Friday, February 5, 2016

how to spend a january thaw

As I was closing up the coop for the evening this weekend, I knew the next day was going to be warmer than usual.  We are all, skiers that we are, a bit troubled by this warmer weather.  And sometimes a bit grumpy about how our days set aside to ski together are not exactly what we had planned.  As I walked around the slush and mud in the backyard, it all feeling a bit more spring than January to me, I made plans for the next day.  I was going to use the warmer weather to clean the coop, I was going to check on the bees, and I was still, despite the eye rolling that I was going to receive when I suggested it, going to ski.  And take everyone with me.

And so, the next morning, I was up and outside.  Cleaning the coop.  Which seems like such a good thing to do for these ladies who are keeping us in eggs, even in January.

By which I mean, keeping us in eggs.

All their bedding dumped into our compost bins, I took a walk past the bees and watched for a few minutes.  Elliott was with me, having given the chickens some human holding time while I cleaned.  One of my hives was quiet.  Very quiet.  And I could see no activity.  I took what I thought would be a quick look, to see if they needed any additional frames of honey for food.  It was clear, right away, that this one hive had died in the past few weeks.

I stood there looking through it for a bit while Elliott watched from outside the fencing, disappointed.  I had big plans for the bee yard in the spring.  The hive being, well, inactive, I decided that this would be a good time for Elliott to join me, and we dug through the hive, looking for clues about what went wrong.  The frustrating thing is that I think they starved, despite the fact that there was oodles of honey in there.  They appear to have spread out their cluster during some warmer weather and then gotten trapped in a foodless area when the cold hit again.

I cleaned out the dead bees, and carried up and stored away the hive boxes.

I quickly took a peek in my other hive and saw that they were alive and kicking.  Very active.  Very irritated with me bothering them.  Their hive is very heavy with honey still.  So there are, thus far, still bees in the yard.  To grow come spring.

Jonathan put a quick call into Phil at the Honey Exchange and reserved the honey extractor.  And he headed off to get it, despite whatever else he had planned to do for the afternoon.  In his rush, he took his small car by mistake instead of the minivan.  But Subarus have not disappointed us.

Meanwhile, Elliott and I carried the boxes of what seemed like a good amount of honey into the house, fired up the wood stove, and got them warming.  I had thought we could jump right into the extraction that evening, but of course, extracting honey when you are supposed to, in the summer or early fall, makes for warmer temperatures, and honey that flows rather than honey that holds hard onto its comb.

There they sat in front of the heat-chugging stove overnight, warming enough for the honey to thin and spin out of the extractor.

There was still plenty of other work to do, and we set to work, cleaning up the frames that were empty, scraping the wax and propolis out of the boxes, and working through each frame one by one, getting them ready for a new colony come spring.

Some just needed a bit of clean up.

But most frames needed a bit more care.  Some of my comb had become so dark that I was having trouble seeing eggs and brood when I inspected during the summer this year.  The darkness is caused by residue left behind from all the comings and goings of the brood and worker bees as they rub against the cell walls.

When I took my bee classes, four years ago now, I remember the teachers telling us to mark with a date each of our frames when we first started using them, and to move the ones whose comb was becoming dark downward in the hive until they were in the bottom box, empty, and they could be removed.  I have been beekeeping for four summers now, and it was definitely time to clean some of my old brood comb out and replace it with new wax foundation for the bees to build out into fresh comb.  I have been putting this off, as it is a messy and time consuming job.  And one best done outside, or in a barn or basement, where wax will not stick itself to every surface within a 20 foot radius.  Yes, it was warm outside, but not that warm.  We did it in the kitchen.

Julia wanted to help.

And she and I did most of the large sections of comb removal.  As Mainers do, when things get big and messy, we got out the lobster pot.

And then I took over the more detailed work.  I scraped all the residual wax on the frames.

Side note:  Could someone please invent the perfect tool for scraping out the wax from the bottom groove of the frames?  Because my metal shish kabob skewer did not survive the process.  And now I don't have my cake baking tester.  And also, skewers are very sharp when they pop out and skewer your hand.

At this point in the morning, Nicholas was optimistically downstairs in the basement, where such activities really do belong, waxing and scraping his skis, hoping we were still going to make it out for an afternoon ski.  I looked down at my frames, groove and all, and realized we were really doing the same process here.

I placed new wax foundation Jonathan had picked up from Phil the day before in each cleaned up frame.

I created a large bin's worth of ugly wax.  Which Julia and I have plans for.  I considered jumping in right then and figuring out how to begin to process the wax, took one look at Jonathan, who was watching me consider.  And closed up the bin for another day.  He has his limits.

Meanwhile, overnight, the honey had warmed, and Jonathan was busy spinning.  He ended up doing most of that work while I worked the frames.

All in all we harvested 23 pounds of honey from that dead hive.  23 pounds of honey from a hive that died of starvation.  Silly bees.

I carried the sticky honey frames down to the remaining hive after he had extracted the honey and placed them in a box above the hive, for those bees to maybe clean up a bit for me and get some extra food from during the coming warm days ahead.

Once I figured out this cursed ratchet strap that apparently I am not intelligent enough for.

The bees seemed, well, at first quite angry with the woman yanking and cursing about that strap and making their house go all topsy-turvy while she struggled.  I ran for my veil as the bees and I got more frustrated.    But then, once the frames were placed, they seemed pretty pleased with my gift.

And we now have more than 20 pounds of raw honey in our kitchen.  An unexpected treat.  Sweet, gorgeously dark in color, and rich in flavor.  

Also in our kitchen, we had a huge sticky stuck on mess.  I began to clean it up and decided that if we moved quickly, we still had time for that planned afternoon ski.  And I decided to deal with the wax and honey explosion in our kitchen later.

And we headed north, all five of us together in the minivan, listening to Jonathan read Harry Potter.  And then headed off into the woods together in less than ideal, but still skiable conditions.  And we used those grassy muddy spots as inspiration for creativity.  Such as skiing on your knees.

And we watched as the sun went down.  Another day passed.  Another good one, even if a bit unexpected.

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