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Getting started with Beekeeping - Sally from Jembella Farm

Pete and I recently got bees (if you've been following, you'll probably be sick of me talking about it!), and lately I've been connecting with other bloggers who have bees (by connecting I mean asking heaps of questions!).  I thought this would be a good topic to continue my "getting started" series.  I've previously asked other bloggers about growing vegetables, keeping chickens and dairy animals.

eight acres: getting started with bees - Jembella Farm
Sally and Brian's beehives
My first "getting started with beekeeping" interview is with Sally from Jembella Farm. Sally and her husband live in the Barossa Valley (South Australia) in a 100 year old house on sixteen acres with 2 dogs, 7 cows, 2 alpacas, 5 geese, 35 chickens, 78 sheep & a few bee hives.

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Farmer Liz: How long have you been keeping bees? What got you interested in bees originally? And how many hives to you have now?

Sally: It had been on my bucket list to have bees one day, so for my birthday in October 2004 Brian gave me a hive that he bought second hand from his uncle. On that same spring day, we got a phone call from people up the road, telling us that they had a swarm on their fence post. Word travels fast in a small town! We called in the help of Brian’s uncle, and with make-do bee suit clothing, Uncle Murray guided us in moving the swarm from the post into our hive. That hive is still called the Birthday Box.

We slowly built up our hive numbers. Brian made more hives using a template from a purchased hive that was in pieces. (Ikea bee hive! Just joking, I don’t think Ikea do bee hives do they?) Now we have 15 hives, but they vary and sometimes, for many possible reasons, a hive dies out and has to be built up again.

eight acres: getting started with bees - Jembella Farm
Brian making frames

FL: You have a lot of experience with harvesting and selling your honey, so I was hoping you could tell us more about that process. Let’s start at the beginning, how do you decide that a frame is ready for harvest? And how do you decide that is time to process a whole lot of frames?

S: In South Australia the flow (of nectar) starts in spring with the first of flowering paddock and garden weeds; Sour Sobs and Cape Weed in September and then a bit later, Salvation Jane. These first flowers strengthen the hives after winter. We don’t start extracting too early though and never open the hives during winter. In Spring, we would not open unless the temp is above 24 degrees, then Brian checks the hives regularly (every week, or two, once the weather warms up) watching for capped honey, checking that bee numbers are high and if there is a lot of brood in the cells. This tells us that the hive is strong and healthy.

Once there are sufficient fully capped frames in the hive, we can see that the hive is strong, and if there are follow up beneficial flowers in the paddocks and trees, he will only then, make the decision to extract from the full frames. Never taking honey from the brood box, this is left for reserves for the bees to survive on in the event that there isn’t enough follow up flowering. A hot spell can spoil the pollen and nectar in the flowers, a cold rainy spell can do the same or prevent them from getting out to forage. Some years we can be extracting as early as September, but other years we need to wait until November. It all depends on the conditions of the weather and the hives. Here in SA the climate is harsh and we need to be very careful not to let our hives get weak. In the summer of 2013-2014 we didn’t take any honey at all. There were not enough flowers about for the bees. If we had taken their honey they would have starved.

Brian does most of the physical and heavy work with the bees. He’s the most hands on. I sometimes wish I was doing more with the actual bees, as I used to, but I must admit that on those hot days when he’s up in the paddock in full bee suit and it’s 45 degrees I’m quite happy to be doing my bit back in the shed getting things ready for extracting.

I do all of the marketing, design and make the labels, put the honey into jars and tubs. I operate our Farm gate stall and take orders from our few local outlets, do the deliveries and generally keep the contact with our customers. We are happy with the size of our little enterprise and have no desire to expand. We never thought at the beginning that our honey would become so popular, and we remind people that it’s the bees doing the work, we are only facilitating them.

We have two places that they are situated throughout the year. In September/October the Salvation Jane is flowering on our neighbour’s properties so we bring them home to our farm and generally do two to three extractions at two week intervals while they are here. When the flowers finish around here, we move them into the outskirts of our local small town where they have access to flowering gums and domestic gardens.

