Why won’t my bees store honey?

Why? Because conditions are not right. Pure and simple.

This time of year, new beekeepers are asking why their bees will not fill the honey supers or even visit the supers. Some report their bees walking around inside only to leave again, uninterested. Some blame queen excluders. Others believe they are doing something wrong. But most want to know how to “make” their bees store honey.

First off, you can’t make a honey bee do much of anything. Like teaching a pig to sing, you might be able to encourage certain behaviors, but it might not be in your best interest.

A colony needs time to establish

Let’s look at what happens when a new beekeeper starts a colony in a new hive. New bees—whether in a package or in a nuc—most often arrive in the spring. Spring is when most major honey flows occur, but a new colony has a lot of work to do before it can begin storing surplus honey.

Most pressing is raising lots of young. To do that the colony needs to build brood comb and collect food to feed the young. It needs to feed drones. It needs to fill the pantry with supplies, but first it has to build the pantry. It needs to collect water to cool the hive. It needs to defend itself. All of these chores take lots of energy which is readily available because it is spring and flowers are abundant.

New colonies expand on the nectar flow

From the beekeeper point of view, the hive is exploding and will soon be able to fill the honey supers. But just when you eagerly plop the honey supers atop the hive, the spring flows are winding down. The days get warmer and the flowers get scarce. You’ve raised your bees on the spring flow, but the flow is over and the bees have no motivation to draw out your supers because there is nothing to store.

When the nectar flows dry up, the days get hot, and the hours of daylight are less—think summer solstice—a colony shrinks the brood nest. Not as many bees are necessary to keep things going, so less space is devoted to nursery. The shrinking nest allows more nectar to be stored in the immediate area, and the bees will fill this instead of filling the supers.

A nuc has a much better chance of putting away some surplus the first year simply because part of the work is already done. But regardless of how the colony starts, it needs to get through the to-do list before it begins storing surplus.

Other factors also affect how much honey a colony will store, regardless of whether it is new or old. The climate and local weather is critical as is overall colony strength, genetics, available forage, and environmental stressors.

It’s all about the flowers

A beekeeper has to understand both the rise and fall of colony populations and the ebb and flow of nectar. In most places in North America, for example, we have one or more strong spring flows, followed by a dearth in mid-summer and, in most areas, a fall flow that may or may not materialize. These patterns vary depending on where you live, but once you learn the bloom schedule in your specific area, you will have a better idea of what to expect from year to year. Remember, beekeeping is all about the flowers.

Great expectations

I think it is a mistake for a new beekeeper to expect a crop the first year. There are exceptions, of course. But we all can’t be the exception.

Tricking your bees into building in the supers by baiting them with a frame of honey, for example, is not always the best thing to do. If you get them to store honey in the supers before the brood boxes are full, you may end up harvesting honey that they need for winter survival. You—and they—are better off if they are allowed to fill up the brood boxes first. Then, if they are healthy and make it through the winter, your bees can build up before the spring flow instead of building up during the spring flow, and you will gets lots of honey.

A word about queen excluders

Through the years, I have waffled over the use of excluders. I used to believe—as many others do—that queen excluders are honey excluders. In the past, I always put a section super directly above the brood box and it usually kept the queen away. But after more than a few ruined sections, I’ve gone back to queen excluders.

I’ve discovered that with an excluder, the bees will be more apt to store below it at first. But this gives them a good honey supply for winter because they fill every nook and cranny of the brood boxes. Once the boxes are full, however, the colony will burst through the excluder and fill up supers in a matter of days. It depends on the strength of the flow of course. This year I had nothing in the supers, nothing, still nothing, discouraging nothing, than bam! Full in a few days. Crazy full. Need-help-lifting-them full.

Sure, some colonies did not pass through the excluder, but I don’t think they would have stored surplus anyway. Not all colonies are created equal, and not all colonies will provide surplus every year.

