floors, and I gather that if they're used with their corresponding polystyrene roofs they can be used as winter insulation -although they need a strap to hold them in place. However in the meantime I'll be sticking to wooden components in the main.

Monday, 31 August 2015

Labelling up Supers

A Natinal Super will happily hold eleven frames in which bees can store extra honey which the beekeeper may harvest. However that's eleven frames with a bee space on each side. What most beekeepers do to maximise the amount of honey you can fit in a super is reduce the number of frames leaving wider combs and less space in the box lost to bee space and foundation. If you were to put 9 new frames of foundation in a box things wouldn't go very well as the bees would make wild comb in the large gaps between the frames so instead you start with eleven frames then once they're drawn out you remove one and alter the spacing and when they're drawn out again repeat the process taking you down to 9 frames. To get the spacing right you can use plastic spacers called Plastic Metal Ends ..they used to me made of metal, now they're made of plastic. You then change the size of the Plastic Metal Ends to widen the gaps. I've tried them and to be honey I find it a bit of a pain changing them so I use the other option which is metal castellations attached to the inside of each super permanently spacing the frames.

Ideally the drawn comb will wind up with 9 frame spacing but I still needed a few 10 and eleven frame Supers to help me get them drawn out that far. Some of my existing supers were already  set at ten and eleven frames and one with plastic runners. You can't tell from the outside how many frames are in a super so I decided to make things simpler for myself by spraying the outside with the numbers of frames -or an R in the case of the one with runners. I also sprayed the number of frames in my nuc boxes onto them too as they look alike too.

Stencil time
With my increased number of hives I needed extra supers and got a set of six very cheap Cedar supers from Easipet via Amazon. They were supplied without nails or glue but it still worked out a pretty decent purchase as they were so cheap. There was the odd crack here and there but nothing a bit of wood glue and clamp didn't sort out. They were supplied with some metal runners which would be fine if you use plastic spaces I suppose. They seem quite good quality so I'll be using them in brood boxes instead. I put 9 frame 
castellations into all six of the new supers.
Six new supers.
As the frames got drawn out I switched them to the new nine frame supers over time. It's not exactly rocket science but makes things a little simpler for me.

It's all about the numbers