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.

flat_stanley_equipment_2

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.

flat_stanley_honey_harvest

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?

Advertisements

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?’

JP_extract_2013_11

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.

JP_extract_2013_3

‘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.

JP_extract_2013_6

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?

DM_extract_2013_1

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.

flat_stanley_sunflowers_2

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.

flat_stanley_alfalfa

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…

flat_stanley_pool_1

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

Latest Sunflower / Bee News

WARNING : this post contains yet more pictures of bees on sunflowers.

However, in an effort to mix it up a bit, I have tried playing around with some of the sunflower pictures, trying out various photoshop effects. Here is one of the sunflower field in front of our village church…

LW_garac_church_sunflowers_1

LittleWorld image : Sunflowers in Garac

With the sunflowers in full throttle, Hive B has been extended by adding a super.

hiveb_super_andy

Andy just about to add a super to Hive B

We aren’t terribly optimistic that those additional frames will be full to busting come the end of the sunflower season. The bees haven’t been in residence that long, and with the rotten weather in May and June, they are still establishing themselves in the brood box.

We do however have higher expectations for Hive A.

hivea_super_honey

Honey building up in Hive A

I am now noticing alot of mobile hives in the fields around and about, and cannot decide if this is a new phenomenon or whether its now something that I can easily spot. Just wondering about the levels of competition for the pollen / nectar.

And finally, the obligatory bees-on-sunflowers shots…

bee_sunflowers_2

bee_sunflowers_4

Bee Forage : April

honey bee on Brassica napus

honey bee amongst the oilseed rape

The big bee-forage news this month must be the oilseed rape (Brassica napus). Fruit trees continue to blossom in the orchard, notably the pear, cherry and quince – but the overriding draw surely comes from the distinctive bright yellow swathes, pushing up all over the countryside.

The pollen is quite evidently plentiful, and the bees are returning to the hive with baskets full to busting.

is pollen good for the complexion?

is pollen good for the complexion?

Given that this is our first April with the hive, we are mindful of the precise timing required for a rapeseed honey harvest – as this particular honey has a tendency to crystallise rapidly. We are keeping a close eye on stores within the hive, and added a super 7 days ago. We could be in for a good harvest of honey – but must ensure that it is extracted from the comb before having the chance to set rock hard.

honey bee in amongst the oilseed rape

perhaps its time to start thinking about returning your load to the hive?

Maybe the OSR honey will be tempered with nectar from the orchard blossoms, which are also quite plentiful – we shall have to wait and see!

honey bee on pear blossom - doyenne du comice to be exact

honey bee on pear blossom – doyenne du comice to be exact

honey bees on apple blossom - this one is a Bramley apple

honey bees on apple blossom – this one is a Bramley apple

Bee Film : More Than Honey

Of Bees and Menif the bees disappeared...

Of Bees and Men
if the bees disappeared…

Last night we went to the cinema to watch a new documentary – Des Abeilles et Des Hommes (also called More Than Honey), reporting the decline in bee populations, and the multiple possible reasons behind this phenomenon. Swiss film producer Marcus Imhoof, journeys around the globe filming folk closely involved in bee-keeping – apiarists, honey producers, hive transporters, pollen gatherers etc, and each tells their story. The film lasts about 90 minutes, and comprises factual snippets, nuggets of information, some bee-keeping basics, all with beautiful cinematography including some amazing macro work.

The film begins in a stunning Alpine setting, with Fred who is out gathering a swarm, no hint of protective clothing. He is descended from a long line of bee keepers and can recall how things used to be. For him traditional methods are all important. Fred is fighting cross-breeding, striving to keep the local race of black bees pure. He discovers one of his queen bees has been interbreeding with a yellow bee from a neighbouring valley, and without compunction, squeezes off the head of this traitress.

The story moves to a vast almond producing area in California, and the associated honey producing / pollination operation. The scale is immense – and the driving force is money making. The orchards were alive with bees collecting pollen – but after just a short while the hives have to be transported on – as, once the pollen has been collected there is no more nourishment for the bees and for them it is has become a desert. The trees are fumigated during the day – and traces of fungide can be found in the resultant honey. Additionally the bees are fed antibiotics, to help assure the continued presence of this all important component of such industrialised agriculture.

