Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Bee Bonus!

As mentioned in previous articles, Pacific Science Center’s observation beehive population contracts every winter. Overwintering an observation hive is tricky and we sometimes lose our colony in late winter. The main culprit is the cold temperatures and the bees’ inability to properly insulate themselves. Our hives are also usually unable to produce enough honey for substantial winter reserves and as a result we offer them sugar syrup to tide them over during these months. However, the 2010-2011 hive was a little different.

After last spring’s bee installation the hive had a few false starts and on more than one occasion, the queen was rejected. But after the start, the bees seemed to be doing well until late November. At that time, a sudden cold snap infiltrated the air inside the colony. All the bees and their brood perished in this cold. Normally, our hive is designed to survive cold temperatures, but this early and severe cold caught them unprepared.

When we disassemble our beehive for the season, Animal Caretakers dismantle the frames and clean them up for the next spring installation. This is not an especially fun job. Usually, there’s not much left in the frames except for dead bees and sticky wax. This year was different! The bees were gone but left their combs full of rich, flowery tasting honey.

Not wanting to waste this precious elixir, the Animal Care team quickly went to work cleaning the hive. It’s a messy job – but everyone wanted to do it! The result was about a gallon of wax and honey to divide among us.

Waxy honey is a nice novelty, but a bit awkward to eat. Normally bee keepers use a large centrifuge to draw the honey out of the comb. Without a centrifuge, the trick was to heat the honey carefully and slowly enough to get the wax to precipitate out of the honey. We found that 140-150 degrees in a water bath was just the trick! As soon as the honey cooled to room temperature the wax formed at the top of the jar and could be easily scraped off. Voila!

Thanks bees!

This story might have made you hungry. We are often asked why Pacific Science Center does not sell its extra honey. In fact, we rarely have extra. Because our hive is on the small side, all the honey the bees can gather is used to feed them and there is very rarely a surplus. We are in the process of drawing plans for a more flexible hive system that we hope will allow our bees to be more productive. When extra honey is a reality, we will make sure our loyal readers are kept in the know!


  1. So cool! Have you thought about offering bee keeping classes? Just an idea ... I would be first in line to attend!

  2. That is great news! Sorry to hear about the cold snap demise. I'm assuming that plans are being made to insulate the hive better this coming year, but glad of the surprise honey bonus to help feed the new colony I assume you will be establishing.
    Have you considered adding a project to raise, display, and promote a colony of Washington native Orchard Mason bees as well (if you haven't already!)? What a cool hobby this has been for me, and I feel would be a great educational project for you to promote. Let me know if you would like more information. I'd be more than willing to share my enthusiasm and knowledge, and help you get started if you are of a mind. James Warner, Renton WA jhwarner@comcast.net

  3. As much as I would like to be happy about the cool find, its very sad that all the bees had to die before the finding..

  4. Anonymous - we were sad indeed. One of our biggest motivations in designing a new hive is to combine something that lets visitors see what's going on with something that meets the bees' needs better. It is a serious challenge, especially as beekeeping in general has become more and more fraught with problems for the bees. Hopefully our new design will allow us to maintain a second hive, and to alternate bee colonies so that both can have time off exhibit.

    Mr. Warner, I would love to discuss your ideas further and will follow up.

    Laura,while we probably won't be offering beekeeping classes, there are several organizations locally that do, and they are worthwhile even if you never end up getting bees.