Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Spring Suprises

Our first few rounds of inspections have gone really well. Our queens had been released and were laying eggs in all four hives and workers were bringing in pollen from the get-go.

Honeybees have many suprising, specialized features in order to do their work, including pollen baskets on their back legs. Here, they place pollen in the form of a nugget that they can carry back to the hive. Beekeepers sometimes call these "pollen pants". These are smaller pollen pants, but you can see the lovely color of pollen that dandelions provide for honey bees (please let them grow!):

Little Miss Bee suprised us by being ready to put on her suit and she helped Mr. Bee look for eggs and she helped by handing us hive components when the inspection was finished.

I was fortunate to again work with our beekeeping mentor, Mr. Martin, volunteering at a spring event at the Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge. He brought a live bee display and we talked about honeybees to people of all ages. It is a pleasure to work with him, and he has a surprising amount of wit when he answers people's questions. For example, someone asks about what is in the comb and waits for an exciting answer. He responds by saying, "Pollen, nectar and honey. No TV's in there but they seem to do ok."

We have known Mr. Martin and his wife for several years now, and the children love them as much as we do. Our Little Mr. Bee was very happy to see him and catch up...on the things four-year-olds catch up on with spunky retirees. We are so thankful for them.

Here is one more shot from working with Mr. Martin that day: he and Mr. Bee bringing the bees from the display back to the hives.

One surprise for me that same day: I got my first bee sting. I was walking through the wild grass about 5ft in front of the hives and scooped one up accidentally with my sandal. She stung the bottom of my toe when I stepped on her. I was walking in front of the beehives with sandals. Not smart, but I'll admit that I do it a lot, so it was a matter of time. Not a very exciting story for a first sting, but it does demonstrate the way a honeybee away from the hive isn't apt to sting unless she is threatened.

Since my last post, the weather here has been suprising (which, ironically, is not suprising in Minnesota): we have had low temps in the 30's and highs in the 70's. Everything is green again, though, and we have had some gorgeous spring evenings. Here, Mr. Bee caught up with Mr. T while the sun set over the woods. This was a day or two before it snowed.

Everyone made it through the weather suprises - even we did! We have not used pollen patties this year, but we have continued to feed the bees syrup since, by the time nectar has been available, temperatures have been very low a few times and we have had many rainy days. Mr. T even had to loan us some duct tape the day before it snowed... in May. We are anticipating an end to feeding since we are desperately hoping for some warmer, dry days. Honey bees (and children) need to get outside and fly around.

New bees should be hatching any day now and everyday once they start. All four queens have had good laying patterns. Here is an example frame and a close-up from one of the hives. This frame has covered brood with developing bees inside, larvae, pollen, and nectar. These girls are working hard!

If you look at this close-up picture and the previous picture with Mr. Martin and I and the live bee display, you will notice that the bees store pollen and nectar immediately around the brood so they have easy access to food for the baby bees.

This week, we have added the next super to all four hives. It is exciting to know that the hives will soon be growing very, very quickly.

In our fifth year, we are as excited about beekeeping as the moment we entertained the idea of doing it. All of the surprises keep things very interesting, keep beekeepers always learning, keep us as a community needing each other for ideas and feedback, and they keep us thankful for all of the blessings we have. Every year we find ourselves daydreaming of how we can do more and more beekeeping.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

A Fresh Look and Another Start

Photos from this post will look different from the last one since spring is finally making an appearance in central Minnesota.  We are starting to see green grass peeking through the brown, the sun warming the days after cool nights, and some Minnesotans wearing shorts at the first sign of a 60 degree high-temp for the day.

All hands were busy helping us get the hives ready last weekend.  The kids are taking a particular interest in helping this year, and we are excited to teach them skills for beekeeping whenever we can.

Mr. Bee made the 90-mile trip yesterday to pick up our four, two-pound packages of Carniolan honeybees, and so it was what we call "Bee Day."

