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Of Bees and Family

One of my queens.  Yes, those are her daughters.

The road to blogging is paved with good intentions?  I've written and lost about a dozen posts before this one but they keep getting lost between the toes of my two-year-old son.  

I recently had a great chat with Tim Malfroy over at Malfroy's Gold and he made me realize that I hadn't updated my site in quite a while, and that some of my blog posts needed editing, so here goes!  I highly recommend you check out this post in particular.

Queen breeding: I've long since discarded the idea of requeening all my hives with uniform genetics, and have opted for the opposite approach.  Genetic diversity is incredibly important for species survival, and scientific papers I've read since last winter have convinced me that I should aim for a wide variety of bees.  I've started keeping track of families, much like Sam Comfort of Anarchy Apiaries.  Most of my queen are now local, though I do have one breeder queen from Dewar (a hygienic queen from the Sydney breeding program) in the mix.  I still regularly add queens from cutouts.  I'm not selling any of my queens, yet, but when and if I do, they will be very, very hybrid. I don't select for colour.  Most are black and some are yellow, but they often end up looking a bit like tigers.  Earlier this year I had thought seriously about learning how to do instrumental insemination.  I'm no longer convinced this is a path worth taking.  I'm also not going to aggressively breed for certain traits.  I opt to split some hives over others, and I requeen occasionally when the situation warrants it, and this ends up selecting for the traits I want over time.  

Varroa Sensitive Hygiene: I'm no longer keen to import varroa sensitive hygiene bees - drone semen or queens.  The risk of importing viruses or mites though quarantine is just too high for my liking.  VSH also looks to be a good deal more complicated than previously thought, and the bees ability to remove mites is only part of the picture.  I'm still selecting for hygienic behaviour, but that's something I can do with local bees, gradually.

Treatment Free: I've now had several commercial beekeepers tell me, separately, that Australian honey has high levels of Oxytetracycline hydrochloride (an antibiotic).  Officially treating for European Foulbrood, I'm guessing, but unofficially treating for American Foulbrood, since it works well for either.  This was news to me.  Then there are beekeepers who dip their hives in Copper Naphthalate to preserve the wood, and some use Phostoxin to keep vermin away from stored comb.  Ignorance is bliss, apparently.

Dovetails!  I can make furniture and stuff now.

Hive Material: I'm more firmly on the side of wood > polystyrene from a purely ecological point of view.  From a bottom line perspective, sure, EPS.  But life if more than the bottom line for me.  I like wooden hives, and I don't particularly like plastic.  Working with wood has actually made me a better person and given me useful life skills, and I can't see how EPS would have done the same things for me (but then, I haven't chosen that path, so who knows).  

Domestic or Wild?   I think bees are both wild and domestic.  Partially domesticated.  The commercial lines of bees are very restricted, genetically, and are generally poorly adapted to dealing with all the various bee pests on their own (at least the way they are kept these days).  They are bred for honey production.  On the other hand, these lines require constant vigilance to remain "pure", and quickly revert to wild types if left of their own.  A wild swarm of bees, or bees that are derived primarily from wild colonies, are wild, and the selective pressures placed on them have to do with survival in the wild, not honey production.  Are my bees wild?  I'd say yes.  Honestly, I live in an urban area, and it is inevitable that when my bees swarm they get a mix of both line-bred (first generation) and wild lineages.  I have at least three families in my apiary that started out as domesticated lines, though only one is still 100% domestic as it hasn't overwintered here yet.  How one treats bees, especially the queen, has a big impact, I think, on whether you can consider them wild or not.  Most of the beekeepers I know only requeen if they have a hive that's particularly nasty, but I don't know anyone (personally) who runs thousands of hives so I can't comment on their operations.  

Apiary Density: I haven't really touched on this one in any other post yet, but Tim raised a good point (and a good article) that high density apiaries are not a good idea when it comes to disease prevention.  I can't believe I didn't think of this a lot sooner.  I practically did a Master's degree on this very topic, but with birds and mosquitoes.  Right now I keep my hives relatively close to each other (to facilitate moving between hives) but there's no reason I can't spread them out a lot more.  At three of my sites I could easily put 20-30m between hives.  I aim to fix this over the next 12 months.  I keep trying to add more site so I can spread my hives out, but it's not easy!

