Category Archives: Honey

Seasonal changes

At the beginning of the season, after the wettest winter for 100+ years, I rebuilt the rickety scaffold-plank bridge I use to cross the burn to get to my apiary and bee shed. The herbage had been flattened by flooding and the general die-back of winter. Access was easy … if a bit squelchy.

Before ...

Before …

Seven months later the bridge, the burn, the shed and the apiary have all but disappeared behind the luxuriant growth of reeds and weeds. Over the burn is an extensive patch of waist high nettles and long tussocky grass. If there’s been any recent rain the herbage remains damp and my bee suit gets saturated … if for any reason I have to make repeated trips (such as removing full supers [in my dreams!]) the water runs down my legs and fills my boots. Lovely.

After ...

After …

Wildlife near the apiary

The overgrown little patch of woodland is a great spot for wildlife, with regular sightings of sparrowhawks jinking through trying to catch the small birds unawares. All of the regular woodland and parkland birds are present, with increasing numbers of mixed parties of finches now we’re into early autumn. There are great spotted and, much less frequently, green woodpeckers to be seen and the presence of the latter might mean I have to protect my hives in the winter (although I had no problems on this site last winter it never got really cold which is when the yaffles cause a problem). Buzzards wheel overhead – incessantly mewing now as the adults start to ignore their young and so force them to find their own territories. Until recently the air was filled with swallows and martins. There were so many of them I was concerned about losing queens on mating flights. However, it was the June weather that was the biggest handicap, and I think I only had one mating nuc in which the virgin queen simply disappeared.

Common spotted orchid

Common spotted orchid …

I’m hopeless at plant identification but think this is a Common Spotted Orchid. The area around the apiary has hundreds of these in late June/early July. There’s an interesting Citizen Science survey (https://www.orchidobservers.org/) on how climate change is affecting the flowering period of orchids and they have a comprehensive identification guide (16Mb PDF download … you have been warned), together with distribution maps. Finally, the damp grassland and the nearby burn mean there are loads of frogs to be seen … which probably also explains the near-universal presence of herons.

On a balmy summer afternoon – not completely unheard of this far North – the air is filled with the sound of bees going to and from the hives, making this an idyllic spot.

End of the season

I usually reckon that the end of September is the end of the bee season. Certainly this year – my first full season in Scotland – it is. Honey supers were taken off in late August/early September and there’s been almost no nectar coming in since the middle of August. The ivy has yet to start properly and there’s no balsam in range of my main apiaries. Colonies have been treated for Varroa – one repeatedly – and all have large blocks of fondant to keep them company for the next couple of weeks. All the hives are warm and watertight. There’s a few last-minute jobs to do … a final tidy of the bee shed, stacking supers and drawn brood comb out of reach of wax moths and acetic acid treatment where appropriate to sterilise comb.

Since the bees are safely tucked away for the winter I can now relax …

Cheers

Cheers

ICE ICE baby 

This post was written a week or two ago as I’m currently at ICE 2016, the International Congress of Entomology, talking about our work on DWV. The scope (and number of attendees … ~6000) of this conference is huge and includes at least 10 sessions covering bees. If the jet lag doesn’t finish me off I’ll take some comprehensive notes and report on some of the more interesting talks in the coming weeks. Normal service will be resumed by November.


Yaffle is an English folk name for the green woodpecker (Picus viridis) derived from its laughing call, which also probably explains the wonderful alternatives of laughing Betsey, yaffingale, yappingale and Jack Eikle. Hearing the yaffle call is supposed to be associated with the onset of rain, which probably accounts for the other names of rain-bird, weather cock and wet bird.

Ice ice baby is a hip hop song by Vanilla Ice from ’89/’90 … coincidentally it’s about South Florida, which is where the ICE 2016 conference is being held. I can’t stand hip hop 😉

Square is the new hex

I managed to source some rather nice small square jars for honey recently. They have a nominal 200ml capacity which, when filled properly with honey, is 8 oz (227 g). Perhaps I should qualify “filled properly” … these have a slightly longer ‘neck’ than normal jars, so you don’t need to fill them to just under the lid. I bought them with black lids to ensure they looked distinctive on the store shelves next to the more usual ‘gold tops’. They are very easy to fill, with the slope of the jar shoulder being sufficiently steep that relatively few bubbles get trapped. In contrast, I find that small hex jars are a bit of a pain to fill as the shoulder is almost at right angles, more or less guaranteeing that an unsightly bubble or two remains after jarring. Even half pound round jars have a rather sharp angle at the shoulder and have a tendency to trap bubbles. Of course, none of these bubbles affect the flavour, but it’s always a good idea to try to make a top quality product look like a top quality product.

