Zunckel Ecological + Environmental Services

Sustainable Decision-Making

Its ‘flow season’ and time to harvest our honey | Beekeeping Open Day with Barrie Lewis

A small group of novice beekeepers gathered on a lazy sunny Sunday afternoon on the stoep of Barrie and Jean Lewis’s home in Hilton to get our hands sticky learning how to harvest honey. It was an opportune time with the South African Bee Conference happening in Hilton on the same weekend, 29 & 30 May 2015, and we’re currently in the honey flow season when beekeepers are busy harvesting their honey.

Gathering of the beginner beekeepers

L-R: Bruce and Ross Haynes, Barrie Lewis, Hannah, Kevan and Jesssie Zunckel, Doug Burden, Jill and James Meaker

Queen of the SunThe character of the African honey bee (Apis mellifera scutellata) is dangerous and highly unpredictable and it is highly unlikely that one will see pictures of dancing naturalists covered in the African Honey bee – these will be northern hemisphere bees. According to Barrie,

Strong colonies in built up areas need to be treated with caution: you, your dogs, your neighbours. For reasons unknown, an otherwise tame colony can, AND WILL, one day suddenly behave very badly. Work with them, and mow grass in the vicinity only in the late afternoon.

The best time to work with bees is in the late afternoon when the day is becoming cooler; but not at night as the bees work hard to regulate the temperature of the hive so one would not want to let in a blast of cold air, and they are drawn to torch light.

According to Wikipedia, a single African bee sting is no more venomous than a single European bee sting, though African honeybees respond more quickly when disturbed than do European honey bees. They send out three to four times as many workers in response to a threat. They will also pursue an intruder for a greater distance from the hive. Although people have died as a result of 100-300 stings, it has been estimated that the average lethal dose for an adult is 500-1100 bee stings. In terms of industrial honey production, the African bee produces far less honey than its European counterpart, whilst producing more swarms and absconding (abandoning its nest). For this reason, African races of Honeybees are less desirable than European races, except where the proclivity of African bees give beekeepers no other option due to the Africans’ tendency to invade and take over European nests.

In my opinion, working with our indigenous bees is preferable (and probably the only choice we have), one just needs to do it responsibly.

The Langstroth Beehive made up of a brood chamber and one or more supers

The Langstroth Beehive made up of a brood chamber and one or more supers


The Langstroth Beehive is made up of a Brood Chamber which is unreservedly for the exclusive use of the bees. The queen lays her eggs in this compartment and it is honey in these frames that will sustain the bees over winter. Smaller Supers are added onto the Brood Chamber and these may or may not be separated by a queen excluder, which prevents her from laying brood in what will become our honey. If the honey in the Supers is not capped before winter, it is left for the bees.

The veil

Barrie’s preferred veil which zips onto a shirt so there are no openings for bees to enter through

It is essential to wear a large loose fitting white overall (bees respond less aggressively to light colours) with zip, veil and gloves, three pairs of socks, tracksuit bottom, gumboots! It is not worth compromising on one’s dress. Should the bees find an opening, get in and sting you, you might become allergic and that would mean the end of your beekeeping hobby.


Beekeeping Equipment

Smoker and hive tool are essential equipment for beekeeping

Smoker and hive tool are essential equipment for beekeeping

Queen excluders aren’t necessary if you do your homework right. Remove two frames from either side of the hive, push the other frames to the sides and replace empty frames in the centre.A couple of pieces of equipment are essential. A smoker subdues the bees when entering the hive. Bees seal their hive with a resinous ‘glue’ called propalis so a hive tool (or big strong screwdriver) will help you top separate the frames from the hive.

You can feed the bees at the start of the honey flow to encourage the queen to produce brood in excess.

Barrie’s homemade feeder fits into the hive and replaces a frame. It has a float so that the bees don’t drown in the thick sugary solution.

Some of the guys enjoyed assembling and wiring a frame.

Assembling a frame

Kevan is assembling a frame.

Why keep bees?

Honey, of course! In our case, we are becoming increasingly aware of our health and what we eat. Sadly, these days like much of the food we buy, supermarket honey is no-longer one of the healthiest, sweetest, commodities available to man (unless you know the beekeeper and his/her practices). Much of the honey we buy has been ‘adulterated’ by the addition of sugar or antibiotics resulting in a product no more valuable than a simple sweetener (watch out for Barrie’s Blog post on the subject in the near future). In some cases it has been imported from China and irradiated! Even heating honey can denature amino acids robbing it of its nutritional value so ideally, one wants one’s honey to be raw and as unprocessed as possible.

Did you know that it is important to eat honey produced in your immediate surrounds? Local honey contains very tiny amounts of pollen which one’s body becomes sensitised to and over time. You body builds up an immunity to your pollen and in time, will lower the effects of hay fever allergies and asthma. Other benefits of eating local honey will have to be the subject of another Blog article.

Here was is being extracted by sunlight using a double-glazed sealed box. The wax is placed on a metal surface and as it heats up, the melted wax drips into the ice-cream tub. Barrie takes his wax to Even-Run in PMB to be rolled into foundation.

We are trying to cut sugar out of our diets, replacing it with as much of our own honey as we can. We also make up natural remedies with honey and I use the beeswax and propalis to make natural soap, lip balm, and other cosmetics. I’d also like to start making floor polish, candles and so much more.

A large part of our garden is natural grassland and is also set aside veggie gardens. The grassland has a diverse array of flowering plants so our bees don’t have to travel such long distances to find nectar and pollen. Watching the bees busily working in the fruit and vegetable flowers brings such joy while at the same time is playing a vital pollination service that enhances our food production and ultimately keeps human beings fed.

