Updated Content and Dates: Jan 2017
A Beekeeping Diary #8: Late Summer—Extracting Honey and Expanding Nucs
Around here the most likely time to have very hot and humid weather is during July. One of my farming friends always crosses out the word “July” on his calendar, and writes in another four-letter word. It can be just as hot, for a short time, even in late September, but August is usually when the steady heat of summer first starts to break. The days are noticeably shorter now, the corn starts tasseling out and, even though you can’t see it yet, somewhere out there in the distance, fall is coming.
I don’t use any heat in my honey extracting process, except a small amount on the uncapping knife. The extracting room is also unheated; so it’s best to remove and extract most of the honey during August and early September, when the days are still warm, and robbing has not yet become too ferocious. I used to start extracting on August 1, but now I wait until the 15th, because there’s another very important job to do during the first half of August—giving the nucs room to expand if they need it.
When I first started making up large numbers of summer nucs—in the ‘80’s—the tracheal mites were having a serious impact on most colonies. With the native Champlain Valley stock, I could make up 4-frame nucs in June and the first half of July, and leave them in that small space right through till the following spring. Even when the boxes plugged out, very few of the new queens swarmed out in the late summer or fall. I did have some trouble with colonies absconding in very hot weather—without leaving any queen cells behind. Propping the outer covers up kitty corner on top of the grain bag inner covers helps out here somewhat by allowing night air to flow through the colony and keeping things a little cooler. As the years went by, and the bees were less affected by the tracheal mites, the nucs would plug out faster, and some swarms started to come out.
After the varroa was well established, and I started leaving nucs and nuc donors untreated, the same pattern was repeated: at first there were some nucs, made up in late June or early July, that never managed to really fill their 4-frame space with bees and honey by the end of the season. Even the best ones required several weeks to plug themselves out. Then, after a few years of selection, the boxes would fill up faster and faster with bees, brood and honey. But by this time I was dealing with Russian bees, and they didn’t like to stay put during late July and August if their box was crowded and a honey flow was in progress. So now, if the second half of the summer is favorable, I allow many of these nucs to grow onto eight combs during late July and August. You can see from the photos how the pallets start off with four colonies in two boxes during June and July, and end up with four colonies in four boxes by the end of August. Sometimes there are drawn combs and old frames of honey that can be used up in this process, and I would prefer to use all drawn combs for the very last nucs that are allowed to expand later in August. But I don’t like to use moth crystals, and any unprotected brood combs are usually quite lively with wax moths by this time—even if they have been sitting on the cool cement floor of my shop since early spring. So, my summer nucs have to draw new frames of foundation in order to expand during August. This is the best of all place and time for Russian bees to draw new combs, and they will do a great job if a honey flow is in progress. I make up the extra nuc boxes in advance—with feeders and eight frames of foundation—and store them in the shop, which by now should be nearly empty. Starting around July 25, I’ll take ten or twenty of these boxes early in the morning and start expanding the 4-frame nucs that have built up the fastest, and are now hanging out of their boxes, even in the early morning. In a few days these colonies should be well started drawing out their new combs, and so I will do another ten or twenty; and so on until August 15 or until the honey flow stops. On any one day, this job is usually completed before noon; before the heat of the day really sets in. These bees are very valuable, and the queens have already made a big step towards proving themselves—by building up rapidly dispite the constant presence of mites. It pays to do this job carefully, and to prevent any queens from being lost during the process.
Late summer honey flows are unreliable here, but even so, I never feed any bees during this time. The percentage of nucs allowed to grow onto eight frames depends on the vitality of the bees and the strength of the late summer flow. In some years, two thirds of my summer nucs have been expanded this way; in 2006, conditions were so poor that not a single one could grow out of its original 4-frame space. In either case, by the middle of August the apiary has reached its maximum size for the year, in terms of colony numbers and brood nest potential. By using a system like this, an unbelievable number of combs—harvested from dead colonies in the spring—can be restocked with bees in one year without buying bees or bringing in poorly adapted stock. In a good season, if all the old combs are already occupied by June, then a large supply of new, uncontaminated combs can be drawn out and set up in the very best position to help your apiary forge ahead in the following spring. In my system, to be really prepared for a good season, eight combs or frames of foundation must be ready for every frame of brood devoted to summer nuc production. I visited a beekeeper last fall who has a slightly longer season than I do, and who was able to work this system two complete times in one year. He needs at least sixteen empty combs or new frames for each frame of brood devoted to making nucs in the spring. The early North American pioneers of modern beekeeping (1865-1920) were an amazing bunch of people who solved all kinds of technical problems and created an extremely productive and dynamic industry with a small amount of capital and in a relatively short time. But they either never discovered, ( I doubt it), or never utilized the enormous productive capacity that can be tapped by the simple process of making summer nucs, and wintering them on 4-10 combs. This capacity wasn’t necessary when the country was filled with bees, good queens could be obtained cheaply from the South, and when AFB was the most serious challenge. But now we really need to use this untapped potential—first to replace the heavy losses many beekeepers are experiencing; second to breed large and diverse populations of bees that can thrive on their own again without treatments; and third to start producing surplus bees in the North, to counteract the effects of Africanization. After 20 years of working with this system, and having positive results in all these areas, I no longer have any doubts that these problems can all be solved—at least in places where bees can stay in one place year-round. There may turn out to be other, better ways to solve these problems, but no one can say any longer that there’s no clear avenue or way to proceed.
And now on to harvesting honey and extracting which, with a good crop, uses up most of our working time from mid-August to sometime in early October. Little by little, the preparations are made during late July and early August: setting up the extracting room, mowing the yards, preparing drums, and deciding in what order the yards will be harvested.
My extracting room is pretty simple; in fact it’s built on a 30’ trailer. There’s a small “dark” room for storing 75-80 supers overnight, and enticing the few remaining bees out of the stacks. Combs are uncapped with a vibrating knife, and extracted with two 30-frame radials. The honey is settled in a series of four 1000 lb. tanks, which does an excellent job of cleaning the honey without heating or filtering. There’s just enough room for the empty supers to pile up in front of the 2nd door, and the honey is finally drawn off into drums or pails on the outside of the building—early in the morning, before insects are flying. With a special series of pipes, I can fill 10 drums before I need to move them and start over. My system would be considered very small and unproductive by most commercial beekeepers—some of the honey producers I visited in Saskatchewan last winter could extract my entire crop in one day! But it’s quiet and pleasant to work in the “honey wagon”, and the size and capacity was chosen on purpose to keep the apiary from growing too large; to keep it balanced between the production of bees and honey; and to ensure that I could participate in all the different jobs.
I usually use both fume boards and escape boards to harvest the honey. With just one small truck, I have to take 2-4 loads out of each yard when there is a good crop. During good weather, I start with the fume boards, and reduce the supers in a few yards until 2-4 are left on each colony. After that, if the weather turns cold or rainy, I can return to those yards with the escape boards, and the harvest can proceed more or less continuously throughout any changes in the weather. If you’ve succeeded in eliminating treatments from your apiary, a lot of stress can be eliminated at this time of year—the harvest is much more relaxed and enjoyable if you’re not rushing to apply treatments, and worrying constantly about being too late.