Flat Stanley and the Honey Harvest

Howdy – its Flat Stanley again, reporting in after an exciting day’s honey extraction! We collected the honey from the hives of Dallas and Jean-Philippe – three hives in all. I was asked to help out in the Extracting Room.

Flat Stanley and a frame dripping with honey

Flat Stanley and a frame dripping with honey

Firstly we had to make sure that all the equipment was spotlessly clean. It is after all a year since it has been used. You see me here atop the centrifugal extractor, surrounded by uncapping trays, buckets, sieves and honey tanks.

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All was fine and dandy, so we installed all these bits and pieces in the so called Extracting Room. When Dallas’ house was used as a farm in the olden days, this room was part of the area where they kept cows and horses. There is a massive vat in the corner which some say was for water for the animals, others say it was for wine making – now its used for showering off the dogs. Folks also say that this room is haunted!

The honey extraction was a big success, especially for Jean-Philippe, who had over 30 kilos of beautiful honey. I watched as the honey cells were uncapped and then spun to extract the golden juice.

One thing we did notice on one of Dallas’ frames was a patch of paler, crystallised honey, which must have originated from the oil seed rape.

pale colza honey on the left

pale colza honey on the left

This OSR or colza honey was set too hard to extract – all we could do was leave it and the bees would recuperate it when we leave the frames out for them to clean up.

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Liquid Gold

After we had finished the extraction and tidied up, washed all the equipment and tried to make the floor less sticky, we all sat down with some ice-cold beer and a platter of fresh bread and mild goats cheese, drizzled of course with super fresh honey – it was scrumptious.

Karl, I am developing quite a liking for these French cheeses. In fact, France produces alot of wonderful food stuffs – perhaps its time I was thinking about coming home, whilst I am still nice and flat?

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Honey Harvest Part One : extracting the frames from the bees

Its Honey Harvest Day!  The weather is okay – not as hot as last year, but warm enough, and critically no rain or wind. We are a team of four (five if you count Flat Stanley), myself, Jean-Phi, his sister Beatrice and her friend Patrice. The question on everybodys’ lips is ‘Will there be much honey?’

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After a thorough equipment / clothing check and a run though of responsibilities, we head for Jean-Phi’s hives. He is on Frame Extraction duty, I have control of the Smoker (as well as being Helper of the Tools), Patrice stands guard over the extracted frames and ensures that they are hidden away from the bees, Beatrice is Chief Photographer.

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‘Nurse, the brush’

The honey quantity question is soon answered at the first hive – the frames are gloriously, abundantly full to busting. The first hive yielded 9 frames packed to capacity.

heavy with honey

heavy with honey

And the second hive was equally productive. The bees were calm, and certainly didn’t seem to object to us pilfering the fruits of their labour.

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spillage

So with all the frames from two super Supers purloined, all the kit was loaded into the cars and its off to my house to see if my bees have fulfilled their brief just as impressively.

Rather annoyingly, Jean-Phi’s girls outperformed mine – but there was still honey to be had. This year the sunflowers were quite a bit further away than last year. And was there indeed competition from the mobile hives?

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So, all the frames gathered in – its off to the Extracting Room…

Extended Bee Team and the Precious Cargo

Extended Bee Team and the Precious Cargo

Honey Harvest Part Two coming very soon!

And Flat Stanley tells his side of the story.

Flat Stanley notches up more air miles

Howdy! My name is Flat Stanley, and I come from Austin, Texas – where I live with Karl, having being created by Riya as part of the Flat Stanley Literacy Project.

Flat Stanley has a penchant for fine French champagne.

Flat Stanley has a penchant for fine French champagne.

My dream is to travel the globe and learn about beekeeping in different countries. When I heard I was to visit Dallas, I thought fine, not terribly far (about 200 miles from Austin) and certainly not as historical as London, England or seasidey as the Isle of Wight (England’s smallest county at high tide). However, it turns out that this Dallas is a Person, and I arrived after a stress-free journey in a small farming village in south-west France.

Being something of a connoisseur of fine wines, this is rather a coup (notice how I am already picking up some French vocabulary).