Disconnected.  Who knows where anything comes from anymore?

Why are they Dying? The plight of our bees is directly related to how we've been treating them. I think this is a result our agricultural paradigm, which is a result of the food choices we've made as a "cultural gestalt".  I'm not interested in apportioning blame - it's not the beekeepers, or the farmers, or the chemists at pharmaceutical companies, or anyone else specifically.  It's easy to point fingers.  We're all wandering through life one day at a time and we put food on our tables, if we're lucky, and somehow we're where we are, and I don't think anyone is out to kill bees.   For me it's not about whether they're domestic or wild, but that they have personality and beauty that is somehow "other", and I want that to persist in all its variety.  I think about each of my hives as unique creatures, and one of the reasons I'm stopping at 100 hives for now is because I don't want to lose that feeling.  Superficially bees are in trouble because of all the pests, diseases, pesticides, and moving around we've saddled them with, but on a deeper level I think they're in trouble because people are disconnected from the world around them and have trouble thinking beyond themselves.  People are in more trouble than bees.

That's it for now.  Time to go press some honey and put more boxes on hives.  I'm also collecting a hive of bees from the Mt Gambier Airport tomorrow, which will be fun (Edit - it was a good colony, tons of honey, and a reddish-brown queen.  Nice strait combs so I was able to save most of the brood).




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Mid-Winter Checkup

Hives on thermal.  Most of them are working two boxes and bringing in pollen.

Some hives also seemed better adapted to the cold.  I was so busy last winter (with my kids) that I didn't do anything to help my bees overwinter, and ended up losing nearly a third of my bees to cold, wet, and starvation, which was really sad in spring and meant I spent a good part of this last year playing catch-up instead of making honey.  The "upshot" was that the bees I was left with were all very cold-hardy strains.  Some of my hives that seem weaker (only in a single box) are actually doing fine - there are nectar and pollen sources within 50m of the hives and every single hive had bees flying.  


One of my F1 hybrid ligurian/Italian queens.

I went out at around 10 AM on a Saturday morning to check ten of my hives that are hiding under some gums (blue gum mostly I think, but I'm terrible at Eucalyptus sp. identification).  Middle of winter in Mount Gambier usually means hard rain, lows of 4-6°C at night and highs of 10-14°C during the day.  The problem with a temperature profile like this is that the bees are often too warm to ball up properly during the day but the rain keeps them from flying, so they burn through their honey fast.  I discovered last year that hive survival seemed related to how well they were insulated, how big the colony was going into winter, and how much honey I left them.  Those with a quilt box did a lot better than those without, and those that were off the ground did better than those on the ground.

Looking through the ventilated floor, up at the bees.  Solid heat across eight frames.

My bees are a real mixed bag in honey production, temperament, and cleanliness, and I wonder if that's a result of the number of other beekeepers around where I live.  My bees in my more remote/non-urban sites seem better than my rural/urban bees.  More genetic diversity = better division of labour in the hives?  The more I read, the more I realise that bee genetics are poorly understood even by (especially?) the experts, and I'm still very much a novice!



Don't Catch them All

Just call us the bullet dodgers.  The mites in Townsville were, as I had first thought, not capable of infecting A. mellifera.  And with a closer read of the original research by Robert's team, I understand why.  You don't even need to do a DNA analysis, because the data is actually staring you in the face.

Maybe don't catch these ones.

When the V. jacobsonii mites jumped to mellifera in the PNG, they were unable to breed on A. cerana.  They had undergone a speciation event, and changed their hosts completely.  They are not opportunistic, but specific.  Therefore, the mites in Townsville couldn't have been a danger, because they were breeding in an A. cerana hive.  Granted, we don't want any more cerana on the continent, either, but that cat's been out of the bag for a while.

Postscript:  An acquaintance pointed out that a possibly more realistic threat is that jacobsonii mites could act as a one-off vector for DWV, from cerana to mellifera.  They wouldn't have to be be reproductively viable mites; they would only have to carry the virus and go from an infected cerana hive to an uninfected mellifera hive.  That would be scary.  

