Bees In Our Bonnets

The (mis)adventures of raising honey bees in Minnesota

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“They’re heeeeere!”

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Our three packages of Italian bees showed up a day early at Nature’s Nectar!

One of the three packages of Italians--2011

Full report later tonight about the new hives Death and Pestilence, and the repopulation of War.


Written by beesinourbonnet

2 May 2011 at 16:01

The casualties of War

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I did the post-mortem on our hive War today. I gave it a decent cleaning–cleared the multitudes of dead bees out, took out each frame thinking I’d find some reason for the death of the hive, and getting it squared away for a new package due in a few weeks.

Deep #2 from War

I didn’t find much. No foulbrood or off-odors, and no large parasites (we treated for mites last fall). I did find a bit of mold here and there, but nothing systemic.

War had tons of honey in it, so our little ladies must have died early in the winter.

So War is ready for a new family. Famine hive, however, held some new surprises.

There were cleansing flights going on (temperatures were in the mid-50s), and I found the cluster around the queen in brood box #2. However, I find a mess of dead bees (lots of them), and a fair amount of mold. Deeps #1 and #3 were chock full of dead bodies, and there was a fair amount of yellow-ish and blue-green mold.

Jim over at Nature’s Nectar got a slightly-panicked call, but assured us it wasn’t all that bad. He recommended I clean out what I could without disturbing the cluster, remove the outer black cover and the winter wick board (I did), make sure there was sufficient honey in the combs (there was), and to also make sure there was a pollen patty available (there has been since last week, but it hasn’t been touched much–a good sign).  He said the bees will deal with the mold more thoroughly than I could.

So I cleaned out Famine as best I could, emptied the bottom tray (full of poor little dead bodies), and got Famine squared away for the season. I hope its inhabitants make it for another month.

I know that our bees are  just livestock that we use for our own purposes (homestead garden pollination and honey). I know that.

But I feel like we just lost some beloved pets.


Written by beesinourbonnet

3 April 2011 at 17:29

Posted in Hive deaths and die-offs

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This is perplexing

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We finally checked the bees today to see how they fared during this long cold winter.  We had a big surprise, and it wasn’t a good kind of surprise, either.  Currently we have 2 hives- #1, Famine, had a very rocky start last summer.  First, the queen left as we were hiving our first box of bees.  Then, we bought a new queen, which arrived just about the time the original queen made her way back home, so the hive turned on the new queen and killed her.  This hive produced very slowly and we harvested no honey from it.

Hive #2, War, was very active from day 1.  We got about 30 lbs. of honey our first year, a respectable harvest.  The bees had about 4 times that amount to make it through the winter.  We were sure that War would be fine during the cold months but were worried about poor Famine.

Today, the results are in: Famine is fine, thriving even.  A small amount of honey is left in the deeps but they should easily make it till nectar flow begins.  War is dead.  Completely, totally silent, nothing at all moving.  War also has 3 deeps full of honey, so this hive must have died very early on.

We have no idea of what might have caused this.  They had plenty to eat, they were wrapped for the winter and War had the healthiest queen.  We’ll be looking into this mystery and will post as soon as we have some idea of what happened.  In the mean time, it’s a pretty sad day around our house- we love our little bees!

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17 March 2011 at 13:18

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Urban homesteaders and lawyers and bees, oh my!

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My dad was a gardener. We lived on a small farm, but the philosophy of urban homesteading was how our family lived- we grew it, canned it, froze it, gathered it, repaired it, built it ourselves or did without. No one invented that, it’s just what you did. My dad planted a huge garden every year, and we grew far more than we could eat. He did that in order to make sure there was a lot of produce to fill the boxes we delivered in the middle of the night to widows, poor people and retired folks who had a hard time making ends meet. That wasn’t an outreach program, it’s just what you did.

How my urban homestead got started

Years later, after I finished college, got married and had a house of my own, I was finally ready to put in my garden. Except that my house wasn’t on 10 acres, it was a tiny city lot. Instead of cleaning the chicken coop and putting that on the garden, I had to search for a source of manure. Still, I knew what needed doing and began doing it. I wanted my children to know how to grow their own food, how to cook it fresh and preserve it for later. I put in a small garden in my nearly invisible-to-the-naked-eye backyard, and began growing as many vegetables as space permitted. The lack of space was a problem, but the biggest problem was that no one else in my neighbourhood was doing this. In fact, no one ever came outside! We’d lived and gardened there for 3 years without seeing some of the neighbours, ever. That bothered me most of all.

