The Grovestead

Farm, Family, Fun.

Winterizing the bees

View of the insulated hives

A chore that has been hanging over our heads for a long time was winterizing the bees. After last year’s historic cold temperatures, and losing one hive to colony collapse, we wanted to make sure we did this right.

But the more we researched, the more confused we became. I read somewhere that if you ask 3 beekeepers a question you’ll get 6 answers. That has certainly been the case with winterizing beehives. Some recommended buying special insulating boxes and moisture-absorbing lids. Others used whatever materials they had laying around. Assimilating all this information I came up with a basic plan that falls under the “did our best” category.

Bees clustering between the frames

First I inspect the hive to make sure bees were still there! They were clustering deep inside, which is good. There was plenty of honey on the frames for them to consume this winter.

Siltfence around the hives to block snow and wind

After checking in with the bees, I wrapped the vicinity of the hives with a silt fence. If it looks like a hasty job, well, I dare you to go hammer giant stakes in the ground a few feet away from 30,000 bees. The fence will serve as a snow and wind break, although it should be about twice as high to block the wind. It should help with drifting snow at least.

Then I wrapped the hive boxes themselves in tar paper. This adds a layer of insulation as well as capturing more heat on sunny days. Bees need an occasional warm-up to reposition themselves inside the hives to honey stores.

Next I drilled a hole in the top box for ventilation and a second exit point. Generally, this should be done before bees are living inside. Had it not been such a cold day, I would have been dealing with a swarm of angry bees.

Drilled hole in top super to vent moisture

An interesting thing I learned about bees is that the cold doesn’t kill them, moisture does. In the process of consuming honey and keeping themselves warm through the winter, an average hive will evaporate 1 gallon of water. If the hive is not adequately ventilated, that water will condense and drip back into the hive, harming the bees.

Wire mesh at the entrance to keep mice out

Next, a piece of wire mesh / hardware cloth was placed over the entrance to keep mice out.

Shims on the top board to create another entrance

On the top of the hive I added spacers to keep the lid from sealing on the top completely. This creates another entrance/exit point for both bees and moisture. I still plan to add a moisture board under the lid, but the hardware store only sells them in 4 x 8-foot sheets, so I’m gathering up newspapers to use instead.

Secure the lid with a tiedown

Finally, I strapped the lid on with a tie down. This adds extra stability for strong winter winds. For some beekeepers, this is how they keep the bears out.

Beeswax pulled from one of the hives

Since we’re down to just one hive now, I cleaned out the other hive and stored it for use next year. Inside the feeder bin where we added sugar water at the beginning of the season, the bees had cleared out all the sugar water and left a beautiful honeycomb in its place (sans the honey).  A parting gift from our bees who didn’t make it.

Fall cleaning

Cleaning up the garden with my favorite people

It’s the end of the season for us Zone 4B growers. My faithful standby’s Lisa and Zina, who helped me plant this Spring, joined me for a day of garden cleanup. My dad also came out to help with landscaping around the house.

We pulled up all the plastic mulch and drip irrigation from the vegetable plot. Then we re-mulched the blueberries with fresh fallen pine needles, a great natural acidifier.

Re-mulching the blueberry patch

We also fenced the blueberries because they are easy targets for rabbits and deer during the lean winter months.

I didn’t end up liking the variety of strawberries we planted (Sparkle and Ft Laramie). So we pulled all the strawberry beds and I will re-plant my newly discovered favorite Jewel next year.

Ft Laramie strawberries

The other major project was weeding and re-mulching the apple orchard. Becca and, to a lesser extent, Ivar and Elsie helped with weeding and shoveling piles of wood chips around the base of each tree.

Mulching the apple trees

Everybody worked hard. But the pay was good. Everyone got to take home a free pumpkin.

Zina's pumpkin

Paid with pumpkins.

Our growing family

We are proud to announce the newest member of our family!

Kubota Tractor

We welcome with love, Kubota Tractor Groves. Arrived October 25th, 2014 4:29 PM. 1,256 lbs 4 oz. 102 inches.

Mom and Dad are doing well, though still recovering from the price.


Pumpkin patch kids

Pumpkins glowing in the dark

Tonight was pumpkin carving night. We grew our own pumpkins this year which made the event a bit more special.

The pumpkin patch was planted on a whim, in a corner of the yard that was going to be reseeded with grass. It was an afterthought to the main garden. But it turns out the most successful part of our garden this year was the spot that got the least attention. There’s a life lesson in there somewhere.

Huge pumpkins in our pumpkin patch

Month after month we watched on as the vines grew by the foot, sprouting bright yellow flowers that dropped pumpkin after enormous pumpkin. By the end of the season we had about 18 pumpkins.

An early frost this year killed off several vines before the pumpkins fully matured so we had a couple of off-color pumpkins. Of course Ivar picked the green pumpkin when it was time to carve.

Ivar wasn’t a fan of the pumpkin guts. He hid under the table to keep his pepperoni pizza in its place.

Ivar is grossed out by the pumpkin guts

We took turns tracing faces on the pumpkins and carving them out.

Becca carved one of our green pumpkins

Thomas the train pumpkin carving

I lit some candles and set the pumpkins outside to show the kids what they looked like in the dark. They walked outside while I was setting the lids on top and started screaming: “Ahhhh!! Scary monster!!!” And then they ran around in circles and fumbled their way back into the house, giggling the whole way. Inside, I had to hold Ivar in my arms to get him to look at the pumpkins out the window. Even then he mostly hid below the window sill.

Good times and great memories for us all.

Orange and green pumpkins

Colony collapse

Bee hives on our property

We had a bit of a tragedy on the farm recently. To call it a death in the family wouldn’t be so far off the mark. It certainly felt that way.

Dead bees at the base of the hives

Since we got our bee hives this Spring, one hive was always more active than the other. But they both seemed to be thriving (growing). It wasn’t until late Summer that Becca noticed a real problem. On one of her weekly inspections she noticed a pile of dead bees at the base of the weaker hive. Other beekeepers chalked it up to seasonal changes and said not to worry. But when our friend and fellow beekeeper Adam came out to inspect a few weeks later, it was clear there was a serious problem. No eggs were being laid or hatched in the bottom hive meaning there was no queen in that colony. Worse, it was too late in the season to introduce a new queen. This colony had collapsed.

We don’t really know why. Could have been disease or a swarm or most likely just a weaker queen from the get-go. Whatever the reason, it was a major blow to morale. Especially to Becca who has been nurturing these twin hives like her own children for the past several months.

This is unfortunately a common plight. Colony-collapse disorder (CCD) is a hot topic right now. We get articles sent to us about the issue almost monthly. Roughly one-third of all bee hives collapse each year. Losing one of our two hives means we are just below average.

Adam has generously offered to split one of his hives with us next year to help us get going again. Until then, we still have plenty of work to do to maintain the health of the other hive.

Bee hives opened with frames pulled out for inspection

We combined the two hives by pulling the honey-filled frames from the dying hive and placing them into the healthy hive. Becca also applied a treatment for mites.

Becca’s inspection process involves opening the hives and pulling out frames to look at close up. In these pictures you can see “capped” honey. That is, honey stored in the frame cells sealed with wax.

Capped honey

This honey will be the bees’ sustenance through the long winter. We were advised not to harvest any honey this first year as the bee colony is still small and will need as much nutrients as possible to last the winter.

Closeup of bees on the frame

We’re determined though to push through and learn from this experience. Next year we’ll start more colonies and, I hope, harvest a bumper crop of honey.

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