The Grovestead

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Category: Honey Bees (page 2 of 2)

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.

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.


HoneyFest was a gathering to learn about beekeeping

Earlier this year when planning our summer calendar we thought it would be fun to have a beekeeping party along the same lines as our maple syrup tree tapping party. With our recent acquisition of two bee colonies, we started planning a summer gathering for friends to learn about beekeeping. We dubbed it “HoneyFest” to attract more people — because bees sound scary but everyone likes honey.

Becca posted a full write-up on her blog, so I’ll just link to it and post a few pictures.

HoneyFest mascot

Making candles with beeswax

Adam give beekeeping talk

Hosts of HoneyFest

Beginning beekeeping, step-by-step

Closeup of frame from nut

Last year Becca was sitting at a table for a women’s Bible study and a friend mentioned that her husband was in Texas checking on his bee hives. She commented that we’d love to have bees one day, but knew they’re in heavy demand. But if he ever needed a place to house a few of his hives we’d be interested.

A week later we got a phone call and her husband, Adam, confirmed that he’d house four of his hives on our property. We were thrilled. We provided the land, he provided the bees, bee keeping and gave us free honey at the end of the season.

Last year's beekeeping setup

But it’s not all about the honey. Approximately one-third of the food we eat is dependent on bees for pollination. Without this indispensable service, there would be no apples, blueberries, cucumbers, watermelon or many of your favorite fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds. In short, the honeybee is the gardeners’ best friend.

Hives from last year

This year Adam didn’t have enough hives to house any on our property.  But after a conversation over burgers, he generously offered to help us get set up with our own bees.

And two days later he arrived with two ‘nucs’ or nucleus hives he had picked up for us in Stillwater.

Adam sets out nuc hive boxes containing starter bee colonies

Becca  that it is good to start with two hives so we could more easily compare the health of each hive, make sure we were doing things right. Adam brought out the nuc’s about one week prior to transferring them into hives. This would give them time to acclimate to their surroundings. Bees are very sensitive to direction and location, so its important not to move them more than necessary.

We selected a place that is relatively sheltered but still gets plenty of sunlight because that is what gets them active in the morning. They will fly up to four miles in search of pollen, so it doesn’t matter where on the property we put them, they’d find our apple trees.

Open hatch on nuc hive

First bee emerges from nuc hive

One week later Adam came back and helped us get all set up with real hives.

Leveling blocks for hives

Setting hives on blocks

A hive consists of a wooden box filled with frames that the bees fill with either honey or brood (eggs). The small opening at the bottom allows bees to come and go.

Adam explains how frames work

Frames are simply starter comb that the bees will build from. The are designed for easy removal and inspection by the beekeeper to make sure the colony stays healthy as it grows.

Before moving the bees into their new home, we had to fill a frame-sized bucket with sugar syrup. This gives the bees an initial food source until they can find new ones in the wild.

Sugar water is poured into hive

Now that the hives were set up, we all suited up and got ready to move the bees and Adam got his smoker ready. Throughout the transfer, Adam puffed the smoker over the frames and around hive entrances. The smoke has the effect of calming the bees down, making it easier to work.

Stuffing smoker with grass

Smoker keeps the bees calm while we work

The nuc’s each come with two frames. We placed these in the hive closest to the syrup bin. Then added empty frames for the bees to grow into.

Moving bees from nuc to new hive

Placing additional empty frames for the bees to grow into

Repeat the process for the second hive

Smoking the bees calms them down

The last thing that Adam did, which really impressed me, was say a prayer over the hives and the land that the bees would be tending. It was a good reminder that we are all in this together. We are all working towards the same goal of healthy food and stewardship of God’s creation.

Finished moving the bees to their new home

So that’s how you start a beehive. From here on out, the bees continue to multiply, laying up to 2,000 eggs per day. Once all the frames in the box are full, we add another box atop the first with more empty frames. After the second box is full we start adding additional boxes called “supers” that contain only honey. For the rest of the summer they will produce honey in these supers — as much as 100 pounds — which we will harvest at the end of the season.

PS- Nobody got stung!

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