(appologies for the pokemon joke.... it's one of those things you either get, or you don't)




Damage Control

Earlier in the week I was going to post something to the effect that Australia has nothing to worry about.  Much as the media loves a good terror story, the recent incursion of two V. jacobsonii on a small hive of Apis cerena in Townsville, Queensland is less scary than many other close calls we've had over the past decade - for instance, in 2012 when biosecurity caught a hive in the port of Sydney with 150 V. destructor on it, or last year when the Varroa-resistant queens we started importing had V. destructor on their attendants.  After all, V. jacobsonii doesn't parasitise European honey bees, does it?  That was part of the reason for differentiating jacobsonii from destructor sixteen years ago (Anderson 2000; Anderson & Trueman 2000).

Asian honey bees (Apis cerena).  photo by Nick Annand and the ABK

A couple of V. jacobsonii mites on Apis mellifera brood.  photo by Nick Annand and the ABK

Except that in 2008 some researchers in P.N.G. found out that V. jacobsonii had successfully "jumped" species from Apis cerena to A. mellifera (Roberts, Anderson, and Tay 2015).  The impact on A. mellifera is still unknown, but probably not good.  The sub-population of V. jacobsonii that made the jump actually underwent a pretty significant speciation event, and are now unable to breed on A. cerena (which thankfully means, though basic logical inference, that the ones in Townsville can't be the infectious ones).  They published their results in 2015 in the journal of Molecular Ecology, but a lot of people (myself included) didn't hear about it because it's hard to get a copy of the article without paying for it unless you work in a university.  How this basically went under the radar in Australia just goes to show that there needs to be more communication between scientists and people working in the industry.  I realize that the government leans on the side of caution when it comes to biosecurity, and I think that's smart, but I wish they had been more specific about why they were being cautious in this case. 

Apis cerena swarms much more readily than A. mellifera.  Until we know more about the specific genetics of the jacobsonii mites found I (sort of) understand why everyone at biosecurity is on tenterhooks.  

The fact that the hive in Townsville was landside and more than two years old is a justifiable worry.  If the hive did swarm, and it was carrying varroa, then we may have had varroa on the continent for over a year already.  The upshot is that - like the mites in PNG - it may take these mites another 30 years to evolve a subgroup capable of moving into our commercial bees.


Anderson DL (2000) Variation in the parasitic bee mite Varroa jacobsoni Oud. Apidologie, 31, 281–292.

Anderson DL, Trueman JWH (2000) Varroa jacobsoni (Acari: Varroidae) is more than one species. Experimental and Applied Acarology, 24, 165–189.

Roberts JMK, Anderson DL, Tay WT (2015) Multiple host shifts by the emerging honeybee parasite,Varroa jacobsoni. Molecular Ecology, 24, 2379–2391.





The Perfect Hive - EPS or Wood?

The empty vessel makes the loudest sound (that's a Shakespear quote).  I don't think there is a perfect hive, and this is not a soapbox post.  The perfect hive for you depends on what you're looking for, and the perfect hive for the bees depends partly on the bees in questions.  


Keeping bees in a box is "unnatural".  In all cases you're bringing the bees down to basically knee height, with the (probable) intention of regularly stealing their honey, and possibly moving them around to pollinate something they may or may not want to pollinate, so that someone can grow food, and so the beekeeper can make some money.  The reason our food supply is so dependant on honey bees is because we have made it that way - there are millions of other natural pollinators to chose from, but we chose to domesticate Apis mellifera.  I'm not knocking that choice (I'm a beekeeper after all!), but it's important to understand that if you want to keep bees completely naturally, then you don't understand beekeeping.  I think the best I can do as a beekeeper is to keep my bees ethically - which means something specific to me, but might mean something different to you.

EPS (Expanded Polystyrene)

EPS (also known as Styrofoam) is a great building material.  It's lightweight, insulates very well, paints easily, and can be moulded into beehives.  There are a few companies that make high-density EPS hives, but the most well-known in Australia are Paradise hives. 