A word about patience

We are used to instant gratification. We want honey and we want it now. But nurturing bees is more than collecting their honey. If we concentrate too much on the end product, we are missing the wonder of honey bees. The question, “How soon can I get honey?” always worries me. So does the beekeeper who buys an extractor along with his first package. Harvesting should not be your first thought.

This, I think, is why the hype about the Flow hive annoys me. All the concentration, all the focus, in fact the whole purpose of the Flow hive is to take the bees’ honey quicker and easier. Proponents say it’s better for the bees, gentler (as if stealing someone’s food supply is ever “gentle”). But when a first-time beekeeper starts with a Flow hive, his focus is already on the harvest. He’s calculating what’s in it for him­ before he’s ever seen a bee up close and personal.

If you take time to become a good beekeeper, you will have plenty of honey. You will have honey for years and years and years. Learn how the system works and your honey crops will come.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

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Flowers + bees + patience = honey. © Rusty Burlew.

What the heck is vegan honey?

Update: Included at the end of this post is a statement by Katie Sanchez of Bee Free Honee.

Honey is excluded from the vegan diet by definition. Both the definition and the term “vegan” are credited to Donald Watson, who promoted the idea back in 1944. A few months later, the Vegan Society of England adopted Watson’s model. He wrote:

Veganism is a way of living which excludes all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, the animal kingdom, and includes a reverence for life. It applies to the practice of living on the products of the plant kingdom to the exclusion of flesh, fish, fowl, eggs, honey, animal milk and its derivatives, and encourages the use of alternatives for all commodities derived wholly or in part from animals.

So if honey is included in the official definition, there is no doubt that honey is off limits to vegans. I am frequently asked why honey is vegan, and knowing this will make it easier to answer.

But here is my question: Recently my daughter—who is vegetarian but not vegan—found a recipe that calls for “3 tablespoons of vegan honey.” She asked me, “What the heck is vegan honey?” Good question. As she points out, the phrase is confusing. Like fat-free half-and-half, it defies all manner of logic.

So I did an internet search. Lo and behold, you can buy something called “Bee Free Honee” that is made from concentrated apples, beet sugar, and lemon juice. At least one reviewer says it’s “even better than the real thing.”

Personally, I doubt it’s better than the real thing, especially since it comes in four flavors that don’t particularly remind me of honey: original, mint, chocolate, and ancho chili.

But the thing that’s most baffling? The label. It reads “All Natural • Plant Based.” While that is no doubt a true statement, you could say the same thing about honey: both are all natural and plant-based. Honey is made from nectar, and nectar comes from plants. Okay, maybe a bit of bee spit too, but when apples are pressed, all kinds of bugs and caterpillars, wormy things and slugs, get squeezed along with the fruit.

Some lifeforms are hard to avoid. According to the FDA Defect Levels Handbook, apple butter (which is also a form of concentrated apples) is not flagged until the 100-gram samples contain an average of four or more rodent hairs and 5 or more whole or equivalent insects (not including mites, aphids, thrips, or scale insects). These levels are set for aesthetic reasons only, and it sounds like the mites, aphids, thrips, and scale insects are so small that they are not even counted. So much for vegan.

And speaking of animal exploitation, I wonder who pollinated all those apple trees? And the lemons? Is it possible that bees were stacked on a flatbed and trucked across the country, servants to the ag industry? Is it possible that apples and lemons are “commodities derived wholly or in part from animals” or their labor? One reviewer wrote, “No bees die in the production of no-bee honey.” I wonder how sure she is about that. Both agriculture itself, and the migratory beekeeping that serves agriculture, are very hard on bees.

I certainly have nothing against veganism: people should be free to eat what they want. But I find it odd that people take labels at face value without evaluating the subtleties—the details about where food comes from and how it’s processed.

At any rate, consider this a public service announcement for beekeepers: now you know where to send your vegan friends who can’t eat honey. But for the record, I don’t understand why vegans condone consumption of bee-pollinated crops or the ingestion of insect parts that are invariably part of our food supply. To me, that is no less abusive than eating honey—bees die either way.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite


Response by Katie Sanchez of Bee Free Honee:

Thank you Rusty, for allowing me the opportunity to respond to your blog and the thread of comments following your discovery of Bee Free Honee. I would like to begin this is my product: I created it (by accident). I was trying to make apple jelly and did not read the directions. Later, I began to hear about the decline in the honey bee and began to learn more about what was happening in the industry and asked myself: Can I do something with that mistake?

