I've posted on hubski about my bees before: Here is a link to the #beekeeping hubski tagged posts.
It's been a long time since my last update, so this will be somewhat long and meandering, with several diversions.
As it turns out, I'm not a very good beekeeper. After the second honey-harvest last summer, I left the bees alone for several weeks. I'd left them plenty of frames of honey and pollen for their own use, so I figured they'd do fine. However, one day in early autumn, I noticed there was almost no traffic in and out of the hive, where there had been lots of bees coming and going just one or two days before. Opening the hive up told the story of my neglect.
Bees like to keep their brood in the central-lower part of the hive, surrounded by a band of pollen-stores, and all around and above that is usually where they store the honey. The queen typically will not cross the honey-store area to lay eggs above it - she likes to stay where the brood is, and looks for empty cells there to lay eggs in (that's pretty much her only job).
What I found was the brood area had only a handful of larvae in it, here and there - but no signs of any disease. Most of the cells in the brood area had been filled with honey. It seems that the workers were bringing in so much nectar that they filled up the brood area. In nature, the hive would be in a hollow tree or some similar cavity, and if this happened, the bees would simply build more cells, downward, and create more room for the queen to lay. However, in a man-made hive, once the bottom box is filled, they can't build downwards - unless the beekeeper provides more boxes, or simply moves frames around to open up space in the brood area. If I'd been monitoring the hive as I should have, I'd have seen this happening and easily prevented it.
Eventually the frustrated queen simply couldn't find any place to lay new eggs in the honey-bound brood area. She had no choice but to abandon the hive, and of course all the bees followed her. I have no idea where they went, but I hope the colony survived. In a harsher climate, they would almost certainly have perished, absconding in autumn like that, but NZ winters are very mild and forage is plentiful, so maybe they're okay.
The bees would have taken as much honey as they could carry when they absconded, but there was still a lot they had to leave behind. I tore down the abandoned hive, scraping the frames into two buckets - one for the good honey sections, another with everything else. The comb areas where honey cells are all 'capped' will contain finished honey; if it's not capped, it's still nectar in the process of being dried out or concentrated. The capped honey and wax mixture can be passed through a mesh to remove the wax. The other bucket was left outside, for any foraging bees to clean up. Eventually what's left gets boiled to isolate the beeswax.
With the additional honey from this unexpected harvest, I ended up making a total of around 100 liters of mead, from around 20 liters of honey, in five batches. Two of the five batches I added fruit to - frozen blueberries in one, and frozen feijoa fruit in another. The remaining three batches were straight mead. I used a variety of dry yeast types - ale yeast, white wine yeast, and for one batch, I used the yeast-cake from a just-bottled batch of my homebrewed beer. The idea with this last tactic was to provide a much larger population of yeast than I'd otherwise get from a packet - this turned out really well. More on this later.
So - back to the bees. I figured I'd have to capture a swarm in spring, like I had the prior spring. However, the guy who owns the hive that my swarm issued from is a friend of the family. He let me know that he wanted to get rid of his hive, due to a family member with allergic reactions to stings. So, in mid-winter, I went over to his place at dusk, and we closed up his hive, strapped it together, and I loaded it in a van and drove it to my place, about 15 miles away. I put the hive on the site and left it closed for a couple of days, then removed the strip of wood we'd tacked over the entrance. The hive seemed pretty happy in its new locale.
I opened the hive a couple of times just to check on them, and all seemed fine. Now, it's a natural instinct in an established hive, to throw a swarm or two when the spring build-up begins. Most beekeepers want to prevent this if they can, since it weakens a hive; but it's not always possible. One way to try to prevent spring swarming is to split a hive, so that's what I did.
There are many ways to split a hive, so I'll just talk about what I did - the "easy" way. I opened the hive and took it apart frame-by-frame, and rebuilt it as two hives. I gave roughly 2/3 of the stores to the hive going in the new location, and 1/3 to the old location (this is because almost all of the foraging bees will be staying in the old hive, since it's in the old location). The brood frames I split evenly.
What happens when you do this is, one hive gets the queen and the other becomes queenless (I wasn't sure which was which, I didn't see her). The queenright hive recovers easily, and is now unlikely to swarm, because its population has been reduced. The swarming instinct is mostly driven by lack of queen pheromone - a large-population hive has less queen pheromone (per bee), so when the population is cut, the apparent amount of pheromone goes up. Interestingly, it is this same mechanism that causes bees to replace aging queens - when her pheromone levels drop due to age, it spurs the bees to raise a new one.
The queenless hive very quickly notices the lack of queen pheromone and will quickly begin raising an "emergency queen" - the bees can make any ordinary worker larva into a queen larva, if it is young enough. That's why you must supply both halves with plenty of brood when splitting.
After the split, I left both hives alone for 5 weeks (the recommended time) - manipulation during this time might cause the forming queen(s) to be damaged, so it's best to leave them be. The workers raised a new queen, she would have gone on her mating flight and returned to the hive to begin laying a few days later. After the five weeks, I found an empty emergency queen cell, so I knew for sure which had been queenless.
The end of the five week period was also about the time I needed to have my hive inspected for AFB (a bee disease), which requires an inspection of every frame. This was the perfect excuse to take a good long look, and make sure the new queen was laying okay (which she was). AFB is a brood disease cause by a bacterial infection, and NZ is in the process of attempting to eradicate it from our islands completely. In most of the world, if AFB is detected, you just blast the hive with antibiotics and carry on. That's illegal here, and if AFB is detected in your hives, they have to be sealed up and burned - everything, except equipment which can be sterilised. It's drastic, but if we keep at it and persevere, all NZ beekeepers will be better off eventually. I had to pay someone to do my inspection this year, but I plan on taking a course which will allow me to self-certify in the future.
At the time of the split, I also pulled four frames of newly-capped honey and extracted it. Some of this honey I kept for gifts, and I also diluted a couple of liters with water, to use in the mead-making.
Mead fermentation usually doesn't proceed very well, compared to beer or wine. This is because honey and water by itself has very little in the way of trace nutrients and pH buffering substances. This leads to long, slow, weak fermentation due to poor yeast health (because of poor nutrition and a high pH). The addition of fruit always results in a stronger fermentation than you'd get otherwise.
So, I'd had 5 carboys of mead fermenting away in my basement, for the better part of a year. I checked each batch, and two of them were finished fully - the feijoa mead, and the one I used the ale yeast cake on. The blueberry mead was nearly done, but not quite (I can tell by measuring the specific gravity). Most likely, sometime during the winter, it got cold enough downstairs that the fermentation just stalled on the other three - this is pretty common. I used the new honey/water mixture (with the addition of some fresh dry yeast) to top up the three unfinished batches, hoping to re-start the fermentation. This worked well, and all three are still bubbling through their airlocks as we speak. The finished ones I have bottled, and they already taste good. They'll be better with a little more age.
That pretty much brings us up to date. I plan to add a new empty brood box to each hive soon, at the bottom. This will allow them to grow the hive downwards naturally, and (I hope) prevent any recurrence of the honey-bound problem I had last fall. Of course, I'll also try to be less neglectful, and keep a closer eye on my girls. It's still early summer here, so no telling how much honey I'll get this year, but I'm betting it will be more than I can handle. Still, too much is always better than not enough.
To anyone who's gotten this far - thanks for reading, and feel free to ask questions! Cheers and happy holidays, hubski!
[edits - typos]