High-density EPS hives are lightweight, insulate very well, and paint easily.  They are quick to assemble (they come flat pack) and require no special skills, because you don't make them yourself.  Bees love them.  Winter and summer temperatures in a Paradise hive are very stable, roughly akin to a hollow in a very thick tree.  They don't easily burn, and I can't find anything that suggests bees have any issues with the material itself (eg. there's nothing to suggest that "offgassing" from the EPS affects the bees in any way - in fact, there's nothing to suggest that EPS hives "offgass" anything at all).  They never fall apart unless they break (from falling off a truck, for instance), and are theoretically recyclable.  HD Polystyrene has a thermal conductivity of 0.03W k/m, which is great.  It takes very little energy to produce EPS (small carbon footprint).  Bees living in high-density EPS hives will produce more honey, more brood, and be less stressed by temperature fluctuation.


In Australia they are twice as expensive as an off-the-shelf wood hive.  You can't modify polystyrene without breaking it.  High Density EPS never biodegrades.  It photodegrades, which means it falls apart into smaller and smaller pieces, eventually becoming small enough that micro-organisms mistake it for food.  To keep it from photodegrading it needs to be painted.  When it breaks into smaller pieces it is light enough to blow on the wind, and it floats easily - polystyrene is one of the worst ocean pollutants on the planet, making up 60-80% of all marine pollution.  The EPS of a Paradise hive will probably last for thousands of years, albeit in pieces too small to see with the naked eye. Recycling centres for EPS can be hard to find in Australia - unlike in Europe, you can't drop EPS into your kurbside recycling bin, you have to drive it to a site yourself.  While Australia recycled 4,900 tons of polystyrene in 2014, it dumped almost tens times as much.  Polystyrene takes up a quarter of our landfill and particulate polystyrene bits outnumbers marine plankton by an order of magnitude.  Short of recycling, we don't know how to get rid of it.  A high-density polystyrene hive is not the same as a throw-away polystyrene cup, but it's still a non-biodegradable petrochemical product that will outlive us all.




A lot depends on what kind of wood you're using, but this is the material hives have been made out of for a long time.  It's easy to find wood because it grows on trees... ok enough silliness.


One huge benefit of wood is that it is easy to source.  It looks nice, it's usually easy to cut, and using wood allows anyone to make a beehives in whatever style they want.  A wood hive is easy to modify or customize, or cheap to purchase if you don't want to build one from scratch.  It's easy to paint or stain, and depending on the specific type of wood it can last for decades.  It usually burns well, so it's recyclable in that regard, but it ultimately biodegrades (a pro and a con).  Bees like it as well as anything else.  Wood is a renewable resource, wood hives can be repaired if they break, and wood tends to be physically durable.  Western Red Cedar has a thermal conductivity of 0.107W k/m, Radiata Pine is at 0.147W k/m, Cypress is at 0.097W k/m, and Balsa Wood comes in around 0.04W k/m.  I've found abandoned 20 year old wood hives that still held bees just fine.


Wooded hives are usually heavy and have moderate long-term durability.  Compared with EPS, wood is a poor insulator, and making wood hives with EPS-equivalent insulating values would require prohibitively thick and heavy hives.  Wood hives require work to maintain, because left to their own devices they biodegrade faster than humans age.  Untreated wood, depending on the type of wood, might only last a year or two in some climates, although a coat of paint can increase the lifespan by quite a bit.  Balsa wood is close to EPS in terms of thermal insulation but falls apart remarkably fast with a little water.  Treating wood (by dipping the hives in paraffin, beeswax, rosin, linseed oil, or some combination) makes it much more durable but reduces the insulating qualities.  Using thicker wood increases the insulation of the hive at the expense of weight.  You could make Balsa wood hives, but then you better make sure you paint them regularly!  Bees in wood hives will produce less honey, less brood, and will be stressed by temperature extremes when compared with bees in a HD EPS hive.


The Verdict:

Paradise EPS hives

If you're a commercial beekeeper engaged in honey production or pollination, and are either confident in your recycling ethics or are unconcerned about the long-term impact of polystyrene, then using an EPS hive seems like the smart choice.  I've always been a firm believer in human innovation, and someone will eventually come up with a cost-effective (profitable) way to recycle polystyrene in Australia.  In the meantime, if your hive breaks, make sure you get the pieces to a place that can take care of it without impacting landfill or marine life.