200ml (8oz) square jar

200ml (8oz) square jar

It’s easy to apply labels to these small square jars and I’ve printed these on the smallest thermal printer address labels (89x28mm) for my Dymo LabelWriter. Tamper-detection labels were more difficult, with any of the normal ones looking unsightly … both being too large and contrasting unpleasantly with the black lids. In the end I used 6mm transparent thermal tape onto which I printed a website URL. This sticks very firmly to the lid and glass but is difficult to see unless you look carefully. When the jar is opened the tape stretches and distorts, making any tampering pretty obvious. Unfortunately, this thermal tape is rather difficult to remove from the backing paper, so labelling large numbers of jars can get tedious.

Thermal printed tamper label

Thermal printed tamper label

But as they say “the proof of the pudding” … the jars look good to me but what’s more important is how well they sell.


This was written some time ago. The jars have sold well 🙂


NOTE – in response to the Q from Bridget below and after a bit of searching I discovered that I ordered these from eBay (seller glass_jars_from_jarsdirect). At the time of writing they’re £38 for 100 delivered. One or two of the regular honey jar suppliers also sell a 12oz (~280ml) square jar but the cost is higher still.

Simple honey labels – DIY

Honey hunter ...

Honey hunter …

What sort of honey labels do you use? Of course, if you keep it all for yourself or just give it to friends and family that question could be Do you label your honey? However, if you sell it via a third party or direct there are regulations that govern the labelling of honey for sale to consumers. I’m not going to attempt to decipher these rules or provide guidance on what is legal and what is not – it’s a minefield and involves Packaged Goods Regulations, Weights and Measures Act, Food Labelling Regulations and, last but by no means least, the Honey Regulations. It differs whether you’re selling direct or via a third party and the rules probably differ in England and Scotland. Phew! You are advised to talk to your local Trading Standards people who will advise you.

Commercial label

Commercial label

The beekeeping suppliers offer a wide range of pre-printed and customisable labels. Before moving to Scotland I used colour, high gloss, ‘easy-peel’ removable labels. Although they looked attractive I was never sure they actually contributed significantly to sales. The investment in labels discouraged me from from changing from 1lb ’rounds’ to 12oz hex jars (where the profit margins are higher 😉 … How many farm shops, garden centres and similar places now sell 1lb jars?) and I had no flexibility in making smaller batches for particular honey types. Having now moved and got a few buckets of Scottish honey from the summer I needed to make some new labels. Since the majority of my sales initially are going to be direct and local I wanted a simple label that didn’t obscure too much of the jar, was easy to read, straightforward to customise and – ideally – inexpensive and easy to produce at home. I’ve also always liked the rather stylish designs like the Honey Hunter labels at the top of the page (though these probably aren’t legal for 3rd party sales in the UK) and thought DIY label-printing might be an inexpensive way to try and achieve something similar.

Dymo labelling software

Dymo labelling software …

I’ve got a Dymo LabelWriter 450 Duo. These printers use thermal printing technology so have no toner cartridges or ink. Dymo also provide an application (Mac and PC) for label design and printing (right). It’s relatively intuitive to use but has a few quirks. However, it allows embedding of pictures, barcodes, auto-incrementing numbers and supports the majority of fonts available on your system, though not all font sizes are possible for some reason. Standard format images (PNG, GIF, JPG) can be embedded, resized and rotated. There are useful formatting tools like left/right/top/bottom align, reordering front/back of overlapping objects and the ability to create templates and save label designs. There’s also the ability to create curved text though I’ve not used this. Irritatingly there’s no way to print to the very edge of the label – none of the images or text can be placed closer than about 1.5mm from the label edge and this distance is slightly greater on the left hand side of the label. Nevertheless, the Dymo Label™ software makes designing and printing labels, one at a time or dozens sequentially numbered, a doddle.