It's hard to describe how lovely it was to hear that humming sound of that many bees again.  This time of year can be frustrating in our area, mostly due to the weather.  We hardly ever know when the snow is really gone or when spring has actually arrived, and we watch as hard as we can for signs of life in plants and trees that have been dormant for what seems like an age.  Once the sun comes out and the trees start to bloom, people tend to be in a better mood. We're all on the cusp of it right now, but the bees just pushed me right into spring happiness yesterday.

The bees have come to us again this year via "Bee Bus," a plastic box that we don't quite prefer but that does the job.  It is fun to pause and look at all of the antennae and legs trying to find their way out - and to know that soon these bees will be busy making their way in our hives.

Being that it is now our fifth year of beekeeping, Mr. Bee and I work pretty quickly together.  He does much more of the work to get things ready and I am generally in charge of the queen cages while Mr. Bee "installs" the new bees.

A question I have been asked a few times this year is: how do you keep the bees from flying everywhere when you put them in?  In short, we don't.  Most bees start to get to work right away, and some start orienting themselves in front of the hive. Many do fly around to check out the area, but bees are very non-aggressive at this point.

This year, we happened to notice the differences in each package in the number of bees surrounding the queen, and after the initial shake-off, how the remaining bees (which we assume are the royal attendants, those dedicated to caring for the queen) attended to each queen.

Here is what it looks like when we remove the queen cage from the Bee Bus...

and here is what the queen cage looks like at first - covered in bees, of course!

Here are my essential tools for getting the queen cage ready to put in the hive: a screw and a marshmallow.  Also pictured is the cork that I had removed from another queen cage.

For background, we receive queens in a small cage with one mesh side.  Since the bees have only recently been assigned to these boxes with the queen, they need time to accept her.  By the time they made the trip to Minnesota, usually from California, this is almost accomplished.  For her safety, I use a screw and take the cork out of the side of her cage and replace it with a marshmallow.  By the time the bees have eaten through, they should have accepted her and she will make her way out and look for comb to start laying eggs.

Here is what the queen cage looks like after an initial shake to get most of the bees off and into the hive box:

We assume that some of these bees are royal attendants, so I don't go out of my way to remove them at this point.  Their job is to care for the queen, so I let them fuss over her.  I remove the cork, smoosh in a marshmallow, and then we hang the cage off of one end of a center frame, so that the queen will be in the best position when she emerges.

Here you can see what this looks like once we put the frames back together.

This time of year, we put on the inner cover and supply some simple sugar syrup until there is nectar available outside...

...and the bees slurp it up with their straw-like tongues.

Winter is hard in Minnesota, but we do enjoy the changing seasons and we learn to find the beauty in each one.  This year, the arrival of the bees and taking the time to work with Mr. Bee reminded me of the hope that comes with the earth coming to life again in the spring. We look forward to sharing updates with you as the beekeeping season progresses!

Wednesday, February 8, 2017


Every year, someone in Minnesota says, "Winter is going to be terrible this year." Then, everyone else says, "I heard winter is going to be terrible this year." We do have our quirks. For example, the forecasted high temps for the next three days are 8, 15, and 37 (Fahrenheit). Of course, it has been wintry, as every year is here, but it has turned out to be a pretty mild winter so far in our area.

In the winter, we don't normally open the hive unless we really need to. The cold temperatures can be stressful or even detrimental to the colony. To find out if they are alive and about how high up they have traveled in the hive (and possibly into their honey/food stores), we use this method:


We did listen when we checked on the hive this last weekend, but we didn't hear anything. Normally there is a constant humming sound inside, like someone left the fan on (with an extra bzzz! here and there).

After not hearing the hive, Mr. Bee opened the hive lid to check the condensation inside. We have a super stacked full of insulation and carboard and it appears to have been working wonderfully. Not too much moisture was present and one bee flew right up out of the upper entrance. After that, we quickly put things back together and checked the bottom of the hive.

Mr. Bee has come up with a very neat way of leaving a door at the bottom of the hive that we can open to scrape out dead bees. We do this to help reduce moisture/mold, to save the bees the work of taking them out, and to make sure there is an opening for when bees do need to come and go. He opened that door and we found something unexpected: a lot of dead bees. It is hard to communicate size in the photo belown but you can see maybe a children's soccer ball -worth of bees that he removed.