Pine and Cedar hives

If, like me, your market is primarily about small-scale beekeeping and keeping things natural, then polystyrene is probably out.  Using EPS goes against organic best-practices in some countries (although Australia allows food-grade plastic in organic hives, Canada and the EU prohibit plastics).  While Unspun Honey is not certified organic, some of my hives are in locations where the honey *could* be certified organic if I decided to go down that road, and my market is international.  Also, I really like woodworking!  I find joy in the smell of wood, the feel of it, and the beauty of a well-made beehive.  I don't experience the same feelings when holding or assembling something made of plastic, and beekeeping is experiential (for me at least).




Laying Workers (in the New York Times)

I read a lot of scientific articles, but I rarely jump out of my chair while reading them.  This morning was an exception.

This article in PLOS Genetics published on June 9th 2016 made me sit up strait.  In case you don't want to or don't have the time to read it yourself, I'll summarize: there are some colonies of Apis mellifera capensis in South Africa that have laying workers producing socially parasitic viable female offspring.  While this isn't news to anyone living in South Africa (the trait has been documented for a long time) it is very much news to me.  Apparently it was also news to the New York Times.  Pro tip: If you want to terrify beekeepers, talk about unstoppable laying workers.  If you don't want to read my entire post, let me quickly say that you don't have to worry about Apis mellifera capensis unless you live in South Africa.

Laying Worker Eggs. Souce: BeeBase, Crown Copyright

For those of you who are newer to beekeeping I should explain 'normal' laying workers.  Sometimes a healthy hive will go queenless.  This can occur for any number of reasons: the old queen might die, or newly hatched queens might kill each other, or a victorious princess on her mating flight might get eaten by a bird before she makes it home, or emergency queen cells might fail.  In any of these cases the hive usually tries to raise another queen, but that takes a lot of energy, and other things can happen in the meantime.  In a normal hive about 1% of worker bees have functional ovaries - but their laying behaviour is suppressed by the queen pheromones.  Worker bees ovaries don't contain fertilized eggs, and unfertilized eggs can only develop into drone brood.  Of course, if a colony is queenless, laying workers can and sometimes do take over - leading to lots of drone brood and ultimately the death of the colony.  The proliferation of drones ensures that at least the colony genetics are not lost, since the drones can mate with queens from other hives.  A vigilant beekeeper will know when a hive is queenless and attempt to rectify the situation before the hive dies.

Drone brood from a laying worker.

A laying worker producing self-fertilized eggs - like the ones in South Africa - produces worker bees that are indistinguishable from other workers.  But these workers are different: they are social parasites who seek out other colonies and start laying in those hives, even in the presence of a queen, eventually leading to the death of that queen and colony.  On the one hand, a laying worker that can produce viable female offspring means that even a queenless colony can raise a new queen using eggs from a worker.  On the other hand, the social parasitism means that they can decimate other nearby colonies.  This apparently happened in the early 1990s when beekeepers moved around 200 colonies of capensis north into commercial Apis mellifera scutellata territory. This was called the capensis calamity (they 'solved' the problem by eradicating all colonies with 3.5km of the affected hives).

If you're worried about this, don't be.  A.m. capensis is staying put in Fynbos where it provides the local beekeepers with honey and where it pollinates a very unique ecosystem.  At the risk of sounding trite, if A.m. capensis was going to take over the world they'd have started with Africa.  Instead, they are an at-risk, very small subspecies of honey bee that is locally adapted.  They are at-risk partly because of commercial beekeeping disease spread, since American Foulbrood is currently a major problem for commercial capensis beekeepers.  Crazy, socially parasitic laying workers are no threat to my bees down here in Australia, nor are they a threat to hives in America or Europe or Asia, or even most of Africa. 

Breath easy.




The Fynbos ecoregion where A.m. capensis lives.  Figure courtesy of Hugo Ahlenius, UNEP/GRID-Arendal



A Simple Hive Stand

I like to keep my hives about 400mm off the ground (give or take) to keep them from drowning and getting frosted in winter, and to allow a degree of airflow under the hive in summer, since my bottom boards are ventilated.  There are lots of ways to get your hives off the ground that are basically "free" - all you need are some bricks, cinder blocks or the like.  Many beekeepers build special pallets that serve the dual purpose of getting the bees off the ground and speeding up loading multiple hives onto a truck.  Since my hives are more-or-less stationary, I'm less concerned with weight.