After a short siesta, we went off to have a look at the bees’ foraging grounds, which at this time of year means sunflowers, sunflowers and sunflowers.

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This means that the  honey from Dallas’ bees will be a monofloral honey. Last year it was a fabulous rich sunny yellow, and looks like it is packed with solar energy. It crystallises rapidly, has a creamy consistency and is rich in calcium, boron and silicon. In France, sunflower honey (or miel de tournesol as I now call it) is top of the leaderboard in terms of production.

Sunflowers are originally from North America (just like me), and were cultivated by the native Americans. They were brought to Europe in the sixteenth century by the Spanish, and cultivated for the oil from the seeds.

We also visited an alfalfa field – which last week, apparently, was buzzing with bees, but was now eerily quiet. Alfalfa honey is big in the United States and Canada, but Dallas says she hasn’t noticed it much in evidence in France. Yet.

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Its not quite as hot here as it is in Texas. Today its been a pleasant 28 degrees (or 82° Fahrenheit) – but it can sure get darned hot inside that beekeepers outfit – so time for a bit of R&R…

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The honey extraction is scheduled for September 7th. Karl, can I stay here please to help with that?

Sunflowers bursting forth

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sunflowers surrounding a pigonnier in south-west France

The sunflowers in the fields around and about are all poised to transform from green buds into bright yellow flowers (with their velvety brown faces). Exciting times, on one hand simply because I find the sunflowers so visually appealling, and secondly because I know that they will be providing stores for the honey bees – hopefully in excessive amounts.

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I noticed yesterday, in a field at the bottom of our hill, that someone had been along and deposited, temporarily, a batch of mobile hives. They are far enough away from my bees to represent any potential competition.

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I took a drive yesterday to get an idea of the most convenient sunflowers for my bees, and to evaluate whats going to be available and when. Last year, the house was surrounded on three sides by sunflower fields – this year they have been planted with wheat and barley. There are however several large fields all within a 2 kilometer radius of the hives, and more beyond that.

The early sunflowers are already attracting their fair share of bees.

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honey bees start arriving on sunflower feeding station

The sunflower buds have something of a triffid like appearance.

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With the petals packed in tight, desperate to unfurl into the sunlight.

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Looks like my girls are going to bee very busy over the coming weeks.

Abeille Road

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Abeille Road

Yesterday, Jean-Philippe rang to see if I could come and Help!

It was a case of Good Day Sunshine, and the time had come time to move the bees, from the temporary ruchette (nucleus) into a proper sized hive. So time to Drive My Car down the Long and Winding Road, over to JP’s house.

Two new hives, all colourful and freshly painted AND numbered, were ready and waiting, along with JP’s two latest gadget purchases – a metal rack, which hooks over the side of the hive, to hold frames, and a gripping tool for the lifting and maneovering of frames.

Hold Me Tight

Hold Me Tight

The first step was to carefully lift the ruchette and place it just to the side, and then position the new hive in exactly the same spot as where the ruchette had been. The ruchette seemed disappointingly light, but there were plenty of bees and evidence of honey making.

Lend Me Your Comb

Lend Me Your Comb

The frames were gently transferred, one by one, from the ruchette to the fabulous new hive, and JP left a house-warming present of some sugar solution in the roof space.

This process was repeated for the second ruchette, which was even lighter than the first. Lets hope to Get Back to warmer, dryer times so that these colonies can become truly established. Here Comes the Sun?

Honey (that's what I want)

Honey (that’s what I want)

Ain't She Sweet

Ain’t She Sweet

Let It Bee

Let It Bee

Hello, Goodbye 🙂

What’s the collective noun for ‘swarms’?

It’s happened again! Now we have a third swarm. Just seven days after Jean-Philippe called to ask us to help with a swarm near his hive, he was ringing us again (on the Emergency Beeline). Another swarm cluster was developing in roughly the same place, already larger than the first.

a second swarm cluster for JP

a second swarm cluster for JP

So, with the swiftness of a well rehearsed fire-crew, we bundled the necessary equipment into the Beemobile (a battered Renault Kangoo) and headed off to JP’s house, jesting that a yellow and black flashing light, complete with loud buzzing noise, would be appropriate.