Because of the seasonality of industrialised monocultures and the pesticides used on these crops, globally we are losing bees at an alarming rate. How close are we to losing our bees? The Western Cape has lost 50% of its bees to American Foulbrood, a brood disease with no cure. The Bee Kind Project are a dedicated group of beekeepers working hard to establish hives in agriculture free zones and supply beekeepers with healthy colonies.

Preparation of a Catch/Trap Hive

We did not have time to prepare a trap hive, but I can relate our experience of how we got started with our own beekeeping, and perhaps leave the details to another article.

This is our first season of beekeeping. We had expressed our desire to start beekeeping and one night received a call from a good friend, Pam Haynes, saying that their neighbour in Howick had a wild hive that had settled in their garage. Would we be interested in catching it? Despite no beekeeping experience or equipment, our knee-jerk reaction was a resounding ‘Yes!’ Thanks to the hands on experience of Jess Dreamtime, Duncan Haynes and the rest of the Haynes’ family, and a borrowed catch hive, we successfully relocated the swarm into our new hive in Hilton. A day later, true to African Honeybee style, while Sandile our gardener was weeding in the garden, he saw a big black swarm collecting above the hive and that was the end of our swarm. They’d absconded their nest.

We were mortified and called an experienced beekeeper, Phil Walker, to ask what could be done. Phil tutted knowingly and said that they have to charge to do bee removals these days because seldom does a wild captured swarm stay put so there’s little value in it for professional beekeepers. He suggested we should melt down the wax that the swarm had produced while in the garage and paint it onto the inside of our hive in the hope that it would attract a new swarm.

View from the Office

Our upstairs office has a lovely view over our grassland and beehive and about two weeks later, we noticed some activity. Low and behold, we’d attracted a wild swarm. Six months later, here we are, ready to harvest for the first time.

How do you know when to harvest?

For quite some time now in the late afternoons, we have been deliciously rewarded with the warm honey scent drifting across the grassland. One’s patience is put to the test because the flow of gastric juices doesn’t necessarily coincide with with the honey flow – you have to wait until you can’t smell the honey anymore. This indicates that the cells have been capped.

Harvest Time

After a delicious cup of tea with Barrie’s richly-scented honey, we all set off to harvest the honey from our hive. Not all the frames had been capped, so we took that which we could from the ‘supers’ and will need to wait a while longer for the bees to finish capping the rest.


Barrie is passing a capped frame to Jill and Bruce is replacing it with a new frame.

The Harvest

These are the frames from Barrie’s 7 and our 1 hive.

Drone Cells

What a treat to be rewarded with Drone Cells (the larger ones in the centre)…

Queen Cell

…and an empty Queen Cell!

The small hive beetle (Aethina tumida)

The small hive beetle (Aethina tumida) is a beekeeping pest which is endemic to sub-Saharan Africa. It can be a destructive pest of honey bee colonies, causing damage to comb, stored honey and pollen. If a beetle infestation is sufficiently heavy, they may cause bees to abandon their hive. Its presence can also be a marker in the diagnosis of Colony Collapse Disorder for honey-bees. The beetles can also be a pest of stored combs, and honey (in the comb) awaiting extraction. Beetle larvae may tunnel through combs of honey, feeding and defecating, causing discoloration and fermentation of the honey. (Source: Wikipedia)

Just our harvest (excluding Barrie’s), amounted to 6kg. According to Barrie, ‘To have built up to that size in six months is truly remarkable.’ We’re utterly delighted and Kevan is committed to learning all he can about beekeeping now and not just be a ‘hacker’.

Decapping, extraction, straining of honey

Capped honey comb

Capped honey comb

Decapping with a hot knife

Stacking the honey extractor

Extraction and straining of the honey

Extraction and straining of the honey

Making of a barrel of mead

…and once women had taken the children home, the men got busy making honey mead. Mead is an alcoholic beverage created by fermenting honey with water, sometimes with various fruits, spices, grains, or hops. The hops act as a preservative and produce a bitter, beer-like flavor. Mead is known from many sources of ancient history throughout Europe, Africa and Asia. Some archaeological chemists consider the presence of beeswax markers and gluconic acid, in the presence of other substances known to ferment, to be reasonably conclusive evidence of the use of honey in ancient fermented beverages.

All that was left was to return empty frames to the hives and clean up. The workshop was great; a nice number of people, so that everyone could get hands on practical experience. I think it was enjoyed by all.

Anyone wanting to start keeping bees should consider joining the KwaZulu Natal Bee Farmers Association. The cost of R150 is worth every rand. The open days, like this one, are of enormous value to the beginner beekeeper.

There are two local beekeeping shops in Pietermaritzburg to help get you started, S.M. McGladdery cc manufacturers of beehives and apiary equipment and Even-Run Apiary Products.

There is also valuable material of interest on How to Start Beekeeping | Bernard Preston at Barrie’s own website.


About Karen Zunckel

I have a passion for sustainability and love to share with others as I grow in knowledge myself. I make it my business to keep my finger on the pulse of who's 'green' in the KZN Midlands. By day I am an Environmentalist, Ecologist and Sustainability Consultant working from home where we are continuously trying to become more self-sufficient. I enjoy being creative and have started a community empowerment project making paper bead craft out of waste. Deep within my soul is a longing for wild places which I seek out as often as I can.

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This entry was posted on June 1, 2015 by in Publications and tagged , , .
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