We meet Heidrun Singer and her production line of Queen Bees – she gently transposes larvae into false royal cells, thereby tricking the bees into feeding them royal jelly. Apparently her queen bees are sold around the world – and we see them packaged up and hauled off by a courrier company.

Onto China, to an area where bees are so scare that pollination is done by hand – by human beings (mostly women). Pollen is collected and sold in small packets, and then a team of workers, armed with cotton buds, the pollen in a bottle round their necks, pollinate the trees, flower by flower.

Back to the US, to Arizona, where Fred (another Fred) works collecting Africanized Killer Bees. Having retrieved a swarm, he doesn’t destroy it, but rather keeps it – noticing that they are more hardy than their normal counterparts, produce good honey, but have to be treated with a good deal of respect.

There are further tales of Foul Brood, pesticides and the varroa mite. Evidence of stress sufferered when transporting the hives on the back of lorries for thousands of kilometers each year. Footage of bees fitted with tracking devices. We meet a German neuroscientist investigating bee brains. And much more.

This is not a film with a beginning, a middle and an end – it is educational, a neutral presentation of facts and information, from which we are allowed to draw our own conclusions. We see that traditional and natural methods, and unlimited growth may be unsustainable. Does the answer lie in a totally unexpected source?

The film is originally in German, and is available with French subtitles (there is a certain amount of spoken English).

A Big Thank You to the Sunflowers

The sunflowers this summer have been quite magnificent, and the house has been surrounded on three sides by their sunny, cheerful faces. This years are even more special because of the added dimension of suspecting that they could possibly be providing the raw materials for our first honey.

At their peak, each flower had perhaps 2 or even 3 bees working away collecting pollen / nectar.

I think we can be fairly certain that the honey that we did harvest comes virtually exclusively from the sunflowers. In other words, its a monofloral honey. I like to think that the bright yellow colour backs this theory up. The honey is now starting to crystallise- so whereas the honey initially was clear and reasonably fluid, it is now more opaque and much thicker and creamy – but equally delicious.

I have read that honeybees collect mostly nectar from sunflowers, whilst wild bees collect the pollen. Honeybees however cannot avoid picking up pollen – and will transfer it from flower to flower. Sunflowers rarely self-pollinate, and scientific research shows that pollinated sunflowers have a higher seed yield. A nicely balanced partnership.

The sunflower head is made up of individual florets, which start to open from the outside in. In the image below, there are five or six rings of florets which have opened – and will continue to open at the rate of two or three rings per day. On the day I took this image, all the bees were to be found just in this inner rim of the sunflowers. Each floret will mature into a sunflower seed.

flowers within the flower

So, a big thank you this year to the sunflowers – not only for their aesthetic perfection, their colour and cheer – but also the 30 odd jars of super honey. I must go and deliver a big pot to the farmer who planted the sunflowers, although I’m not sure if he should be thanking us (and the bees) as well – I wonder if the seed output has increased.

they can even be used for floral displays

A Bee in Andy’s Bonnet

bubbling crude

We have honey – our very first harvest!

Following much the same process as we did last week, with JP’s hive – in one hour, we had removed the honey frames, cut off the wax cappings and centrifugally extracted all the honey. Along the way, more lessons were learned too.

A top tip to remember for next time is to properly zip up the beekeepers suit. Andy must have left a small, bee-sized gap and was visited on the wrong side of his hat by one of the ladies. He did keep very calm, adopting a strange crouching position and managed to successfully shoo said intruder back into the open air without either of them suffering undue harm.

bee off with you!

Despite Andy’s little adventure, I realise that it is important to start trusting the beekeeper’s suit. With inquisitive bees buzzing around one’s head, it feels natural to back off – but so long as one carries on calmly and efficiently, keeping aware of any change in the bees’ mood, its okay to be right in there working on the hive.

Another tip is perhaps to sport gloves, even if only photographing, albeit from a short distance – JP was stung on the hand. Bees can be camera shy.