A stand for five hives.

How many hives you put together is up to you, but I like to keep my bees on 3 or 5 hive stands.  Two hives feels like too few, and more than 6 hives on a stand that I want to be able to move with a truck is unwieldy.    The cheapest way to make a 3 or 5 hive stand is with pallets (of course!) but then you have to make sure you're using pallets you trust, or seal them with something that you are confident won't off-gas something nasty up into your hives.  

Down to the technical: my hives are 350mm square with a 400mm wide lid.  I need about 30mm, give or take, between hives, just to comfortably fit a strap around the hive and shift them if needed.  The stand should be at least 350mm wide just for stability.  So a three hive stand needs to be about 1.3 metres long, and a five hive stand needs to be about 2.2 metres long.  You could get really specific and I'm obviously rounding, but it just so happens that many pallets are 1200-1219mm long, which while not ideal are "good enough" with a little work.  The 1200mm long ones can be tight with three hives but hey, free wood if free.  If I'm buying my wood, it comes in 2.4m, 2.7m, 3.6m or 6m lengths, with longer wood being cheaper per metre.

All dimensions are nominal.  Basically I just aim for equal spacing.

The difficult thing for me with using pallets is that the boards are almost never where I want them to be, so I end up using my hammer, pulling up all the boards, cutting them down, and then screwing them back down again where I want them.  Since pine is relatively cheap, I buy some 35mm x 70mm and get it cut at Masters or Bunnings down to 350mm long chunks, and then affix black steel fence spikes to the bottoms, which makes the stand easier to level on rough ground.  If I'm making a 5-hive stand I use new wood, and get the store to do all the cuts for me, so the only thing I need to do is screw them together when I get home.  You can forgo the spikes altogether but I like the extra stability it gives the stand.

And that's it.  So the TLDR version is this: there's no point getting fancy about your hive stand!  I don't go fancy joinery on them (although I suppose I could).  If your time is worth something I don't recommend pallets, because they take a long time to rip apart and put back together - but if you've got spare time to burn, working with pallets is fine in my opinion because they can often be had for free.      




Winter Wrapup

There are a ton of posts in my head, but here's a short one.

The flowers started early, bloomed for shorter periods of time, and stopped blooming earlier in my area.  At the end of last season I split several of my hives; this year, I did the opposite, combining some weaker ones together, in the hopes of reducing mortality over the winter.  There are still a few gums flowering, but only enough for the hives to maintain their stores, so I'm not tempting fate by harvesting autumn honey or trying to increase my hive numbers.  Luckily we don't have to wrap our hives in this climate.  I just need to make sure they have enough honey, are out of the wind, and are mouse proof.  

While I have a few dozen jars of honey left I don't have enough for market or regular sales.  I'm trying not to have to eat store-bought honey this winter.  If you really, really need some of my honey, I'm susceptible to bribery.

I'm also basically finished with cutouts and bee rescuing at this time of year, because as the weather cools the odds of bees surviving a cutout drastically decreases.  If you've got bees in your wall or cabinet and are keen to save them, wait till spring.  Evicting in winter never works out well!

So what do beekeepers do in winter?  We read facebook, and worry about our bees, and we build more bee boxes.  In my case, I'm also going to show you exactly how I make my boxes and break down for you why I have built them the way I have (expect plans posted before the end of this month).  I'll also show you all the tools I've come to use and rely on over the past few years.

Thanks for a great 2015/16 season!












Back to Market

Clear labels!

After moving to a new house and moving some hives around, I'm back into crushing out fresh honey.  Saturday the 27th of Feb will mark my return to the Mt Gambier Farmer's Market.  I've done a lot in the past few months!

I've designed a new logo and clear labels for my jars - above you can see a prototype.  The final labels will actually be in white, because the black image and text disappear into the honey as soon as you put something dark behind the jar (like your hand, for instance).  The bee in my logo is one of my own - she was sitting on a comb of honey, not looking at me, but looking out across the field, and I thought it made a cute and memorable image.

