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.

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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…

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LittleWorld image : Sunflowers in Garac

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

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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.

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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…

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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.

Sunflowers : Twilight Time

The sunflowers now are in the equivalent of their their twilight years, past their bright yellow prime, all rather brown and withered, heads bowed towards the earth – it won’t be long before we are looking at a freshly ploughed field. Time to capture some final shots, and it seems sunset is the best time.

I now realise that sunflowers point permanently in the same direction all day long – namely to the East. The buds are heliotropic (a bit like me) and at the end of the bud stage all plants are polarized to face in the one direction.

The plants remain in the fields long after the beautiful yellow petals have shrivelled and died. The sunflower however is now busy sorting out its seeds, which considering that it is a commercial crop, is actually the reason for its existence, its raison d’etre.

The seeds will go on to be used to produce sunflower oil, to be used in cooking, as a carrier oil and to produce margarine and biodiesel. The cake remaining after the seeds have been processed for oil is used as a livestock feed.

These mature flowers have droopy heads, looking at the ground, which adds to their forlorn appearance – but this reduces bird damage and losses due to certain diseases.

Its now early October and ‘our’ sunflowers are still there – but most of their compatriots have been gathered up and no doubt squashed and the oil extracted. I suspect Denys the farmer will be along soon with his noisy, ancient combine harvester to do the same.

UPDATE : the farmer has just been and harvested the sunflowers…

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.

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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

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