Flannel Jammies Farm

...praising God on our 1/5 acre of suburbia

Thursday, August 21, 2014

extracting honey...


It's been a busy summer here at Flannel Jammies Farm:  keeping bees, gardening, composting, working, canning, dehydrating, entertaining, teaching, volunteering... not to mention working on wedding plans with our daughter (but that's another post for another day)!  Lots of to-doings.  In the midst of this activity the time came to extract honey from our hives.

We are second-year beekeepers.  During the first year, we did not extract any honey, choosing instead to leave all the honey on the hives as food for the bees through their first winter.  This second Spring, we planned to take only excess honey, above and beyond what the bees' food, from the two hives that made it through the last winter.  We'd never done it before, only watched and assisted in the process with other beekeepers, but it was time to jump in on July 4th.  

First, let me tell you: honey is sticky stuff.  And it tends to get everywhere.  It's impossible to extract outside; bees will immediately join the party to enjoy the open stores of honey!  We don't have a convenient honey house or garage, so our extraction process would be taking place inside the home, in our kitchen.   I tend to unintentionally make the most glorious messes, flinging anything liquid into the most far-fetched places, so I knew that precautions must be made.  We covered the items on our walls with a great product combining painters' tape and plastic sheeting.  We covered the large farmhouse table with more plastic, and put a tarp on the floor to cover the tile.

Back outside, we peeked into the two chosen hives,  determining that the top hive boxes had many frames of capped honey.  Bees bring lots of nectar from flowers back to the hives during the blooming season, or nectar flow, and store the nectar in the hexagon cells of the honeycomb.  When the bees have dehydrated the stored flower nectar to honey of just the right moisture content, they cover the honey with a thin coating of wax, forming "capped honey".  Uncapped stores may contain too much moisture.  If uncapped honey is extracted, it could ferment in the jar... not pleasant!

How do you get busy bee girls to leave the frames of capped honey and allow you to whisk them away for extraction?  Glad you asked!  We created a fume board by covering a piece of cut-to-size corrugated plastic with flannel scraps (it IS Flannel Jammies Farm, after all), securing the fabric in place, and attaching the fume board to an extra wooden inner cover for the hive.  We then sprayed the flannel on the fume board with a product that would repel the bees without harming them, causing them to retreat from the frames of honey in the top hive box into the depths of the lower boxes below.  The sprayed fume board was placed on top of the hive and we waited several minutes.  When Tom returned and lifted the fume board, the top box of the hive had been vacated!

He loaded the top box into the plastic lined wheelbarrow and headed for the house.  Heavy frames filled with capped honey were pulled from the hive box and brought inside.  Any stray bees were encouraged to stay outside with their sisters.

Once inside, each frame was set in a large dish and a special sharp-toothed tool was used to uncap the cells filled with liquid gold!  As the thin, wax caps were removed from the honey, it dripped down, sweet and thick and delicious into the dish below.  Wax cappings were set aside for melting later, destined to become salves and balms and candles and such.  Once all the cells were uncapped on both sides of the frame, the frame was place into the extractor.

We borrowed a manual extractor with a hand crank.  There are power models out there, but for our small honey operation the hand-cranked extractor worked perfectly.  We looked twice to be sure the honey gate was closed before beginning.  Frames are placed in this extractor vertically, into metal guides to keep them in place during the process.  When two frames were in place, we closed the lid, placed a honey bucket (with straining basket in place) below the honey gate of the extractor, and opened the honey gate.

Gently at first, we began to turn the crank, then faster and faster.  Inside the extractor, the frames are spun round and round, the centrifugal force flinging the honey onto the inside walls of the extractor.  The honey drips down the walls in sheets, gathers at the bottom, and pours out the honey gate into the strainer and bucket waiting below.  The strainer captures any wax and debris, and the clean, raw, beautiful honey fills the bucket below.

The process was repeated throughout the afternoon.  After filling the buckets and weighing the honey (a total of 76 pounds this season), we filled jars and jars with the amber treasure of honey.  We returned the emptied frames to their hive boxes and placed them back onto the hives, allowing the bees to clean the honeycomb, enjoy a feast from the remaining film of honey, and reuse the comb for future brood or stores.

It was quite a day of work, but the reward was SO worth it!  Our larder is stocked with half-gallon jars of honey to be used as sweetener throughout the year and with smaller jars to be given as gifts from us and from our bees.

My child, eat honey, for it is good, and the honeycomb is sweet to the taste.
Proverbs 24:13

Saturday, June 14, 2014

132-gallon rain barrel. check.

We love our rain barrel.  It's wonderful for catching rainwater which is then used to water our vegetable garden, herbs, and other plantings.  Water conservation, unadulterated rainwater, lower water bill... what's not to like?

We really wanted another one, though, in the front of the house, to water all the herbs, medicinals, and stray tomato plants that we plunk in amongst the hydrangea and peony and hellebores.  Oh, and the bee and butterfly bed.  And the asparagus/beet/tomato bed.

Recently we went to RIVERFest in Norfolk, our neighboring city.  It was a lovely day of learning about cleaning up our rivers and keeping them clean, conserving natural resources, boarding the Learning Barge, and chatting with local organizations.

One such group, the Elizabeth River Project, was signing folks up to be River Star homeowners.  Say what?  Yeah, so, River Star Homeowners are basically folks doin' right by the river, helping to restore the Elizabeth River and the Lafayette Branch!  You agree to do 7 simple things...
...and the organization gives you access to information on doing more, a spiffy little River Star Home flag for your yard, AND the opportunity (through a grant) to purchase a 132-gallon rain barrel, completely installed, for $75!!!!  You guessed it.  We signed up.  We wrote the check.  We flew our flag.  And today, that beauty was installed!

