Honey is Thirsty

A small "dry room" helps keep honey moisture in check during processing

A small "dry room" helps keep honey moisture in check during processing

In my part of Missouri, the average daytime humidity during the first 20 days of July was 95%. Not only does this make a bee veil pretty uncomfortable, but it also makes it hard for our bees to dry their honey to the same degree as a colony in Arizona, where the average humidity this month has been closer to 40%. This is because honey is hygroscopic, which means it readily absorbs moisture from the air. Colonies deal with this by extracting water while they're transfering nectar from bee-to-bee, fanning the nectar once it's in open cells, and then capping those cells with wax once the honey is sufficiently dehumidified. The resulting low moisture content and protective wax are a couple factors that give honey its superpower of being able to last indefinitely without spoiling.

Honey is particularly vulnerable to absorbing moisture while it's being processed (hygroscopic rehydration). At this point we've taken it from the bees, who have been working so diligently to remove water. We're also cutting away the protective wax cappings. During this phase I'm checking my moisture levels often using a honey refractometer. When I uncap a frame and it measures at 18-19% moisture, I don't have much wiggle room so I need to ensure that number doesn't climb while they honey is exposed to the air. Most of us don't have a dedicated honey house, so one option is to use a "dry room" to control the environment for your supers and honey buckets. A dehumidifier in one of these little tents can easily create Arizona-like weather and negate the moisture uptake you get during extraction and bottling; potentially being the difference between honey that lasts 2000 years and honey that ferments next spring.

My bees will never produce honey that rivals the moisture levels enjoyed by beekeepers in dryer areas. This is perfectly fine because I love our honey, and wouldn't want to change it. Frankly, when I hear of a local beekeeper selling honey at 15% moisture content, I'm curious (suspicious) about how they managed such a low number in such a humid environment. But if you're like me and want to offer raw honey with minimal manipulation, check your moisture levels to ensure they're below 18.5% and keep your processing area dry to minimize water uptake.

How to Split a Hive (Or Raise a Queen in a Queenless Colony)

This spring I made 10 splits. As of July, all 10 are queenright, each with a mated queen the workers raised themselves. I'm always surprised at how strong the market is for new queens, and while there's definitely a legitimate need for queen suppliers, I suspect most requeening could be done by individual beekeepers without relying on outside help. I've never bought a queen. Each of my colonies has a queen that can be traced back to an original Carniolan mother bee from my first nuc. I prefer it this way because I don't get wild swings in the genetic disposition between colonies--I always know the source of the maternal genetics, and odds are my virgins mate with drones from my colonies too (not that I'm averse to some outside genetics being introduced too). If I only had access to overly-defensive genetics, I'd definitely be in the market to buy a queen; but as long as I like my stock of bees, I'll stick with raising my own. Below is the guide I made to help make timing decisions when I'm splitting each spring. If you're nervous about splitting or dealing with a queenless colony, follow these steps and most of the time you'll be successful. And once you're comfortable raising your own queens, you'll be a much more independent beekeeper.

Mowing around new splits with a scythe.

Mowing around new splits with a scythe.

To split a hive, start with #1. For a queenless hive, start with #6-2.

1. Do the split in early April after the bees have a chance to build up their population, but before the main nectar flow. Ideally there are queen cells in the hive.

2. From the parent hive, transfer one frame of brood with attending bees, two frames of stores with attached bees, and two empty frames into a nuc.

3. Include the queen on the transferred frames*, plus shake a frame of bees into the nuc. So in total the nuc gets three built-out frames, four frames worth of bees, and the queen. *You must find and transfer the queen for effective swarm control.

4. The parent hive is left with five frames of brood and stores, but no queen.

5. The queen should begin to grow the nuc colony, and the parent colony is left with a majority of the resources to raise a new queen.

6-1. The parent colony will still likely produce a honey crop, and the nuc can be moved into a full hive after you have a laying queen. Now for the split, skip to step 7.

6-2. (Queenless hive only) Take a frame of eggs and/or very young larvae from a queenright colony and transfer it into the queenless hive.

7. Seven days after the split (or frame transfer) there should be capped queen cells in the parent hive.

8. Fourteen days after the split, if there are still no queen cells in the parent hive, consider moving a frame of eggs from the nuc to the parent so the queenless colony has queen-making material.

9. Wait a total of 28 days after the split to see if you’ve got a laying queen.

10. If not, check again 7 days later.

11-1. SPLITS: If the parent hive can’t successfully raise a queen, combine the nuc back into the hive.

11-2. RE-QUEENING: If the queenless hive can’t raise a queen, consider buying a queen or combining it with another colony.