From comb to jar
Bees are fascinating creatures. Anyone who has worked with honey bees and observed them easily understands the expression, “Busy as a bee.”
Ross Wagner has been busy beekeeping for the last four years. He got his first hive after watching what the local 4-Hers were doing at their bee club on the Lapp farm in Reeseville. There he met Dean Lapp, who was working with the 4-Hers, and bought the supplies he needed to get started.
It fit in with the 10-acre farm that he and his wife have just outside of Juneau. Along with their children, they raise goats, chickens, pigs, beef cattle and horses. They also grow hay to feed their animals, and that hay, when blooming, provides a lot of nectar for his bees. The work of the bees provides pollination for the plants and production of honey.
With all of these creatures on their farm, the Wagners are able to home-school their children and teach them real-life lessons.
Wagner started with just one hive and then added two more as he learned.
He was thrilled when his white honey earned him the special merit award at the Dodge County Fair this year. The winning honey was a white honey produced from the flowers in his alfalfa field.
Wagner pointed out that the bees will go 5 miles to collect nectar, but they also help to pollinate his neighbor’s flower gardens, so there is some variety.
“I let the alfalfa field near the hives bloom out for the bees and then make the hay," he said. "The horses don’t care. I have another field where I can make hay that is a better quality for the other animals."
Judging the honey
When the judge evaluates the honey, he looks at the clarity and checks the water content.
Wagner said the judge tips the jar upside down to look at the bubble to determine how fast the bubble rises. Velocity and clarity are important criteria. He also checks to see if all the jars are filled to the same level.
“They are looking at the jars as a consumer would look at it,” Wagner said.
Wagner says he has learned a lot from his neighbor, Mel Saeger, who has been in the beekeeping business for a long time. When he removes the supers of honey, he takes them to Saeger to extract it.
“He has the equipment, and it doesn’t pay for me to buy the extractor, maintain and clean it just for the little bit of honey I produce,” Wagner said.
Trying a new system
Wagner’s winning honey, however, came directly off the hive using a new system designed and made by an Australian company. Through a series of plastic hoses, the honey goes directly into the jars without spinning the frame or handling the heavy boxes.
He only has it on one of his hives, and it is the first year he is using the system.
Wagner found it online through the Crowd Funding website that invites investors to purchase a new product so the company can raise funds to build a manufacturing plant to make more.
The new design comes from FLOW, a company that offered 300 to beekeepers around the world.
“I believe I’m the only one in Wisconsin who has one of these," Wagner said. "I bought it from the company, and they ask for comments about how it works so they can evaluate it and tweak things.”
The system is an add-on to a conventional hive — really just a set of special frames and only for honey, not brood. By enabling the removal of some of the honey at the right times, bees are able to top up the cells without the removal of top supers.
This device actually reduces disturbance, as well as removes the need for a centrifugal extractor and other extraction/bottling equipment.
Wagner said it’s ideal for the backyard beekeeper that has just a few hives because they don’t need to invest in equipment. Bees can also be defensive when removing frames, but with this system, they are undisturbed.
The top frame is tilted a little so the honey flows by gravity into the jars. Wagner tilted the entire hive to tilt it even more.
“When the honey is drained out of this, the bees realize the honey is gone," he said, "and they clean it all out and start making more.
“The only downfall with this system is I can’t see when the frame is full or capped. I am looking for a very small camera that I can mount inside to monitor the bees and check when it is full.”
The heaviest flow comes from the center taps. “Bees start in the center of the hive and work their way out," Wagner explained.
A good year
Wagner said production has been good, and the three hives he has nestled among the evergreen trees next to his alfalfa field averaged 140 pounds this year.
“I lost two of the three last winter,” he said. “They are nicely protected here, and I put straw bales on the back side and the southern exposure keeps the hives warm.
“You don’t want it too warm in the hives because there will be condensation, but you don’t want it to cold or they will freeze out.”
He routinely checks hives during the production year to check for mites and on how full the super is getting.
“We also check if it is getting crowded with too many bees, or they will swarm,” he added.
With the approach of fall, the bees will produce less honey for him to collect, and they will concentrate on storing their winter food supply.
“The goldenrod is the dominant flower in the area soon, and that makes a more bitter honey," Wagner said. "That honey is better for them to store for the winter."