Thursday, July 13, 2017

Simple Joys

Summer is full of activity in Minnesota, for us and for the bees. We have been visiting parks, pools and lakes, fishing, picnicking, and spending as much time as we can outside, and, of course, checking on our bees. We are already in what is one of the main nectar flows in our area. This means it is prime time for bees to be collecting nectar and storing honey. We will be checking on the hives about once a week to make sure that the bees have enough space to work.

Honey is often called "liquid gold". It is a very sweet reward for the labor of beekeeping. Many people don't know that there are other simple joys in beekeeping aside from just collecting honey. For example, our second hive is doing remarkably well, and it's really neat to open the cover and see a full box of frames like this:

Every year, I look forward to the first time I see an emerging bee. This is the first time I have tried to post a video here, so I hope it works. Here is a short clip where you can see a brand new honeybee emerging from her cell:

Honey bees are very intricate creatures. Aside from the bees themselves, we learn more each day about local flora and other pollinators. It's a hope of mine to be able to identify more and more wildflowers and insects as time goes on.

There are also lovely and strange smells in beekeeping. We notice week by week how the bee yard smells differently depending on how the local plants are blooming. We smell the burning pine needles in our smoker and, later on, the campfire smell in our hair. When a hive is opened, we can tell a lot about it by how it smells, and we can definitely tell when honey is being stored box upon box.

Of course, there is that honey. When we first started beekeeping, a beekeeper gave us the advice to make sure that we take the time to stick our finger right into some early-season honeycomb and taste it. He told us not to worry, that the bees would fix it, and that we should set aside a moment for that enjoyment. I still do it every year! ...maybe a couple times each year.

Finally, a hive summary:

Our first hive is seriously lagging. We are planning to re-queen it - more on that when it happens. The second hive is doing very well, as you can see in the picture below. They are already storing honey (which is what I sampled). The third and fourth hives seemed behind earlier, but they are right on track right now and are growing.

Seeing life in tiny honeybees and other pollinators, in the plants and flowers and trees all around us, and in our children is a gift.  The sounds and smells of beekeeping are simple joys. The unpredictability of beekeeping keeps us working together, which is fun. We have a lot to be thankful for!

I will post on update with the re-queening soon. Thanks for reading!

Friday, June 9, 2017

Looking Into It

With the advice of a professional beekeeper, we grabbed our tools and went back to look into what was going on with the fourth hive. Literally, we needed to look inside that queen cup. Again, here is what it looked like from the outside (larger cell at the bottom of the frame) and now what we found it looks like inside:

If there had been a larva inside, we would have had to take some action to prevent a swarm. There was nothing inside, so we don't need to do anything immediately. We will be watching this queen and her brood pattern, to see if she is healthy enough, though. I suspect we will need to replace her but will not jump to that conclusion just yet. We saw her again - can you find her in the photo below?

Beekeeping keeps us on our toes and we really appreciate the community and support we find to help us do the best job we can. We will check this and the other hives soon and look forward to the next update.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

What It Comes Down To

We were able to go out for a lovely evening inspection of our hives last night. The sun was setting, the breeze was blowing, and there was green everywhere.

My husband opened our four hives, one by one, so we could check on the progress of our colonies. At this point in the season, we are checking a bunch of items inside each hive. Three of these many items are the brood/queen, space for growing colony, and irregularities.

During each inspection, we look for eggs and covered brood. Now that some time has gone by since our queens have started laying, we are also looking for characteristics of the brood pattern, emerging and working bees and the queens themselves, if possible.

Here is an example of a nice brood pattern:

This is from our second hive, which is the strongest out of all them at this point. This queen is doing an amazing job! We know this because there aren't very many open spaces here. Each cell holds a developing larva that will soon be hatching as a brand new bee. You can see some larvae that will soon be capped to finish their development (they lool like a white curled up letter "c").  You can also see a bit of capped honey as well as nectar and pollen in the space immediately around the brood. The nurse bees keep supplies handy when taking care of eggs and larvae.

We were excited about this brood pattern and even more excited when my husband found the queen. What a beauty!

(She has a long body, short wings, and a bald spot on the black part of her back.)

I'd like to touch on how we look to see if the bees need more space, which means that we would add another box full of frames to the top of the hive. When we open the hive, we look down into the frames and look four how much of the space between the frames is taken up by bees. When these spaces are about 70% full, we had another super.

The following photo is from the first hive.

There are nine spaces between frames and box edges, and these bees are filling up about four. This is just under half full, so we are not adding another box yet. Our first, third, and fourth hives are all at about this same level of progress.

During inspections, we are also watching bee behavior, but we can tell when we ourselves are starting to be watched.

One last item for today is that we check each hive for irregularities. We do not like to see erratic brood patterns, swarm cells, strange behavior or bee pests.

Here is an example of something irregular from our fourth hive. Take a look at the brood pattern below as well as the cell at the bottom of the frame.

There are many more open spaces and the larger cell that I mentioned is called a queen cup. I got some great advice from a professional beekeeper and we will need to investigate this a bit today to see what we need to do. I'll have make an update on that next time. It comes down to this: our main goals are to have a strong, queenright hive but still avoid a swarm.

On a sidenote, our kids were playing nearby, so we called them over and they were very happy to see a queen at work. See if you can find her in this photo:

There is so much to look for during an inspection, and this hardly touches on bee behavior and what to look for. I should also mention that each time we open the hives, we are checking how the bees are using the comb to store nectar, pollen and honey. We are constantly observing behavior and how things have changed since we inspected last. We watch for how bees are responding to changes and think a lot about what next steps might be.

As we consider our next steps, I will leave this colorful pollen shot and a photo of us, so you can see the faces behind the beekeeping veils and camera.

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"?