An informative and sometimes humorous column published in
The New Zealand Beekeeper Journal
In dairying areas, the cows rotationally graze through the paddocks, so they tend to eat off the flowers just as they come into full bloom. Each flower head contains multiple florets, each with six ovaries.
Mānuka, having a small flower, doesn’t produce much nectar so the nectar has to accumulate in the flower before the bees become interested. (They will work it earlier if there is nothing else available to them.) Being an open flower, the nectar is easily washed away.
Knowing what’s in flower and how long a flower takes to recharge itself with nectar is also very important. On a hot day clover nectar has dried up by 11 am, whereas some of our bush honey flowers that are pollinated by birds produce nectar in copious amounts, so the bees work these all day.
In the Wellington area, unfortunately we often get a cold, wet snap during Christmas, which can turn off a nectar source like mānuka even though it continues to flower. What we want is rain once a week, preferably at night, and cloudy days with high humidity so the nectar in the flowers doesn’t dry out before the bees can collect it. Beekeepers 20 years ago used to refer to these days as $100 days.
It’s interesting to note a change in the bees once the main honey flow starts. The bees settle down and get into harvesting mode. It’s easy to work hives as they take very little notice of you. Once the honey flow has started in earnest, the bees usually give up producing queen cells and concentrate on nectar collection. Most of the intense beehive work since the start of spring is now over and beekeeping becomes a pleasure again.
At the start of the honey flow we shouldn’t have dud hives, but sometimes it happens. Perhaps we mistakenly killed the queen, or the queen started running out of viable spermatozoa, so the hive hasn’t built up as expected. What to do?
Some beekeepers combine their dud hives together so there are enough bees to collect a honey crop. If you are combining hives, try not to put a dud hive on the good hive, as the bees going down will kill the queen below. There is also a chance that you could be spreading a virus from the weak hive to the strong hive. Some just split them and create nucs that will become spring replacements.
If you have spare nucs with mated queens, add a nuc to the dud hive using the newspaper method to merge the bees slowly to prevent them fighting. Nucs that were taken to prevent swarming can now be combined back on to the original hive to boost its population, and therefore will (hopefully) produce more honey.
A beekeeper I knew used to pinch out the queens in his single hives (duds), and put on a honey super leaving the bees to sort things out themselves. If this was done at the beginning of the honey flow, by the middle of the months there was little brood to look after so most of the bees became field bees and filled the honey super with nectar.
Some beekeepers Demaree their hives (see http://www.dave-cushman. net/bee/demaree.html). The idea of putting the remaining brood frames on top of the hives is rather appealing, as it requires less lifting and provides opportunities to use the emerging bees for queen rearing.
I have used a variation of the Demaree method. Place the queen, and the comb she is on, in the centre of a new box of foundation frames. Place the new box on the hive base. Then place the queen excluder and the rest of the brood on top, followed by two or three honey supers. The field bees and spare nurse bees start drawing out the foundation frames to provide room for the queen to lay.
Seven days later, lift off the honey supers and shake off most of the bees from the capped brood frames in the second super and rub out all queen cells to prevent swarming. Again, the principle is to cause a brood break so there is very little larvae to look after and therefore more bees into the field to collect nectar.
The only problem is that I was often lifting off heavy honey boxes and this is a lot of extra work but with a lifter on the back of the truck, it’s easy and quick. Once this second inspection is completed, the only work required after this is to check the frames on the top honey super each week or so and add another box when it’s half full of bees.
If we have an early strong flow, try and remove totally capped honey frames off the hives before 31 December, thus avoiding the necessity to have this honey tested for tutin. Hives where the honey is continuously removed when capped tend to produce more than those hives that have their honey removed at the end of the season.
I leave my honey removal until quite late as the main flow usually finishes in early January; however, there is an ongoing dribble of nectar that stimulates the queen to continue laying. If the honey is removed early, what is left for winter stores will be quickly consumed and the hives could starve. Yes, more honey is a benefit of taking off the crop early but then I would have to feed sugar, which I’m not really set up to do. I believe the bees winter better on honey, so don’t mind them chewing through a super of honey before winter. The hives go into winter strong and will be ready to take advantage of early nectar sources in the spring.
