Monday, October 2, 2017

A Little On Stings

As you know, our season is ending, but I was looking back on these photos I found of when an aggressive honeybee followed us out of the bee yard. It started circling our daughter and my husband jumped over to cover her up. The bee instantly stung him right between the eyes. Here you see the stinger and venom sac and the true photo of what it feels like right after a sting to the face.

Did you know that bees know to sting near the eyes and face? Think about it - how else can they stop a bear?

A honeybee sting (usually painful and sometimes life-threatening to those allergic) is usually a form of defense for the bee herself or, more often, for the colony. Though bees are known for this behavior, many people don't know that a honeybee dies when she stings, so she is not apt to attack without being provoked. Her stinger is barbed and connected to the digestive tract, so it is pulled out along with the stinger.

If you see a honeybee or a hive, please leave it alone. Don't swat or make agitated movements, if you can help it. If you are stung, remove the stinger with an upward scrape from a credit card or something rigid, since squeezing the venom sac or leaving it in the tissue increases the amount of venom released and, therefore, increases the symptoms. You should also leave the immediate area since alert pheromones are released with a sting that signal other bees to come and defend the colony.

Although I don't like to focus on stings too much, due to preconceived ideas people can have about bees, the reality is that they happen - especially for beekeepers. The more we learn about bee behavior, though, the more we can identify warning signs and do our best to prevent stings for ourselves and others.

Reflecting on all of this, I thank God that He made something very small still able to defend itself and its colony against large and almost unbeatable predators and dangers- almost unbeatable. Against all kinds of odds, these tiny, extremely intricate creatures have survived through the ages and make some of the most beautiful bounty possible. Honey is one of the few foods capable of sustaining life all by itself!

I don't always talk about my faith here, but tonight (and what feels like many times lately after hearing the news), I reflect on how, although I love to learn and teach about beekeeping, the whole process often teaches me about life. I pray that Jesus Christ lifts us up when we feel small and helpless, that we have the strength to do our part to defend others in danger, that we can recognize the sacrifices of others so that we can live. I pray that we give ourselves to the work and risk of living in hope for the future, against odds even, to the work of being part of making something beautiful and life-sustaining.

Monday, September 4, 2017

2017 Harvest Notes

An updated post is, again, long overdue. We celebrated our 10-year anniversary at the end of July and took some time out of town to celebrate. It also means that by the time we returned, we started looking towards the end of the season for this year's beekeeping.

Here are the official results from this year's hives:

Let's just go ahead right away and say how awesome the second (from left) hive was -amazing queen, ideal temperament. It was as tall as Mr. Bee! We are definitely going to try to winter this colony. We are also considering whether or not to try to winter the fourth hive, which Little Miss Bee has titled as her own.

Not too shabby for production, but these bees are on the aggressive side, though, so we have that to consider.

The first hive was a struggle from the start. We tried to requeen it, which worked, but was not effective. This hive never took off and never seemed to be concerned about it. They had no honey stores by the end of the season, which was a disappointment and means that there is no chance of their survival over winter.

The third hive seemed to have a good start along with the others at the beginning of the season, but something seems to have stalled its progress. It seems late, and honey stores are definitely lacking. We are not planning to winter this hive, so we hope to be able to use the comb from it for next year.

The kids are increasingly comfortable with helping with beekeeping and often ask thoughtful questions. It isn't hard to get them to enjoy the fruits of our labor, either!

It is always neat to see the ways they keep themselves busy outside. We had a fun visitor who really helped keep their attention. Meet Mr. Jumps. (He was named by the kids.)

We discovered this one-eyed frog under our hive cover. He was slimy and amazing.

The kids walked around with him and then let him go in the grass after we said goodbye. A while later, at our inspection two days ago, there he was under the hive cover again! The kids made him a safer place to live:

Some of you saw the story of Mr. Jumps on my Instagram. You are welcome to find me there if you are interested in seeing more beekeeping photos.

After some work outside in the beautiful Minnesota weather, we took things inside yesterday to extract the honey we pulled off of the hives.

We try to learn as much as we can from harvesting our honey, just as much as we try to learn during inspections. We came up with some ideas for next year, like that we will space our frames a little bit further apart to help ensure that the comb is drawn out past the borders of the frame.

We will also likely do some adjusting with the depths of our supers in relation to where the queen works and lays eggs.

It was really neat that my mom brought the kids out since we really like when others can experience beekeeping with us, especially our children. My mom even helped decap some frames!

We ended up with a slightly smaller harvest than last year, but last year, we did not winter any hives. This year, we are looking at trying to winter two, which means we are sacrificing maybe three gallons of honey.

If we do the math, we are ahead of last year. Regardless of the math, we are thankful for a harvest.

Take a look at this little boy trying not to stick his finger in the honey:

I think we all sort of felt that way about tasting the honey, and I think I feel that way about waiting for next year's beekeeping. It would be nice to just go ahead and start up with what we have learned, but we do make an effort to appreciate the changing seasons, in Minnesota and in life.

The close of this season means the start of another, and we use the time to work on other projects we have going as well as to research and prepare for next year's beekeeping.

I look forward to sharing the color of this honey with you in the next post as well as to talk more later about how we will winter the hives this year.

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!