Extracting honey – with no help from feral bees

Summer is the season to extract honey from the bees. Preferably, it will be a nice, sunny day with no wind. It must be hot, at least 28°, to ensure maximum honey liquidity. We didn’t seem to have many days like that this summer!

Usually I can extract twice in a summer, first in late December, then again in mid February. But there certainly weren’t any days in December that were suitably summery and January came and went in much the same way; pleasantly cool and dampish but no good for honey gathering. So, when February looked like being much the same, I began to have my doubts about extracting. For even if there are warm, sunny days in autumn, the nights are usually cold. This nightly chill stiffens the honey into unmanageable blocks and manual extraction is impossible.

It wasn’t until the last week of February that the temperature climbed high enough to put me in the mood for a bee wrestle. Friday the 24th was finally a perfect day for it. So, having got Edward off to school, I donned my super bee-proof apiarist’s suit and loaded the wheel barrow with a bucket of water, a bee brush, my hive tool, a sheet and an empty hive box.

The bucket of water is for dipping the soft bee brush into to saturate it. The theory is that when you brush the bees off each frame of honey, they get wet wings and cannot fly up to harass you. The hive tool is a crafty gadget that has a blade at one end that can be used to prise bee boxes apart (the bees glue the boxes together with wax), and a claw at the other end which is used to hook under the hanging bar of each frame, making it easier to lift the frame. A full frame of honey can weigh as much as 2 kilos.

As each frame of each eight frame box is lifted out, it is inspected for quality. A perfect frame is one that weighs a goodly amount and is nicely sealed with a thin layer of wax, known as the capping. The somewhat aggravated bees clustered all over the frame are first shaken, then brushed off. The relatively bee-free frame can then be transferred to the empty box in the wheelbarrow and quickly covered by a sheet to keep the bees from getting back to it.

I have six hives, each one giving me at least two boxes (16 frames) of honey, a couple giving me three boxes (24 frames), so bee-robbing is quite a job. And it is a heavy job and not at all good for bad backs (which I don’t have) or crook knees (which I do). What’s more, the barrowing of heavy boxes of honey up our steep drive is not an easy task, especially when surrounded by swarms of irritable bees! And so, when I got to the last hive, I was definitely looking forward to the end of this bee-robbing aspect of the day.

In general, I have a collection of fairly agreeable hives of bees and while it is true that no bees take kindly to the break-and-enter tactics at extracting time, they aren’t necessarily unreasonably vicious in response. But in the summer of 1993/4 I had extracted from only three of my hives as the three new ones I’d collected as swarms in 1993 had not built up enough supplies for me to rob. And so I was not fully aware of the productivity level or temperament of the new hives before I’d begun. The two I’d dealt with so far had proved to be reasonably placid and extremely productive. But the last one was still a mystery. Yet after 10 years of this lark, there are few surprises left. So I was not quite prepared for the holocaust that erupted when I prised off the lid off hive six!

These bees did not even wait to see what my real business was. They swarmed all over me with such malicious vengeance that it made the rest of my bees seem docile by comparison. But, was I not safe in my bee suit? No, apparently I was not! It was with some surprise that I realised that they were stinging me in spite of it! Not only were they penetrating the thick, closely woven cloth with their stings, they were also discovering the weak spots at ankles (albeit inside gumboots with high socks) and wrists (tucked into elbow length, industrial gloves). When I felt these savage little critters crawling up my arms and legs, I knew security had breached. It was not a desirable situation in which to find oneself unavoidably detained.

There was not a real lot of call for the bee brush on the frames from this hive as almost all the bees that weren’t out in the field, were now attacking me. I was even less impressed when I found that these particularly offensive bees had produced only six frames of honey rather than the sixteen or more of the other hives. I took their six frames from them and banged the lid back, all the time swatting at the bees performing manoeuvres on the wrong side of my bee suit. The maelstrom of bees on the wing accompanied me up the drive, still stinging furiously through the bee suit. It is a fortunate fact that working with bees has earned me immunity from stings. But, never-the-less, it is unpleasant, distracting and painful to be repeatedly stung.

Because there was insufficient time to actually extract the honey from the frames before needing to retrieve Edward from the school bus, I stashed the fifteen sticky boxes in the back of the old Holden where they could wait until Saturday. Even if it was a cool night, the oven-like temperature of the car parked in the morning sun would ensure the honey remained runny for a hot afternoon of extracting. My escort of bees then accompanied me to the house, battering themselves on the outside of the screen door as I disrobed on the inside. But by the time I’d shaken all the bees out of my clothes, there were as many inside as out! Fly spray got them.

Bees are not renowned for their ability to recognise their owner or even to remember nasty events which happened yesterday. So it was a bit of a worry to find a fighting force of bees circling the house next morning. Not only were they seeking me, they attacked the cats, the dog, the hens and the rabbits. They attacked other bees. They attacked the washing. It was dangerous outside. Never the less, we made it to the shed without getting stung, to commence extracting.

