Doug and I have an embarrassing secret with respect to our beekeeping. The subject is very sensitive, and it keeps coming up in casual conversation. I thought it was best to blog about it and get it out in the open. Here is our secret shame: We haven’t been able to harvest honey from our bees.
If you follow my blog, you know that we successfully multiplied the two little nuc colonies we purchased last year into eight colonies, and the only bees we bought after the initial purchase were a few queens. How can you have eight healthy bee colonies and no honey to harvest? We keep most of our hives on my parents’ property. My father has been patiently washing and saving the used containers from his store bought honey He hopes that we will fill the bottles with delicious honey produced by our bees collecting nectar from his clover and wildflowers. Looks like we won’t be filling any of his bottles this year. Sorry, Dad.
People at church stop and ask me if I have honey to sell. I smile politely and say, “Not yet, but we will let you know when we do.” Acquaintances who find out I keep bees, always wish me well on my honey harvest. If they only knew….There will be no honey harvest this year.
Let’s take a look at how this happened. Last year was year one for us. We never planned to harvest honey because we wanted to leave it all for the bees to help them get through winter. If you follow my blog at all you know that Doug and I were obsessed about getting our bees through the first winter because we heard how challenging this can be. We managed to get all three of our colonies successfully through the winter. They looked very strong at the onset of spring. At the beginning of April, I was convinced we would have a bumper crop of honey, and I was already promising free jars of honey to friends and family. The critical point that Doug and I missed was how healthy our bees were. We didn’t realize that we should have put honey supers on the hives much earlier than we actually did. We thought the bees had plenty of room and were happy in their hives. We completely underestimated the propensity for healthy bee colonies to swarm in the spring. Even though we kept splitting hives to give the bees more room, they swarmed anyway leaving behind colonies of bees without queens. You can read about queen troubles in my two part series here and here.
The spring here was perfect for blooming flowers and trees. The bees were bringing in lots of pollen and nectar and making honey. However, without queens laying eggs inside the hexagonal wax cells, the bees decided that they preferred to store their honey in the deep frames instead of in the honey supers. When we finally got all our hives queen right, the stored honey was mostly intermingled on deep frames with brood, and nobody (except bees) wants to eat honey intermingled with bee brood. To make matters worse, we used Apivar (miticide for varroa mite) last year. Even if we had a deep frame of all stored honey and no brood, we didn’t want to extract honey for human consumption for fear of trace amounts of miticide. (If any experienced beekeeper is reading this and has a different view, please leave a comment. I would love to know what you think.)
The silver lining to all of this is that our bees had lots of stored honey to get them through the summer during the dearth, which is the period around July and August in Kentucky when almost nothing blooms. We have a fall honey flow when golden rods and asters bloom. Doug and I anticipated that the fall honey flow would probably give us enough honey to harvest and start fulfill some of our promises of “free” honey to our friends and family. Then the drought hit. In late spring we had so much rain that everyone was making jokes about building an ark. It is now mid September and we have gone weeks with high temperatures and no rain. The ground is like concrete. The leaves on the trees and shrubs are drooped. The golden rod bloomed, but there is very little nectar because there is very little water. The bees bring in pollen, but the honey production is significantly reduced because there is no nectar to harvest. The weather forecast doesn’t predict rain anytime soon, so I have lost hope that we will harvest honey this fall. Our focus now is getting the bees ready for winter.
To cheer myself up, I tell myself that you can’t learn everything at once. Lots of people harvest honey in their first year of beekeeping, but that doesn’t mean that their bees make it through the winter. Harvesting honey and multiplying bee colonies are two slightly different skill sets. Beekeepers need to learn to master both skill sets. Doug and I are having success with multiplying the colonies but not with honey production.
Surely next year will be better. The thought of my father surrounded by all those empty bear shaped bottles makes me sad. Looks like Dad may have to settle for jam this year for Christmas.
Note: Last week’s post was part one of a two part series on bee chemotherapy (aka mite treatment). Part two will be posted in another few weeks. We just finished the course of treatment, and I want to do another mite check before writing part two. We need to know if the treatment was effective. Stay tuned.