That’s when I tore up the side lawn to build large raised beds.The beds bumped up against the sidewalk all along one side of my property. Well, that got the neighbours’ attention. People came up and said,”Someone will take your vegetables!”. Splendid- that was exactly what I was hoping for! Within a few weeks the lettuces were up and growing, I had the trellises built for cucumbers, melons, squash and beans, and it was finally warm enough to plant out the tomatoes and eggplants. Because the neighbourhood I lived in was very ethnically mixed, I found seeds for a variety of unusual (to me) veggies, and grew bitter gourd, a bunch of Chinese greens, the Middle Eastern cucumber and the gorgeous purple Italian vining beans. Soon, I had neighbours walking by asking about the vegetables- what were they, whose were they, could they buy some? I labeled the plants, spent hours outside talking to anyone who’d stop by and explained that the food was for whoever wanted it.

Soon, people were waiting outside when I got up in the morning. We would weed and water before the sun got too hot, I’d start the next round of seedlings in flats and tend to them, and people began staying late to talk to each other. Two women, both from Lebanon, had lived next to each other for 3 years yet only met at my garden, and they became fast friends. Children in the neighbourhood liked to pick the cherry tomatoes and eat them still warm from the sun. Old Greek ladies began stopping by to pull leaves from a wild grape which grew up the side of my garage, and I began receiving plates of delicious fresh dolmades. This is how I became an urban homesteader, and why- because in the end, its all about building a community, and my garden on my first urban homestead grew both food and friendships.

How an urban homesteader and her new husband got bees in their bonnets

The one thing my first urban homestead lacked was a beehive. I’ve been collecting books and reading articles about bees for years. However, my yard was much too small to accommodate vegetables, dogs, kids and bees, so beekeeping remained a dream. Then, I remarried. While house-hunting with my fiance, I mentioned that if we had a large enough property we could raise bees. Now, New Hubby is adorable and loves the idea of gardening, although he is strictly a city person- but the instant I mentioned bees, he was head over heels in love with the idea! He began reading about bees, and we signed up for an excellent short course on hobby beekeeping. Armed with our newfound knowledge and a credit card, we bought two hives and two boxes of bees, and set out on the newest adventure in our quest to live more sustainably. The ride home with two boxes of irritated bees in the backseat of the minivan was interesting, but once installed in their new hives, our girls have been calm, amiable, and most important, hard-working. We were lucky, as this past summer was reportedly the best for honey production in years, but our first-year hives produced a fair amount of honey for us. As soon as we bottled the honey last fall, we made the rounds of the neighbours, thanking them for not panicking when we brought bees into an otherwise peaceful suburb, and giving them jars of beautiful fresh honey. In doing so, we also got the opportunity to talk to many of them about what we’re doing here, what urban homesteading is and why we feel so strongly about it. Maybe we haven’t made any converts, but we did get a lot of requests for veggies this year. Hopefully I’ll be able to grow much more than we need and will be able to send boxes of fresh produce over to the neighbours. Not because it’s outreach, but because it’s what you do.

What’s the big deal about being an urban homesteader?

It’s all about the community, to me. Sharing gardening tips, extra seeds and new curse words when the weather plays some capricious trick on a newly planted tomato bed is what makes urban homesteading so appealing. Growing my own food and teaching my children not only how but why we do this is important to me. It’s partly a way to pass on my dad’s legacy to the grandsons he never knew, and partly a way to show them how important it is to take care of each other. That’s why the notion of anyone trying to own the phrase ‘urban homesteader’ makes me angry. Urban homesteading is all about sharing- knowledge, tools if we live near each other, seeds by mail, and physical labour when needed. Trying to control the movement, taking credit for it and preventing others from being able to practice their livelihood is not a part of urban homesteading. Helping each other to improve is what it’s all about, not a big greedy grab for fame. The Dervaes family have suffered the biggest loss in this fracas. They have lost the admiration and respect of much of the urban homestead movement. They’ve lost the right to be a voice for any of us. Most important, they have lost the support of a huge group of wonderful, caring, sharing people. That’s a lot to throw away over a two-word phrase. I am an urban homesteader- and I am both proud of and humbled by the others in the movement that I’ve met over the past week. I’m going to be helping with the battle over the name, both by using my title proudly and by doing what I can to support the legal battle which is sure to follow. I’m going to help my fellow urban homesteaders because it’s just what you do.

