Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Listening

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:


Listening.

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.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Already? ...All Ready for the Honey Flow

I didn't realize it had been so long since my last update. Is it July already?

We have been taking more of a hands-off approach to the bees this year, and since our inspections have been so simple and quick, I hadn't been taking photos.  Now, I miss having the photos, so I'm back to it.


Both of our hives are doing well.  The queens have been making great patterns and there is already some capped honey in the hives. Below, you can see an excellent coverage of brood comb.  We look for not too many empty spaces. To the left, which is actually the bottom of the frame, are larger cells that hold drone (male) bees. It's normal for the hive to produce these and I will try to get a photo of a drone so you can compare.

The rightmost bee is next to a brand new emerging bee, which we know is a female because of the shape of the cap on the comb.  The bee will chew her way out and start her life by cleaning the cell for the queen to lay a new egg in it.  Can you imagine a bee coming out of each of these cells?


We stopped checking the bottom three supers on our hives in June, as to leave the brood undisturbed and to minimize stress on the hives.  Not all beekeepers do this, but it has been going well for us so far.  At this point, we just check the top couple of supers to see if the bees are capping honey and if they have enough room.

What we're anticipating right now is the honey flow, which we have heard is going by July 4.  "Honey flow" is a term beekeepers use to reference a time during the season when local, major nectar sources are in bloom.  We are seeing flowers all over the place here! Honey flow = nectar = honey.

These girls are likely working to turn this nectar into honey.


Once the honey has reached the bees' desired humidity, the bees put a cap on it:


Gorgeous! This is one of my favorite photos this year.

Finally, I'm posting a couple photos from my phone. I hope the resolution is fine.  This is one of my other favorites:


And this is how the hives look right now:





Sunday, May 22, 2016

Summer is a Go...Probably

Last week, we were back down to freezing temperatures, which was a little scary knowing about all the new bees waiting to hatch. This week, in typical Minnesota fashion, temperatures are back up and the bees have been busy. 

Below, you can see a new bee hatching, or emerging. Can you see her antennae and front eyes sticking out?


Both hives are looking healthy and I'm guessing we'll add another super to each by next weekend. They have also been working hard to clean up some of the comb from last year that we put in the hive to try and give them a head start.  They're doing a wonderful job.


 We are enjoying the progress of the bees, and also the progress of spring and the hope of summer.  Little Miss Bee is just over a week away from finishing Kindergarten.  We're starting to eat watermelon and playing outside as much as we can.


We hope you are enjoying this season, too!