First, the cappings have to be stripped off the frames. Martin does this job, using a hot electric knife, thermostatically controlled. The cappings are collected and, later, melted down to get the wax which can the be used for sealing preserves, making candles, assisting sticky drawers to slide smoothly and presumably other things which I haven’t yet explored.

The uncapped frames are then placed, two at a time, in the extractor, which looks rather like a washing machine drum and behaves fairly similarly with respect to being unbalanced. I spend the afternoon turning the handle which activates the pulley that spins the frames round and round. Honey is sprayed out of the frames and drips down the inside of the drum to collect at the bottom. Each frame is spun first with one side outward, then flipped to expose the other side. If the frames are well balanced, the extractor spins smoothly and honey streams out continuously. But if a lighter frame is extracted with a heavier one, the extractor rocks about in a demented fashion and the honey does not flow so smoothly. Unfortunately, bees do not appreciate this problem and it is the exception, rather than the rule, to find nicely balanced frames side by side!

I also track full boxes in from the car and take empty boxes full of `stickies’ (frames from which the honey has been extracted) back to the bees. Bees love stickies and their preoccupation with this treat effectively precludes them from feeling aggressive, except in the case of hive six, who got their miserable six frames back last of all and continued to attack and sting me with a vengeance.

Fifteen boxes took us all afternoon to extract, including the realisation that we were going to have insufficient buckets and storage containers for what was shaping up as a bumper honey harvest. Martin went off to buy some more while I continued with the task. Honey extracting is a sticky, messy job for the duration of which it is impossible to keep oneself or the general vicinity clean. In general, ants and bees take care of split honey in the shed, but the sticky honey buckets all end up in the laundry where the honey is sieved, strained, bulk packed and weighed. Cleaning up the laundry seems to take weeks! Cleaning up myself in the shower later included the counting of at least 45 stings on my feet, legs, arms and neck. Quite a tally for one wearing a bee proof suit and definitely unprecedented in my ten years of apiary activities.

Once the honey was all packed into big, sealed buckets, we could weigh it. An impressive 90kg, with no help from hive six, who were still staking out the joint on Sunday morning. Last year I got 90kg from three hives extracted twice. I had thought, however, that the combination of the drought and a poor growing season for flowering plants would mean a reduced honey amount. Apparently not, although it would have been easier had there been less! 90kg is almost bordering on the impossible for two to manage in one day.

Well, under normal circumstances, that would have been the end of it. With the bees happily dealing with their stickies, the laundry de-stickied and the honey packed in air tight containers, (honey absorbs moisture from the air if left exposed, and this can cause it to ferment), life should have assumed a less agitated pace. Unfortunately, this was not to be.

On Monday the bees (hive six, no doubt) attacked me at the washing line. On Tuesday they stung Martin three times on his way to the mail box. As he swells up considerably, this did not please him. On Wednesday they stung the dog. On Thursday they stung me again in the garden. This was definitely getting tedious. On Friday I rang a bee keeper friend for advice.

“You’ve got yourself some feral bees there”, he said,. “Only thing to do is torch them. Pour a litre of petrol in and throw in a match. Stand clear because the honey burns really well and the wax splatters. Or, if you’re game, you can get in amongst them again and find the queen, kill her and combine the bees with another hive”.

Neither of these options sounded like much fun. I thought about it over the weekend as killer bees circled the house.

The next Monday, they stung me when getting the eggs. They stung the hens, too. I went out on Tuesday, but on Wednesday they stung a visitor. It was time for action.

On Thursday I got Martin to help me bee proof my bee proof suit even more by taping shut any openings at ankles and wrists. I marched in on hive six and took it to pieces. Madam Queen could not be found, but the situation was not optimum for looking because it was windy (wind aggravates bees) and these were extraordinarily aggravated bees in any case. The net result was that I got stung another 25 times before abandoning that plan. I took the top two boxes off the hive to save them from destruction, spraying the bees with fly spray to get them off the frames rather than brushing them. I too could play dirty! Yet, I was loath to burn a perfectly good bee hive box. So I replaced the normal ventilated lid with a flat lid in preparation for method three, which would spare me my box. That night I snuck down with the Baygon. First I taped up the entranced to make it airtight, then I lifted the lid and emptied the can into the hive. I felt almost no remorse!

Next day the bees from hive six were conspicuous by their absence. There were none of those ominous whining sounds of bees on a seek and destroy mission. The hens got peacefully about their scratching. Excursions to the washing line and mail box were once again hazard free. Visitors could come and go in peace.

I don’t know what I had there in hive six, but they weren’t ordinary bees. They were demented, feral, my friend had said and no advertisement for bees in general which are a peaceful and eternally industrious species. Anyway, the 1995 extraction was successfully completed in spite of the weather and hive six and life is back to normal again. But, unfortunately, if there is any therapeutic value from being stung 70 times in two weeks, I’ve yet to discover it!

Rosanne Hood

This tale was first published in The Stony Creek Gazette in 1995.