As we are not getting any younger and bee boxes are really heavy, Brian has bought three old trailers so the hives remain on them all the time. When it’s time to move the hives we can close up the doors at night time and drive them to a new location.

We always provide a water supply for the hives wherever they are. A large drum with floating corks works well but if you don’t work in a winery, as we do, light pieces of timber floating on the surface will also work.

FL: I know there are a few different methods to remove the bees from the honey frames before harvesting, with commercial producers using blowers. What method do you find works best for small-scale home honey production?

S: We use a smoker using hessian or pine needles to make a cold smoke. Also use a horse hair brush.  Brian drives the ute up to the paddock and checks the condition of the hives. If they pass all of the above criteria, he smokes and brushes the bees off then puts each full frame into a spare “super” that has a piece of light tin nailed on the bottom. They fit along the box snugly and can carry 9 frames in each “super.”

Another point here as I think of it, we always have 9 frames in each of the 10 frame supers so they are not squeezed in tightly, the bees can draw out the wax a bit further which makes it easier to cut the capping off when extracting.

eight acres: getting started with bees - Jembella Farm
The bee brush and smoker

FL: When you have the full frames back in your shed ready to extract the honey, what sort of process do you use? Who does what and how long does it take? Any tips that you’ve learnt along the way?

S: So we carry all of the super boxes into the shed and shut all doors and windows to prevent bees getting in. It’s really hot, the honey flows best on a hot day, and using a shed is a perfect ambient heat. We have an old fan blowing onto us from 3 metres away which makes a huge difference to our enjoyment of the task.

While Brian is out in the paddock getting the frames in his bee suit, I’m in the relative comfort of the shed making the preparations. I have buckets ready with the straining cloths tied on. We use food grade plastic 10 litre buckets with lids that we get from our local bakery for a nominal fee. Maybe a jar of honey. Honey is really heavy so 10 litre buckets are the largest we use. I use old curtains from the op-shop. Can’t remember the name of the fabric, very loose weave that is see through. Depending on the open-ness of the weave, I will use a double layer before tying on with baling twine. We only want to sieve out large bits of wax and the occasional dead bee. We want small bits of propolis, wax and pollen to go into the honey to add to the flavour and quality. Hence my label states “Raw unfiltered honey that may contain traces of beeswax, propolis and pollen”. Our customers are educated to know that unfiltered honey is the purest and tastiest.

eight acres: getting started with bees - Jembella Farm
Filtering the honey for large debris

I also have a bucket of clean cold water nearby with a clean towel next to it. This is for washing my hands regularly to remove the sticky honey and prevent covering everything in stickiness. Taking extreme care to dry my hands and not to let any water drip into any of the honey. This would cause it to candy or ferment.

The hot knife, for capping, is connected to the “Reducer” via an old pressure cooker. The steam is what heats our knife and in turn heats the reducer. This is where the capped wax falls into and separates the wax from the honey that comes with the capping. It’s a lovely old utensil that we bought from an auction sale. Because this small amount of honey is heated, we keep it for cooking purposes only.

eight acres: getting started with bees - Jembella Farm
The uncapping knife is heated with steam
eight acres: getting started with bees - Jembella Farm
Uncapping the honey comb
All of these things are ready by the time Brian gets back with the frames. We need to work efficiently to get the honey out and replace the frames as quickly as possible. Brian does the uncapping with the hot knife making it look much easier than it really is. Strength is required!

After capping he hands the frame to me to place into the extractor. We recently bought an electric 4 frame extractor, but have used a home built, hand wound, 2 frame extractor until now.

I get a bit terse with Brian if he gives me 2 frames that are very different in weight. The uneven-ness makes the extractor wobble uncontrollably so he tries to de-cap 2 frames of approximate equal weight for me to spin. But now, with the 4 frame extractor, that shouldn’t be a problem.