At the ApiNZ 2017 Rotorua conference, Allen McCaw (who usually wins the creamed section of the honey contest) gave a presentation on how he creams his honey. Allen does this on a commercial scale, so the procedure isn’t readily applicable for hobby beekeepers with just a small amount of honey.
Allen told us that to start, he heats the drum to remove any natural crystallisation and then selects his starter to add this to the honey. Eighty percent of producing a fine-grained creamed honey is in selecting a fine-grained starter honey.
For a small beekeeper with just a 20 litre (30 kilogram) plastic bucket, after filtering, let the honey settle for 24 hours to allow the tiny wax particles to collect on the surface. These can be removed carefully with a spatula. Alternatively, place a plastic lunch wrap product on the surface of the honey and remove it again: all the dross will be attached to the wrap.
Once the honey is perfectly clean, purchase a small pot of South Island clover or rata honey to use as a starter. It might be that you will have to purchase a number of small pots of honey to get a really fine-grained honey. You’re after something that is very smooth and melts away on your tongue without a hint of crystals.
Add this to five kilograms of your honey and stir in well for five minutes, two or three times a day. The honey will gradually take on a white sheen throughout it.
Seal and store this for a day or two at 13°C in a cool place (or put it into the fridge for a couple of hours to cool), then remove and stir it slowly again with a spatula, trying not to add any air bubbles.
Once you see a white sheen through all of the five kilograms of honey, add the five kilograms to your 20-litre bucket and stir this in well. This amount may take up to three days for all the honey to take on this sheen. Stir it at least three times a day and keep it cool: you will notice the honey is getting thicker and whiter and harder to stir. Some beekeepers use a paint stirrer on a slow-speed drill for five minutes, three times a day.
This whitening is the start of crystallisation (granulation). How quickly the honey creams is very dependent on your honey source, but once you see the honey creaming, pot it up.
Put the lids on tight (honey is hygroscopic) and store it in a cool place where the temperature is 13–15°C for at least a week. At this temperature, the crystallisation process will take place, converting all the liquid honey into a fine crystal honey. If the honey creams into a solid block before you have a chance to pot it, just reheat the pail in hot water to soften it again and then pot up.
For those with a drum of honey, it’s easy if you have a cool basement and a honey pump. Just add five kilograms of the partly creamed honey to the drum and stir in well. Then turn on the pump and let the honey circulate for two hours. Don’t let the honey fall into the drum as this creates air bubbles. Allow it to slide down the side of the drum or have the end of the hose close to the surface of the honey. Once you see the white sheen through all the honey, pot up and leave in the cool room.
Caution: tie the hose securely to the drum so it won’t come out. About 40 years ago, the then-President of the Wellington Club (Jim Gyton) was creaming honey in his honey house (which was in the garden), using a small pump. The hose fell out and honey soon covered the floor and ran out the door on to the lawn. The bees managed to collected about half (lots of robbing) and the rest was lost. The honey killed the grass for a year, so if you need another use for old, spoilt honey, use it as a weed killer!
Honey runs very quietly and will go everywhere. You soon learn to check that every honey gate is closed before you start extracting. The most I lost through not checking was 60 kilograms of very good-quality mānuka. You only lose the best stuff.
Back to the creaming process. If the crystallisation in the jar is too quick, a tiny air gap forms between the glass or plastic sides of the honey jar and the honey. As the honey shrinks, glucose oxide crystals form in this air gap, which we call frosting. This is natural but spoils the presentation, so just zap the jar in the microwave for a minute to melt these crystals and all is well again.
The finished product should have a firm surface but when using a knife as a spatula, it should spread easily and fine across your slice of fresh bread.
