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Author Archives: Idiots Keeping Bees

Over the Hill (& creek) and Through the Woods to the Bees We Go

The five hives – Thor, Lena, Ole, Lily von Shtupp & Lars.

It’s been a long time since we saw the bees. And as bitterly cold January and February wore on, and on, and on … we often commented, “Man, I hope the bees are okay.”

We heard about bees starving all the way back in January because they burned through their winter stores quickly during the harsh winter. Because the bees are toward the middle of a mile-section taking a little trip to see the bees is problematic in the winter. Big problems call for big solutions – or at least a new sled to help us schlep all the stuff on foot to the bees.Every notice how sledding isn't quite as much fun when you're an adult?

On March 7 we made a point to get out to the bees. We were looking at a +40 degree day so it was time to put on our Big Boots and mush out there. Winter patties (carbohydrates + touch of protein) are a good late-winter foodstuff when the hives’ store of honey is running low.

We really didn’t know what we’d find. In 2013 the bees had put up quite a bit of honey even though the summer ended on a dry note. We also fed supplemental syrup to give he bees an added bump. But, what did the polar vortex do to our hives? We were relieved to find 4 hives full of bees and still some honey. The fifth colony, Lars, had fewer bees, but still plugging along. Most still had syrup from last fall still in the feeders! We put three patties and a small spacer ( to allow for room around the patties for the bees to move around) on each colony, to help through March – which is traditionally the hardest month on bees.

Time to feed the bees.

So, fingers still crossed for another couple of months. Meanwhile, we have the pieces-parts for two new hives in the basement, awaiting assembly. Hopefully we’ll be able to split a couple of our current hives to increase the herd.

And in case you’re wondering, we still have meads perking along in the basement. Hopefully we’ll have time to enjoy the fruits of our labors in the coming months.


Make Honey-Booze? Well, Okay!

In February we were gifted a bottle of cyser, which is a honey-apple wine. I admit, we were suspicious. We were not exceptionally quick to open the bottle of home brew. But then we opened it and ZOINKS(!), it was good. And that’s how our interest was spiked in making honey wines, called mead.

Apple Crusher (modified garbage disposal!)

Apple Crusher (modified garbage disposal!)

Fast forward through the summer of 2013, with our fingers crossed that the bees would be able to yield well even though we had a spring flood … and then another summer drought. The girls came through and we harvested enough honey to begin to dabble in brewing mead. We gathered supplies like bottles, brushes, sanitizing supplies, thermometer, hydrometer, siphon, wine thief, different yeasts, spices, sugars, etc., and cider. In fact, we walked right off the plank of insanity and bought a 100-yr old cider press off of eBay and found plans on the Internet on how to modify a garbage disposal into an apple crusher. Through the amazing generosity of friends in the ‘Burg, a stunning amount of apples appeared on our front porch.  Two full days of manual labor later, we had 8.5 gallons of apple cider to begin the project. We also bought a gallon of apple cider, for a brewing comparison. On October 20 we christened the start of 4 gallons of cyser and 5 gallons of hard cider.

Apple Press.

Apple Press.


On November 12 we ‘racked’ the hard cider. That means we drew off the cider, disposing of a layer of dead yeast on the bottom and put in spices (cinnamon, etc.). The hard cider is aging/mellowing in the new bottles. Maybe by Christmas we’ll be enjoying a glass.

The mead is still in the first bottles. They don’t appear to be bubbling, so maybe racking is in the near future. It will age for a much long time – maybe two years.  😮

So far, it’s been an enjoying challenge. No matter how many books and blogs you read – you still have oh-shit moments. Like, when we learned our basement was not warm enough to really make the yeast go to town turning the sugars into alcohol. More mad poking of the buttons on the laptop and a couple days later a shipment of heating mats for reptiles + thermostat arrived. The bottles are now toasty warm on the mats.

Bubble, bubble, bubble . . .

Bubble, bubble, bubble . . .

…all because we thought it would be interesting to get a beehive…
Soon we’ll write more about feeding the bees, winterizing the hives in November and two new Robin stings, and the resulting steroid shots in da butt. 