My father was a beekeeper growing up; most of my life bees were our closest neighbors. I love bees and all pollinators and have a great deal of respect for them. I grew up around people that believed in doing things simply, naturally. As I got older and moved away from home, I lost touch with that world so I was shocked to find how much beekeeping had changed since my last exposure to it. I began to learn about national hive renting and local hive renting and their differences. I learned about nutrient deficiencies for our pollinators due to farming practices, grooming of the roadsides, and clearing land for construction spreading into rural areas. I read articles on the decline of the honey bee and realized that what was being put out was not a call for action but a way for people to get mad about governments allowing certain pesticides and cell phone use…but not a demand for change. I looked in the stores and saw shelves of honey, honey sold by the gallon all year long, not seasonally as I knew it to be.

I realized this is not only about neonicotinoids and cell phones; this is also about our expectations as consumers to purchase honey all year round and in unlimited quantities, at a low cost. This is about pollinating fields at the expense of the insects, without allowing the costs of maintenance of the hives cut into the bottom-line. Could almond growers have their own hives, they could but they do not want to. The reasoning given is that there is not enough water or food for the bees to live on; some orchards say it is too hot for the bees and no shelter to protect them; the bees would cook in the hives. Well, there are solutions for all of that…it is not an overnight solution but we can make this work. First of all, we build shelters for all other animals; we could build simple shelters for bees. Water is provided for livestock; why not provide it for bees. Green walls are now very water efficient, they could be built strategically to provide  the nutrient diversity for the bees, and as they are built vertically, they take up almost no land. This would also increase the amount of  water that is put back into the atmosphere through transpiration. According to http://water.me.vccs.edu/courses/SCT112/lecture3_print.htm : “For example a large oak tree can transpire 40,000 gallons of water per year. About 10 percent of the earth’s atmospheric moisture can be attributed to plant transpiration. The rest is supplied by evaporation and the water cycle.” The fewer greenery the less transpiration – likewise, increase greenery and produce more fresh water.

Think of the good for our fresh water supply, cleaning up the air quality, and for our pollinators if we began to build green walls strategically. Think of the good we could do if we kept bees stationary, if we began to treat them as the beautiful special and important insect that they are. Not just think of them as a means to a commodity. Why is there not more education on the Mason bee? They are less aggressive, native to our country and easy to house….and very effective pollinators. Maybe because they don’t produce a commodity?

Through Bee Free Honee, I do my best to educate the public on these topics as well as asking them: If you are buying honey simply as a flavor profile in cooking or baking; Why not find an alternative that will provide the same result but allow the bees some time to regain in strength and in numbers? We cannot just continue on business as usual and expect it to be okay. We need to make changes. I do understand that change is hard. I do understand that there will be people who will never understand or approve of what we are doing. But to reduce it to being simply vegan does not do it justice. Vegan is one attribute of our product, another is that we need to save the bees and I am trying to do something about it in any and every way I can. It may not be the method others would choose but that is why we value the freedoms our country affords us. So we can all go forward in our own individual ways.

We try to be very clear about what Bee Free Honee is. When we did use beet sugar, it was non-GMO, but that local farmer sold his field to a company that planted GMO beets, so we switched to Vegan quality, non-GMO cane sugar. We use only as much is as needed to create tackiness, no more. Lemon juice is the only preservative and the rest is apple. That is it. From every angle of the bottle we clearly write that we are from apples and even have the words “contains no real honey” on the bottle. The word ‘Honee’ is a descriptive; ‘Bee Free’ refers to the process in which it is made, not to how it was pollinated.

