Probably the most fun a beekeeper can have is extracting honey from the hives. But since you do that only once, maybe twice, a year, you have to get your pleasures elsewhere.

You can stand there and watch the hive on a day when the bees are active. That can be fascinating.

But pretty soon, you begin to wonder: “What’s going on INSIDE the hive?”

And that’s the second “most-fun” part of beekeeping: inspecting the hives.

My friend John and I have six hives on the little farm that Sally and I have in East Tennessee. John is just starting and has two hives. I have four. Since it’s the middle of the honey season, John and I both stay eaten up with curiosity about what’s going on inside the hives, and yesterday we decided to take a look.

(We try to keep the curiosity in check during this time of year because the bees need to concentrate on making honey rather than dealing with a couple of bumbling humans disrupting their ancient routines. Still, inspecting the hives is a necessary part of beekeeping. You’re looking for problems — overcrowding, critter invasions, etc. — so that you can help the bees along.)

My first hive is a prize-winner. Rather, the queen is some kind of champ. She has been laying from the moment she was released from the cage back in April, and the hive is full of bees, and those bees are storing up a load of honey. In fact, she is making so many bees that I decided that maybe that hive could share with one of the weaker hives. So, one of my goals yesterday was to find a frame or two of brood cell to put in one of the other hives.

I did just that, and the situation in one of the weaker hives, I found, is more dire than I had suspected. Something must have happened to the queen in the weaker hive because there is some brood cell but not very many bees. I put a frame of brood into that hive, but I’m going to have to watch it closely. I may have to get a new queen before long.

My other two hives are doing well. One has lots of brood, which means the queen has been laying and the population will increase substantially before long. I’m still hopeful of getting some honey from those gals. The other hive is coming along but slowly.

John found both of his hives in good shape with lots of bees and lots of brood. Good queens are doing their work for him. He may not get any honey this year because it’s his first year, but he should be in good shape going into the fall.

The wet weather has been both good and bad for the bees this spring. The good part is that it has produced plenty of sources of nectar and pollen for the bees to work. The garden is beginning to come in, and they should enjoy the cucumbers, beans, cantaloupes and sunflowers — among many other things available to them.

But the bees hate wet weather. The rain cuts down on their ability to forage, and it raises the humidity levels inside the hive. That’s right. The bees are far more weather sensitive than we realize. When the inside of the hive gets damp, they have to work to dry it out — the old fashion way, by flapping their wings.

That’s because the honey they’re making — in order to be real honey — has to be less than 19 percent water. It starts out as more than that, and one of the bees’ jobs right now is to get it down to that level so it can be capped. Good dry days in June help that process.

So, now that we’ve had plenty of rain this spring, pray for dry.

(And watch some video of all this at Vimeo or YouTube.)

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Jim Stovall

Jim Stovall

A journalism professor at the University of Tennessee since 2006; Emory & Henry College, 2003-2006; University of Alabama, 1978-2003. Author: Writing for the Mass Media; Journalism: Who, What, When, Where, Why and How; Kill the Quarterback; The Writing Wright; (among others). Seriously: a reader, writer, gardener, beekeeper, baseball fan, Methodist

5 Comments
  1. ok, praying for some dry weather for your honeybees.
    thanks for an interesting story. glad to know that your bees are, for the most part, doing well.
    oddly enough, we were discussing honeybees with some friends yesterday, and i have some questions. (yes, we had entirely too much time on our hands.)

    do cellphone transmission signals harm honeybees? someone had read this somewhere, and we all pretty much freaked out over the possibility, although none of us turned off our cellphones.

    last, do those mosquito-abatement systems and sprays kill honeybees? we considered having our yard sprayed at one point last summer when the mosquitoes threatened to carry us off. but we researched the sprays used and several internet posts said that they kill bees and fish. any truth in that?
    mary lee

  2. Susan Soper

    Jim, good morning…since reading a good story about Tupelo honey in Garden & Gun, I’ve been paying more attention to bees and honeys…and your story is fascinating. What I still can’t figure out is the process by which the bees’ getting nectar from the flowers, etc. are actually able to produce honey, through their digestive tracks or what??? Tell all!
    S

  3. Jim Stovall

    Mary,

    Thanks for the comment on my article.

    Cell phones and honeybees: There is no evidence that I know of where
    cell phones or towers have done any harm to honeybees. There are lots
    of dangerous things in the environment, but cell phone transmissions
    are not one of them.

    Bees are susceptible to insecticides, particularly if they fly into an
    area where the insecticide is in the air. Farmers are often asked by
    beekeepers to let them know when they will be spraying so they can
    keep their bees inside the hives on those days. Another way of
    protecting the bees is to spray at night when the bees are flying. My
    understanding is that once the insecticide lands on the plant or
    ground, it doesn’t pose as much risk as when it is in the air.

    Thanks for thinking about the bees. And thanks for the prayers for dry.

    Jim

  4. Jim Stovall

    Susan,

    Thanks for you comment.

    Honey is a combination of nectar and water. The bee does it all. Worker bees gather nectar, which contains complex sugars, from flowers and store it in a special stomach they have for that purpose. When they bring it back to the hive, the nectar is sucked out of the forager’s stomach by a house bee and inside the house bee, the complex sugars of the nectar are broken down into what will eventually be honey. Once that process is complete, the nectar is placed in the cells of the honeycomb. The moisture content is too high at this point for it to be real honey, so the bees have to work to dehumidify it, often by simply flapping their wings. One the moisture content of the honey is down to about 19 percent, the bees cap the cell with a wax coating so no additional moisture can intrude.

    The beekeeper looks for an entire frame of this “capped honey” when the time come to harvest the honey. The frame is pulled from the hive, and a hot knife is use to shear off the caps. Then the frame is put into an extractor, which rotates the frame at a high enough speed so that the honey is thrown out of the cells. The honey collects at the bottom of the extractor and is drained into another container.

    The honey is then filtered through something like sheer curtain material. And that’s it. No cooking or processing. Local honey, or “raw honey,” is this stuff, bought from a local beekeeper.

    Commercial honey is “flash heated.” That is, it is heated quickly and then cooled. This flash heating will keep it from crystallizing on the store shelf. The flash heating doesn’t change the honey; it just eradicates the crystals that might make it crystalize.

    Honey should not be refrigerated. Properly contained, it will last for a very long time.

    More than you wanted to know, I’m sure, but thanks for asking.

    Jim

  5. Chris Wohlwend

    Fascinating stuff, Dr. Stovall. Makes me appreciate the honey I add to my oatmeal even more.

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