It is normal for a colony to lose many bees over the winter, but we thought this was a very large amount. In the end, we took it as a bad sign. It is hard to tell what is going on or if there remains a live colony inside. It is too cold to simply check, but we did see two live bees. We doubt starvation because bees are generally up in the comb of the upper frames in that case. The dead bees were not cold, mushy, or moldy, so this might have happened very near the time we inspected. There was no evidence of nosema, that in my understanding is like a bee version of dysentery. There are no obvious signs of mites. Perhaps the entrance was blocked and bees could not get out. Regardless, there is likely something inside that will explain what we found, but we will have to wait until the weather warms up to see what it is.

Often, as beekeepers, we are reminded that bees are not domesticated. They are wild and they are not always predictable. We are constantly learning and re-learning how to read their behavior and signs to know how to help them survive. It was disappointing for all of us to find this and the chance that the colony has survived is small, but finding the bees in this state helps us better plan for next year.

When we can open the hive, we will know more and I will have an update. Winter, whether mild or fierce, can be so difficult, but we look forward to spring with optimism and thankfulness and we always appreciate the chance to be outdoors, be together, and beekeep.

Monday, January 23, 2017

How We Began Beekeeping

I'm thinking back to the day before we got our very first packages of bees, that excitement, and this photo from 2013.

Many people ask us how we got into beekeeping. You know how we sometimes talk about things we'll do "someday when we're old"? Places we will go, hobbies we thnk we will have time for, or - if you are like me - plants we will own. Well, beekeeping was one of those things for us. We talked about how neat it would be and how much we would love it. When Mr. T, a family friend on whose land we currently have our bees, bought his home, I casually said, "Let us know if you ever want bees on your land." Immediately, he said, "I do want bees here."

We spent that winter reading and researching as much as we could and Mr. T introduced us to Mr. Martin, who would become our beekeeping mentor and friend. That very next spring, there we were - first time and lifelong beekeepers.

Many people don't know this, but beeks (short for beekeepers) around here are already planning for the spring and are ordering their bees and supplies for the year ahead. We, ourselves, are finalizing our own plans and getting ready to make our orders. We are weighing the possible outcomes of our current hive and what we hope to accomplish this year.

The same excitement we had our first year of keeping bees returns every time we get ready for the next season, and for me, it is already here. I can't wait to be in that sunny weather, in my bee suit and surrounded by bees.

Moreover, I am happy to be reminded of the lesson we started learning that year. We were wrong about doing it only when we got older, but we were right about how neat it would be and how much we love it. Time is going so quickly. Why wait to get a start on the things you dream of doing "someday"?

Friday, December 30, 2016

The Look for Winter

It has been a while since I shared our harvest and winter is in full swing here. Winter style? Insulation is in, people!

Here you can see what our hive looks like in the winter. There are endless ways to winter hives, but I'll explain how we do it.

We put R7 insulation around the hive and reduce the entrances to be just big enough for bees to get through but small enough to keep mice and the cold wind out. You can't see it, but the uppermost super (box) is filled with cardboard - to wick away moisture - and insulation for warmth. We leave a 3/8" hole at the top for air circulation and in case the bottom entrance gets blocked by a snow drift Bees need to take "cleansing flights" - they don't poop in the hive, and when temps are high enough, they get out to go! On the back side of our winter base, Mr. Bee made a door that we can open in order to scrape out dead bees. Even if the colony survives winter, most of the bees will die over the course of the season.

We left this hive with about 70 lbs. of honey to eat. We have decided they need to make it on their own through the end of February, when we would put another whole super (35 lbs.) of honey on to get them through March.

We do our best to help bees winter when we believe that they have the potential to survive and when they have qualities we would like to see go on (temperament, productivity, health, reproduction, etc.). We have our fingers crossed for this hive!

Insulation is also key for all of us human beings in Minnesota.

More about bees and winter to come. In the meantime, Happy New Year!