Simple honey labels

Simple honey labels …

It was straightforward to design and print labels for 8oz, 12oz and 1lb jars in small numbers, each carrying a different batch number, best before date, honey type etc. The printing is very sharp, smudge-free (even immediately after printing) and water-resistant, though the label probably isn’t. The original Dymo labels can be easily and cleanly removed from jars without leaving a residue. I used these labels in the run-up to Christmas and – although functional and perhaps a little utilitarian – received no adverse comments. Since I have apiaries in several locations I can easily run off customised labels for individual places, without significant investment or breaking the plethora of regulations that govern honey labelling. If you sell honey to guest houses or garden centres (for example) it is easy to prepare personalised labels in small quantities very economically.

Printer and label costs

Although the list price of these printers is a bit steep, the usual online  stockists often offer ~50% reductions. At the time of writing Amazon are selling the LabelWriter 450 printer and 3 assorted label rolls for about £50. Replacement Dymo thermal paper rolls are usually a bit over a tenner for 500+ labels of suitable sizes, but you can purchase compatible generic thermal paper rolls for significantly less. For example, Dymo #99012 (36mm x 89mm) are £12.75 for 2 x 260 whereas well reviewed, compatible, generic equivalents are £7.98 for 5 x 260 … or about 0.6p/printed label. However, don’t bother with the generic ‘clear’ compatible labels. Firstly, they aren’t anything like clear (!) and they also smear very badly. Remember that thermal printers use different printing technology and don’t use toner like inkjet or laser printers so there are no additional running costs 🙂

But they’re not in colour … ?

Thermal printers only print black on the label background colour, which is almost always white. For just a splash of colour you could use fluorescent marker pens, for example to highlight the banding on a ‘cartoon’ of a bee. For more extensive colour it’s relatively easy to produce labels on a suitable laser printer … the subject of a future post. For comparison, suitable Avery labels cost 3-4p per label (excluding the outlay on hardware and toner) but you need to print a minimum of a dozen (one sheet) at a time.

Making soft set honey

Soft set honey was often called creamed honey before that description was effectively outlawed – at least for labelling purposes – under the trade descriptions act because it ‘contains no cream‘. It’s the stuff that’s spoonable and spreadable, it feels like velvet on the tongue because the crystals are so fine (hence creamy) and it remains looking good for a long time. The long shelf life more than compensates for the (relatively small) effort required to produce it … you don’t have to sell it or give it away quickly before granulation takes over and the appearance is spoiled. Winter is a good time to prepare soft set honey as it requires low temperatures.

Granulation

Granulated honey label

Granulated honey label

All honey granulates. At least, all honey that hasn’t been subjected to the sorts of heating and filtration used by commercial packers to produce a uniform and sometime bland product with a very long shelf life. The rate at which honey granulates is related to its composition. Honey with a relatively high glucose to fructose ratio – such as oil seed rape – granulates faster. Granulation is also influenced by temperature and particulates (e.g. pollen) that acts as a ‘seed’ for granulation. My honey carries a label indicating that granulation is a completely natural process and is a sign of high quality honey.

Soft set honey

Soft set honey is honey in which the granulation has been controlled. A small amount (~10%) of honey with a soft, fine grain, is used as a ‘seed’ for liquid honey. As the latter granulates it takes on the consistency of the seed honey. The principle is straightforward and an industrial process was patented by Elton Dyce in the 1930’s. However, this requires rapid heating and cooling of bulk honey, something most beekeepers are unable to achieve. There are some good descriptions online about making soft set honey, including a useful video by ‘BeekeeperDevon’ on YouTube. There are also a lot of conflicting methods published and some that are, frankly, either nonsense or wrong.

This is how I do it … followed by some details on a few of the critical bits.

