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Ready for Winter!

Mark says we don’t include enough pictures of me in my giant coveralls …

The days are growing shorter and colder – that means it’s time to winterize the bees. Bees don’t hibernate, or enter into a suspended state, when the weather gets cold. The workers cluster around the queen, keeping it 80- 90 degrees around the queen for the duration of the winter. The feed on the honey they stored over the summer. A very harsh reality is that bees can starve to death because they won’t break away from the queen cluster to move over a few inches to get to more honey.

How do you winterize your bees? Most beekeepers put in an entrance-reducer, put a a piece of foam insulating board under the lid, and wrap up the whole hive in a layer of tar paper.  And, that’s exactly what we did last winter. But, we decided to step up our game this year, and went all-out, Cadillac style, this winter.

The Insulation Process

First, we invested in waxed-cardboard black boxes that fit over the hive bodies, with enough room to spare to put a piece of one-inch insulating board on each side, sandwiched between the hive and the cardboard. Then, a piece of 1.5 inch foam board is placed on top.

It’s also common practice to drill a hole in the face of the top hive body, so that if snow covers the normal entrance at the bottom of the hive, the bees can still get in a out via the upper hole. “Huh?” you say, “Why would bees want to leave the colony during the winter?” If it gets above 50 degrees the girls are going to fly. Honeybees are fastidious – – when it gets warm enough in the winter they go on ‘poop runs’ to clear out what has piled up on those cold days.  Because we have multiple layers thus winter (cardboard + insulation) Mark was concerned that shifting could occur, resulting in a blocked entry. So! After drilling the hole we installed a little piece of PVC and taped it in place to keep it from moving.

Drilling The Upper Winter Entrance

Installation of PVC Entrance Tunnel

The reality is that our winterizing activities actually started about two months ago when we started feeding sugar syrup because we felt that the bees had not stored up enough honey for the winter, because the drought hindered the collection of flower nectar.

We’ll play the winter by ear. If it gets above 50 degrees and we can get to the hives, we’ll probably peek in to make sure honey stores haven’t dropped to dangerous levels and add a ‘winter patty’ for a little extra food supplement for the cold months. Right, we’re feeling really good about the state of Ole, Lena and Thor heading into the winter.

Ohhh Really.

Arg!  We have mites coming out of our ears and North America, here let me repeat that for you, North-freaking-America, is sold out of Apiguard.

And, we discovered Tuesday night that Lena’s queen is MIA. Because after all, we haven’t spent twenty bucks on a queen for a couple of months.

That is all.

Harvest Day!

Comb honey.

Comb honey.

The hard work of the ladies paid off! We now have 66 pounds (5.5 gallons, as a gallon weighs roughly 12 pounds) of honey in our pantry. And, he pulled 4 containers of comb honey, for those who like to extract the honey from the mouth.

Screening the newly harvested honey.

Screening the newly harvested honey.

Sunday morning we high-tailed it to the hives and pulled off the honey supers. Sounds easy enough, but more time-consuming than one may think. Each frame (there’s nine in each honey super) had to be pulled out and the bees removed. We do this by giving the frame a hefty ‘tap’ on a board placed in front of the hive. Then one of us uses a brush to swipe off the remaining bees. Finally, we deposit the frame in a Rubbermaid container and quickly put the lid back on before bees get in. The bees aren’t exactly thrilled when we take their honey. Okay, one frame done, 62 more to go… Unfortunately, Thor had 18 frames that had brood mixed in the honey (grumble). Sooo, now there are two supers with those frames still sitting out on the Thor. Very soon we need to get out there, chase all the bees down and put a queen excluder under the supers. Within the next 10 days bees will emerge from that brood and then we can harvest any remaining honey. Note To Self: In 2013, all hives have queen excluders!

Mark manning the extractor.

Mark manning the extractor.

Loaded honey extractor.

Loaded honey extractor.

Ultimately, we ended up with 32 of the frames of honey and 12 frames that had lots of wax, but our guess is that with all the dry weather, the bees couldn’t find enough nectar to bring in and fill those frames. We thought we might harvest closer to 100 pounds, but we’re happy with what we have. It’s about three-times our 2011 yield.

Hot knives.

Hot knives.

Today we extracted the honey. This involves wielding electric (hot!) knives to uncap, or remove the wax no top of the honey. Then six frames are loaded into what could be best described as a big centrifuge. Honey is spun out, then we reverse the frames and spin some more. Viola! lots of honey at the bottom of the extractor. We open a bottom valve and drain the honey through a screen, to filter out bits of wax and other stuff.

And then we spend what feel like hours and hours washing and scrubbing everything as we’re both stick-o-potamuses with honey *everywhere*.

Bee beard ... bees making their way back into the hive after we pulled the honey supers off the top.

Bee beard … bees making their way back into the hive after we pulled the honey supers off the top.

Yah, I know you’re dying to know – – no stings! No stings at all! Two dozen bees made it into the Rubbermaid tubs and were ‘put to sleep’ today before any could voice their opinions on the our honey thievery.

