With longer days, warming temperatures and thawing grounds, spring has most definitely sprung. And for beekeepers all over the Midwest, where winters have been long and cold, this is one of the most exciting times of year. A few days ago, a 70 degree day allowed us to venture out to the apiary, open up our beehives and see what winter had left us.
This year was the first year The Juniper Spoon kept honeybees, and it has been an adventure and learning experience. In early Spring of last year, we had two beehives made by Amish beekeepers in Greencastle, and purchased two colonies from Hunter's Honey Farm in Martinsville. All summer we watched our bee populations grow, making sure to monitor queen activity, honey supply and pest presence. What a fascinating project it has been! We loved working alongside the bees in the garden. Them buzzing from blossom to blossom, rolling around in the dusty pollen which they dutifully transported to the next flower. Us managing weeds, planting seeds and reaping the fruits from trees and vines that would be bare without the work of pollinators like honeybees.
We were happy to discover that one of our hives was roaringly active! A throng of bees covered the front of the hive, displaying hive orientation behavior as foraging workers came and went. Sitting right beside that vivacious, buzzing box was our other hive, quiet and grimly still save for the foreign foragers intent on securing what was left of the hive's winter stores. We were lucky that one of our hives made it through the frigid months, but to see the pile of dead bees at the bottom of the other was downright heartbreaking. It did, however, allow us a peek into a portion of the life of the northern honey bee not normally visible to the beekeeper. During the coldest months of the year, bees huddle in a cluster at the center of the hive, vibrating their wing muscles to keep warm. They move throughout the hive in this cluster, eating down their honey stores. Since we can't open the hive in the winter, we rarely get to observe this activity, so as we took out the frames one by one, it was fascinating to see the bees huddled together in their circular pattern.
After performing a hive autopsy (yes, that's right... a hive autopsy), the cause of death is believed to be death of the queen and subsequent dwindling of the colony population. It is also possible that the bees simply starved, unable to move quickly enough to the one remaining frame of honey. Regardless, we're sad to see one hive go, but are looking forward to another year with the other. In fact, we are planning to potentially split our hive, moving half to the now empty box. More on that later in the season.
As the deceased hive left one frame of capped honey untouched, we were able to put off feeding our other hive sugar syrup by inserting the comb right into the live hive box. But not before taking just a little cut for ourselves!
Since we use foundationless frames, that is, frames of wax that are constructed 100% by the bees themselves, without inserting a prefabricated wax foundation, our wax is quite fragile. As you can see in the picture, the wax broke after just enough pushing and pulling as a square of comb was cut from the frame. For that reason, we use a crush and strain method of honey extraction rather than placing frames in a centrifugal honey extractor. It's a cheap and easy method requiring no heavy equipment; only a strainer, cheesecloth and container to catch the honey.
One thing is for sure, honey straight from your own hive tastes better than any you have ever tasted before! Honey is a complex sweetener, with flavor that varies as different trees and plants bloom throughout the season. This batch tastes malty and bright when compared with another local honey we have in stock in The Juniper Spoon kitchen right now.
Have you ever considered keeping bees? What has kept you from making the move? Post your comments and thoughts, we would love to start a conversation with you! If you're already keeping bees, how have your bees fared this season?