  1. Extracted honey should be left to completely crystallise in honey buckets. This might take several weeks. The honey, particularly if it’s OSR, is likely to be spoonbendingly hard. In the following description I’m assuming the honey has only been (at least) coarse filtered on extraction, so will almost inevitably still contain bits of wax and the odd leg or antenna.
  2. Melt a full bucket of crystallised honey completely. For a 30lb bucket I find this takes about 24-36 hours at 50ºC in my honey warming cabinet. Stir it once or twice during this period if you get the chance – this speeds up the process. Honey should not be kept at elevated temperatures for extended periods to avoid the build up of HMF.
  3. Filter the honey into a clean food-grade bucket. I use the double stainless strainer and nylon straining cloth from Thorne’s.
  4. Cool the filtered honey to 35ºC in the honey warming cabinet. At the same time, warm the seed stock (see comments below) to 35ºC in bucket with a tap. By keeping the temperature below about 40ºC the all-important fine crystal structure of the seed stock will not be destroyed.
  5. Add the filtered bulk honey to the seed stock. Mix gently but very thoroughly. The intention is to completely disperse the fine seed stock crystals throughout the mixed honey. You can use a stainless steel corkscrew and drill, or a honey creamer. Of the two I prefer the latter. Try and avoid incorporating air during the mixing (hence ‘gently’) to avoid frosting in the final product.
  6. Cool the honey to less than 14ºC, mixing every 12 hours or so. It’s easy to achieve this temperature in winter in an unheated outhouse, pantry or conservatory. In the summer you can do this by adding a succession of freezer blocks to the warming cabinet (but it’s hard work). The honey will get increasingly hard to mix and will – within a week or less (and possibly within a couple of days) – set. This is soft set honey.
  7. Re-warm the bucket of honey to 35ºC and bottle it. See comments below.

The seed stock

You need about 10% by weight of a suitable seed stock to make soft set honey. You can use more or less, it’s not critical. Much less than 5% and it won’t be enough to ensure even crystallisation, or will take a very long time to finally crystallise. More than 10% is unnecessary and you’d be better saving it for another batch of soft set honey. If you’ve not got a seed stock of a suitable consistency (by which I mean of the consistency you want your final soft set honey to have) you can make, borrow or buy some.

Pestle and mortar

Pestle and mortar …

To make your seed stock grind hard set crystallised honey using a pestle and mortar until it has a wonderful, even consistency. It will start as hard unyielding lumps and end up with the consistency of thick toothpaste. This is hard work but you might only need to do it once, so do it well. You can borrow your seed stock from a neighbouring beekeeper who has something suitable, returning the same amount after you’ve prepared your own soft set honey. Finally, you could even buy your seed stock from a supermarket. If you insist on buying the starter, at least steer clear of the “mix of EU and non-EU” honeys (why don’t they just state “sourced from goodness knows where”?)  which could have just about anything in them. You are aiming to produce a top quality product. The type of honey you use as your seed stock is immaterial; it will only comprise a small amount of the final product, the consistency is what matters.

Bottling soft set honey

At 35ºC the prepared soft set honey will barely flow through the honey tap. However, with a little effort, and a long handled spoon to gently stir it, the thixotropic honey can usually be made to flow sufficiently to get it into jars. Again, to avoid frosting try not to mix air into the honey; hold the jar just under the honey tap with the bucket slightly inclined.

Miscellaneous notes

Spatula spoon

Spatula spoon

Keep about 3lb of your first batch of soft set honey – I use these useful sealable plastic containers – to use as the seed for your next bucket. This might be the following week or the following year – I’ve just used up the last of my 2014-prepared seed stock. If you’re preparing batch after batch of soft set honey on a weekly basis you can simply leave the seed stock in the bottom of the bucket with a tap. I’ve found silicone spatula spoons really useful for mixing honey, for getting the last few ounces out of the honey bucket and for quickly removing all the honey from the last three 1lb jars after you realise you’ve just bottled the seed stock for the next batch 😉

 

I love the smell of propolis in the morning

[to paraphrase Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore] … actually, I love the smell of propolis more or less anytime. During the quiet winter period the warm, spicy scent of propolis is a lovely reminder of hive inspections during warmer times. It’s one of the characateristic smells I associate with beekeeping, along with the lemony scent of the alarm pheremone – something best avoided – and the pretty rank smell of brood frames sterilised in the steam wax extractor (definitely best avoided).

Clearer boards

Clearer boards …

A couple of night ago I extracted the summer honey collected by the bees since moving to Scotland. There were only a small number of supers to extract; many of the colonies I brought North were nucs and have only recently moved up into full boxes, coupled with it being a rather poor summer. I’d added clearer boards under the supers the day before removing them then stacked the supers on top of my honey warming cabinet for a couple of days until I had time to do the extracting. By keeping the supers warm – the temperature in the headspace above the top super in the stack was only about 30ºC – the honey is much easier to extract than when cold and viscous.