This swarm was slightly more awkward than the previous two, in that it was higher up and the branch it was attached to was too thick to cut with secateurs – so we had to employ the old Shake and Brush into a Hive Lid Technique.

capturing the latest swarm cluster

capturing (and wearing) the latest swarm cluster

This swarm was also a bit more feisty than the others – however they settled quickly into the ruchette (nucleus), and immediately took up the offer of sugar solution. You may notice that we have discovered a new shade of hive paint – a rather attractive lavender colour.

So, this year, we have gone from one hive each, to two for us and now four for Jean Philippe.

Breakfast in Bed

After the recent Queen Drama, it is paramount that the bees feel at home in their new ruchette and stay put. So the following day, I was up with the larks to serve them breakfast – a syrup solution, made with 1 kilo sugar to 1 litre water, and a teaspoon of vinegar – to be served in a feeder which sits over a hole in the cover of the ruchette (which I now understand is called a ‘nucleus’ or ‘nuc’ in English – thanks to Emily : http://adventuresinbeeland.com/).

plastic feeder, filled with sugar solution which the bees can access from within the hive

plastic feeder, filled with sugar solution which the bees can access from within the hive

I’m keeping a close eye on the level of this syrup – but am noticing, now that the weather has picked up that there is plenty of coming and going from the ruchette – I will give them a couple more days and then have a closer inspection.

from outside, at least, all seems well

from outside, at least, all seems well

Now that things have calmed down, its time to reflect on why the bees swarmed, was it preventable, should I have picked up on clues beforehand that this was likely to happen?

The Venerable Beede (VB) assures us that it is quite normal, and may be linked to the weather, in that there have been some hot, sunny, good-foraging days, but lately lots of fresh and unseasonably wet days. Is the pollen being washed away?

raindrop with apple blossom

raindrop with apple blossom

Deja Vue

Jean-Philippe, having just returned from his travels, called us yesterday to report that his bees too had decided to split, and a swarm cluster was building in exactly the same manner as mine. Being experienced in such matters, we dashed down to offer any assistance necessary.

Andy confidently snips through the branch holding the swarm

Andy confidently snips through the branch holding the swarm

the bees drop into the ruchette - in this case, the frames already have some honeycomb to tempt them in

the bees drop into the ruchette – in this case, the frames already have some honeycomb to tempt them in

the queen is in residence

bee fanning her Nasonov gland
~ the queen is in residence ~

In the above image, we see a bee sticking its abdomen up in the air, almost vertically, to release the Nasonov pheromone. This pheromone is used by scout bees to mark their chosen new home after swarming and assists the swarm in arriving gracefully at their new location. Not particularly ladylike, but good to see.

Queen Bee-atrix Abdicates

On the very same day that her namesake in the Netherlands was relinquishing the throne, our Queen Bee-atrix has decided to abandon her principal residence in favour of one of her offspring, and has moved on, along with a considerable number of attendants.

strange formation near the bees

strange formation near the bees

It was all a bit of an unexpected drama.  I had beetled over to the hens to collect the day’s egg production (three eggs), when I noticed an odd shape on a tree branch adjacent to the hive. Upon closer inspection it was a seething, buzzing mass of bees – a Swarm!

don't panic!

don’t panic!

Still being a novice bee-keeper, I had little idea of how to interpret this development – so headed back to the house and the reference books. Andy had just arrived home from work in Colomiers, and we decided that the best course of action was to call our Venerable Beede (VB). He told us that we had to react immediately, otherwise the swarm could be off to pastures new in a matter of hours. So, off sets Andy back to Colomiers to pick up VB and returns an hour later, along with him plus a small nursery hive – I’m not sure what the correct term for this is in English, but in French its ‘ruchette’ , a word I like (and will therefore continue to use).