Ah! Too many mites!

Ah! Too many mites!

We did have one harsh reality check. Looks like we have a significant infestation of mites in our hives. Hopefully we can get hold of some Apiguard (sold out in the US right now – more on the way from England) very soon and start treating.

July is Going Swimmingly … Even Without the Water

Ole, Thor and Lena. Look at all those honey supers!

Woot!  We put another honey super on Ole. This is awesome! That colony is GOING TO TOWN, putting up lots of honey. We also put another honey super on Lena. Lena is the ‘mother colony’ that we split this spring to make three. She’s been kind of stressed – a little slow to get back on her feet, but she is starting to come into her own. And little baby Thor, he’ll need another honey super in a week, or at least that’s Robin’s prediction.

Mark, out standing in the prairie. Or, is he OUTSTANDING in the prairie?… 😉

I’m hearing stories of colonies doing really well, and colonies not doing as well, across Iowa. There are many reasons, but I think ours is doing so well because we’ve found such a great place with lots and lots  and lots of native flowers. (And fresh water very close.) It’s really hard to capture in a photos, but the prairie is bursting with flowers – even in this drought. Yah!

July 1 – It’s All Good

Honey supers are on! From left to right, Ole, Thor & Lena.

Yikes! Looks like we’ve been negligent in posting in a timely manner. Sorry!

We just came back from a sweaty, sticky hour at the V&P Land, Cattle and Bees Production Yard #1.  WoooWe, things are looking great. Ole, the hive on the left is abuzz with activity, and we put the third super on this morning. Looks like we will be harvesting honey this year, unless some weird catastrophe is in the wings.  The downside is that Ole’s queen has decided to lay eggs in the bottom super, because, well, queens apparently hate us.

Queen excluder, photo borrowed from carlenefederer.blogspot.com.

Ah, a lot of eggs. You see, the queen is supposed to be content staying in the bottom two hive bodies ( the taller boxes on the bottom) laying eggs and generally living like a queen. We only harvest the honey in the supers (the shorter boxes on top) because they are essentially excess honey for the colony. We had good intentions of driving the bees down out of the supers and putting a queen excluder below the supers. But, when we started handling the bees, the laid back attitude of the bees diminished and a bit of bee grumpiness came out. Since I LOVE getting stung, we decided to forgo the effort of making sure the queen was not going to be above the excluder – we just put it on top of the lower super and called it good.

What is a queen excluder? It looks like a wire refrigerator shelf – and the wires are spaced so that worker bees can get through, but the wide-bodied queen cannot. Many beekeepers don’t care for queen excluders, calling them ‘honey excluders’. Some feel that the bees don’t like going through the wires, so they don’t go up into the supers. We have no idea how true this, but we did offset the supers so that there are little cracks for the workers to fly directly into the supers instead of having to enter the colony at the bottom and crawl up through the hive infrastructure to deposit the goods.

Bee chores, as demonstrated by Mark.

We also supered Thor and Lena. Thor had a super on, and since we couldn’t find any misplaced eggs in that super, we didn’t put on a queen excluder. Since this was Lena’s first super of the season (she’s been putzy this year, slower to get up on her feet after split so many bess out of her) we put on a queen excluder, JIC, and offset the super for easy of entry.

Chores. Every livestock operation has some kind of chores. When you are a beekeeper, there is the usual stuff, and then there is mowing the grass. You want to see the bee’s entrance into the hive clear, and since our bee yard is OVERUN with ticks, we’re about keeping a wide berth around the hives to slow down the need for tick checks. We had no idea how the bees would react to a noisy weed whacker. Mark donned the full suit and went to town – – the bees could have cared less. Ten bucks says the next time he mows and doesn’t suit up will result in his first sting.

No Bad News Is Good News

Two months later it looks like we’re finally off and running!

Checked on the girls yesterday and we have queens in every hive. Ole and Thor are the farthest along, with eggs and capped brood (as the larvae get close to being done with that part of their life cycle, a cap is placed on that cell and when ready, the new bee chews its way out, about 10 days later).  Lena has eggs, but nothing far enough along to be capped.

All three colonies are building out wax on all the new frames in the top hive body. The bees live in the bottom two boxes of the hive. Once they have those filled out, we will put honey supers on top, which are slightly shorter than the hive body boxes and are only for honey. They’re slightly smaller for easy handling as they will be heavy when full of honey! Eggs nor brood should be in the supers (uh, tho that did happen to us last year because we have bad luck.). Honey from the supers is what we harvest and the honey in the hive is what the bees live on during the winter.

We’re hearing of others that have supers on their hives and are running ahead of schedule. When we have established hives we hope we’ll be running fast like that too.

Things are Looking up!

Everyone bow!  We have queens! 

Ole and Thor have eggs. Lena doesn’t have eggs, but the colony is very calm, thus, very likely they have a queen, but the egg laying start up has been slowed. We feel good – we thing Lena will be fine.

