Before I get into the good, the bad, and the ugly of my beekeeping year, let me tell you about my hive extraction on the island of the pretty people.
On Saturday morning, my son and I drove an hour and a half to meet a boat on the Mississippi River. The owner met us at the top of the levee and guided us to the dock. There a hunting boat in full camouflage and a giant red umbrella was waiting – it was hunter fabulous.
I took all the gear I could think of with me, since this would be a one and done type expedition, but with three of us carrying it down, it only took one trip.
On the other side of the river, an old suburban was waiting to carry us to the camp in the center of the 4000 acre island.
They explained that the hunting club was a corporation of 35 stock-holding members. The camp, with it’s well kept grass, looked like the sort of cabins my wife and I have rented at state parks from time to time. All of them were well kept and had matching facades.
The people too all seemed to be of the same tone – athletic men all with fit blond wives and adorable children. Even the older man with the medium length white beard, leaning on the cane seemed to be have a regal look about him. I could smell it in the air – this was old money. Hey, good for them, I hope that one day, my grandchildren will come from old money too. The people were very kind and incredibly curious about what I was doing. I really should charge extra for the show.
Since all of the cabins were on stilts, the roof soffit was about 20′ off the ground and was covered in claw marks where a bear had tried to get to the honey inside. It wasn’t as acrobatic as you would thing, the bear had unceremoniously crawled out the screened in porch to get up to the soffit.
However, after removing a few screws, the plywood came right down and the hive was totally exposed – the very small hive! After cutting all the comb out, it barely filled 5 frames.
The bees retreated up into a small cavity behind the insulation and the only way to remove them was with the bee-vacuum. You know, the suction tube of doom? The total haul of bees only filled the bottom 2″ of a five gallon bucket and I never did find the queen. Nonetheless, the man’s bee (and bear) problem was taken care of.
I tried to put a screen over the bucket but the bees were still able to get out, so I put the plastic lid on and hoped for the best. Of course by the time I got home, my quart of bees were all dead. I will have to improve my bee vacuum before the next time.
4 Hive extractions this year and ZERO new hives to show for it. So from here on out, I will still do hive extractions but I will be charging no less than $50 per hour (4 hour min). I still have two more hive extractions that I had already agreed to do for free, so I will do them next month when it cools off… but that is it!
The End Is Near!
Most people will tell you that making walk-away splits this time of year is wrong and they’d probably be right. Though last year bee season in my area went right up until the middle of November. So if I’d of had more time (and had not gotten sick) I would have split them all! But now, in September, even I must concede that I have run out of time for this year.
The August From Hell
I won’t go into great detail but August was the busiest month I’ve had all year. Aside from beekeeping, I had to work 12 hour days at my day job for the big annual safety program that I held at the two casinos I work for – 12 classes spread over 5 days as well as two additional 12 hour days spent getting the security team re-certified on their First Aid class. Then of course, since the timing couldn’t have sucked worse, my part-time job teaching blueprint reading, precision measurements, and forklift driving also kicked off in August. Throw in my mom’s car’s trailing arm snapping in two and my daughter’s ceiling falling in due to the A/C leak, and I was slammed! Did I mention the lawn mower broke down? Hey look at that, I did go into great detail.
Anyway, on Thursday I started to feel a scratch in my throat. Since my wife had pneumonia brought on from a sinus infection earlier this month, I knew for whom the bell tolled. So I said a simple prayer and asked God to give me until Sunday before I got sick… so he did.
On Friday, I took off work – with all the extra hours I’d put in all month, I was due (I’m salary, so I’ll still get screwed over on time in the end).
Jen and I got up early and loaded up the trailer for a full day’s work. We cleaned up the bee yard and removed all of the broken equipment. We staged ten new locations – cutting only enough of the brush and trees to work comfortably.
Then we began splitting hives and removing honey supers. Now it occurred to me as we were loading up my little 4×8 lawnmower trailer that it was not designed for a lot of weight. In fact a 1000lbs might be too much for it. So we decided to only take 8 deep supers each trip (we had around 30 that could be extracted).
Now on the first hive there were 3 deep supers. I gave it a bit of smoke, forced the bees down, then without inspecting it, removed the honey super and placed it on the trailer. I used visqueen and plywood to cover the honey supers to prevent robbing – I also used a leaf blower to evict the remaining bees.
I found the queen in the second super but no eggs or brood. Turned out, the eggs and brood were all in the top box. What it seems had happened (and it seems to be the same on all my hives) is that when I made splits earlier this year, I reverse stacked the boxes. (See the picture below).
