Hail, The Russian Czarinas

italian workers
Comb in a package of italian bees with russian queen

I spend large amounts of time planning; it is my nature – I am a planner. Planning a thing – new endeavor, trip, construction or woodworking project – is often a source of great enjoyment for me. From the end of December and through January, I researched and read material on relative newcomer to the arena of honeybees in the United States: the Russian bee. The Russian bees, originating from the Primorsky Krai region, were first imported into the US by the US Department of Agriculture’s Honeybee Breeding, Genetics & Physiology Laboratory in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 1997. The particular strain of bee has a few interesting properties which drew me to it. The region of Russia where it originated has a similar annual average temperature and precipitation to that of our region of Duluth, MN. They have also shown excellent overwintering in colder climates. In addition to the climatological similarities for their home region, the bees have the added advantage of having resided in the home region of the varroa mite (Varroa destructor) for over 150 years and consequently are relatively resistant to the mites (A Comparison of Russian and Italian Honey Bees – North Carolina State University; Breeding, Genetics, Stock Improvement and Management of Russian Honey Bees for Mite Control and Pollination – Agricultural Research Service, USDA). As I developed a plan for rolling out more hives this spring, the Russians looked increasing interesting and a very viable option.

I eventually decided upon ordering three packages – each package contains a marked Russian queen, and three pounds (1.36 kg) of random Italian workers (as a side note, my pseudo-intelligentsia-esque friends have been making socialist-related jokes since they heard the "nationalities" of the new bees – "A new Russian Empire built on the backs of the Italians."). All of this is a bit of an experiment to say the least. As the hives move through summer, and the Italians are usurped by Russians, I am optimistically hoping to have three, strong, all-Russian hives going into fall. The real test will be next February and into March – a time when most hive failures occur.

russian queen
Russian queen in a cage with workers

February is a long way off at this point, and I need to concentrate on the nearer future and less on the not too distant future. Two of my three packages arrived in Duluth at the postoffice on Monday (Monday, April 18, 2011) at a little before midnight. The postoffice called me at midnight to inform me my bees had arrived and could I come pick them up. By the time I arrived back home from the postoffice, it was approaching 1:00 AM. A quick check of the feed cans in each packaged showed they were nearly empty – the bees would need to be fed before I finally was able to head to sleep.

In the mean, the weather did not cooperate at all. It rained and snowed the next day, and it was near freezing on Wednesday. Worried about how long the bees can stay in their packages, I spoke (via email) with Marla Spivak, an entomologist at the University of Minnesota (and recent recipient of a MacArthur Foundation award). She said that the packages, when kept in an area with a temperature of about 60 to 65 degrees F (16 to 18 degrees C), should be fine for a few days. She went on to add that it would be best to have the ambient outdoor air temperature at or above 45 degrees F (7 degrees C), it might also be a good idea to set a package into the hive super if the frames are cold.

Thursday arrived, and one of the packages was quickly being filled with honeycomb; the bees were also draining the feed cans to fill their new comb – the packages needed to get installed into hives. After work, I loaded up hive equipment, a pail of sugar syrup, a couple beesuits, and various other things, and headed over to pick up a friend who would be taking photos.

snowshoe apiaries - russian hives
Snowshoe Apiaries – Russian Hives

All the planning and preparing came down to just an hour or so of work. The people who own the land where the hives are located were kind enough to drop several concrete blocks and wood planks out in the field. They also joined me in the field to watch as I installed the two packages. The planning seems to have paid off – at least for the install – relatively uneventful with no stings, no stray bees getting into my suit, and no queens making a break for it.

The two Russian hives were doing well when I was back out to install six packages of Carniolans on Saturday.

Bees and Chickens – A Spring Update

dead carniolans on the snow
Dead Carniolan Bees on the Snow – Mar 07, 2011

Spring made its first appearance early in the second half of February; we had a nice stretch of very warm weather. This short warm stretch, however, was the death knell of the Carniolans. They broke their winter cluster in anticipation of spring; the warm weather left and was replaced with -40 degrees. The Carniolans quickly consumed the remaining food stores and starved to death. The Italians, on the other hand, have come into the real onset of spring quite well.