The weather forecast is good and blooms have picked up in the prairie, so maybe, just maybe, we’re finally walking in high cotton. 

The Bad Luck Continues

Looks like we better hoard the little bit of honey we have in the cupboard, because it might be all we get this year. Well, at least it feels that way.

Tuesday night we ran out to check on the girls as rain looked like a sure-thing the rest of the week. We were hoping to see three queens – each ruling over a colony. Annd, didn’t work out as planned. Again. We couldn’t find even a hint of the new queen we introduced in Ole, and Lena and Thor appear to be queenless, even though it looks like queens did emerge from the queen cells.

Division Board Feeder, photo courtesy of University of Georgia, http://www.ent.uga.edu/bees/get-started/equipment.html

And worse yet, the colonies had burned through all the nectar they had gathered this spring and they were starving. Starving! We quickly ran home, grabbed division board feeders and the 5-gal on syrup we purchased a couple months ago. We put a short gallon of syrup in each hive. We felt like very, very bad been parents at this point in time. This was as bad as Robin not figuring out that she forgot to feed the cat – and yet – couldn’t figure out why the cat was yowling. This is why we don’t have kids. 

So tonight, 48 hours after feeding, Robin ran out to quickly check on the colonies. The bees exhibit much more energy – pep, pep, peppier. And, those feeders were empty. Bone dry! Amazing!  But, still no signs of egg-laying queens.

Hopefully we don’t have crazy rain tonight so we can get out there Friday night, or over the weekend for more feeding. And then we’ll get good ol Andy, State Apiarist, out to look at out queen issue early next week.

I’m sure we’ll laugh about this someday. Just not now.

Positive Thinking!

Last night we checked on the new queen and were pumped to see that the colony was minutes away from freeing her from her queen cage. Great news! The colony has accepted her now they’re ready to rock n roll.

We did not open the hives that have the queen cells. We were hoping they’re doing well and appreciative of our decision to not bother them.

Pig, the Wonder Cat, giving good vibes the night of the neck sting.

And then today we got a call – – a sighting of a ‘whole bunch of bees’ flying around in the vicinity of our hives.  Our first thought was it’s the swarm that left with the  old queen. But (!) then we remembered that a newly emerged queen needs to take a mating flight before she settles into the colony and starts laying eggs.

We’ve decided to NOT lament about the possibility of it being our swarm – as that’s about a hundred bucks of bees wandering around. Never mind that it’s highly unlikely we’d be able to catch them. And besides, now all our equipment is full now so we don’t have a place to put them… Instead, we’re employing the power of positive thinking and have decided it was a rare glimpse of a mating flight.

Who knew beekeeping is so complicated?    *sigh*

It’s Not All Fun & Games When Someone Gets Stung in the Neck

Saying that we are idiots when it comes to this beekeeping thing is like saying Warrem Buffett is pretty decent at managing money.

Our plan was to split our current hive into two, and buy a nuc to start a third. A nuc is basically a small hive – a queen with five frames of honey and pollen, and brood (developing bees), instead of the usual ten.

Ole, Thor & Lena, left to right.

Ole, Thor & Lena, left to right.

The new queen came in Friday night, so we could split our current into two, keeping the old queen with one half, and introducing the new queen into the other half. When we opened the hive boxes to begin dividing, we quickly figured out that the old queen was already gone. There were over a dozen queen cells in development.  Now what do we do? Aye. What do we do with the new queen?

We slept on it for the night, and this morning we went to the Central Iowa Beekeepers annual auction in Perry. There, we talked it over with others who have more experience than us.  Oh, and we got a couple bargains at the auction.  😉

So, here’s what we finally decided to do:

  • We divided our hive into two, putting frames with queen cells into one hive body, with other frames of pollen and honey. We’re letting nature take it’s course, and the colony will rear it’s own new queen. Hopefully.
  •  We put other frames with queen cells into a nuc. Again, we’re letting nature take its course, letting those bees raise their own queen. Once they’re ‘queenright’, we’ll put them in the third full hive we have ready and waiting. Hopefully.
  • We put the new queen in a hive body with frames of bees that do not have any developing queen cells.  They should accept her as their queen and that colony should take off. Hopefully.
The Sting, 20 minutes after impact.

The Sting, 20 minutes after impact.

Oh, and a little present from the bees to Robin was a sting on the neck Friday night. A couple snuck in up in the veil and one made her presence known. The good news is that all the allergy tests Robin went through a month ago indicated that she’s not allergic to beestings, but instead, especially sensitive to stings. The bad news is that Robin appears to have a goiter on her neck. Yay.

The Sting, 22 hours after impact.

The Sting, 22 hours after impact.

Now that we have three hives out there, we decided to name them, so that our bee discussions don’t resemble who’s-on-first monologues. Lena is what is left of the original colony. Ole is the new colony. And finally, the little nuc is Thor, short for Thorogood. We’ve decided to name whole colonies instead of naming the queens, since those biatches keep walking out on us.