Beekeeping in Minnesota – in January

frost at a hive entrance
Frost Crystals at Hive Entrance – Jan 3, 2011

Tucked away, under the snow and ice, my bees await for spring to return. They bide their time – consuming the winter store of honey and fondant – all while shivering together in a ball-of-bees; on nice, sunny days, the occasional adventurous girl will come out of the hive and take flight. She will most often make several loops in the air before returning to the comforts of the warmer hive.

But, this is January, and it is Minnesota. From time to time, one of those adventurous girls gets too adventurous. You will find their cold, lifeless, little insect-bodies far from the bee yard; they look like they are sleeping atop the snow.

Consequently, what am I doing with beekeeping, in January, in Minnesota?

Mostly planning for the upcoming season. Planning actually started in November with the working out of an agreement with a landowner north of Duluth; we will be putting out eight new hives this spring on their property. If all goes well this season, their relatives directly east of them may be interested in hosting hives on their property, as well.

assembled hive boxes
Assembled, Langstroth-style Hive Boxes

Each hive will be composed of two large (a.k.a. "deep") hive boxes and three medium honey boxes/supers. With each box holding ten frames, this means one hundred sixty frames total for the deep boxes and two hundred forty for the honey supers. This posed a bit of a logistical problem – if ordered all at once, where would I put everything?

Break-it-up. The logistics issue seems to have been solved by making a series of orders. Since the deeps need to be used first, with honey supers coming later, it made sense to order the deeps and deep frames first.

Much to Melissa’s chagrin, I turned the kitchen into my heated workshop for a couple days. The boxes went together quickly enough; four and one half pounds (2 kg) of Torx deck screws and 8 oz (230 mL) of waterproof wood glue, the boxes where assembled.

The frames went to together with the help of a friend; it was mainly just a series of glue, tap, staple, snap, staple, staple – hundreds of times.

The deep boxes have, also, all been coated with an exterior, water-based, mandarin-colored stain. They look really neat.

What’s left? Ordering the bees; the order form from Nature’s Nectar, LLC arrived this past Friday. Also, some of the items ordered (outer cover, screened bottom boards, etc) were on backorder; I wait their arrival.

Devil’s Kettle – Snowshoeing the North Shore

grand marais
Andy Baldwin, Grand Marais, MN – Dec 31, 2010

Including Jay Cooke State Park in the south, and Grand Portage State Park in the north, there are nine parks along (or very close to) the northern shore of Lake Superior. During the winter months, Lake Superior, the regions up and into its tributaries and its shore all have a certain elegance and harshness about them. While some folks try to escape the ice and snow of the region – heading to places where the sun shines during the month of December – I would rather take advantage of fewer people and a chance to see some of the North Shore’s highlights in a different, physical state.

Snowshoeing season seemed in full swing and ventures out onto the ice of the St. Louis River (west of Boy Scout Landing but east of Fond Du Lac) have been frequent. With the University on break from December 23, through January 3, I would have even more opportunities to go winter wandering. Melissa was to be gone most of the week after Christmas and early, on Christmas morning, I lay in bed, thinking about where I could go snowshoeing up the shore.

If you are familiar with the recent movie, Despicable Me, the lead character, Gru, when struck with a bright idea, will say, “Light Bulb!”. I had a light bulb moment while lying in bed – The Devil’s Kettle.

devil's kettle
Devil’s Kettle, Brule River, Judge Magney State Park – Dec 31, 2010

One-hundred thirty miles up the shore from Duluth, Judge Magney State Park surrounds the Brule River just before the river heads into Lake Superior. The park is neatly maintained with minimal amenities, several summer cabins, and on site camping is also available during the summer months. The park’s cabins are the remnants of what was originally a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp from the 1930s. A mile or so up a trail, you will find the Devil’s Kettle. The Devil’s Kettle is a bit of a freak of nature. The Brule River flows along until it hits a large mass of rhyolite rock jutting up; the rivers splits and forms two branches. The eastern branch flows over a nice, two step, fifty feet tall fall; the western branch falls into a sink hole (the Devil’s Kettle) and flows to some unknown location.

My light bulb moment also included me elbowing my wife in the ribs at 3:00 AM to tell her my idea of snowshoeing in to photograph the Devil’s Kettle. She did not quite grasp my excitement; she swore at me and told me to go to bed.