It snowed today. It does not look like spring outside at all. Spring is out there, I know it. It was in the mid-50s (teens, Celsius) yesterday; the robins were out, the geese were flying north, and the scout bees were out in full force attempting to find any early flowerings. As I worked in the yard, the scouts would periodically land on me; they would leave soon after realizing I had very little nectar or pollen to offer.

With the nice weather yesterday, and a relatively well feeling self, I set to work to clear a series of eye-sores from the backyard. Those who know me, know that I am pro-compost. (I even wrote an iPhone/iPod app for compost; it was an attempt, and the app is in need of updating). The backyard-eye-sores were/are out of control heaps of compost-to-be from the winter. A soggy mound of thawing vegetable-matter. The hounds have been finding ways over, under, around, and through the wire fencing around the compost area. The compost had to move. With a total capacity of a mere 405 cubic feet (11.1/2 cubic meters), and an apparent need for more, a new compost bin or set of bins needed to be built.

triple bin compost system
Three bin compost system schematic

I liked the idea of a multi-stage system. Two or three bins in a row, and using the left most or right most bin for fresh, uncomposted material. As the material begins to become the good stuff it is moved into a fresh bin. By moving composted or partially composted material into the bin or bins next to the first, you free up more space for more uncomposted material, as well as exposing ready-to-use compost in the other bin or bins. The system works well when you are generating enough compostable waste to keep feeding the system. With a stockpile of winter-compostables, we should be in good shape to keep the system fed. The compost also needed to move to free up room for Melissa’s next endeavor.

open-air coop
Open-air 10×8 chicken coop

Chickens. Soon, Melissa and I will be overlords to our own flock of heritage and specialty-breed chickens. Much like how I am interested in bees, and how to sustainably maintain hives of them, Melissa has jumped head-first into the chicken-pool. We attended an University of Minnesota Extension short-course on small-scale poultry farm management. It was a very informative course and we learned enough to be confident that a small flock would work on our quarter acre (1/10th hectare) homestead.

As winter seemed to ebb and flow in its predictably unpredictable fashion, Melissa tossed around the idea of a flock. If were to get chickens, where we would they live? Not keen on raising a flock of battery hens, the birds would need an area to pick, peck and poke at as well as just mosey about and do what chickens do in addition to a swanky coop. Early in the winter, Melissa thought along a narrow strip of property between our house and our property line. This idea eventually was tossed out because our utility meters are located on this side of the house/property. The meter reader would not be pleased to have to battle chickens to get to the meters.

The next idea was to put the coop in the front portion of the yard. Last year, during a heavy wind storm, we lost several trees in the yard. This freed up a great deal of space and our plan was to fence off a section and plant apple trees (bees love apple blossoms and I love apples – it is a win-win). We thought we could carve a section for a coop and pasteur for chickens. This was the idea that was winning when we headed off to the small-farm-short-course in St. Paul.

After some thought on this location and bit of learning at the short-course, we decided to leave the apple trees to the front yard and put the chickens in the rear. This brought us back to the question of “How well do hounds and chickens mix?” Having witnessed our hounds take down rabbits in the yard, we felt that it would be smart to assume they could easily take down a chicken that was not paying attention. The answer to this quandary is part new backdoor, and part new separation fence through the backyard. I may detail the door requirements and project in a later post; but the fence pretty simple – inclusive of the back gate, parallel and inclusive to the sidewalk through the yard toward the current backdoor, going to a corner of the kitchen addition. A small gate would allow access from the chicken-yard to the area where the hounds will be located.

open-air poultry houses
Open-air Poultry Houses

Norton Creek Press publishes a wonderful book on Fresh-Air Poultry Houses. By utilizing a smart design for our coop, as well as winter-hardy birds, we are hoping to minimize the need for external heat in the coop. Melissa liked one of the designs that is pictured on the cover. We are sticking with the spirit of the design, but because of where the coop will be located – attached to our existing garage – the roof line needs to be modify to accommodate water run-off from the garage onto the coop roof. Inside the coop, the ceiling will mimic the correct roof line to provide the correct air circulation.