This reverse stack put a honey super on the bottom and the brood chambers on top. This seemed to have caused the queen to lay in the second and third supers rather than in the bottom two. So each split had to be meticulously inspected which took a lot more time than usual.
By the end of the day, I had only managed to make 6 new hives. Since Saturday was spent doing the hive extraction on the island and since I got sick Sunday, these were all the splits I could make.
Making more now would be foolhardy. So unless those last two upcoming extraction yield more hives, my final count for the year is 28 hives (assuming the six splits survive). A far cry from the 100 hive goal I had set for myself.
I have a new location for hives this year at another doctor friend’s place. We’ll call that location Big Doc’s. It’s a very good location not too far from my home and I can drive out to the hives when it’s dry. Below is a diagram of the splits I’ve made and the available locations to add hives.
World’s Greatest Wife
This may set me back a year from my ultimate homesteading goals but “it is what it is”. Luckily, I’m married to an amazing woman.
On Sunday, I got up and got dressed to go make one last run at the bees. Sure I was sick but I felt like Jesse Ventura in The Predator, “I ain’t got time to bleed.”
However, my wife, always my voice of reason, said what I’d been thinking. “Perhaps, this is God’s way of saying stop.” Fall splits are always risky, I know that. But with the spring floods, late planting season, the brutal summer, the awful beetle infestation, and the fact that I had not built enough equipment in the winter – well I just hadn’t been able to make the splits I had hoped for and I was now pushing the envelope to make it happen anyway.
So with my wife’s blessing and an understanding hug, I surrendered. I’ll still be able to harvest about $8,000 worth of honey and that will help build equipment for next year.
So what can I do better next year?
This year wasn’t a total failure. 100+ gallons of honey is no small thing. Last year I harvested 35 gallons and sold every drop. So the money will help a lot. Every dime goes right back into the business and now that I have capital, I won’t have to build hives from salvaged wood anymore.
The reason I didn’t get more equipment built last year was because it takes 2 to 3 times as long to salvage the wood as it does to construct the hives. If I had it all to do over again, I still would have done it the same. This is as much about building something from nothing as it is about becoming a successful homesteader and beekeeper. I have 72 hives constructed and enough salvaged lumber left to complete the other 28. Making the total cost of 100 hives about $1,000 (all paid for with honey money).
That being said, now that I have honey money to reinvest, I can buy wood for the frames at the lumber company (still 70% cheaper to build frames than to buy them pre-cut) and I can buy pre-cut supers for $10 each (it would cost me $12 to build them with store bought lumber).
I was also able to use some of the money to upgrade my wood shop. I’ve bought a router, which will make frame building about 75% faster with much tighter joints. I’ve also found a Dewalt table saw on craigslist to replace my cheap Skillsaw table saw (that I think is slightly out of plum). This will allow me to make table sleds – something I couldn’t do one the cheap Skillsaw. I’ll pick it up on Friday.
I am also planning on taking a weekend and building some new work benches and organizing my shop to make it more user friendly. Again, the profits from our honey sales, have made all that possible. So while I haven’t made it to my goal of 100 hive this year, we are still on our way and moving forward.
So this winter, I will build 100 new hives. I will also build 30 (3 chamber) mating nucs – it’s a new design I’ve come up with and I think you are all going to love it. I’ll also build 200 honey supers. It’s a lot to do but with new tools and a better workshop, I think this can easily be done in the next 5 1/2 months (along with remodeling my house and taking my urban homestead to the next level… the list never ends).
I will stick to a much more rigid schedule. I do work two jobs (3 if you count beekeeping) but I have to set aside more time to work on the bees. Maybe I’ll have to farm out a few jobs like car repairs and farmer’s markets but the bees have to be given the time they need too.
The third thing I will do different, is I will be more aggressive with beetle management. We are throwing everything at them but the kitchen sink as we go into fall. I’m using CD traps, Beetle Blasters, and Swiffer Sheets. I’ll also be more vigilant about cleaning bottom boards and keeping unused equipment out of the yard.
I will start grafting queens early and be prepared to make bold splits in the spring. A YouTuber by the name of Dirt Rooster was able to split a single hive into six. I think I can conservatively split each of my hives into three or possibly four. This will get me close to the 100 I was trying to get this year. With a little luck, those hives will bounce back by early summer and can be split again into 200. Of course I’ve been at this long enough to know when the bees have had enough – and if I forget, my wife will gently remind me.
Friday’s Honey Recipe
Well since I’m sick (and possibly a borderline alcoholic), this week’s honey recipe will be a Hot Toddy. So with cold and flu season coming up, don’t miss it.