The other effect of warming the supers is that the propolis softens and then sticks to just about everything it comes into contact with. The frames in these supers hadn’t been moved for 6-7 weeks and were heavily propilised to the runners and each other. Inevitably, prising the frames out and manhandling them in and out of the extractor meant my hands got covered with propolis. Like cooking with onions, the smell of propolis lingers well into the following day, irrespective of how well you wash your hands.

It’s been a rather poor second half of the season and many of the frames were uncapped. However, the honey – even when warmed – couldn’t be shaken out of the frames indicating that the water content was low enough to not ferment (and when measured it was almost all about 17%). The honey was sufficiently runny to filter through coarse and fine filters directly into 30 lb honey buckets for storage before jarring. This is the first honey produced by my bees in Fife and I’ll have to get some new labels designed that correctly lists its provenance.

Fondant block and Apiguard

Fondant block and Apiguard

Finally, before disappearing for a few days to  Andalusia I added a queen excluder and an empty super to every hive to accommodate a 12.5 kilo split block of bakers fondant. This is a really easy way to feed colonies up for the autumn. They take the fondant down more slowly than they would take thick (2:1 w/v) syrup which I think ensures that the queen has ample space to keep laying – these will be the important winter bees that get the colony through to the next season. It also doesn’t seem to encourage either robbing or wasps – perhaps because there’s nothing to spill. It’s also a whole lot easier to prepare … just slice a block in half with a breadknife. I simply add the fondant face down over the queen excluder, reduce the entrance if the colony isn’t at full strength, close them up and walk away*.


 

* I also added a tray of Apiguard to a couple of colonies as the first stage in autumn Varroa treatment. The majority of the colonies are going to receive vaporised oxalic acid but I wanted to do a side-by-side comparison of the effect on queen laying, so two colonies in one apiary received Apiguard.

Frosting in honey

Honey with frosting

Honey with frosting

Frosting is the name given to small air bubbles that get trapped between honey and the side or shoulder of the jar. It spoils the appearance of the honey, but doesn’t alter the flavour or the quality. Frosting in honey usually starts as a small white streak or crescent on the shoulder of the jar, but gradually spreads during storage, sometimes covering most or all of the inner surface of the jar.  Some buyers don’t mind it, particularly if they’ve tasted your honey before, but I suspect that it puts others off (unsurprisingly, no-one receiving honey as a gift ever murmurs a word of complaint if the jar is frosted … funny that). Because I think set and soft-set honey looks better if the jar isn’t frosted I try and prevent it forming in the first place, or do my best to remove it in jars for sale.

Prevention

I’ve yet to find a foolproof way of preparing set or soft-set honey that definitely will not develop frosting. Some batches I’ve made have remained ‘frosting-free’ for months, but most do in due course. However, the following things are supposed to work and probably help:

  • Use a settling tank to let the honey stand for a day or two after preparation. I decant honey to be jarred into 30 lb plastic buckets with a tap, and leave it for 24-48 hours in the honey warming cabinet at about 30-37°C.
  • Pre-warm the jars for bottling. I put cleaned jars inverted in the oven at the lowest heat setting to dry, removing them a few minutes before use.
  • Hold the jar immediately below the honey tap so that as little air as possible mixes with the honey during bottling. I run the honey down the sidewall of the jar, only placing the jar onto a zeroed weighing scale as the last ounce or so is added.
  • Do not jar more than you need in one session. It’s better to jar in 30 lb batches, rather than keeping 150 lb of jarred honey for a long time during which frosting is likely to occur. Of course, if you sell it (or give it away) in 150 lb batches then you’re hardly likely to be reading this looking for advice …

Of the four suggestions above, the last one is probably the most dependable. 30 lb buckets of honey are easy to store and take up little space. 30 lb of jarred honey weighs about 43 lb (assuming 1 lb ’rounds’), takes up a lot more space, requires much more handling and will usually develop frosting during extended storage.