Now to start spinning the honey out. Spin the first side at half speed and only for a few turns to release half the honey in that side. Then stop, remove each frame, turn it around to its other side and replace into the extractor so the honey is being spun from the other side of the wax. Then spin the honey out gradually gathering more speed. Then turn the frames back to the first side again to remove the remaining honey in that side. This is to prevent breaking the wax as the weight of the honey and the centrifugal action forcing the frame to the outside is too heavy for the wax to remain in one piece. The least breakages in the wax means the bees can spend less time repairing the wax and spend more time gathering nectar and pollen to make honey.

The gate on the extractor is left open while I’m spinning the honey, with a bucket placed underneath (with the curtain fabric tied on). Frequently I have to stop spinning and tilt the extractor to drain honey out. Never allow the honey to build up in the extractor to the point where it is being moved around. The least amount of movement of the honey is best for its purity.

As each frame is emptied it is placed back in the super box ready to be taken back to the hive when we are finished. After we finish the last frame we load the boxes of empty frames back onto the ute and Brian returns them to the hive boxes.

I educate our customers to never place the honey in a microwave to liquefy it after going candied. I was horrified when speaking to a small apiarist last week who told me he melts his candied honey in the microwave before selling it. People buying raw honey need to ask questions of their apiarist and stay well away from anyone using a microwave. All honey goes candied and the gentlest way to liquefy it again is to place the bucket into a larger pot of hot water on a slow stove top. It will take a few days because the temperature should not reach higher than 32 degrees.

It takes approximately one hour to extract a box of 10 frames. We often extract from 50 or more frames which takes maybe two hours. We lose track of time, we enjoy extracting, so I don’t know exactly how long it takes. More time is spent setting up, checking the hives and collecting the frames. Then cleaning up takes time which is the least enjoyable part of the day. A bit like unpacking from a holiday. We always put aside the day and make a start in the morning after the farm chores are finished. Usually around 9am and the day is warm to hot.

Cleaning up the extractor is easy. Remove the inside workings, which usually come out in one piece after undoing a couple of screws on the sides, (we use wing nuts for ease of removal) and place in a clean wheelbarrow. Put the wheelbarrow out in a clear space away from human activity and where the bees can clean it up. To clean the drum, use a cake scraper to scrape down the sides and allow to drain through the gate (tap) into the collection bucket. It may take ages for the honey to drain through the fabric sieves so I always have two buckets going at the same time. Exchanging one for the other as the honey threatens to overflow.

When buckets are full remove the cloth sieves carefully and allow to drain, or squeeze gently to get the honey through. Wash the fabrics in water and dry in the sun. Put lids on the buckets and weigh them. Write the weight and date on the lid, adding anything you might want to remember ie, where the hives were, what kind of flowers were most prominent at the time etc.

When the bees have finished with cleaning up the insides of the extractor, wash with warm water. Wash the drum with warm water and allow to dry in the sun. Don’t use any detergent.

FL: Is there anything that you’ve learnt to far that you wish you’d known right from the start?

S: We don’t use Queen excluders any more. The first year of beekeeping we used them and found that lots of bees got stuck in the excluder resulting in the hive becoming very weak from the great losses. Now we know that the brood generally stays in one box, the brood box, especially once the honey flow really gets going.

FL: What advice would you give to readers who are considering getting bees?

S: Bee keeping is not a fad or a “set and forget” hobby. If you decide to take it on you have to work at it and be serious about the welfare of the bees and the biosecurity aspect.

For example, the flow hives new on the market are not popular with experienced apiarists. It’s not just a matter of turning on a tap to get honey at will. Bees are truly complex and fascinating creatures so it’s imperative that the new bee keeper studies every possible means of information available to gain knowledge. The hives must be inspected regularly for disease, so the bee keeper must be aware of what to look for.

Bee hives are extremely heavy so consider your strengths and abilities.

FL: Thanks so much for sharing your experience Sally!  Its really interesting to learn how you do things (and you've answered a few things we were wondering about, like whether to use 9 or 10 frames in a super!).  Please head over the Sally's blog to leave a comment or more questions (and check out what else she gets up to on her farm).  She's posted about catching a swarm of honey bees, so there's even more to learn about bees over there!

Next week I have an interview with Vickie from Making our Sustainable Life, who has a top bar hive.


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