I wondered what to do with the messy mix left after the honey extraction, and decided to leave it to strain – and was happy to discover that this yielded about 300 ml of extra honey. The wax was then washed in warm water and has been melted down for a future project.

sticky mix of wax and honey, left after uncapping and filtering

Our ‘Extracting Room’ was used, in the olden days, to shelter animals, and has a massive tank once used in wine making. It’s certainly old, and has been the scene of a couple of inexplicable goings-on. Maybe we have a resident ghost, who likes to turn his hand to honey extraction…

We estimate a yield of around 8 kilos of the scrummy, sweet stuff – its all still sitting in the settling tank, waiting to be put into jars in a few day’s time. Time to reach for the honey recipes!

how sweet is this!

Liquid Gold

Uncapped Earnings

Having ditched the disguises, and made it hot foot round to the safe house (JP’s office), giving the bees the slip, we start to unload the treasure and the necessary equipment, ready to move in to Stage Two of the operation – the Extraction.

Men Beehiving Badly

JP has been tooling-up and amassing the requisite tackle, to be co-owned by us and new crew member, Vincent. The key piece of machinery is the Extractor. This is  a drum, containing three cages, each of which will hold a frame. Ours is hand powered, the handle is turned to start the frames spinning, and the honey is driven from the cells by centrifugal force.

bright shiny gadget ~ no plug, not even a USBee port

Other equipment is a long, serrated knife for uncapping the honey cells, and a large plastic tub over which the frame is worked. This is to catch any honey drips and bits of wax (aka cappings).

The frames are still warm (its about 35 degrees outside), and uncapping the honey is a delicious, exciting moment, as the deep yellow, sticky liquid oozes from the cells. The first attempt at removing the top cover of wax is rather gung-ho, and we realise that more of the cell has been destroyed than is strictly necessary.

The technique however is soon refined, and the first three frames loaded into the extractor. This is put into motion, and the honey starts to pool at the base of the extractor.

When all nine frames have been processed, the tap is opened and the honey literally gushes out. It is passed through a filter and into a bucket. At this moment, it would have been rude not to have dived for the teaspoons and savour the freshest, tastiest honey ever.

Liquid Gold

The filtered honey is then decanted into The Maturateur – a posh name for a tub with a lid and tap, where the honey is left for a few days to settle, to get rid of air bubbles and bits of wax. The weigh-in shows a very healthy yield of 15 kilos.

So, a job well done and time to celebrate. There was a small matter of a sticky floor to clean, and then we rushed back to the house, stopping at the cheese shop, so that we could sit and relish the very first pot of Jean-Philippe’s very own honey.

Robbin’ Bee-stewards

Daylight Robbery

The sunflowers have started to go dark brown and crispy – which pretty much signals the end of the honey season. It is time to remove the super, and crack on with out first honey harvest (deep joy). We are starting with JP’s hive. This hive is a couple of weeks in advance of mine, plus the sunflowers around my house were planted late – and there is still evidence of bee activity.

The afternoon is hot and dry – ideal conditions for relieving the bees of the fruits of their labour. To be fair, we are only taking a share of the spoils ~ and leaving them plenty for winter. So, in return for providing them with rather excellent accommodation, we help ourselves to some rightful recompense, even if the bees are none too happy or indeed compliant with this arrangement.

Its a stick-up! Your honey, or your life.

It is deemed best to wait until most of them are out, and to go in disguise. We have a new collaborator, Simon, who is on Smoker Duty, plus a couple of paparazzi (Kim and Vincent). JP is leading operations, with Andy aiding and abetting.

Breaking and Entering

JP has a new, empty super – and is going to transfer the frames one by one from the active super. A few puffs of smoke, a bit of leverage from the beekeeper’s crow bar to break the propolis glue, a gentle brush – and the frames are quickly spirited away to the awaiting getaway vehicle, where they are convincingly draped with an old blanket. The bees barely notice.

Andy (aka Shifty) conceals the haul

The frames are remarkably heavy, and it promises to be quite a heist.

Getting the brush off

All nine frames nicely pilfered, the team pack up pronto, and speed off to transfer the booty to a second getaway vehicle – wanting to transform the evidence as quickly as possible.

Looks like we have pulled off Stage One of a successful non-Sting Operation.

desperately avoiding eye contact with any passing bees