Cure

Warm jars with set honey to about 37°C for 24 hours. The honey should become less viscous and would pour very slowly from the jar if you inverted it. Don’t 😉 You do not want to melt the honey, but instead just warm it sufficiently so that it can be stirred. Using a clean long-handled teaspoon – both for leverage and to stop getting honey on your fingers – gently stir the honey sufficiently to mix the bubbles in, working carefully round the sidewall of the jar to ensure it’s mixed evenly. The honey should be thick enough to stand the spoon in it, so you need quite strong fingers. Scrape excess honey from the spoon back into the jar using a small flexible spatula. Return the jars to the honey warming cabinet for another 24 hours, then store as usual. This is quite a bit of work and you really should try and avoid having to do it. However, if it makes the jarred honey more attractive and helps sell more jars then it’s a worthwhile investment of time.

Soft set honey

Soft set honey

250 jars

12ox hex jar

12ox hex jar

I usually sell honey in 1lb ’rounds’, the classic honey jar with a gold screw lid. These jars are easy to fill, with no nooks and crannies for bubbles to get stuck. However, many beekeepers are now selling in 12oz hex jars. These look a little fancier and are usually sold at a premium price. They’re also a bit harder to fill neatly as bubbles can easily get trapped at the shoulder. Since I have several hundred 1lb rounds and a similar number of printed labels it’ll be a year or so before I have to make a decision to stick with the rounds, or switch to the smaller jar.

Soft set and clear honey

Soft set and clear honey

My small-scale bottling typically involves preparing a 30lb bucket of honey in my warming cabinet, bottling about 28lb (using my bucket tipper) for sale with the bubbly dregs going into unlabelled jars for home consumption, cooking, marmalade or making mead. I rarely get orders for more than 25lb of honey at a time (but will happily accept them). However, I recently received an order for 250 4oz hex jars of local honey to go into “goody bags” for guests celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the University of Warwick as I have bees in the university apiary and on the surrounding farmland.

As I discovered … 4oz hex jars, if filled to above the shoulder, actually take about 5oz of honey. I additionally discovered that the irritating, bubble-trapping, shoulders on 12oz hex jars are just as irritating but a lot smaller on 4oz hex’s. Bottling this lot took quite a long time …

250 4oz hex jars

250 4oz hex jars …

However, the finished products, with tie-on labels designed by the university, looked great …

 

Honey show (partial) success

Our local association honey show is always held in mid/late October. At the beginning of the season it feels like a lifetime away. With a long, hot summer being anticipated, the short October nights and the preparation required is just about the last thing on my mind. By the second honey harvest it’s a lot closer but there’s still no urgency … and then, suddenly, it’s four days away. How did that happen?

Soft set honey

Soft set honey

Our honey show has friendly rivalry, good natured competition and – usually – sympathetic (verging on the generous with my entries) judging. The good exhibits are often very good but care is taken not to discourage those with less-than-perfect entries. All the usuall classes are represented – light, medium and dark honey, soft set and set honeys, frames ready for extraction, wax, mead, ‘products of the hive’ gifts and photography. One of the most keenly contested classes is the honey cake which uses the relatively simple recipe used – I think – at the National Honey Show.


Honey cake

Ingredients

200g/7oz self-raising flour, 175g/6oz honey, 110g/4oz butter, 175g/6oz sultanas, 2 medium eggs, 110g/4oz. glace cherries (halved).

Preparation

Preheat oven to 180°C/350°F /gas mark 4. Cream butter and honey together. Beat eggs well and add them alternately with sifted flour then fold in sultanas and cherries. A little milk may be added if necessary. Bake in a buttered circular tin, 16.5 -19.0 cm (61⁄2-71⁄2 inches) in diameter for approximately 11⁄2 hours. Timing is for conventional ovens and is a guide only as appliances vary.


A few years ago I’d competed and won the beginners class (always generously judged) and been placed second in the ‘cottager class’ for those with 5 hives or less (I think this page will generate some disappointment if it turns up on a Google search for certain words in the text). Despite a clashing appointment on the night of the show that meant I missed all the judging I prepared entries for the light and medium honey classes – using the same batch of honey as I had no grading glasses so ‘hedged my bets’ – the soft set, the honey judged on flavour alone (the jars are covered with a tight-fitting sleeve, though the judging isn’t conducted blindfold so a few stray wings or legs in the scummy surface layers might still be offputting), the photography, the ‘products of the hive’ gift and the honey cake.