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Season Finale


We have finished our harvesting for this season, and we're thankful for another year of beekeeping. For the first time, we ended up with two colors of honey this year.  The lighter and darker golden honey came from the two harvests, one early and one late August. Not only is this really neat, but it highlights the way that bees access various plants, flowers and trees - and different varieties of nectar - throughout the year.

The girls have been gathering the last bits of pollen and nectar available outside, and they are certainly preparing for winter.  Here is some of the last nectar we'll see this year:

 ...and some of the last flowers:

We are certainly holding on to fall, but this is the time of year when Minnesota beekeepers make decisions for winter.  We did an inspection two days ago, and here is what we found:

Hive 1, we'll call it, is looking fine.  The bees have stored up more honey and the queen has still been laying some eggs. Most of all, I noticed that their temperament was very good.  Normally, that is not something I notice this time of year and, normally, the hives with a bad temperament stand out the most (see Hive 2, below).  I was impressed with how calm these bees were during a fall inspection and I would love to be able to see them winter and then split the hive in the spring to have even more of them.  We added a few frames of honey to this hive and we'll try to see them through winter.

Below are some bees from Hive 1, cleaning up during our inspection.

Hive 2, on the other hand, was in a different state.  These bees haven't stored up much honey and they were not nice.  This hive has been "hot" (read, angry) all year and I watched them chase Mr. Bee out of the bee yard twice just during this inspection. All bees are defensive this time of year, for good reason, but this was overboard. It could be a sign of a stressed colony or it could just be the way this hive is. We have decided that we are not going to winter it.

After both of our hives swarmed this year, we were doubtful that we would have any hives to winter, so I am pretty pleased that Hive 1 has a shot. Wintering bees is very hard in our climate, so we keep that in mind, but we also stay optimistic.

Hive 1
As I said earlier, we are very grateful to have the chance to continue beekeeping.  We thank Mr. T. for the use of his land, where our bees live, our children play and explore, and where we all visit. We also thank Mr. Martin, our beekeeping mentor, who is a source of wisdom on many levels and who reminds us that there is always something to learn - even for experts.

I plan to give more updates during this autumn season and before winter - and I hope that winter holds off a bit.  We are really just starting to enjoy beautiful Fall in Minnesota.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Changes, Changes

Well, August is here and we have updates!

Days after my last update, we got a call from Mr. T. He had been walking through the yard and noticed something out of the corner of his eye.  One of our hives swarmed.  This doesn't mean they flew at someone in an angry cloud like we used to see in cartoons.  It means they had made a new queen and half of the hive left with her...and they were temporarily in this tree:

Photo Courtesy Mr. T.
Bees are not aggressive in this state since they don't have a hive to protect anymore, but this was not good news.  There are ways to collect a swarm and re-hive it, and some beekeepers get all their bees this way, but this was a difficult location, a difficult time of day, and an unlikely success.  The bees normally move on quickly to a home in the wild, and they did move on just a hour or so before we were able to get there.

Although we like to look at this in a positive way, that we helped contribute a new hive to the wild, it means our hive is doomed for the winter.  This was a disappointment as we'd hoped to try and winter them.

We suspect our second hive swarmed also, as we found swarm cells, but it is relatively healthy at this point.

With these changes, we knew that we should harvest the honey earlier than usual since there was a risk for the bees to eat the honey in an end-of-season panic or to lose it to a wild bee colony (honey robbing). Since then, we have harvested twice.

We did invest in a new extractor this year, which has been immensely helpful! Here is a peek inside.

...and here it is! In the front (right) is our 2016 honey.  You can see how it compares to our 2015 honey behind it (left).  This year's wildflower honey is still lovely and floral, but lighter in color - more golden.

Mr. Bee entered a jar of this year's honey in the local county fair and won a blue ribbon!  We also entered a small candle.  It was the only candle entry.  I will share about wax and our candles in a later post.  We're new to it and it's been really neat to see that beautiful wax in a new form.

In the next weeks, our plan is to watch the hives to see if they have effective, laying queens.  We will look at the honey stores and amount of bees to see what comes for the end for the end of the season.