Mike, a sweet and patient man with a smile and a bright orange shirt, kindly answered all my questions, turned the barrel this way and that until I was happy, and got to work rerouting our gutter downspout.  The hubs worked with him, arranging foundation stones under the barrel, removing an unwanted sapling to clear more room, and finishing off with a flourish of river stones (we're all about the costuming over here!).

And now, we wait for rain...

While we're waiting, you can check out the programs in your area to do right by your rivers, forests, and other natural areas.  Take care of the pollinators and birds.  Make your home a safe haven for native plants and critters.  You'll be glad you did!

Saturday, May 24, 2014

bees in the top-bar hive...

We're newbies, really.  We haven't even had our first anniversary as beekeepers.  We have a few Langstroth hives in the back, and thousands of honey bee guests.  It has been a great gift to create a safe haven for these amazing bees.  But all along, the hubs longed for a more natural way, a style of beekeeping that intrigued him:  a top-bar hive.

We enjoyed hearing Dr. Wyatt Mangum speak at a couple of beekeeping conferences last year.  My husband chatted with him and his wife while he purchased a signed copy of the book, Top-Bar Hive Beekeeping: Wisdom and Pleasure Combined.  My husband then carried this book everywhere for months, reading and re-reading sections, dreaming of starting his own top-bar hive.  We read other material on top-bar beekeeping and watched countless YouTube videos on the subject!

Toward the end of this past winter, feeling bruised from life's challenges, we decided to cheer ourselves with a gift.  A top-bar hive from Bee Thinking, made of cedar with a copper roof, a screened bottom board, several entrances, beautifully beveled top bars, a double jar feeder, and an observation window running the length of the hive.  It arrived and was assembled in moments.  It was a thing of beauty standing in our living room! 

Spring swarm season soon arrived at Flannel Jammies Farm.  I trapped a couple of swarms and tried unsuccessfully to move them into the lovely new top-bar hive.  One swarm obviously did not have or lost their queen, and quickly dwindled, despite our best efforts.  One swarm seemed quite happy and began building gorgeous lobes of wax comb... then moved on to a new home without warning.  *sigh*  Then on a Sunday, driving with my daughter across the state to a funeral, I received a swarm call from a friend and fellow beekeeper.  I asked her to please call my husband at home and he might be able to rescue the bees.  Soon after, he called to say he had the swarm in a bucket and was driving them home to the top-bar hive!

This third swarm settled in nicely, built amazing wax comb, foraged and stored pollen and nectar, and began raising brood (bee babies). 
 A peek inside the top-bar hive through the observation window

Three weeks after getting the bees settled in, we did a hive check and found true wonders inside that top-bar hive.  We are loving this method of beekeeping!  Here are some of the photos from that hive check.
Bee at the reduced entrance to the top-bar hive

Inside the hive: lobes of lovely wax comb

Carefully removing any wax adhering the comb to the hive body before we try to remove the top-bars

Bars must be turned carefully end-to-end, and not flipped, lest the entire comb break off the top-bar; this photo shows pollen and nectar stores

Bees, comb, nectar

Larvae and eggs inside the cells

Wax comb attached to the top-bar

Bees tending capped and uncapped brood

Bees working, building

The carefully removed and turned bars of comb, placed in the order we removed them

Side view of the comb with white bee pupae visible inside the cells on each side of the comb

Working in the top-bar hive

Friday, May 2, 2014

share the (urban homestead) love...

(sshhhhh... don't tell anyone... I'm really only about five years old at heart...

So the hubs and I have been 'farming' this little 1/5 acre for over a decade now.  We grow veg and herb and fruit and flowering everythings, all mixed in together.  We grow intensively and our year-round harvest is abundant.  We're going into our second year of beekeeping, and our first little swarm has blossomed into 2 large Langstroth hives, 2 nuc boxes, 1 nuc swarm trap (in which we have bee squatters, the hubs proudly displayed yesterday), and 1 top bar hive.  We compost and we create 'lasagna garden' mulch and we collect rainwater.  It's all great fun.  Why not share the fun with some tiny visitors?

A couple of moms brought their kiddos for a Discovery Day at Flannel Jammies Farm!  We gathered and chatted about farms and bees and growing things.  Little ones snacked on the fruit and rice crackers set out in the kitchen.  Once all had arrived, we sat down at the big, square kitchen table for a brown bag lunch.  Then the real fun began... 

We started with a Scavenger Hunt.  Each child was given a pencil and a clipboard with a specially designed Scavenger Hunt sheet.  Kids and moms explored the yard and garden beds, looking for and asking questions about all sorts of things:  a rain barrel, worms, asparagus, pink flowers, strawberries, tomatoes, beehives, watering cans, and so much more!  It was a bit rainy that day, but we didn't care!  Boot and smiles were the apparel of the day!

We came inside to wash hands and sit down on the kitchen floor together.  Now to plant!  A pot for each one, a pen to add their names, and a little instruction about how much soil got us going.  We decided to plant some lettuce and grow a salad.  Little fingers poked holes in the top of the soil and gently placed seeds in the depression.  The seeds were covered with a bit more soil and watered just a bit.

More snacks, more smiles, a little imaginary party planning with hats, and sweet hugs goodbye completed our Discovery Day.  I so enjoyed sharing with these small friends!  Share the hospitality, share the wisdom, share the love with those around you... you will be blessed even more than those you share with, I assure you!