The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Forgetting to check for brood when harvesting honey

Honeybees carrying pollen

You'd think that since we've had bees for over four years now, we would have harvested a lot of honey.  Unfortunately, since I'm stubbornly refusing to use chemicals in the hives, it's been quite a learning curve, and this is only the second year I've gone to steal honey from the bees.

The first time around was in 2010.  Our bees had arrived as a package over a year before, so in June I figured I could take any honey they had left over from the winter.  Despite a learning curve, we ended up harvesting about four gallons of honey from four hives that June.


Unfortunately, my mistake of trying to keep mainstream bees without chemicals killed off three of the hives the following winter.  I split the remaining hive in 2011, which meant the bees were busy rebuilding and didn't have time to make extra honey for their beekeeper.  And then both of those hives died, so last year I started a new package again (this time of bees that had been raised chemical-free).  But I'd also changed over to Warre beekeeping methods, so I allowed those bees to swarm...which slowed them down yet again.

Bee frames

Which is all a long way of explaining why I'm still making basic beginner mistakes in the honey harvest department.  I had decided to take a box of honey off our busiest hive, but when I removed the roof, even after smoking, there seemed to be a lot more bees buzzing around than I thought there should have been.  This was my clue to pull up a frame and make sure the box was full of honey only, but I blithely took off the box without checking, shut the hive back up, and carried my haul halfway back to the trailer.

There, I finally pried up a frame.  The first two frames were full of pollen and honey, and I set them aside.  But the third frame was covered with capped brood, and so was the fourth!  Uh oh.  No wonder the bees were pissed off, buzzing me despite having been smoked and carried away from home base.

Bee brood

Even though this all makes sense as I write it, you have to pretend you're me, alone on the farm (Mark was at the post office) with bees everywhere and very little memory of what you did last time you harvested honey.  I probably should have just put everything back, shut the hive up, and dealt with it later once the bees calmed down.  But instead I figured I would first take one of those empty boxes from the less-strong Warre hive so the first hive could maintain their building streak.

The trouble is, I smelled like angry bees, so when I went over to the other hive, they quickly got riled up, and then got angrier when I could barely lift the hive off the empty box on the bottom.  As I struggled to put the occupied boxes back in place, guard bees came streaming out of the hive and one stung me on each knee.  In a perfect world, I could have stepped back after the first sting, but I had to get the hive back on its base so it wouldn't tip over, and by the time that happened, a dozen bees had latched onto each knee, and many were managing to sting straight through my jeans.

Opening a Warre hiveSo I ran back to the trailer, batting at my legs, then rushed through room after room, brushing off bees in each space and shutting the door so the angry insects couldn't follow me.  Out the other door to brush off more bees on the porch, then back into the trailer to brush off the last few bees and pull on another pair of pants and our spare bee suit to mask the alarm smell.

Too worn out (and bee-shy) to do much work on the busy hive I'd begun with, I simply took off the top and quilt, plopped on the empty box and then the box of brood, closed the hive back up, and returned to the house to crush the two frames of honey I'd taken out of that box before realizing it was full of brood.

I'm not sure why the top box of our busiest hive was full of brood --- bees are supposed to start work at the top and move down into the new boxes I'd put underneath.  But nature doesn't always work the way books tell you it does, and the top box was definitely chock full of brood.  Since the hive is now too heavy to lift up, allowing me to nadir new boxes underneath, I'll just keep adding empties to the top if the bees continue to need the space.  Come spring, the colony will be smaller, the bees will have moved out of most of the boxes, and any honey left should be much easier to harvest.  Maybe by then I'll be able to harvest honey without making stupid mistakes and getting stung.

Our chicken waterer makes care of your backyard flock much easier than keeping bees.

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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Wow! Sounds like quite the adventure!
Comment by Brandy Sat Aug 24 16:54:30 2013

Ouch! That is hard getting stung and chased by angry bees! Have you tried a Warre forklift? I'm sure Mark could whip one up for you in a jiffy.

Comment by Eric in Japan Sat Aug 24 21:56:09 2013

Even better- lots of links, pictures, and plans:

Comment by Eric in Japan Sat Aug 24 22:04:24 2013
I had a hive building up in the top box this year as well. What I noticed was that they were my only hive struggling with varroa mites, and I wondered if they somehow felt that building far away from the brood nest would leave the larvae safer. But of course I'm not sure. Or perhaps there were two queens in that one hive and they were staying away from eachother- the hive had swarmed heavily in the spring...
Comment by Mike Wed Aug 28 14:45:24 2013

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