I hope this clarifies our stance, if you would like to read more, we have a page on the bees on our website that talks about our stand, and there is a page on how it all got started. I hope you feel comfortable taking a look through the site. I hope you are able to see that we are trying to create a positive. Thank you for your time.

Katie Sanchez
Bee Free Honee

Bee on apple blossom.
Bee on apple blossom. Pixabay public domain photo.

Pearlescent honey

Robert Lunsford from down in Louisiana wanted to know what was up with his honey, so he sent the following three photos of shimmery, iridescent honey that seems to glow from within. Awesome looking stuff!

My theory is simply this: I think he had at least two different types of honey in the pot. One of the types was much higher in glucose than the other, so it began to granulate much more quickly.

It looks to me like they were not thoroughly combined, but just stirred a little bit—the way you would make a marble cake or strawberry swirl ice cream. The result was ripples of granulated honey suspended in liquid honey. Because honey becomes lighter in color when it granulates, the nearly white but opaque crystals could easily be seen through the darker, but still translucent liquid honey.

I figured that it would all soon granulate, especially since it was now seeded with crystals. Sure enough, by the time I requested permission to use the photos, Robert reported that it had all granulated into a fine-grained, silky smooth, and creamy consistency.

Has anyone else seen this? I thought the photos were great.

Thanks, Robert!

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

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Iridescent honey. © Robert Lunsford.
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You can see the swirls where it was stirred. © Robert Lunsford.
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It seems like magic. © Robert Lunsford.

You be the judge

Yesterday I began to read Mark L. Winston’s new book, Bee Time: Lessons from the Hive. Winston is a gifted writer who could make mucking a horse stall sound romantic. But not far into the book, he pulled me up short with his description of honey judging. His words disturbed me so much, I put my Kindle on the charger and walked off.

I don’t know anything about honey judging, but because this is the Mark Winston, I’m sure it’s accurate. He says that honey judging is based on “subtle deviations from perfect.” The judges look for moisture levels, debris, bubbles, wax flakes, and foam. They taste the honey looking for odd flavors picked up during processing, and they look at the jars for dirt and fingerprints. All departures from perfect are deducts.

Now, I understand this, and I see why it might be fun to enter your honey in a contest and learn how you stack up, as long as you don’t take it personally. But being the judge? No, no, no, no.

Once upon a time I was an artistic roller skating judge. If you are unfamiliar with this sport, it is very much like ice skating. The skaters do figures, set dances, and freestyle, only they do it on eight wheels instead of two blades.

I used to adore watching both ice skating and roller skating, and never missed a televised or live performance. I became a judge because I loved the sport and because I was a competitor myself.

After my training I judged many events, but after a while I couldn’t see the beauty. Everything I saw was a “deviation from perfect.” Things that the casual observer would never see, glared at me. Deduct. Deduct. I actually gave up skating not long after I became a judge—it was just too depressing—and I never watch it nowadays.

The same thing happened later when my husband and I belonged to the Oregon Daffodil Society. We often made the trek down to the Willamette Valley for the daffodil shows. We never became judges, but we went through the training, learning about the various classes of daffodils, and learning to “spot the defects.”

Before the training, I was a nut case over daffodils. I had them planted everywhere, and in spring my house was full of dozens of vases containing all shapes and sizes and colors. My husband took them to work, too, and passed them around the office. Daffodils were so cheerful they made me infinitely happy.

But what was stunning before, now fails some man-made and arbitrary definition of perfect. Where I used to see beauty, I now see flaws. Deduct. Deduct. Many of those daffodils still reappear every spring, but I hardly pay attention. Once again, judging ruined a passion.

So when I began reading about honey judging, I stiffened up like a dirty sock. I adore honey, the sublime flavors, the subtle colors, the heavenly aromas. It is magical, mystical, and mysterious. No way, no how, will I ever become a honey judge and have that all taken away. Never. Some things are better left alone.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Read the book: *Bee Time: Lessons from the Hive

Honey of many colors. Pixabay photo
Honey of many colors. Pixabay photo.

*This post contains an affiliate link.