And the winner is …

Let’s deal with the failures first … I clearly misjudged what was needed for the ‘products of the hive’ class. I entered a jar of delicious lemon honey marmalade. In my view this is better than honey on toast in the mornings. However, almost every other entry was a stunning wax sculpture or a beautifully presented candle. Nil points as they say. Don’t let this put you off honey marmalade though … it’s fantastic and I’ve never had anyone turn it down as a most welcome gift.

Overcooked

Overcooked

The honey cake was a disaster. I cooked three in advance to get the cooking conditions right. The first one was badly burnt and essentially inedible. The recipe above is spectacularly wrong with regard to timings. The second was much better, although still a bit overcooked (shown right). My team at work wolfed it down. The third was better still but by now I’d realised that the diameter of my cake tin was 0.5″ smaller than specified (judges can be both pedants and generous in equal measure). The flavour and texture were very good and it was again scoffed with thanks by work colleagues. The day before the honey show I found a tin of the correct diameter and used it to prepare the – I hoped (Ha!) – winning entry. Big mistake. The cake rose better … but then sank like the Titanic to create a near-doughnut shaped entry. The judge didn’t trouble himself with the tasting. Wisely … it was undercooked.

Waspkeeping

Waspkeeping …

On a brighter note one of the photography entries got a ‘Very Highly Commended’ though I’m not sure which of the two prints I entered was favoured. I suspect it was “Waspkeeping” (right). In addition, I managed two third places; one for honey judged on flavour alone and one for light honey. I’m particularly pleased with the former as this is the primary reason most people like honey … because it tastes good. Finally, my soft set honey achieved a second place which was also very satisfying. Making soft set honey (or creamed honey as it is sometimes called) is a bit of a palaver but it keeps well. If you can avoid frosting – something I’ll discuss again sometime – it’s well worth the effort and very popular.

If you’ve not previously entered a honey show have a go. At the top level it’s no doubt cut throat with all sorts of trade secrets to produce the perfect jar. I have no trade secrets … use good quality 1 lb ’rounds’ without obvious defects, make sure the thread is scrupulously clean and that there is no honey on the underside of the lid (take clean lids with you ‘just in case’, but try not to open jars to retain the aroma in the headspace), make sure the jar is filled so there is no visible space between the lid and the honey surface. Stick the label on level and at the right height from the bottom of the jar. Avoid using jars containing parts of bees 😉

Then, with a bit of luck and a generous judge, you can prefix the text on your honey advertising with the important words “Prizewinning local” honey and be prepared to be inundated with orders.

 

Foundationless frames reviewed

New comb ...

New comb …

One of the big successes of this season has been the use of foundationless frames. These have reduced my use of foundation by over 75%, leading to a significant accumulation of unused packets which were ordered before the season started (as an aside, if stored flat in a cool place foundation should be OK for years, simply needing a quick blast with a hairdryer to remove the pale bloom that appears). Aside from the economic benefits, I’m convinced that the bees draw comb on foundationless frames at least as fast as they do on frames with foundation. In some cases, given the choice, the queen also starts laying in the foundationless comb earlier. Finally, they are an ideal way to prepare a bait hive, providing the volume the scout bees are seeking coupled with the ‘order’ that will ensure that any swarm will build comb where you want it.

Foundationless frames

Super frames …

Preparing new foundationless frames takes a litte more effort – you need to drill the sidebars and ‘wire’ them with nylon monofilament fishing line before adding a narrow starter strip. At least, that’s what I do. In my view this effort is more than offset by the benefits they provide. Framebuilding is made almost pleasurable by using a nail gun … look out for special offers on these from Amazon where a suitable model (Tacwise EL191) was recently reduced to under £40.

Foundationless frames also work well in supers. I prepared a few boxes of these this season and extracted them using a radial extractor. With a couple of exceptions the frames all survived. The only two that collapsed were either partially drawn or incompletely filled. I treated the foundationless frames as roughly (or carefully) as those with foundation during extraction – I uncap with a hot air gun and wind them up to full speed as quickly as practical.

That's blown it

That’s blown it …

 

The only real problem I had with foundationless frames in supers was getting unwanted brace comb in boxes where the frames were not vertically aligned with the box below. For example, an eleven frame brood box topped with an undrawn 9 or 10 frame foundationless super sometimes resulted in the bees trying to build brace comb between the frames. This problem was partially, though not completely, solved by mixing foundationless frames with a few frames containing full sheets of foundation. Next year I will get the comb drawn in a super filled with foundationless frames, and then remove a couple and space them further apart.