Following are some things that can go wrong. If the honey has more than 18.5 % of moisture, it may not go hard and can separate; i.e., liquid honey forms on top. After about six to 12 months, it can start to ferment because the extra added moisture in the honey comes to the surface during granulation.
If you are not sure of the moisture content of your honey, it’s best to leave outside honey frames for a later extraction, as these generally have a higher moisture content than the capped frames in the centre of the super.
Always select fully capped frames for extraction as the honey in these has been fully ripened by the bees. This especially applies if you are in a high-humidity area. In the central South Island where it’s hot and dry, the honey frames can be removed when only three quarters capped. Shake the frames and see if any nectar comes out. If not, then it’s OK to extract.
If you’re considering becoming more than a hobbyist, then you should purchase a good refractometer to measure the moisture content of the honey. My honey generally comes in a little more than 18.6%, so I dry it further by offsetting the bottom super from the drip tray slightly and forcing air through the stack of supers with a fan. I found I could take 2% of moisture out of the 70 supers of honey in 24 hours by using a dehumidifier in my small hot room at 35°C, which equates to 10 litres of water.
Some honeys are very low in glucose and therefore don’t tend to granulate (cream) quickly. Those with a high glucose content, like rata or pōhutukawa, will go hard in the frames if not extracted within a couple of days once the honey frames have been removed off the hive.
We now have so many beehives in New Zealand that hobbyists’ hives in the country are no longer isolated from commercial apiaries. A hobbyist beekeeper removing honey early will send a plume of honey scent into the air which bees within two kilometres will detect and investigate.
While the main honey flow is on, this doesn’t matter as the bees close by will continue working the flowers. But once the honey flow finishes, there will be thousands of bees with nothing to do. Each day these bees will visit all the hives around them, testing their defences in order to steal honey. This can also happen each afternoon in overstocked areas if nothing is producing nectar.
To try and prevent this, purchase or make a robbing screen for each hive. They are easy to make: four pieces of 25 mm by 8 mm timber, 250 mm high, nailed in a square and covered with fly screen of mesh stapled to the wood.
Reduce the hive’s entrance also to help the bees defend the hive, and screw the robbing screen across the front of the hive. I leave my entrance 200 mm wide all year round. The top part of the screen is left open or partially open and your bees soon find that opening and start using it as their way in and out of the hive.
Robber bees and wasps are attracted to the scent coming from the bottom entrance of the hive and go towards this entrance, but come up against the screen so can’t find their way in.
Robbing screens should go on your hives just as the main flow finishes (or if you are not sure, at Christmas).
Check feed. Check for failing queens and introduce nuclei. Super hives: get the honey supers on before the bees need them. Checkerboard drawn frames with foundation frames. Lift a frame with honey up into the next super to encourage the bees to go up into the new super.
Swarm control continues for the first two weeks of the honey flow. Make nucs from swarmed hives and combine weak hives to make full-strength units for honey production. This is the best time to get queens mated for those making their own replacements or ordering queen cells. Make up spring replacement nucs. If you want 10, make 13 to cover winter losses.
Prepare the honey house equipment and fill in the RMP checklist. First honey extraction in some areas. Complete a full brood frame check for AFB before removing any honey or combining hives. Keep good records of hive movements. Remove honey before 31 December to eliminate the need for tutin testing in the tutin/ scolypopa areas. Don’t extract any frames containing brood or pollen as this can increase the CFUs in your honey.
Fit foundation into comb honey supers. Put on when the first three-quarters are being used for honey storage. (This is left on to prevent the bees storing pollen in the comb super frames it there’s a break in the good weather.)
Check hives for mites. Keep those mite numbers low. Treat if necessary with formic acid or oxalic acid after separating off the honey boxes with crown board.
Have a good Christmas break, even if it’s only a couple of days. Take time off and spend it on family things. Most commercial beekeepers’ families hardly see them at this time of the year. Family time is important. Take a break before you get into the extracting season. We hope you have a good crop. All the best from the Publications team.