Written by beesinourbonnet

21 February 2011 at 11:56

Harvest! part one

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War with its three honey supers

It was that time of the year at the Four Horsemen Apiary. It was early September, and the nectar flow is slowing down in the Twin Cities area. About all that’s left is the goldenrod, aster, and purple loosestrife (although there’s a fair amount of all left). We decided it was time.

We took Famine’s single super off first, and to no surprise there was no honey in it at all, and very little drawout. Famine had never been as industrious as War, and its super went on late in the season.

I cleaned up Famine’s hive, placed a thymol tin in the top (we decided to treat preemptorily for mites), and that hive good to go for the balance of the year (after another thymol treatment in two weeks).

Famine ready for the winter

The next hive was War. She has three supers (very industrious hive, particularly for its first year), so I took all the supers off at once and set them aside. It’s easier to do that than to take off one super at a time to clear the bees out.

Next came examination. The uppermost super was pretty bare except for the frame I’d taken out of the second super to “seed” it. However, the first and second supers were quite rich. The bottommost super had quite a bit of capped cells, while the middle super was mostly uncapped. (There are some ‘keepers that leave uncapped frames alone.)

The best way to clear bees off of frames is to take each frame and “flick” it. Writer Neil Gaiman demonstrates this here:

Any bees that don’t come off easily that way can be removed with the use of a soft brush.

You brush from the bottom up, in order to disturb the little darlings as little as possible

You have to quickly store each cleaned frame in something the bees cannot get into, because they really don’t want to give up their hard-earned work. (We had a hard lesson with this the following week.)

I cleaned up all three supers’ worth of frames, and then put a thymol tin into War, and got the lids on the hive.

Next up: extraction, and the results!

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15 September 2010 at 08:29

“How high can you stack…honey?”

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Famine and War continue to develop well!

Famine got its first honey super:

Famine with its first super!

Famine has been much slower to develop than War, but the third deep brood box has at least some drawn-out comb on all frames, so it’s time.

War, on the other hand, just got its third super!

War and three supers!

I’ve gotten some drawout on half the frames on the second super, and there’s a rule of thumb that a lot of beekeepers use: when you add a super, add two. It never hurts, and it’s heartbreaking to have your hive swarm in the middle of honey production because of lack of space into which to expand.

(We had to buy pre-built supers with plastic frames this time. Jim over at Nature’s Nectar didn’t have anything else, and may not have anything at all for awhile.)

We’re heading for the downhill slide on honey and pollen supplies in the Great Frozen North Minnesota. There is a fair amount of purple loosestrife (an invasive) in our area that is beginning to bloom, and that will be one of the last big supplies for the year. We’ll likely harvest our honey after that growth is playing out.

When we harvest the supers, we test for varroa mite counts in both hives. If the results look the least bit iffy, we are prepared to treat with Apiguard, which is oil of thyme imbedded in a volatile gel. The bees get into the dish of Apiguard and proceed to move the gel out of the hive through the bottom entrance, but track the gel through the hive as they do so. That will keep the mite population under control. You have to harvest your honey first, though; otherwise, the honey will develop an  unpleasant odor.

Written by beesinourbonnet

7 August 2010 at 19:12

Continued good news!

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Had an email chat with a local beekeeper (one of the two folks that teaches the “how to raise bees in northern climes” class at the University of Minnesota). We were concerned about this:

Note the halo of honey cells around what appeared to be darkly-colored brood cells.

We were concerned about how dark it had gotten. We weren’t smelling any foulbrood off-scents, but we were still worried.

Anyway, apparently everything is copacetic.

So, we now have a second honey super atop War (and it’s beginning to draw out nicely), and Famine’s third brood box is getting completely drawn out (finally!). We’ll be adding a super to that one as well after I get down to the local bee supply shop on Saturday to pick up two more super boxes.

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3 August 2010 at 23:01