Honey Harvest Day!

(Pretend we posted this in mid-September)

Andy & Lisa contemplating the shake-shake-shake dance of the honey extractor/centrifuge.

Andy & Lisa contemplating the shake-shake-shake dance of the honey extractor/centrifuge.

Andy and Lisa stopped over to check out this whole honey-harvesting-thing and we quickly sucked them into the joys of hot knives and giant centrifuges … and they stayed for the whole crazy day! Yay!

It’s a good year for us as our hives continue to grow. We harvested 140 pounds of honey. If you’re like me, your brain can’t comprehend this measure-honey-by-the-pound concept. I still think about it in terms of gallons. A gallon of honey is about 12 pounds – so, we harvested roughly 12 gallons. I admit – it’s kind of cool to think about having so much honey in your basement that it’s in 5-gallon pails!

Once the honey was off, we started a treatment for mites and started feeding sugar syrup via feeders inside the hive. We’re pretty happy with the amount of honey they’ve stored in the hive bodies thus far, but since starvation is a real threat each winter, we want to help them pack in as much honey as possible. There’s nothing blooming now, so the syrup we are feeding is their one source for supplementing their storehouse.

Apivar mite treatment strips.

Apivar mite treatment strips.

With our new found honey riches, we are undertaking a new adventure – making mead (honey wine). In a future post we’ll provide details on the insanity, which includes buying a fruit press on eBay, spending *days* making homemade cider, and then starting the fermenting process on batches of cyser (apple honey wine) and hard cider.

In other news –

  • If you have 15 minutes, you should watch a 15-minute TED Talk by Marla Spivak, University of Minnesota bee expert, and all around fantastic human being. In simple terms Marla explains bee’s importance, and the reasons behind the pollinator problems. And – – what everyone can do to help the plight of our pollinators.
  • Very soon the Iowa Honey Producers Association will publish a list of all the beginning beekeeper classes scheduled for this winter all around Iowa. And, the first weekend in November Youth Scholarship winners will be determined for 2014. A scholarship means that these lucky teenagers will receive equipment and supplies and bees to start their first hive. And (!) they will be paired with an experienced beekeeper mentor to help them every step of the way. Check out the IHPA website for more information.

Honey Harvest Has Begun :) But It’s Not Done :(

In keeping with tradition, we suited up on Labor Day weekend and harvested the golden nectar of the gods. Well, kind of. We were not able to borrow an extractor (giant centrifuge that spins the honey right off the wax foundation) so we have 55 frames of honey just hanging out in our basement, making friends with the dehumidifier. The reality is we need to look at buying an extractor, but that will result in an over-the-top-of-the-glasses glare from our tax preparer.

Robin’s observation is that harvesting seemed ‘old hat’ this year. We didn’t question what we were doing (or how we were doing it), we just did it. The weather was refreshingly cool, well, compared to the previous week. The bees were not mad – not a sting was had.

Thor, the rockstar hive (see August 12 post) accounted for half the frames of honey. What a stud.

We’ll have more to tell when extraction is underway.

It’s August & the Girls are Still Going Strong!

Normally June is what we call the honey month. The bees bring in lots of nectar, resulting in lots of honey. Our June was pretty slow because the growing season was behind. We’ve caught a bit of timely rain and the prairies are going gangbusters. The prairie to the west of us is actually for seed production and right now the blazing star is phenomenal. Check this out!

ImageWe have one hive in particular, Thor, that is bonkers. Check out how many honey supers we have on top of the two hive bodies. Granted, Robin is short, but this is a tall hive right now!  DSCN1247

And finally, we’re including a picture of a perfect frame of brood. Across the top is capped honey. A LOT of capped honey. Capped honey means the bees have put wax on the cells that are full of honey that is ‘done’. Below that is a band of pollen, also called bee bread. It is bright yellow in this picture. And finally, in the middle of the frame is the brood, or ‘baby bees’. Some have emerged – thus the open cells. Those that are still capped will be emerging shortly. In case you’re wondering, a queen lays 3 eggs a minute. Thor probably has 80,000+ bees right now – – really amazing numbers!