I've also moved my hives away from some of my more remote locations.  They were simply too difficult to get to for checkups, and the bees suffered when the weather was bad and I couldn't get to them.  While I'd love to produce Manuka honey, I'll need to find a more accessible location with better year-round flowers and less wind.  There simply wasn't enough food for the bees where I had them.  Still lots of honey in most of my hives though, and I think I'll have a few hives to harvest before I need to stop for winter.

Finally, because I've moved to a new house, I have slowed down my box production considerably as I wait for my new woodworking shed to get built.  The immediate result from this is that my ability to capture and re-house bees is somewhat curtailed due to a lack of housing! 

I look forward to seeing people at the market again. 



See you in 2016!

The last honey of 2015

The short version of this post is: I'm not harvesting again until January or February of 2016, and this Saturday at the market will be the last day you can buy Unspun Honey this year.

I've got four jars from one of my backyard hives (light, clear, slow to crystallize, sweet, simple and monofloral), six jars from a hive in the Wattle Range (amber, cloudy, already crystallizing, complex unique multifloral forest honey flavour), and three jars of creamed honey (opaque creamy colour, made from late-September spring honey - the kind of honey I would just eat with a spoon until it's gone).

Why no more harvests this year?  Basically I've hit a roadblock in my supply chain.  I ran out of jars, labels to put on those jars, and my bees need time to re-fill their hives with honey in any case.

I'm going to use the break to re-design my label, get more jars, and get bigger jars - yes, 1kg jars of Unspun Honey are incoming.

If you want me to set aside some honey for you before the weekend, let me know!



Cutouts and a New Yard


Ever since I advertised that I'm now doing hive cutouts I haven't had the time to sit down.  It's been tons of fun!  Each removal is a puzzle.

Just a couple of days ago I removed an old hive from a water softener housing.  They had built their comb from the roof of the housing down to stagnant water in the bottom, and had attached the comb to the sides.  The comb itself was essentially unsalvageable (too old and black) but there were tons of bees and lots of honeycomb.  In the end I decided to lift the entire hive (about 60kg) and shift them around the corner of the house, then left one of my hives in the old location for returning foragers, and then used my bee-vac to move bees from the water softener to the new hive.  It took about four hours, and I discovered part-way through the cutout that there was no brood, lots of swarm cells, and no queen.  I moved the hive to my quarantine site and I'll have to requeen them this coming week. 

I've got another huge cutout that I'm still figuring out how to do.  It's an open air hive that's been there for a decade, off the end of a fallen tree. 

This water isn't very soft.  It's sort of stingy.

The New Yard

The other exciting thing I've got going on is that I've moved ten hives onto a huge patch of Leptospermum lanigerum, which has similar properties to the more well-known Manuka honey.  I'm a little worried that there isn't enough stuff flowering year-round to support a large bee population, so these 10 hives are a bit of an experiment. 

I'm also phasing out my older pine boxes in favour of cedar ones.  The cedar is lighter, I'm building my boxes better, the joinery is stronger... basically, there are no drawbacks other than the initial cost.  I know some people have expressed interest in buying these boxes, but until I get all of my own hives up to snuff I don't think I'll be selling.  Expect to see them for sale in a year, though.

Other than the lanigerum, this spot is mostly long grass and brown snakes.

cedar hives, dovetails, dipped in paraffin


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Complex Flavour

I count at least eight pollen sources!  This is where my honey gets its kick.

Today was a good day for me!  I did some spring cleaning in my hives and did the rounds, chatting up the little ladies.

The hopeful thing I saw was that in every hive I looked into at the permaculture farm I found queens, honey, and pollen.  A few hives were so full I had to add on extra boxes.  There is so much pollen and nectar in Mt Gambier!  People ask me why I like keeping my bees close to town, and why I don't keep them in the country like other beekeepers.  The above picture explains it better than I ever could.  Who wants to eat the same food every day?  Bees sure don't.  And they don't select their pollen based on nutritional value or sheer quantity - they go after specific odors and textures.  Not unlike what I would go for, if I were out shopping or making a meal.  My honey tastes unique because it's truly multi-floral.  I can hardly wait to taste the recipe my bees have cooked up this spring.

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