I had already got the smoker lit – I have recently hit upon the idea of using a blow torch to get it going, much less time-consuming. VB slipped on his wellies, whilst Andy and I covered up from head to toe in full bee-keeping regalia.

preparing the ruchette beneath the swarm

preparing the ruchette beneath the swarm

VB is not too impressed with the volume of this swarm, already having tended to some recently at least 10 times larger – in fact he wonders if its not a secondary swarm. There is much to ponder on the whys and the wherefores of this particular bee behaviour – but for the moment we must concentrate on keeping these bees chez nous.

cool as a cucumber

cool as a cucumber

The swarm cluster is actually calm – the bees dont have any brood or honey to defend. So a quick snip with the secateurs, and the cluster is laid on the waiting frames of the ruchette.

bee swarm gently laid on top of frames

bee swarm gently laid on top of frames

the smoker is used to encourage the bees to enter into the hive

the smoker is used to encourage the bees to enter into the hive

lets hope they like their new home

lets hope they like their new home

We shall keep these bees in the ruchette for 3 or 4 weeks, providing nourishment. And in the meantime have to get a second hive prepared, the same as the first one. This will be placed in exactly the same location as the ruchette – and when we feel that the bees and the frames are settled they will be transferred to their new permanent (hopefully) residence.

We shall also be investing in one or two ruchettes – so that, should there be another episode like this, we can handle it ourselves, having been shown the way by the Master!

you can't escape from us that easily

you can’t escape from us that easily

Once the bees had dropped into the box, a cover was added and then the lid – VB ensuring that every last, single bee had found its way into the ruchette – there were still some bees arriving late wondering what had happened to the swarm.

The ruchette was carefully placed on a new palette – I still had work to do making a syrup solution, and Andy was off for the third time that day on a Colomiers round-trip to take VB back home (after we had toasted the evening’s work with a small glass of vin cuit).

(to bee continued)

Snowed in

well and truly snowed in

Si-bee-ria

What a difference a day makes. Yesterday, I was out planting primulas, admiring the cheery daffodils and noticing the first cuckoo. The bees were working at full speed, in and out all day long, their baskets full of pollen. There were even a couple of butterflies, and the fruit trees were all either in full blossom or about to burst forth.

And this morning, I wake up to a blanket of snow, up to 6 inches deep. Its all quite photogenic, and isnt too cold, so I am guessing that it will all have melted away by tomorrow. I wonder what impact it will have on the fruit blossom?

a hive of activity ~ 2 days ago

a hive of activity ~ 2 days ago

blooming chilly

blooming chilly

Wakey, wakey, rise and pollinate

blooming lovely

blooming lovely

Spring is in the air… finally. I have been itching to get and about with the camera for several days now, ever since the Japonicas burst into bloom with their beautiful, vibrant orange-pink flowers. I also noted that the almond tree wasn’t too far behind, with buds aplenty.

It has been warming up nicely, and apparently the bees won’t come out to actively forage until the temperature hits 13 degrees. And full foraging is not acheived until it warms up beyond 19 degrees. It was pleasantly mild at the beginning of the week, but then we were hit by a Vent d’Autan – a quite violent wind coming at us from the east, and this time gusting up to 60 kms/ hour. It lasted for 48 hours, and at times it felt like the roof of the house was coming off (luckily, it didn’t). I certainly didn’t feel like venturing forth, and I imagine the bees stayed indoors too.

Conditions yesterday were much improved, so off I trot with trusty camera to see what’s going down in honey bee world. And lo, there were the girls hard at work, collecting pollen from the stunning Japanese Quince (Chaenomeles japonica) bushes. All very photogenic – that’s the calendar image for March 2014 in the bag.

Just next to the Japonicas is a splendid almond tree, starting to blossom. I love this flower, with its tinges of pink and incredible perfume. The bees were here too, gathering up the yellow-brown pollen. This pollination work is important in the big almond producing regions of the world – the pollination of California’s almonds is the largest annual managed pollination event in the world, with close to one million hives (nearly half of all beehives in the USA) being trucked in February to the almond groves.

We have a whopping two trees, so hopefully the girls won’t bee too overwhelmed with the workload.

Almond : a symbol of delicacy

Almond : a symbol of delicacy