DSCN1241On the downside, it looks like the queen in Lars is gone. Too bad, Lars is a new hive this year, but was really doing well. The colony is in the process of requeening themselves, so we’ll keep a close eye on everything, but letting nature take its course. Lars has put up lots of honey, which is ideal, as we want all the hives to go into winter full-to-the-brim with honey.

And Now for Something Completely Different

We interrupt the regularly scheduled bee-programing to tell you that we released 16 pheasants on the prairie tonight. Why? Because.


Mark’s Dad has raised pheasants the last few years, and this year a cage-full came home with us. 


Okay, back to the bees. Last week it became apparent that Lena swarmed. Yah, we thought we were soooo smart when we removed a few frames of brood and queen cells a couple months ago and used them to start up once-deceased Ole. Looks like that did not appease Lena and she still flew the coop (bird humor, get it?). The good news is that the remaining bees requeened themselves and since we found a few eggs, it looks like normalcy is returning. However, this little shenanigan set her back a few weeks. So much for a bumper crop of honey from Lena.

In more good news, all three of the new hives (Ole, Lars and and Lili Von Shtupp) have increased in number so we put the second hive body (where they live) on the stack. Once they get that mostly filled up, if the summer/honey flow is still going, we will put a super (the honey we harvest) on them. Of course we say that we’ll just be happy if they grow up big and strong and go into winter at full power. But, the reality is that we’d doubly-love to harvest a wee bit of honey too.  😉

June is Looking Up!

Okay! We have some catching up to do!

May was a busy month. A week apart, for three weeks, we trekked out to the bees and applied a drench of 1:1 sugar syrup + Honey-Bee-Health + Nozevit. Why? Because we’re trying to pep the bees up and pull them out of the nosema downward spiral. By the end of May the two remaining hives, Lena and Thor were looking pretty darn good. We even put supers on (the boxes that we harvest honey from) in late May.

In early May we went to the equipment action and bought two more hives. Two more! This is what happens when Mark lets Robin bid. We got them home, painted them (due to our obsessive-compulsive hive painting habit) and this last weekend, installed two ‘nucs’ in the new hives. Nucs are 5 frames of bees + brood (baby bees). Nucs are starter colonies on steroids, but with no steroids. 


Two nucs on their way to their new homes. Note the jail-break bees getting out of the nuc on the right. *That’s not cool in the Jeep.*

Mark was MIA for this adventure, so it was solo-Robin racing against incoming rain and a herd of ticks trying to attack. This is why a leaky box of bees was transported in the Jeep because Mark had the truck. [insert stinkeye from irritated wife HERE] The new hives have been named Lars (in keeping with the Norwegian theme) and Lili Von Shtupp (of Blazing Saddles fame – that’s right – yah, we know when you read the name you actually read it in a very high pitch voice in your head, just like the movie).

And finally, we also started our own nuc form Lena. In early June we found queen cells in Lena – that is a bad sign in the spring. Lena was so crowded she was preparing to swarm, meaning a new queen would emerge and take half the bees and leave. Homo sapiens call ‘divorce’. = Half your sh*t disappears. To stop the ‘bee divorce’ we put the frames with queen cells in a small box, a nuc, where we’re letting queen-making-magic happen. Once a queen is situatied and laying eggs, we’ll move that burgeoning colony back into Ole and viola (!) we’ll be five full colonies. If our nuc-making goes well, that means we saved $130 by not having to buy one.  😮


The newest additions to the family, Lili Von Shtupp and Lars.


Aye, Aye, Aye, Ayyyyyyyyye.

(Obviously this is very late. Pretend this was posted around the beginning of April)

3:29:13 Ole

The last of the bees left in Ole, March 29.