I decided to head to the Kettle on Friday, December 31st. After I told my wife my idea (but she was awake this time), she suggested that I ask a friend who happened to be back from Montana (where he is attending school). A few text messages later, and Andy was in for the adventure.

Andy and I headed out for a day of snowshoeing well before dawn. We passed the small town of Two Harbors before 7:00 AM. Shortly after passing Two Harbors, we had two timber wolves run across the road in front of us. They paused on the other side of the ditch; two black silhouettes made stark contrast with the brighter snow covered field behind them and the tree line.

It rain very hard in Duluth the previous night, and upon arriving at the park, we found that there was far less snow and much more ice on the ground than in the Duluth area; but, no worries, the snowshoes had crampons.

Upper Falls, Brule River, Judge Magney State Park
Alex Jokela – Upper Falls, Brule River

The trail to Devil’s Kettle was more or less uphill the entire way and completely covered with ice. The snowshoes and the crampons made the trek very doable, however. Periodically, a pair of sitting benches would appear on the trail – usually at points that afforded a spectacular view. Even though it was overcast and mostly gray, there were still many opportunities for photography. Besides the pair of wolves, wildlife was few and far between. A couple woodpeckers and a few chickadees and that was about it. All in all – it was a grand day-long-adventure.

Winter Gardening

potted tomatoes

It seems somewhat ironic to me that, although I enjoy researching, planting and growing tomatoes, I do not like to eat them. Melissa, my wife, enjoys just about any type of tomato; from a green zebra or tiny siberian to a beefy big boy; if it is a tomato, she will probably eat it. I grow them, and she eats them – it works out to be a low-waste working arrangement. I have two tomato plants that seem to be carryovers from the summer time. I planted both mid-summer, but never brought them outside. One is a large, siberian heirloom (pictured) and the other is a black prince (from fedco seeds).

As it turns out, other of my tomato plants are of Russian heritage – both hail from Siberia, as well. The siberian is doing well from a foliage standpoint, but have only produced two tomatoes. It is most likely not getting the right amount of sunlight. Even though the tomatoes hail from Siberia, I am pretty sure they were not originally grown during the winter months. It may also be a flowering issue. The siberian is a determinant tomato variety; meaning, it sets all its flowers at once as opposed to an indeterminate variety which has a continuous or staggered setting. If a round of flowers fail to set fruit on the siberian (or any determinant), you will have to wait for new growth to take place and a new round of flowers to appear. The black prince, on the other hand, has yet to show any flowers let alone having flowers set into fruit. It is growing better, now that I moved it to a different, more southerly-exposed window.

In addition to the tomato plants, I have several varieties of peppers growing, as well as lemon balm, sweet basil, italian thyme, sage, a single container of rudbeckia, four potted paperwhite narcissus bulbs, as well as a potted amaryllis variety called ‘apple blossom’. The peppers seem to be a relatively standard crop for me in the winter. They usually take all winter to grow and will fruit late spring or early summer. The varieties include Habanero (Scott Bonnet), Aji, Cayenne, a sweet-white-colored pepper called "Dove" and one that had "mezcla picante" on the seed pack – which just means "spicy mix". The only ones that are not doing well are the Habaneros. I would just guess the less than balmy 65 degrees F in the kitchen is not cutting it for them. The peppers, for the most part with the exception of the Habaneros, are easy to grow. I use clean, empty 24 oz plastic yogurt containers (it is a good reuse of these sturdy, plastic vessels). A bit of garden potting soil, a pinch of some good fertilizer, regular watering and a nice sunny spot seem to work just fine.

The herbs seem to be slightly more of a hit or miss. I am not sure if it is a temperature issue or a light issue or perhaps, both. I had a pot of basil and a pot of lemon balm fail to grow anything. One of the lemon balms is going great guns, but it was started in the late summer. Crushing a leaf or two between one’s fingers releases the delightful smell of lemon from it. Melissa and a friend of hers used some of it in a batch of soap they made. Although, I do not think they used enough, it makes for a great idea for a future batch of soap.

The italian thyme just continues to chug along. I planted it from several years ago, and the set the pot on the window sill in the kitchen. It makes for a excellent addition to just about any tomato-based sauce or even a vegetable/tofu or bean soups. I use the sage less now that I went mostly vegetarian – it is an herb that lends mostly poultry but can work well with fish, too.

Next time – Snowshoeing in Judge Magney State Park