Brace comb

Brace comb …

Other than the infrequent building of brace comb, which can usually be avoided by careful frame spacing, I’ve only had two issues with foundationless frames that might be considered problems.

The first is the bees chewing through the monofilament supporting ‘wires’. I’ve been using 15 kg breaking strain cheapo mono picked up from eBay. If the frame isn’t drawn evenly (perhaps because the hive isn’t perfectly level) the exposed mono on one side of a frame is targeted by workers and sometimes nibbled through. In a frame with three transverse strands (i.e. a deep, or brood frame) this is usually the one closest to the bottom bar. This isn’t a major issue – it leaves a trailing strand which needs to be snipped off but the majority of the frame is usually drawn sufficiently well that it’s robust enough for the usual stresses and strains of inspections. In over 100 foundationless brood frames used this year, none have been unusable after the mono has been chewed through (which only happened on half a dozen). I’ve bought a big spool of 30 kg monofilament to use next year. At about 1p per metre it’s good value but may be a little less easy to work with.

Foundationless brood frame ...

Foundationless brood frame …

The second ‘problem’ is minor and depends upon your chosen method of swarm control. Colonies often draw out significantly more drone comb in foundationless frames than they do on standard foundation. It’s not unusual to have big slabs of drone comb on one or more of the outer frames of the brood nest. As a consequence, these colonies have lots more drones present throughout the season. Interestingly, I’ve not had increased problems with Varroa and deformed wing virus in these colonies. I generally use the Demaree method of swarm control, shifting the original brood box containing all the sealed brood above the queen excluder for a three week period.

Drone graveyard ...

Drone graveyard …

Consequently, drones emerging in the upper box cannot get out of the hive. If they are not periodically released – for example, during inspections, or by lifting the roof and crown board every few days – they sacrifice themselves struggling to get through the excluder. The standard inspection interval can uncover hundreds of dead and dying drones wedged half way throught the excluder. This is unpleasant, both for the beekeeper and the drones. Next year I’ll experiment with adding an upper entrance to allow the drones to escape – either by proving a thin shim of softwood underneath three sides of the upper box, or by providing a temporary hole through the side of the box (closed with a cork when not needed).

Finally, using a steam wax extractor on foundationless frames destroys much of the tension in the monofilament. They might still be usable – I’ve not tried – but it’s an easy job to replace it.

 

My greatest fan

The most viewed post on this site over recent weeks is about building a honey warming cabinet. Towards the end of the post I discuss the addition of a small mains powered fan to circulate the heat better. The fan is mounted attached to and under the bucket stand, circulating the air directly over the heating element. Out of interest, I conducted a quick experiment to determine how much influence the fan had on the heat distribution within the cabinet.

Fans

Fans

Using a remote temperature sensor I timed how long it took to get from ambient temperature (about 18oC on the day) to a stable 60oC, near the effective maximum due to the amount of insulation in my cabinet. With the fan on continuously this took 1 hours and 40 minutes. With the fan turned off this took almost twice as long. Since I was also aware that using the fan alone increased the temperature I measured the maximum temperature the cabinet reached without the heater on … in this case fractionally under 28oC, but this took well over two hours. The fan itself clearly generates a reasonable amount of heat which, in a well insulated container, pushes the temperature up (a bit like those foil-lined polystyrene ovens in which you can cook a chicken with a lightbulb). It should be noted that with a couple of 30 lb buckets full of honey in the cabinet all these times would be extended. However, it clearly shows that the addition of an inexpensive fan is a worthwhile addition to a DIY honey warming cabinet.

Although more difficult to monitor, the presence of the fan also makes the temperature fluctuations markedly smaller. With the fan running and the thermostat set correctly the cabinet will maintain 33oC +/- less than 1oC, making it suitable for incubating queen cells. You need to maintain high humidity levels to avoid drying the cells and the newly-emerged queens need to be used promptly.

Queen cells

Queen cells …

The fan I use was purchased in the Maplin sale for about a fiver. The list price is three times that, so it might pay to shop around. It would also be possible to piratise an unwanted 12V fan from an old PC, but you would have to take the power supply as well.

Honey warming cabinet fan

Fan …