We made it out to the bees on Friday, March 29, on a beautiful warm afternoon. Lena’s bees were buzzing around like gangbusters. Thor’s bees were also active. And Ole, well, Ole was not doing well. There appeared to be only a few dozen living bees in Ole. We knew that meant within a few days, it was all she wrote. There was still capped honey in the hive (food) but there was piles and piles of dead bees in the hive too.

A couple days later Mark returned to jar up any remaining bees so Andy, State Apiarist, could take a look. They were all ‘sleeping’ but he plucked a few non-degraded bees off the pile. When Andy looked at them with a microscope, he didn’t even bother to count the nosema spores, because they appeared to be loadddddddded. What is nosema? It’s a microsporidian fungus that essentially gives the bees ‘scours’. That’s pig-farmer-daughter talk for bee dysentery.

On Sunday, April 7, Robin made it back to the yard to sample Lena and Thor. It was another beautiful, warm afternoon. Lena’s bees, again, were buzzing around like crazy, and now, Thor was quiet. Aye! Turns out, Lena had burned through all the stored honey and was now starving. Andy looked at the Lena and Thor samples – very high nosema counts. 😦 We cooked up some syrup this afternoon and started feeding in earnest.

And then, we got out the credit card and ordered some ‘stuff’ to feed the bees to pep them up and hopefully pull through the nosema. For reasons too boring to list here, we’re not using the traditional treatment for nosema microsporidia. Fingers crossed and here we go with Honey-Bee-Healthly and Nozevit. Stay tuned for the results of ‘feeding the stuff’.

I have no idea how we would have been able to embark on this beekeeping adventure without Andy. He’s a life saver. And, I hope we’re doing something useful to save our bees.

January 2013 Update (a wee bit late)

(pretend it’s January 19th, 2013, as you read this).
Rodent tunnel.

Rodent tunnel.

This morning we found a magical weather balance – one where it was just cold enough to not make the trip to the hives too muddy, yet just warm enough to see the bees flying. All three hives, Ole, Lena & Thor, were looking good – lots of bees, good activity, and capped honey reserves in each hive.

Rodent teeth marks in insulation.

Rodent teeth marks in insulation.


We were curious as to exactly what we’d find out there – we hadn’t been out since early November. How would our new insulation practice hold up? We found insulation board that had been obviously eaten by rodents. Amazing teeth marks were left behind! But, it didn’t look like any varmints had moved into the hives and made any of them their home.

Insulation ball roller bee!

Insulation ball roller bee!


We should have had out thinking caps on and taken video of the bees. The little pieces of chewed up insulation really bother that fastidious bees. They were hard are work wrestling it out of their hives.The funniest bee was on her back, rolling an insulation ball with her feet, nonstop, the entire time we were in that hive.

We left each hive with a couple of winter food patties, patted ourselves on the back for having such a great bunch of survivor bees, and went out our merry way.

Merry Christmas, Honey.

Doesn't everyone have buckets of honey by their fireplace?

Doesn’t everyone have buckets of honey by their fireplace?

The buckets were filled by the fireplace with care, in hopes that liquid honey would soon be there…

This is what happens when you bring your honey buckets up from the basement to bottle for Christmas gifts … and it’s crystalized solid. We hot water bathed them in the giant whirlpool bathtub one night with moderate success. (Sorry, we forgot to take pictures of that ordeal.) So we brought out the big guns tonight. The Fireplace. It’s amazingly warm there. We’ll let it soak up more heat and bottle tomorrow night – – just in time for Christmas gifts. And the cat is pretty irritated because the buckets are in His Space.

And on the Alarming News Front, we heard about a colony that started out the fall with good honey stores, but a quick check this week indicated that they’ve already burned through the whole winter stockpile. We didn’t get a chance to check Ole, Lena and Lars before the blizzard, and getting a half mile out into the prairie now that we have a foot of snow on the ground is not happening in the near future.

How could this happen? Well, we’ve had a warm autumn. It was fall-like … right up till yesterday. With the warm temperatures, the bees kept flying. The more they fly, the more energy they exert, the more they need to eat.

Pails o' honey.

Pails o’ honey.

Ohhh ladies, I really hope you’re not hungry already.