Joe’s mysterious honey

About two weeks ago, Joe Caracausa from east Texas said he harvested some honey with a very strong pine flavor. He wondered if the flavor might be due to the many pine trees in the area of his hives. He reported seeing yellow-green clouds of pollen in early spring, and he wondered if pine pollen could flavor the honey. Joe and his wife weren’t sure they liked the taste of the honey and didn’t know what to do with it. One of Joe’s friends said the honey tasted like a Northwest IPA, very hoppy.

Well, that last comment caught may attention, because there’s nothing I like better than a bitter IPA. Honey that tasted like hops would suit me just fine, so I suggested he could send it my way.

I didn’t think pine pollen would give the honey a pine flavor, but I wondered if it could be honeydew honey collected from pine aphids. I don’t know much about pine-eating aphids, but it seemed to me that pine sap that was eaten by aphids and then collected by honey bees could be the source of the flavor.

If you are not familiar with honeydew honey, it occurs when aphids gorge themselves on sap. They eat so much that the sap leaves their bodies more-or-less in the form it entered. It remains on the tree and then the honey bees come along and collect it. Although it sounds a bit bizarre, honeydew honey is very popular in some places and often commands a high price.

A week later, a sample of the honey showed up in my mailbox. Joe’s honey is a gorgeous amber color, and both my husband and I tucked into the jar as soon as it arrived. We both love it. My husband tastes the hoppiness (which I don’t) but we both detect a bitter aftertaste that is very reminiscent of an IPA. Neither of us tasted a pine flavor, but both Joe and his wife say the piney component has indeed mellowed since they first extracted.

The honey has that ultra-smooth characteristic that is so common in tree honeys that are high in fructose—a velvety, creamy texture that honeys higher in glucose seem to lack. Yes, I may be crazy, but this honey feels like tree honey. I asked Joe what else grows in the area, and he wrote:

There are a lot of woods around, we have substantial amounts of hickory trees, sweet gum, dogwood, many different oaks, willows, locust, bois d’arc, hawthorn, American beauty berry, farkleberry (look it up, it exists), woolly croton, several Narcissi, daffodils. Probably many others. The native pines are long needle varieties, mostly loblolly and slash pine. We also have ‘cedars’, actually juniper trees.

But now the story gets weird. I decided to look at Joe’s honey under the microscope to see how much of that pine pollen actually got into the honey. But what’s going on? I can’t find any pollen. My microscope only goes to 400x but I should see some pollen, even if I can’t see it well. I searched and searched, perplexed.

I wondered if I was doing something wrong. So I got a drop of my own honey from the cupboard, put it on a slide and OMG! Pollen of all shapes and sizes, even at only 40x. I went back to Joe’s honey and tried two more samples. Nothing. Even if pine pollen is really small, I should have seen something in there. Instead, I saw a few pieces of debris and couple of things that, with a good imagination, might have been pollen.

My honey was put through a standard 600-micron honey sieve. Joe sieved his too, and he thinks the sieve was 400 microns, which is smaller but should still let the pollen through. According to Brushy Mountain Bee Farm, 600 microns is considered a coarse sieve, 400 microns is medium, and 200 microns and below is fine.  Nearly all pollen is between 6 and 100 microns, so neither a 400- nor 600-micron sieve should remove any pollen.

The lack of pollen made me think that maybe it was honeydew honey after all. Aphids don’t eat pollen, just sap. So if the honey bees collected honeydew from the bark and needles of pine trees instead of visiting flowers, they would not have much contact with pollen.

Joe says he fed no sugar syrup this year and that there is no civilization anywhere near his hives where they could have found syrup. I know this is true because his honey tastes nothing like syrup! Trust me.

Still, I don’t know the answer to the mystery, I’m just asking the questions. What’s going on here? Does anyone have a different theory?

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

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Joe’s honey at 40x. I found a few things that looked like this. © Rusty Burlew.
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My honey at 40x. Pollen galore. © Rusty Burlew.
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Joe’s honey, a pleasing amber color and a great taste. © Rusty Burlew.